As a family doctor, my daily roster of patients always includes at least one person looking for help to ease their anxiety. Some days, almost every patient I talk to feels anxious, attributing their symptoms to stress stemming from work, home life, health or finances.
What many patients don’t know is that they may be unknowingly introducing more feelings of panic into their lives by what they’re eating and drinking, or through medications they’re taking.
Sugar’s highs and lows
Just as our moods can be impacted by sugar, some people may notice heightened anxiety from eating sugary, processed, or “junk” foods. Coming down from a “sugar high” can also make you feel jittery, panicked or irritable. To avoid these symptoms, choose more non-starchy vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, healthy fats and proteins. These foods tend to have lower glycemic loads (GL) which means they avoid big fluctuations in your blood sugar, keeping you more even-keeled.
Anxiety in pill form
If you take prescription medicine, do some detective work to see if it might be contributing to your anxiety. Common culprits are: puffers (think asthma or COPD), thyroid supplements, steroids (such as prednisone), birth control pills and other hormones, stimulants used to treat ADD and ADHD, antidepressants — even anti-anxiety medications. Read through that enormous list of potential side effects, and if it (or your gut) is telling you your drug is involved, talk to your doctor to see if a switch might be in order.
Over-the-counter products can also play a part. Watch out especially for cough and cold medicines, and decongestants. Not sure? Check with your pharmacist who can give you a heads up if anxiety might be an unwanted effect.
Herbals aren’t innocent either
“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe. People tend to think of herbs as calming, but some can have the opposite effect. For instance, Rhodiola rosea is an herbal remedy for anxiety, and valerian root is used as a sedative, but both herbs can have opposite effects in some people. SAMe is a supplement becoming more widely used for treating depression, but feeling anxious is a known side effect. Talk to your natural medicine prescriber about any herbals or supplements you’re taking to see if they might be making you edgy.
Don’t drink it in
If you drink coffee, tea (black, white, even green), cola or energy drinks, you may be serving yourself up some liquid anxiety in the form of caffeine. (It also comes in pill-form in some over-the-counter pills used for pain, headaches, weight loss or marketed to boost energy). Caffeine is a big culprit in making people feel jittery, nervous, tremulous, sweaty, and heightened physically and mentally. If you feel anxious, it may be worth abstaining from caffeine for a few weeks to see if your symptoms improve. Switch to decaf gradually to ease your transition and minimize caffeine-withdrawal headaches.
Alcohol, marijuana and other drugs act on brain hormones and affect everyone in different ways. For some, using these substances can provoke panic; for others, going without can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, tremors, and other symptoms akin to anxiety disorders. Give your system a break and see if your symptoms settle. Safety note: if you use substantial amounts of alcohol or other recreational drugs and and notice physical effects when you go without, see your doctor to get help in the detox process. Withdrawal from alcohol and some drugs can be dangerous.
Whether anxiety tops your list of health concerns, or is just an occasional bother, take a moment to check your medicine cabinet, tea chest, kitchen cupboards, and mini-fridge for culprits. Then breathe easy knowing you’ve taken a positive step in decreasing anxiety in your life.
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