Anxiety - much more than a feeling...
Updated: Jan 28
Anxiety feels "Like taking off, except the engine that lifts you up is fear and you cannot tell it to go away. [It's like a] rollercoaster ride and an adrenalin high, but you're seated." (Holmes and Scheller 2015)
Anxiety is the most commonly reported mental health condition in Australia. It can manifest with physical signs such as heart palpitations, stomach pain, and extreme agitation. Beyond Blue claims that 1 in 6 young Australians battles anxiety.
So where are the burgeoning numbers of children and teens facing this condition coming from and what can be done about it?
1. Nutritional Deficiencies
Even as obesity levels in children rise in Australia, so too do levels of malnutrition due to poor dietary choices. It can be a challenge to get kids to eat wholesome nutritious foods in the midst of our busy lifestyles. There are a number of nutrients essential to balancing neurotransmitter levels in the brain, including vitamin Bs, zinc, and magnesium. These are found in whole grains, raw vegetables, nuts and seeds, and eggs and meat. Unfortunately many kids and teens have a diet low in these foods and rich in refined carbs. Poor soil quality in Australia can also contribute to the lack of these vitamins and minerals in our foods. It's little wonder so many brains are imbalanced!
What makes some people more vulnerable to triggers of anxiety than others? The answer may lie in your genetics. Is there a history of anxiety, depression or mental illness in your family? Certain genetic variations have been strongly associated with anxiety. A couple of well-known and common genetic polymorphisms in this category involve the genes:
- MTHFR (which affects the way folate is metabolised in the body and used to support neurochemistry - 10% of Australians affected)
- COMT (which slows the breakdown of adrenalin and dopamine, so its hard to 'come down' from stress - up to 50% of caucasians affected)
The good news is that these and other polymorphisms affect biochemical pathways regulated by vitamins and minerals, and many unhelpful SNPs (single nucleatide polymorphisms) can be supported with nutritional medicine. Annecdotal evidence suggests some individuals with anxiety and panic disorder benefit from supplementation with specific types of B12 and folate. These needs need to be individually assessed, however, through genetic testing. Avoid self-prescribing these supplements; seek professional advice on which forms are right for you.
3. Sugar Intake
This generation is exposed to a greater level of refined sugar intake than ever before. It is present in high quantities in packaged foods, with names like maltodextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, invert sugar, maltose. Fussy eaters prefer white breads, refined carbohydrate products, cakes and biscuits and all too often we give in, since all the other kids are eating it. Cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress and feelings of anxiety, is closely intertwined with sugar. When cortisol levels rise in response to stress, so do our blood sugar and insulin levels. The sugar 'crash' that inevitably follows these spikes causes us to crave more sugar and the cycle continues.... Sugar cravings also become a natural response to stress because of its opioid-like effect on the brain. It is highly addictive and makes us feel good in the short term, worse over time, feeding patterns of anxiety.
4. Artificial food additives
Many of those little numbers on food labels represent chemicals that have a direct affect on the brain and have been clinically proven to contribute to mental health problems and anxiety. MSG (621) is a known excitotoxin that has been shown to have a similar biochemical effect in the body as stress itself.
5. High stress lifestyles
Stress affects a wide range of biochemical pathways in the body, starting with the release of adrenaline, our 'fight or flight' hormone. Children and adults who live with long-term stress such as relationship difficulties (Broken homes affect 1 in 4 Aussie kids), or busy schedules (too much stimulation can distress children), can experience long-term hormonal and neurochemical dysregulation leading to anxiety, panic disorder and depression. The inflammatory response within the body to this dysregulation, can become a precursor to diseases such as cancer and autoimmune conditions, so there is even more at stake than mental health.
It's not hard to see how a combination of the above factors in individual lives and families can lead to the anxiety epidemic we are seeing today. Anxiety and depression are extremely destructive to personal identity, relationships and overall well-being. If you see the signs in someone you love, don't wait. Seek answers, seek help.
Always consult a health professional before taking supplements for specific conditions. They can assess your diet and nutrient status to determine which ones are right for you, as well as advise on formulas that are most effective and absorbable. While the science behind nutraceutical development is burgeoning at present, the market is flooded with poor quality products that are ineffective at best and harmful at worst.
Deborah Smart is a Clinical Nutritionist at the Narangba Valley Medical Centre, northern Brisbane. Genetic screening, functional testing, and nutritional consultations available.
Book an appointment at Smart NutriMed
Beyond Blue offers a free online program to help children with anxiety: find out more.