By Elizabeth Kahn, Dietitian
It is estimated that ten to twenty percent of the population will have a panic attack at least once during their lifetimes. Anxiety can either be chronic or acute. A panic attack is acute anxiety. Panic attacks are a nervous system response also referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response. The fight or flight response is the body’s reaction to a stressful situation, in which hormones including adrenaline are released. In a panic attack this response occurs at an inappropriate time. In the face of a wild animal this response can save you, in an inappropriate situation this can produce unnecessary stress. Anxiety can be uncomfortable and also takes a toll on the body.
During a panic attack there can be feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, a smothering or claustrophobic feeling, heart palpitations, chest pain, dizziness, hot flashes and/or chills, sweating, trembling, numbness, tingling sensations in the extremities, a feeling of not being in reality and a distorted perception of time passing.
Long term anxiety can cause muscle soreness, twitching and tightening as well as fatigue, depression, insomnia, nightmares, decreased libido and an inability to relax.
Chronic anxiety is more mild and generalized than acute. Sufferers often feel a vague sense of anxiety much of the time. These individuals may also suffer an anxiety attack but generally the feelings are less intense. They may experience headaches, chronic fatigue and startle easily and often have a persistent feeling of uneasiness, especially around other people.
Nutrition can reduce the number and intensity of panic attacks and overall anxiety. Following a natural plan can either end the need for medication or make it possible to reduce drug dosage.
Nutritional deficiencies including low selenium, iron and chromium levels can cause anxiety. Food allergies can also trigger these disorders.
Food that are helpful for anxiety are apricots, asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, blackstrap molasses, brewer’s yeast, brown rice, dried fruits, dulse, figs, fish (especially salmon), garlic, green leafy vegetables, legumes, raw nuts and seeds, soy products, whole grains and yogurt.
Eat small frequent meals rather than fewer larger meals, i.e. five meals rather than three. Limit intake of animal protein and eat more complex carbohydrates and plant proteins. Avoid foods that have refined sugars or other simple carbohydrates. For maximum nutritional benefits avoid all simple sugars, carbonated soft drinks, alcohol and tobacco.
Caffeine can trigger anxiety. Determine if caffeine is affecting you by keeping a food log of your intake while noting your anxiety levels, or simply limit or avoid the substance altogether. Coffee, black tea, chocolate and many cola’s contain caffeine.
Kava kava is an herb that can treat anxiety. Kava or most any herb should not be taken for more than two weeks at a time. Catnip, chamomile, cramp bark, hops, linden flower, motherwort, passion flower and skullcap can also aid in preventing panic attacks and promote relaxation.
Fennel, lemon balm and willow bark reduce gastrointestinal upsets caused by anxiety. Feverfew and meadowsweet can relieve anxiety related headaches. Meadowsweet can be taken as a tea or extract. Check with your local health food store for more information on availability and ideal ways to take individual herbs, as staff in these locales are often very knowledgeable.
If you are taking medication consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking any herb to check for possible drug interactions.
Recreational drug use such as marijuana use can cause anxiety attacks.
More Natural Treatments
Meditation and exercise are effective tools to alleviate anxiety. Call a trusted friend to talk as this can also diffuse anxiety. Positive thinking can be very helpful for this and just about any other mental or physical issue.
According to famed author and motivational speaker Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, “whenever a negative thought concerning your personal powers comes to mind, deliberately voice a positive thought to cancel it out”. This and other tools for positive thinking can reduce the feelings of stress or anxiety dramatically. Stress is, after all, in the eye of the perceiver.
As I often do, I recommend a naturopathic doctor to analyze an individual’s needs and develop a customized treatment plan for those suffering from anxiety disorders. Look for one of these practitioners in the phone book or on the Internet, and contact them one by one until you find a good fit for your situation. These practitioners can often refer you to the appropriate provider if they are not the best match for you, as many naturopaths have specific areas of expertise. Some natural practitioners accept insurance and some insurance plans will help cover naturopathic treatment. However, if you have to (and can) pay out of your own pocket for natural medicine, solving the underlying problem will be well worth the expense.
Balch, P. A. (2006). Prescription for nutritional healing (4th ed.). New York: Avery Publishing.
Peale, N. V. (1992). The power of positive thinking. New York: Simon & Schuster. Retrieved October 30, 2011, from http://self-improvement-ebooks.com/books/tpopt.php.