Anxiety is one of the most difficult health disorders to deal with, mainly because it makes you feel out of control and unable to make changes. But that’s a myth, to say the least.
At 19 years old, I suffered crippling anxiety to the point of near suicide during my freshman year in college. I’d been a straight A student all my life, was popular in school, and grew up in a loving home with parents I adored. Yet right before I went to college, my parents divorced, I suffered from a serious breakup, all my friends moved away, and suddenly my life had no meaning or purpose.
During my second year of college, I was at a crossroads: I had been put on various medications for depression, anxiety and even epilepsy. It was around this time that OCD started to kick in. Suddenly, everything had to be perfect and if it wasn’t, my anxiety got worse. Every little thing became a huge deal in my mind, and I felt nothing like the person I used to be. I knew something wasn’t right. This wasn’t my natural self and certainly wasn’t what I wanted to be. None of my medications were working to full capacity despite two years of attempts to get them right. I knew nothing of natural health, and yet something within me said there had to be a better way.
As I began to study natural health, I discovered some of the easiest answers were also the most effective. I went from suffering panic attacks, brain fog, debilitating depression and even epilepsy to vibrant health that has lasted over 10 years of my life. I have also been free of medication.
Here are five natural treatments for OCD and anxiety that have worked wonders for me. They are some of the most well-studied natural options out there, and they are very easy to incorporate into your daily life. Recovery begins by taking one small step.
First, take out the poison
Poison sounds like a drastic word, and it is; but sadly enough, we’re faced with more poisonous choices at the store today than you might expect. Sugar is an addictive drug that changes the entire chemical structure of the brain. Sugar upsets hormones that are needed for healthy brain function including dopamine, serotonin and GABA, a natural calming neurotransmitter that is virtually absent during a bout of anxiety.
Sugar leads to a huge high (from a rush of dopamine), but when the sugar leaves the bloodstream it leaves your body with a huge debt of dopamine and serotonin. Both of these hormones work together to promote a healthy mood, and while some drugs treat low serotonin, they can’t do much good when you’re constantly feeding your body more poison.
Sugar isn’t the only culprit when it comes to depression; dairy is another huge factor. We need to consider removing dairy products if we want balanced hormones. A glass of milk contains around 60 naturally occurring hormones. Those bovine hormones do not naturally occur in our human bodies; they weren’t meant to. When you mix the hormones of two different species, there are bound to be problems.
For instance, dairy products contain an astronomical amount of estrogen because dairy products are produced when cows are pregnant. Excess estrogen causes an imbalance of the hormones we need for healthy blood sugar levels, which then affect the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol levels are high, we experience anxiety and the downward spiral begins.
Another dietary toxin is low-fiber processed food. Consider increasing the fiber you’re taking in from vegetables, fruits, seeds, legumes and beans. These foods are the best sources of fiber you can consume, and they’re incredibly easy to work into your meals or use as the base of your meals. By increasing your intake of fiber, you’re giving your body what it needs for healthy brain function.
How? Fiber helps sweep out those unhealthy hormones that lead to depression, anxiety and mood disorders. At the same time, it reduces your toxic load by increasing regularity and regulating blood sugar levels. Processed foods and conventionally-raised animal products are the worst choice for a healthy brain, body and blood sugar level.
Take away tips:
Choose plant-based foods as much as possible. This will increase your fiber intake and reduce the amount of processed foods in your diet. It will also reduce your intake of sugar and help you ditch the dairy that negatively affects your hormones. You will feel so light, energized and balanced; you won’t believe the difference it can make.
Add some movement to your day
There is no doubt in my mind that, had I not started exercising each day, I would have never made it. I’ll be forever grateful to my friend that coaxed me into daily walking with her. I had previously hated exercise, always joking that it was a waste of my time. I was uncomfortable exercising and didn’t consider myself athletic. What I realized, however, is that you don’t have to be fit to start exercising and you don’t have to start with anything difficult.
For me, daily walking was a true gift because of what it did for my depression and mental health. Movement, no matter what kind, stimulates the brain in a way that food and drugs cannot. It increases your endorphins the way nature intended and decreases stress hormones in the body.
At the same time, movement improves blood sugar levels, digestive health and brain health by regulating the chemical reactions that occur in your body. The better these systems work together, the more balanced, healthy and “together” you’ll feel. For someone with anxiety who always feels out of control, this is a priceless gift that’s just a walk a day away!
Take away tips:
Choose whatever kind of movement you enjoy and do it daily. It may be a 30-minute walk, a yoga class, a run, or a grueling weight-lifting session at the gym to let off steam. Find what works for you and just do it!
Increase your good bacteria
Another key part of good health is becoming healthy on the inside. We’re talking gut health here, friends! The good bacteria in your digestive system are capable of improving neurotransmitter function. And guess what? They can’t work effectively without the right fuel. Good bacteria in the digestive tract are fed by fiber and plant-based foods.
Conventionally-raised animal products, sugar and processed foods increase bad bacteria in the body; this leads to disease, depression, gut disorders and more. Researchers are now finding that our gut bacteria, because of how they affect our serotonin levels, may have the largest effect on our brain health. Did you know? Eighty percent of serotonin is produced in the gut — this is huge! If we can improve our guts by giving them what they need, we’re taking measures to balance our neurotransmitters and increase serotonin production, all just by eating the right foods.
Fermented foods, plant-based foods and whole foods are the best options possible. Some of the best include sauerkraut, kimchi, all fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, lentils, a daily dose of nuts and seeds, avocados, coconut, fresh herbs, plenty of water or vegetable juice, green smoothies and non-dairy plain kefir or yogurt (such as coconut kefir or yogurt).
Take away tips:
Decrease the foods that disrupt gut balance and deplete serotonin in the body, and increase your intake of foods that improve serotonin levels. This will improve your gut health, and your mood will start to improve as a result.
Before you jump to the next item, consider this: meditation does not mean you have to sit on a mat and chant to yourself and you don’t have to take a meditation class. Meditation is nothing more than finding 15–30 minutes during your day to think positively in quiet. This can be during a morning walk (no headphones!), it can be listening to some calming music while resting, it can be prayer, or you could pop in some calming music while in transit.
Find a spot during your day to meditate on your thoughts, beliefs and what you want in life. Don’t let it be a self-bashing session to tell yourself what you haven’t accomplished. Just sit with your thoughts, allow your brain to process them, and listen to the inner voice that guides you. As you become healthier by taking in the right foods to balance your hormones, this gets easier. So start with step one above, and work your way to this point.
Take away tips:
Bring a daily dose of calm to your day. Whether that is through music, silence, nature, a quiet bath with essential oils, or any other activity that calms and relaxes you, be sure to do it. If guided meditations work for you, such as the app Headspace, feel free to also enjoy those too!
Prioritize sleep by using natural resources
For those of us that have suffered depression, getting to sleep is usually not a problem, it’s more of a release. However, if anxiety is your primary plague, sleep seems like a long lost friend that you may never see again. Sleeping pills can lead to a host of negative health issues and may even lead to — or worsen — depression. But we need sleep and without it, our cortisol levels continue to swing out of balance; high cortisol leads to even more anxiety and we spiral out of control.
So, instead of medication, optimize what resources you already have available to you. These include eating foods that balance your hormones (root vegetables, green vegetables, beans, lentils, avocados, coconut, walnuts, almonds, fresh fruit), and reducing those that increase stress hormones (conventionally-raised animal products and processed foods).
Next, you’ll want to include some high-quality carbohydrates in the evening. These include root vegetables, beans, and legumes. Try lentil soup with sweet potatoes, tomatoes, kale and black beans. These whole-food carbs help increase the amount of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a precursor to the neurotransmitter called tryptophan, which makes you sleepy (turkey isn’t the only source).
Foods that are especially powerful include gluten-free oats, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, pumpkin, bananas, and greens like kale, spinach and collards. Try adding a banana or some cooked pumpkin to your gluten-free oats or your smoothie. By adding these foods, you naturally crowd out the unhealthy foods, fill yourself up, increase your energy, and help you get to sleep.
Along with diet, physical activity can also help you feel more tired at night. If you haven’t moved efficiently throughout the day, your mind may be exhausted but your body is still awake. This can lead to tossing and turning all night long. So by moving each day, you’re also improving your sleep routine.
You can also look into natural herbs that help calm you, such as chamomile tea or peppermint tea. I started enjoying tea with lemon each night. This wasn’t something that I was used to but overtime it became a favorite ritual. Daily steps will create the most effective change towards creating a healthier sleep cycle, so make little changes each day. You’ll be excited at the results!
Take away tips:
Instead of harsh drugs that alter brain chemistry and may lead to depression, make dietary and activity changes that can help you sleep more soundly. Look up some whole food-based recipes online and see what you can cook up to get a better night’s sleep.
One of the best things about these natural options is that they support one another. This makes them easy to incorporate and more effective since they all work together to achieve the same goal: a healthier, more balanced you. If I could give a tip to someone suffering debilitating anxiety, it would be this: Don’t ever think you’re too far gone to make a change. Start with one meal and take it day by day. Every little choice adds up to a huge step, and those steps lead to an incredible journey.
Heather McClees is a professional health journalist and Certified Holistic Nutritionist from South Carolina.She received her B.S. Degree in Nutrition Science and Dietetics, and is most passionate about helping others discover the gift of of holistic health, showing others how to create healthy recipes based on their favorite foods, physical fitness and yoga, and creative writing.