Managing Anxiety Without Drugs - 3 Simple Ways | Chris Kresser

3 Ways to Manage Anxiety Without Drugs

by Chris Kresser

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This is a guest post by Laura Schoenfeld, a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Public Health, and staff nutritionist and content manager for ChrisKresser.com.

You can learn more about Laura by checking out her popular blog or visiting her on Facebook.

“That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” – Chinese Proverb

Confession time: If I had to choose one personal health issue that I’d love to wipe out with a simple wave of my hand, I’d choose anxiety.

Everybody has some type of health concern that they deal with on a daily basis; it’s rare to find someone who feels completely, 100% healthy and free of any ailment. While many healthcare practitioners (including nutritionists) may give off the impression that they have all the answers to perfect health, the truth is that many of us struggle with our own issues, and some of the best health experts in the world became that way because of their struggle with a serious illness. For me, I’ve been on a quest to figure out how to manage my anxiety without resorting to pharmaceutical treatment.

Struggling with anxiety? Check out these tips by @AncestralizeMe to help you stay calm!

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common forms of mental illness in the United States, affecting approximately 18% of the adult population, costing us more than $42 billion a year in healthcare services. (1) And that’s just the people who have actually been diagnosed – in our hectic, stressed-out, achievement-driven society, many people deal with stress on a regular basis, even if they’re not actively seeking treatment for their condition.

While I’ve been tempted in the past to run to a doctor for a quick-fix anxiolytic medication (especially when I was a graduate student), deep down I’ve always known that this could never be the answer I was searching for. I didn’t want to use a treatment that could be hard to stop, or that could even be dangerous to my health.

After searching for effective non-pharmaceutical treatments to help manage my anxiety, I’ve found a few specific methods that, for me, have made a big difference in my day-to-day experience of anxiety.

From my personal experience, here are the three best ways to manage your anxiety without resorting to drug treatment.

1. Un-Restrict Your Diet

This recommendation is for all of you 99% Paleo dieters out there who are worried that even the most minor of slip ups will completely derail any progress you’ve made in changing your diet for the better. While certain people will benefit from a strict Paleo diet that completely eliminates foods like grains, legumes or dairy, from my experience, the majority of people out there do not need to be quite so restrictive in order to maintain overall good health.

First, think about the amount of carbohydrates you’re eating. While some people believe that a very low carb diet is healthy for everyone, my own personal experience (and the experience of others) has shown me that low carb is not always the best choice, especially for those of us who struggle with anxiety.

If you’re on a very low carbohydrate diet (<100 g per day) and feeling anxiety on a regular basis, you may benefit from an increase in carbohydrates. I recommend starting at 20-30% of calories, and seeing how you feel at that level. You may even feel better on a higher carbohydrate diet, perhaps around 40-50% of calories (or more!).

Don’t let the low-carb dogma dictate how you eat – if you feel like crap on a low carb diet, that’s a relevant feeling and you should be prepared to experiment with a higher carbohydrate diet. And while eating enough protein and fat can be helpful with anxiety, some evidence suggests that too much protein can induce anxiety, so try not to go above 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight if you’re prone to anxiety or panic attacks.

Finally, consider the overall restrictiveness of your diet. Are you on a self-imposed autoimmune protocol despite having no autoimmune diagnosis or symptoms? Do you completely avoid all dairy even though you’ve never had a problem with it in the past? Do you avoid generally benign foods like white rice, properly prepared legumes, or natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup simply because they’re “not Paleo” or some armchair nutritionist on Paleohacks said that cavemen didn’t eat rice? In this case, consider the possibility that your overly restrictive diet may be doing more harm than good.

2. Try Quality Supplements

(Please check with your healthcare provider before taking any supplements. These recommendations are intended as general advice only and should not replace medical advice from your primary care physician or other provider.) 

If you feel like you’ve already experimented with your diet to no avail, there are some excellent supplements that may be beneficial, including herbs and nutritive formulas. While there are hundreds of combinations that may be beneficial, there are a few more well-studied types that will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Some of the herbs that are generally understood to help with anxiety are: California poppy, hops, verbena, chamomile, lemon balm, valerian, rhodiola, lavender, and passionflower. (2a, 2, 3, 4) These herbs are available as supplements, tinctures, and even tea blends for those looking to use evidence-based natural strategies for anxiety management.

Many supplements contain a mixture of these herbs, which can be helpful for those looking for a reduction in anxiety without the side effects that often come with pharmaceutical treatment. Personally, I like to use Integrative Therapeutics’ Lavela during the day and the Revitalizing Sleep Formula before bed; I find they help take the edge off and allow for a more restful sleep on days where anxiety is starting to get the best of me.

There are some nutritional supplements that are helpful as well. L-Theanine, an amino acid largely found in tea, has been shown to be effective for its anxiolytic effects, including increased alpha brain wave activity and inhibiting cortical neuron excitation. (5) While you can get L-theanine from drinking tea, it’s far more potent in supplemental form, and if you’re dealing with regular anxiety, you may find that it helps keep you calm and focused during the day without causing drowsiness.

Magnesium is also important to supplement with, as most of us are unable to get adequate amounts of it in our daily diets to replace the losses caused by modern day stressors. And research has shown that magnesium deficiency can lead to anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation. (6) If you prefer not to take magnesium supplements orally, you can also increase your magnesium levels by taking epsom salt baths or using a topical magnesium oil. Whatever your method, I strongly recommend finding a way to boost your magnesium levels if you’re struggling with chronic anxiety.

3. Cut Down on Caffeine

I know, I know… cutting out caffeine sounds like a death sentence for many of us who either need the caffeine to get going in the morning, or just love the taste of a nice hot coffee as part of our morning ritual. I’ve tried to quit caffeine before, but haven’t been too successful, as I’m back in the habit of drinking a few cups of coffee every day.

The good news is that cutting down on caffeine doesn’t require total elimination of all caffeinated beverages. In fact, going cold turkey on caffeine can actually lead to an increase in mental distress and symptomatic anxiety. (7) Caffeine withdrawal is a legitimate condition, and one that I’ve experienced in the past when I went from excessively drinking multiple espressos daily (I was working as a barista while traveling in Australia) to a complete cessation of caffeine consumption. I felt awful, and it wasn’t just the emotional attachment to my coffee that was causing the problems; there are actual documented symptoms that come from a sudden removal of caffeine. (8)

So instead of going cold turkey on your morning cup of joe, try reducing the overall caffeine you consume on a regular basis by half. Maybe that means going from 6 cups of coffee per day to 3, or perhaps you switch out one or two cups of regular for decaf coffee or green tea instead. Caffeine is a well-established anxiogenic (i.e. anxiety producing) stimulant, and if you’re dealing with chronic anxiety, it’s worth at least moderating your caffeine intake and trying to reduce it over time. (9) You may find that you need less caffeine than you think to get going on a daily basis, and you may end up with more energy and less anxiety or feelings of panic if you don’t overload your nervous system with this potent stimulant.

As an aside (and this relates to step 1 above), one common practice that many Paleo gurus promote is the use of “Bulletproof Coffee” as an effective weight loss and intermittent fasting protocol. While there are many people who experience great benefits from this method, I would caution anyone who deals with significant anxiety to reconsider their use of Bulletproof Coffee as a daily practice. The combination of caffeine, daily fasting, and carbohydrate avoidance is liable to exacerbate feelings of anxiety for those who are susceptible, especially women. (10)

If you do choose to continue with Bulletproof Coffee, try eating a real breakfast at least a few days a week, and use L-theanine to combat the anxiety-provoking effects of caffeine. (11) Like a low-carb approach, if Bulletproof Coffee makes you feel terrible, stop drinking it! (Don’t be a lemming!)

Time to Take Action!

Now that you’ve read my top three tips for managing your anxiety, I’d like to hear from you. Have you implemented any of these recommendations? Do you have any other ideas that would be helpful to other readers?

I’ll be covering more natural ways to manage anxiety in part two of this article series, but for now, I’d like you all to focus on these three and report back to me once you’ve given them a try!

Share your experience in the comments below!

143 Comments

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  1. Thank you SO much for writing this! After trying to change my diet for the last 1.5 years, I am starting to realize that I may have done just as much harm to my body as good by trying to cut out basic foods like bread or oatmeal that provided me the carbs before a morning workout. However, in changing my diet (in other ways too), I have started to eat less due which actually peaks my anxiety when my blood sugar drops. This was never intentional, but I feel that I can never prep for the volume of food I need to feel satiated.

    My question for you at this time is… How have you isolated anxiety as your root problem? I have a lot of anxiety but I’ve gone down rabbit holes to determine whether it is hormone related, due to another chemical imbalance (which then leads to depression), or if it’s truly exacerbated by a food allergy I may or may not have (I have yet to tell if I am even allergic to anything despite cutting milk and bread out and then eating it again). I have tried supplements for hormonal balancing and have taken homeopathic medicine with magnesium in it. The others you mentioned are new, but again i feel like I’ve been trying to address what leads to anxiety (hormonal? Food allergy? Chemical?) vs the anxiety itself.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this. With Chris Kresser, Paul Chek, and others’ similar teachings, I may be trying to follow a diet that isn’t right for me. I really appreciate your tip #1 because learning to eat healthy and restricting your diet can be anxiety provoking in itself!

    Thanks again!

  2. It may be that someone who is doing Paleo for weight loss reasons could be less than rigid about the program, however folks like myself with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis need to be very strict in order to reduce the amount of thyroid antibodies.

  3. Leaky gut and psoriasis sometimes go hand in hand. When symptomatic i find glutton free diet helps and eating smaller meals 4-5 times daily helps. Drinking alcaline water to reduce acidity seems to help. I just discovered a medical connection with TMJ and anxiety that I am exploring. Thanks for the helpful info!

  4. I tried every natural remedy that I could find to combat my anxiety and insomnia. Nothing worked until Neurofeedback. I then was able to get some EFT therapy and that finally did it! I can’t begin to explain how being free from anxiety has changed my life! Do whatever it takes to overcome your anxiety because it can take a major toll on your health as it has mine.

  5. I found that my anxiety was a learned response. I had learnt that my wellbeing was dependent on having as many positive states as possible and not having negative states. So then I had to work hard to ensure that I had more positive than negative experiences.

    This was ultimately exhausting and unsurprisingly so since it is an impossible task and promotes anxiety.

    I then realised that I always got through positive and negative states and that despite my reactions that negative states never really harmed me, they only appeared to. I had brought into the fiction that a negative state could harm me. Now I can leave all my experiences be as they are as I see my wellbeing is not dependent on any state being present or not. Anxiety is fine it appears, stays a while and then goes and I am fine through all of it. All it needed was to stop trying to get rid of it and to let it release itself naturally which it always does.

    When you are prepared to face it square on and embrace it then it loses it’s power. Otherwise you will always be looking for antidotes to relieve it and this is always temporary.

  6. I have had three cancers, over twenty surgeries and a lot of accompanying person loss. I have suffered from painful anxiety and depression for twenty years, and the last 15 years on lexipro and remeron, with seeming little relief. Since reading Grain Brain, and starting to consume healthy fats regularly, ie I add heavy whipping cream, for the cholesterol, and coconut milk, for medium chain fatty acids, to my tea all day, shockingly, to me, my anxiety and. Depression is gone, and I successfully weaned off a 15 yr 60 mg per day remeron dose. I am shocked at how so wonderfully I am doing, sleeping, feeling, this is really a true story, and so many could benefit, I feel like the Me is coming back, robin

  7. Anxiety inspires fear, worry and nervousness and totally affects or social, physical and mental balance. It makes person completely negative. Living with anxiety make life so miserable. To find more information on anxiety you can visit http://alturl.com/fk8dj.

  8. I have a son who is on the autism spectrum, and removing gluten, dairy, and starches really did help get him out of his brain fog. He is well on his way to recovery and we’ve made believers out of his therapists, who came to us not really believing much in alternative therapies. I find the same type of diet does help me with my anxiety levels, though I do need some carbs to keep myself in a good and steady place. Lately, however, I am wondering if my son might also be helped by reintroducing healthy carbs back into his diet. To me, it’s about experimenting and adapting as you go along because humans really are such individual creatures.

  9. Sometimes it is just nutrition and to make it more complicated then that is a mistake. Eating a great diet doesn’t always eliminate nutrition as a possible cause of anxiety or depression. There are genetic reasons why you may have deficiencies… but there are work-arounds for that.

    What you believe is a family history of depression that dooms you to repeat it could be only a genetic variant that makes B-12 difficult to absorb for example. Guess what? A $10 bottle of Methyl-cobalamin sublingual B12 fixes your centuries old family history!

    Habits like avoiding the sun while not supplementing vit-D can bring on depression as well. Here’s Emily Dickinson most likely writing about her wintertime vitamin D deficiency induced depression and wondering what the hell was going on.

    ——-

    There’s a certain Slant of light,
    Winter Afternoons –
    That oppresses, like the Heft
    Of Cathedral Tunes –

    Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
    We can find no scar,
    But internal difference,
    Where the Meanings, are –

    None may teach it – Any –
    ‘Tis the Seal Despair –
    An imperial affliction
    Sent us of the Air –

    When it comes, the Landscape listens –
    Shadows – hold their breath –
    When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
    On the look of Death –

    ———

    To become a mechanic to your own body and top off the nutrients occasionally and to learn the work-arounds to fix genetic flaws is to be empowered. Immediately making it all about repressed emotion, some kind of yoga deficiency or writing a poem about it can be a real waste of valuable time.

  10. I’m so pleased to see this topic being covered and love all the recommendations except coffee and no breakfast 🙂 I love the herbal teas and think Lavela is fabulous. A nice tip to stop the repeating of the lavender taste (if it bothers you): can freeze the capsules before taking them.

    I also have great success with GABA and tryptophan with my clients.

    And from a dietary point of view there’s now plenty of evidence supporting of a whole real foods diet with grass-fed red meat and making sure gluten isn’t affecting your mood (most of my clients do better gluten-free).

    And finally, improving gut health and adding probiotics can be a big plus.

    Trudy Scott, Certified Nutritionist, author of “The Antianxiety Food Solution”

  11. I have been making smoothies in the morning based on Bulletproofs… Or at least inspired by them.
    I take a shot or two of espresso and blend in some solid fats(usually coconut and butter, maybe cocoa chips), i then blend in a heap of hemp seeds, a banana, cocoa nibs, and a little yogurt for probiotics. Ill toss in a couple frozen strawberries until i like the consistency.

    Its super delicious and gives me a little fiber and carbs, which i need a little of.
    I find drinking my coffee this way reduces the amount of refined sugars I end up consuming and gives the benefits of bulletproof while not starving myself of the carbs I need to feel good in the morning.

  12. a PLUG for Do TERRA!!
    VERY EXPENSIVE oils, deceptive claims like their oils are “safe for internal use”
    I have been using E Oils since 1973. MOST are safe for internal use and any good book (Tisserand, Valnet etc…) will tell you which ones are NOT. Use ifo from do Terra and buy your own oils including vervain (= lemon verbena), citrus aurantium (both for external use on temples and wrists).
    Lavender oil also mostly for external (Internal use is antibacterial and antifungal). Mixing oils is easy but I’d try them individually. Both lavender and lemon verbena work for me. Lavender on my pillow puts me to sleep in 30sec.

  13. My son had extreme anxiety since the toddler years. What does extreme anxiety in a toddler look like? He was scared of ledges. He was scared of the play places at McDonald’s. He would leave the room for certain parts of his favorite cartoons, like when a strobe light went off in a silly song during Veggie Tales. He would cover his ears and get an intense look of anxiety on his face when a room was painted with a bright color like red. Yes, I wrote that correctly. He covered his ears when he didn’t like a color. He was first diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. When I read through the parent survey for effective treatments on the Autism Research Institute’s website, I chose the cheapest but most effective one to try first. That was Epson Salt baths. Over the years, we have been able to tell a huge difference in his anxiety levels depending on how often he soaks in Epson salts. It did not cure him. He has still needed lots of other things, but Epson Salt baths was the first thing that made a difference and to this day (he is now 15) we see a big difference in his anxiety if he goes a week without a soak. He himself decided this year to try to soak every day and he will say that he feels a lot more stressed without it. Again, this is not the only thing we are doing, nor is it the most important, but it makes a chartable difference in his anxiety and ability to cope with the stresses he faces.

    • You describe me as a child! I was very socially withdrawn and fearful. I would be frightened of chaotic situations and activities that others my age would be overjoyed to take part in. My parents were told that I had extreme shyness with probably some emotional problems and they diagnosed different syndromes. I was totally normal with people I knew however so it never seemed to fit.

      It was not until I got older that I discovered my undiagnosed food allergies were causing chronic magnesium deficiency (among other things). Without magnesium stores to calm me when my adrenaline would rise I would panic and get palpitations. Magnesium buffers adrenaline and quells the flight urge when there is no need to run. I was being betrayed by my body and my mind would follow not the other way around. I never felt it was an emotional problem. It felt like a loss of control and embarrassment because I couldn’t hide what my body was doing to me.

      I never had the problem with red rooms but perhaps he was associating the red with blood in a loud horror film… thus covering his ears. Although oddly enough some studies show that red rooms cause blood pressure to go up and eye blinks to increase… even in blind people! Magnesium deficiency causes exaggerated startle response by making the ear sensitive to loud sounds, it causes eyes to be photosensitive and could be why he left the room at the strobe??

      As soon as I got my magnesium levels restored with supplements, epsom salt baths (magnesium sulphate) and IV’s my whole personality changed. I no longer have to fight panic and appear insane when I run into someone I know unexpectedly for instance, no more gripping the armrests fighting panic on airplanes… I even speak in front of groups of people. I am calm to the core and I wish my parents were with it enough to have caught on about the magnesium connection as things would have been a lot different for me.

      If magnesium baths makes a big difference then I’d suspect active food allergies causing stomach inflammation. Magnesium cannot be absorbed orally with active stomach inflammation and the epsom baths bypass the GI tract.

      My allergies were so mild that I didn’t feel any stomach upset although eventually began to look sick probably because of the deficiencies it brings about. Still, I didn’t believe the food allergy diagnosis was the root of my problems when the doctor read me the report because I just didn’t feel stomach problems other than constipation. I clearly said I very low in B-vits… he showed me the my red blood cell test showing severe magnesium deficiency. So I cut the offending foods and eventuallyrestored the depleted magnesium levels quickly with IV and my ability to deal with stress changed virtually overnight.

      After my entire life of awkward social interaction with strangers because and avoiding of to much excitement because of my heart racing, blood pressure soaring and all the anxiety… now I finally didn’t have to fight the adrenaline surge! Magnesium keeps my body from freaking out and then my mind following. Before this I could not even bid on something last second on Ebay without feeling my heart was about to jump out of my chest.

      The two tests I relied on were Magnesium Red Blood Cell analysis… Serum testing is not indicative of Magnesium stores, just whats circulating in the blood. The food allergy testing was a stool antibody test by Diagnos-tech expanded GI Panel.

      I no longer lose massive amounts of magnesium but when I do feel the need for a boost I use a product called “Natural Calm”… a powdered magnesium drink before bed. Good luck with your son!

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