When we feel anxious on a regular basis it can take a significant toll on our health, not to mention our quality of life. It can create a ripple effect that begins to impact on things like our sleep, mood, focus and digestion – to name but a few.
If we want to address anything in our body, it’s helpful to find the road we took to create the problem in the first place. Anxious feelings are no different. There are various pathways that can lead to anxiousness. To get to the heart of it for you, get curious about the pathway that your body took. If anxious feelings are a recurring challenge for you, here are five ways to help ease them based on the various biochemical, nutritional and emotional pathways the body typically takes to create them. Sometimes there can be more than one pathway at play and so multiple strategies may be required to really get to the heart of it.
1. Reduce or eliminate caffeine
Caffeine has a powerful biochemical impact in the body. It works on the mechanisms that produce the stress hormone adrenaline. On its own this may not be an issue. Yet, if your body is getting the message to create stress hormones from more than just coffee (such as your perception of pressure and urgency and how you react to the things that happen in your life), caffeine will only add to the avalanche. Caffeine has a half-life of eight hours so its effects can be longer lasting than you might anticipate. Plus there is variability in personal tolerance, the threshold above which uncomfortable symptoms present – so each of us will have our own limit to what our body can manage before it makes us jittery, on edge and fractious.
This aside, if you are experiencing regular anxious feelings, reducing your intake of caffeine or eliminating it (for a period of time) can help to reduce them. For some, caffeine may be all they need to change while for others removing/reducing caffeine will support the other strategies by dampening down the stress response.
2. Promote progesterone production
Amongst other things, progesterone is a powerful anti-anxiety agent. Many women have lower than ideal levels of this important sex hormone – across all life stages. If you notice an increase in anxious feelings and/or sleeplessness in the lead up to menstruation or as a symptoms during the peri-menopause years, if you have a tendency to a low mood, experience premenstrual spotting, heavy bleeding, PMT and/or feel like you can’t get your breath past your heart in the lead up to your period, these can be signs that you may be low in progesterone.
Ovulation stimulates progesterone production and one of the key saboteurs of progesterone is stress hormone production. Through our menstruation years, our body predominantly makes progesterone in our ovaries yet it also makes smaller amounts in our adrenal glands – where our stress hormones are also made. Once we go through menopause we rely solely on this adrenal gland production of progesterone.
If your body is getting the message to churn out stress hormones, it sees this as a priority over the production of other hormones, including progesterone. This is because your stress hormones are linked to your survival. Since your body translates stress to danger, and it doesn’t want you to bring a baby into a dangerous world, it has the option to downregulate your fertility pathways further reducing your progesterone production through the menstruation years. For all of these reasons, decreasing your stress hormone output can significantly support your progesterone production. The synergistic effects of the herbs Paeonia and licorice can also help to boost progesterone production as they help foster ovulation.
3. Include foods that promote calm
Sometimes anxious feelings can be a result of the body not getting enough of what it needs nutritionally. So just increasing your intake of whole real foods can make a difference. There are specific nutrients that help to foster calm within the body. These include:
Omega-3 fatty acids – found in oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
Vitamin C – found in berries, capsicum, citrus, kale, broccoli and parsley.
Magnesium – found in leafy green vegetables, seeds, nuts, seaweed and raw cacao.
There are also medicinal herbs that can promote greater calm within the body. Some of these include skullcap, saffron and withania. Medicinal herbs are best tailored to your needs by a medical herbalist.
4. Reflect on your perception
Everyone creates explanations about what things mean based on their own experiences in life so far. They are created from the interactions we had as children with the adults around us, whether they were calm or chaotic. As adults, we continue to replay these same meanings, only we are usually not aware we are doing it. If we are running a story of “not enoughness” we will constantly create this meaning in our interactions with the people around us on a regular basis and this can be a source of immense anxiousness.
We can’t control what happens in our day, but with awareness and practice, we can begin to catch a glimpse of how we’re thinking. This is the ribbon we need to grab hold of in order to unravel our anxious feelings once and for all. It’s catching the perceptions, thoughts and beliefs that will ultimately alter our biochemistry, transform our health and our experience of stress, as well as how we live.
5. Improve gut health
Serotonin is a hormone (neurotransmitter) that leads us to feel happy, calm and content. About 80 percent of the serotonin in the body is made in the gut, so supporting good gut health can play a role in how we feel each day. When we think of our mood, we tend to think of it being related to our brain, yet many neurotransmitters are actually made in the gut.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut are rich in acetic acid which can help promote good stomach acid production and hence great digestion via a well-established pH gradient, allowing beneficial microbes to reside in the large intestine, thereby enhancing our mood. You can buy them or make your own. Dark chocolate is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid that supports the production of serotonin. Chocolate consumption also drives the brain to produce another chemical called anandamide, which has been shown to temporarily block feelings of pain and depression. Dopamine is also produced when we eat chocolate, and this can have a mood lifting effect on many people. However, for those with already elevated dopamine levels, excessive amounts of chocolate can lead to tension and aggression. So like with all things related to mood, there is no one size fits all; some find chocolate enhances their mood, for others it gives them a headache and/or fires them up. Bananas, particularly ripe bananas, can help to regulate dopamine –a feel good factor –as they contain a high concentration of tyrosine, an amino acid that helps generate dopamine in the brain. Bananas are also rich in B group vitamins, including vitamin B6, as well as magnesium, both essential for relaxation and a calm nervous system. Other food sources of tyrosine include almonds, eggs and meat.