We all have a definition of what anxiety means to us personally. Maybe it is that tight feeling when you are late for work and you hit all red lights, or the butterflies you feel before having a serious medical test. The textbook definition is that anxiety is the sense of worry, apprehension and unease we feel about an upcoming event with an uncertain outcome. Psychologists view extreme anxiety as a nervous disorder. In fact, it is the most commonly diagnosed mental disorder in the United States.
At its heart, anxiety is an emotion, and, believe it or not, it is a good thing. It may not be a pleasant experience, but it has kept us alive for countless generations. Anxiety ticks off the warning that the night is too dark to venture into the forest, that you should lock your doors after a string of robberies hits your neighborhood, or that you shouldn’t let your small children cross the busy highway alone. Without the distress that anxiety fuels, our ancestors might have made many disastrous decisions and we might not be here today.
Unfortunately, anxiety can become problematic when it is elicited by common everyday occurrences, or even by nothing at all. There is an impending sense of doom that bad things are about to happen. The neighbor’s knock at the door starts the heart pounding, or driving over a bridge causes headaches and sweaty palms. Suddenly, you may have trouble catching your breath. Sometimes anxiety and panic attacks are so severe they are mistaken for heart attacks. In these instances, the physiological response of anxiety has become somewhat disconnected from the actual trigger. And that can cause everything from minor discomfort to paralyzing fear.
The causes of excessive anxiety are not yet well defined. There may be some brain chemical imbalances that play a role, and there is always the influence of traumatic events not yet reconciled. There are definitely some issues with inflammation and autonomic nervous system dysfunction. But regardless of cause, high levels of anxiety call for relief. High levels of anxiety can cause other health conditions, or make existing health conditions worse. A study published recently in Current Psychiatry Reports found that anxiety disorders are associated with the onset and progression of cardiac disease, including mortality. By restoring better mental balance, all health improves.
The Adrenal Connection
The adrenal glands release hormones in stressful situations that stimulate the fight or flight response. These hormones give us that strange feeling in the stomach and rapid heartbeat we associate with fear. Sometimes the adrenal glands over-respond, or respond without our awareness. One useful way to address one of the underlying causes of anxiety is to restore adrenal health.
There are many elements that support healthy adrenal function, but there are two adaptogenic herbs that stand out: ashwagandha and rhodiola.
Ashwagandha Adaptogens are rare and precious botanicals that neither systemically increase nor decrease functions in our body—they push toward normal. If a person has low adrenal function and they are feeling overwhelmed and fatigued, ashwagandha will boost adrenal function. But if a person is highly stressed and jittery, it will gently pull this excessive adrenal function back toward normal. This herb has also been shown to play a role in modulating GABA (gamma amino-butyric acid), which elicits a sense of calm. In a review of human trial results on using ashwagandha for anxiety, it was found that on average, anxiety measures decreased between 44 and 56 percent.
Rhodiola is another adaptogenic herb that can have profound effects on mood and health. While research is ongoing, early results indicate that phytonutrients in rhodiola can bind to the GABAA-benzodiazepine site of the GABAA receptor. These technical results mean that rhodiola can improve mood and create calm without drowsiness or changes in judgment.
People living in the harshest regions of China and Russia often add a snip of rhodiola root to a bottle of vodka. Over time, the liquid turns a brilliant rosy red. People venturing out in extremes of weather often fortify themselves with a sip of the rhodiola alcohol, or upon returning, and they feel it is highly restorative. I think of both rhodiola and ashwagandha as empowering herbs that help people feel stronger and more in control, despite stressful situations.
An important, clinically studied herb that consistently performs will in reducing anxiety is kava. To date, in the electronic database of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) PubMed.gov, there are 176 studies specifically on kava and anxiety. However, reports of liver toxicity threw a monkey wrench into kava utilization, as the extract was banned in Europe, where it had enjoyed much popularity. Those bans are now being lifted as the original evidence is more closely examined and found faulty. What a disservice this has been to people for whom this might have been a useful intervention. Kava is slowly rebuilding its reputation and studies are resuming on this interesting plant.
Lavender scent has a demonstrated calming effect. There are many published studies demonstrating the benefits of using lavender as aromatherapy. Adding lavender to situations that provoke anxiety can be very beneficial. For example, keeping a small clay scent diffuser on your desk and adding a drop of lavender oil each day can be used at work. You can add lavender to the bath or to your pillowcase. While the majority of studies examined lavender as aromatherapy, there is strong evidence that internal use of lavender oil can promote sleep and relaxation. One recent study found it very useful for agitation and restlessness. This area of research is quite promising.
Echinacea may be a surprise to be included in this list, because the vast majority of the science on echinacea has been about boosting the immune system. However, the Hungarian Academy of Science has been conducting research on a unique echinacea extract of specific compounds found plentifully only in the root of one species (Echinacea angustifolia) grown under specific conditions. This single echinocoside extraction, called EP107, has the ability to partially bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. This binding causes a sensation of calm and relaxation without drowsiness or interference with thinking and judgement.
In an experimental model of anxiety, small doses of this singular extract worked as well as the drug chlordiazepoxide, known by its brand name Librium. This is a drug in the Valium family of compounds and is both sedating and mind altering. It also has high addiction potential, so finding an herbal intervention that shows promise that works as well as this drug, but without the severe adverse effects, is a major step forward in natural therapies for anxiety.
In a clinical study using this same extract, people with diagnosed anxiety issues were given 20 mg twice daily of this extract. The herbal product reduced anxiety significantly the first day of use, and even more so after one week of use. There were also no reports of drowsiness or confusion, or other adverse effects.
Practitioners have anecdotally used this extract at slightly higher dosages, 20 mg up to four times daily, and have reported excellent benefits for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), without serious adverse effects. Since this is a single compound and not the whole herb, it won’t help prevent the common cold, but it will help reduce anxiety.
There are many natural interventions to help address problematic anxiety levels, and this list is not all inclusive. Healthy omega-3 fatty acids bound to phospholipids from salmon is my personal favorite for delivering much needed EPA and DHA to the brain. Curcumin with turmeric essential oil can play a tremendous role in reducing inflammation. Lemon balm has a proven track record for reducing nervousness and promoting relaxation. Chamomile tea and supplements also promote relaxation. There are many tools in the retailer’s tool chest when offering to help customers with this very unpleasant experience: anxiety. VR
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Cheryl Myers, RN is an integrative health practitioner, author, and an expert on natural medicine. She has degrees in both psychology and nursing, and more than 10 years of experience in psychiatric care. She is a nationally recognized speaker who has been interviewed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Prevention magazine. Her research on botanicals for menopause has been presented at the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the North American Menopause Society. Myers is the head of Scientific Affairs and Education for EuroPharma, Inc.