By Pam Popper, Ph.D., N.D.

The incidence of anxiety is increasing, due to job and financial stress, family pressure, and other factors.  Another cause is the constant barrage of ads from the pharmaceutical companies that “educate” people to understand that not only do they have anxiety, but that it can be “fixed” by taking drugs. 

Anxiety is defined as an abnormal, overwhelming feeling of apprehension and fear that often brings on physiological symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, tension, sweating, sleeplessness, and nervousness. Anxiety is actually a normal response to some life situations, but what is not normal is when it persists for long periods of time, particularly when there are no stressors or after those stressors have been resolved.

Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorders being treated in both adults and children today, with 19 million Americans alone suffering with them at this time.  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there are several forms of anxiety:  

·         Generalized anxiety disorder – excessive and unrealistic worrying that persists for 6 months or longer.  Physical symptoms can accompany it, such as headaches, sleeplessness and GI disorders.  

·         Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – persistent and repeated thoughts caused by fear.  People may perform ritualistic routines, such as excessive cleaning, to try to resolve their anxieties.  

·         Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – this follows an extremely traumatic event.  People can experience flashbacks, and often engage in avoidance or numbing behaviors.  

·         Panic Disorder – debilitating panic accompanied by chest pain, heart palpitations, and difficulty breathing.  

·         Social Anxiety Disorder – fear of being judged by others, which can result in avoiding situations in which interaction is required.  

·         Specific phobias – intense fear not commensurate with the issue at hand.  

Although there are many factors affecting the development of anxieties, one major factor is diet.  Hypoglycemia is one cause – low blood sugar or the reactive hypoglycemia following the consumption of refined carbohydrates mimics anxiety disorder.  Eating a proper diet and eating less more often (spreading out your consumption in 5-6 smaller meals) will help.

Studies show that people consuming more animal food experience higher levels of anxiety.  In one study, 80 subjects were fed either a vegetarian diet or an omnivorous diet.  More symptoms of both anxiety and depression were experienced by the omnivorous group (Rodriguez et al, “Indicators of anxiety and depression in subjects with different kinds of diets: vegetarians and omnivores” Bol Asoc Med PR1998 Apr-Jun; 90(4-6):56-68).  The reason is most likely that complex carbohydrates are precursors to serotonin production, and people consuming an omnivorous diet were not consuming enough carbohydrates to keep serotonin levels adequate.

Alcohol also influences anxiety.  In one study, subjects were given either ethanol or a placebo and then evaluated using the Spielberger State Anxiety Inventory.  Those taking ethanol experienced increased rates of anxiety symptoms when compared to those receiving a placebo.  The placebo group reported increased feelings of relaxation. (Monteiro et al, “Subjective feelings of anxiety in young men after ethanol and diazepam infusions,” J Clin Psychiatry 1990 Jan;51(1):12-6)

Caffeine is a stimulant, so it is not surprising that it would increase anxiety levels.  A study comparing patients who were given caffeine vs. a placebo concluded that the patients receiving the caffeine had increases in anxiety, nervousness, fear, nausea, heart palpitations, restlessness and tremors as compared to the placebo group.  71% of the subjects stated that the response to caffeine was similar to symptoms experienced during a panic attack. (Charney et al, “Increased anxiogenic effects of caffeine in panic disorders,” Arch Gen Psychiatry 1985 Mar;42(3):233-43). 

Additionally, those experiencing anxiety symptoms consistently tend to have low levels of several crucial nutrients such as pyridoxine, niacin, and magnesium, all of which can be remedied by consuming the plant-based diet recommended by The Wellness Forum.

One very important way in which you can reduce anxiety is to practice deep breathing.  Anxiety almost always results in shallow breathing in the chest, and almost always responds to deep breathing using the diaphragm.  Doing so induces immediate calm, and prevents the anxiety episode from wearing you out, restores your ability to think clearly, and to go on with your day.

There are two ways in which you can learn new breathing techniques – there are classes offered at wellness centers in most areas that teach breathing skills;  and regular participation in yoga classes will teach you to breath differently too.  In the beginning, proper breathing will require a lot of conscious effort, but over time, this will become a more automatic response. 

There are some people who should be medicated for anxiety, at least in the short term, and there are those who will need to be medicated for life.   However, these people are in the minority.  A rational approach to life, which involves understanding that every discomfort does not necessarily have to be labeled as a disease requiring pharmaceutical intervention, combined with proper diet, lifestyle, and breathing techniques, can remedy most cases of anxiety, at considerably less cost and without the side effects that result from drug treatment.


Dr. Pam Popper is a naturopath, nutritionist and the Executive Director of The Wellness Forum, a chain of licensed health and wellness centers located throughout the U.S.  The Wellness Forum teaches individuals how to change their health outcomes by assisting them in changing their diet and lifestyle habits.  She is the Founder of The Wellness Forum Foundation, which offers programming in schools designed to improve children’s health and well-being through better nutrition.