Which Natural Anxiety Remedies Work Best?
If you're like me, you'd rather try a natural remedy for anxiety than prescribed medication.
But you're probably wondering how effective are natural remedies?
Do they have unpleasant side-effects?
Are they safe?
...read on to find out!
Photo credit: dusky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
- 1 Which Natural Anxiety Remedies Work Best?
- 1.1 Different types of anxiety need different remedies
- 1.2 How do you know what type of anxiety you have?
- 1.3 What is the best remedy for anxiety of my type?
- 1.4 GABA may be the best natural remedy for anxiety
- 1.5 Diet and exercise to balance your brain
- 1.6 Recommended further reading:
There's a wide selection of natural remedies available, some popular and others relatively unknown... some traditional, and some very new, developed as our knowledge of brain science has evolved.
For convenience I'll group them as:
- Supplements & nutritional remedies
- Herbal remedies
- Homeopathic remedies
Although these remedies are all different, there are some similarities in the ways they work to help anxiety. These similarities – these brain pathways – are also the ways that medication works for anxiety. So if there is a medication works for you, you can use this information to find a safer substitute.
And if you've tried medications or natural remedies that don't work, you may need to dig a little deeper to find out what type of anxiety you are suffering from. The wrong remedy can make you worse.
Remember the publicity about Prozac causing aggression or suicidal tendencies?
Although SSRI medications such as Prozac can be helpful for some people, they can be disastrous for others.
Different types of anxiety need different remedies
Photo credit: dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
If you've been to a doctor or psychiatrist for your anxiety, you've probably come away with a diagnosis (and one or more types of medication).
But here's the thing: the diagnostic categories that psychiatrists use (such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) can be helpful in letting you know that others suffer the same symptoms.....but the diagnosis doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what's going on in your brain.
It makes sense that actually looking at your brain would be useful in helping figure out what's going on... and in fact, one psychiatrist, Dr Daniel Amen, does just that.
In his clinics, Dr Amen uses a special type of brain imaging called SPECT, that shows which parts of your brain are particularly high or low in activity, and he can then compare this with the brain of someone who is not anxious. (SPECT stands for Single Photon Emission Computer Tomography, in case you're wondering.)
Using the SPECT imaging together with information from a clinical interview enables Dr Amen to determine directly which part of your brain needs adjustment. Dr Amen has identified 7 different types of anxiety/depression, which respond differently to different remedies – and this applies to both pharmaceutical medications and natural remedies for anxiety. If you are being treated with the wrong type of medication, then not only could it not be effective, it might actually make your symptoms worse.
Here is a summary of Dr Amen's seven different types of anxiety/depression from his book Healing Anxiety and Depression.
(Don't get too hung up on the names of the parts of the brain – all you really need to know is that there are different parts of the brain that may be involved).
1. Pure Anxiety
If you have Pure Anxiety, you are likely to feel tense and anxious, constantly on edge and at times panicky, with physical symptoms of anxiety such as heart palpitations, constricted breathing, nausea, and muscle tension. You might be fearful about little things or things that are not really threatening (as in a phobia). You probably worry a lot, and and think negatively most of the time, even when you know it doesn't make sense.
Most anxiety disorders fall in this category, for example Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), phobias, panic attacks and so on.
However, you might also fit the Pure Anxiety type without having a diagnosis of anxiety disorder - you might simply have these symptoms but not as seriously as a person with an anxiety disorder. You might also have been diagnosed with one of these anxiety disorders, but the symptoms are mixed with one of the other anxiety types.... so read on!
People with Pure Anxiety are found to have over-activity in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. This type of anxiety tends to respond best to medications and natural remedies that increase GABA levels in the brain. These includes pharmaceutical medications such as benzodiazepines (eg Valium and Xanax), but also some natural remedies such as GABA or theanine supplements, and other remedies that have a calming effect on your brain.
SSRI antidepressants also calm the basal ganglia and can be helpful for this type of anxiety.
Other therapies that can be helpful for this type of anxiety are cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – to help manage your negative thinking – and neurofeedback (a method of training the brain directly).
2. Pure Depression
Most clinical depression and related disorders fall into this category, which is associated with over-activity in the deep limbic system of your brain – the emotional brain. And no, it doesn't necessarily make you feel extra emotional – often it's just the opposite, and you feel completely flat.
If you have Pure Depression you probably have low energy, physically and mentally; you feel sad or low in mood; you don't feel much interest or pleasure in anything; you feel bad about yourself.
It could be just a low-grade feeling of feeling bad, all the way down to serious clinical depression which needs to be properly treated by a qualified health professional.
People with serious depression often have thoughts of suicide or wanting to die. If this is the case then don't mess around, go and see your doctor immediately. Even if you don't want to take anti-depressant medication, you need to have someone who can help you with an objective viewpoint.... one of the worst things about clinical depression is that is screws up your thinking and makes it hard to make good decisions.
Pure Depression is related to low levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) – and so should be treated with medications or natural remedies that increase these in the brain. Supplements that help boost dopamine and norepinephrine are DL-phenylalanine (DLPA), L-tyrosine, and S-Adenosyl-Methionine (SAMe).
Exercise can also help a lot with depression - though usually you will have to push yourself to do it.
3. Mixed Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and Depression used to be thought of as two completely separate conditions, but increasingly, it is being recognised that they often occur together.
For Dr Amen's Mixed Anxiety and Depression type, it's exactly how it sounds – symptoms of both Pure Anxiety (type 1 above) and Pure Depression (Type 2 above). The SPECT studies show excessive activity in both the Basal Ganglia and the Deep Limbic System – and both these need to be treated for the treatment to be effective.
Dr Amen suggests anti-depressant medications that target serotonin and norepinephrine for those with serious depression of this type. These include the tricyclic antidepressant imiprimine, and the more modern SNRI anti-depressants such as Efexor. (Read more about anti-depressant medication here.)
If you want to try a natural remedy for this type of anxiety, Dr Amen recommends taking SAMe and GABA supplements, to treat both aspects of this brain imbalance.
4. Overfocused Anxiety/Depression
If you have Overfocused Anxiety or Depression you will have a constant experience of your brain getting stuck in a groove with a particular thought or type of thought. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the classic example of this type, but it also includes those who get stuck in negative thinking, worry, rumination, and other types of obsessive thought processes, though not necessarily fitting the diagnosis of OCD.
For this type, yet another part of the brain is over-active – the anterior cingulate gyrus – as well as the basal ganglia (if you have Overfocused Anxiety) or the limbic system (if you have Overfocused Depression). Dr Amen describes the anterior cingulate gyrus as the "gear-changer" of the brain. When it's working properly, it allows you to focus on what you are doing, but shift your attention appropriately as required; when it's over-active, you stay stuck on particular thoughts and can't let go of them.
Dr Amen believes that this overfocused type of anxiety or depression is related to a serotonin deficiency, and his recommended treatment is with one of the SSRI anti-depressants.
A very effective natural remedy that boosts serotonin is St John's Wort.
Tryptophan and 5-HTP are other natural remedies, available as supplements, that increase serotonin levels and are recommended for this type of anxiety or depression.
5. Cyclic Anxiety/Depression
This type includes Bipolar Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and also pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) which can range from mildly uncomfortable to a severe monthly mood disorder. The SPECT results will show some sort of focal activity during the times of disturbed mood, which is different from the other types of anxiety or depression.
If you have the cyclic type of anxiety or depression, you need to be extra careful with medication, especially anti-depressant medication. The depressive part of the cycle seems to be different from Pure Depression, and needs different treatment. Especially if you have Bipolar Affective Disorder, you run the risk of tipping over from depression to a manic high very quickly with anti-depressants, and you should be under the care of a qualified specialist medical practitioner.
Bipolar Affective Disorder is very treatable and manageable – there are many highly creative people who have had to deal with Bipolar Disorder. One that comes to mind is Leonard Cohen, though there are many others. But it can be very damaging if not treated or managed properly, so you're best advised not to try diagnosing or treating yourself, especially if you've had one or more severe depressive or manic episodes.
Natural remedies for the cyclic type of anxiety/depression are GABA or taurine (like GABA, taurine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter with a calming effect on your brain) - try these if you suffer from PMS, or if you have sub-clinical mood swings.
Another remedy you can safely try is fish oil, whose omega-3 fatty acids are helpful for all types of anxiety and depression, but are especially recommended for the cyclic disorders.
6. Temporal Lobe Anxiety/Depression
The temporal lobes of the brain have a complex range of functions - they are important to learning and memory, as well as to emotions and moods.
People with temporal lobe anxiety/depression may have problems with irritability or aggressive outbursts, learning and memory problems, visual or auditory hallucinations, periods of spaciness, or dark negative thoughts. These are the people who tend to have an adverse response to the SSRI medications such as Prozac.
Dr Amen recommends for this type that an anti-seizure medication be used to stabilise the temporal lobes before trying anti-depressant medication or any of the natural remedies that boost serotonin (eg St John's Wort)
SPECT studies typically show abnormal brain activity – under-activity or over-activity – in the temporal lobes, as well as in the basal ganglia or the deep limbic system. Sometimes this manifests as seizures, but you don't need to have a seizure disorder to benefit from anti-seizure medication, if you fit this type. The symptoms of this disorder in its more sinister form can be very unpleasant, even dangerous (to yourself and others), so if this is you or someone you know, stabilising medication is the lesser of the many possible evils.
However – as long as your symptoms are not severe – you may want to try a natural remedy instead. Dr Amen suggests a GABA supplement; you could also try another remedy that boosts GABA, such as L-theanine. These GABA remedies have a calming effect, and should be safe to use and helpful if you get irritable or anxious.
But if you suspect you fit this type, avoid serotonin boosting remedies: St John's Wort, tryptophan, 5-HTP, as well as anti-depressant medications.
7. Unfocused Anxiety/Depression
People with anxiety or depression of this type have difficulty staying focused. Like those with Attention Deficit Disorder (with which there is some overlap here), they get easily distracted or bored, and tend to be forgetful and disorganised. They might feel spacey, unmotivated, and low in energy... as well as anxious or depressed.
SPECT studies of this group show under-activity in the pre-frontal cortex (the organisation and planning part of the brain) both at rest and when trying to concentrate, as well as overactivity in one of the brain areas as described for the other types.
If you fit this type, you need to deal with the pre-frontal under-activity as well as your core anxiety or depression, in order to function properly.
Natural ways of doing this are with exercise (beneficial for all types of anxiety and depression, and everyone else as well!). Changing your diet to include more protein and fewer carbohydrates can also help this under-activity in the pre-frontal lobes.
For the unfocused type of anxiety or depression, Dr Amen recommends stimulating medications and supplements that boost dopamine and norepinephrine (noradrenaline).
Natural remedies with this effect include L-tyrosine, SAMe, and DLPA.
How do you know what type of anxiety you have?
The very best way would be to go to Dr Amen's clinic, or one of the other clinics with practitioners trained in Dr Amen's SPECT techniques.
The SPECT study itself does not give a diagnosis – it is not a simple test, and needs to be interpreted by a clinician trained in this system.
Failing that, Dr Amen has a questionaire in his book Healing Anxiety and Depression, that can be very useful in determining your anxiety or depression type.
Be careful if you try to diagnose yourself, however!
If you do buy his book (recommended) and use this questionaire, use it to start a conversation with your doctor, especially if you are already being treated with medication.
What is the best remedy for anxiety of my type?
Dr Amen is a psychiatrist, and his primary training and focus is on the use of psychiatric medications for anxiety. However, he also discusses diet, exercise, lifestyle, counselling – and natural remedies and supplements for anxiety and depression.
Medications for anxiety do have their place, especially if your condition is serious – chronic and disabling. In that case, you want the very best treatment with the most knowledgeable practitioner – you want to make sure you are taking the right medication.
GABA may be the best natural remedy for anxiety
For those who suffer from the above Type 1: Pure Anxiety, Dr Amen recommends a natural supplement called gamma-aminobutyric acid – or GABA.
GABA has a calming, soothing effect on the part of the brain that is over-active in this type of anxiety, and it can be extremely effective.
Diet and exercise to balance your brain
Dr Amen's advice about diet, exercise and lifestyle is mostly good general health advice. But as well as this, he has some interesting and important differences in his recommendations for the seven types.
For most of the people he sees, Dr Amen recommends a high protein, low carbohydrate diet.
Protein will tend to boost dopamine and norepinephrine levels, which are low in some types of anxiety and depression (refer to the above descriptions of the different types and their recommended remedies). But other types get worse on a high protein diet, and respond better to a high carbohydrate diet. These are the people who have Type 4: Overfocused Anxiety/Depression, who need particularly to enhance their brain serotonin levels.
To read more about boosting your serotonin levels naturally, go to this page.
Recommended further reading:
Healing Anxiety and Depression - by Dr Daniel Amen.