SHOULD YOU TRY EASTERN MEDICINE INSTEAD OF ANXIETY MEDS?
How Anti-Anxiety Meds Work & Natural Alternatives
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected pretty much everything–our jobs, our schools, and even our mental health. In fact, the rate of mental health issues like anxiety and depression has quadrupled in the US during the pandemic! Previously, only about 10% of US adults reported dealing with these issues. Now, that number has skyrocketed up to 40% of the adult population.
If you’re one of those 40%, you might be looking for ways to treat and manage your anxiety. Most people turn to prescription meds to help combat feelings of worry and fear along with the physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder. But have you considered other options? Here’s the low-down on how anti-anxiety medications work and whether natural alternatives might be a better option for you.
What Is Anxiety and How Is It Treated?
Anxiety is a normal emotion. It’s what you feel when you’re stressed, worried, or afraid of something. But if you feel anxiety pretty regularly (aka for more than 6 months) and it starts to affect other aspects of your life like work, sleep, or your social life, you might have a General Anxiety Disorder, or GAD.
GAD isn’t just feeling nervous all the time. It also has physical effects, like an elevated heart rate, nervous sweating, difficulty breathing, and chest or stomach pain. Some people get panic attacks, develop phobias, or display obsessive behavior.
There’s no medical test for anxiety. Instead, people who feel like they might be struggling with GAD usually talk to their primary care physicians. Your doctor might want to conduct some blood tests or urine samples to make sure your symptoms aren’t a sign of something else. Then, they’ll usually suggest lifestyle changes like ditching caffeine and lowering screen time. If that doesn’t work, your doctor will probably suggest talk therapy and/or an anti-anxiety medication.
If your anxiety symptoms are severe, your PCP may want to start you on anxiety medications right away. There are a few different kinds:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): SSRIs like Zoloft, Celexa, and Prozac, help to boost serotonin levels in your brain, helping to regulate anxiety and depression.
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): SNRIs like Cymbalta and Pristiq help to stabilize your mood by blocking your brain’s reabsorption of serotonin and norepinephrine.
- Benzodiazepines: These drugs, like Xanax and Valium, tend to be short-term solutions for physical symptoms of anxiety like tension and panic attacks. These shouldn’t be prescribed for long periods of time because they can cause dependence, withdrawal, and when combined with opioids, you can overdose on them.
While medication can be useful for many people, it can be tricky to find the right kind for you. It might take months or years of working with a psychiatrist to find a medication that works for your GAD. And over time, these medications can become less effective as our bodies get used to them.
Some medications also have pretty nasty side effects. These can include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Skin problems
- Stomach problems
- Lower sex drive
- Interactions with other drugs
There’s also been a recent uptick in the overprescription of these kinds of drugs, according to the American Psychological Association. According to Dr. Steven Hollon of Vanderbilt University, almost half of people prescribed anti-anxiety medications are just experiencing a placebo effect and not actual benefits.
Luckily, medication isn’t the only way to treat anxiety. In fact, many people with GAD use other methods, like therapy, lifestyle changes, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) like eastern medicine to manage their anxiety.
Treating Anxiety With Eastern Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda have been using herbal remedies to treat and manage anxiety for hundreds of years. And western science is finally catching up. More and more studies are being done to confirm the effectiveness of herbal remedies for anxiety. Here are some natural remedies that are proven to help manage GAD.
Ashwanagandha is an Ayurvedic herb known for its grounding, calming properties. It’s an adaptogen, which means that it helps your body respond better to stress. Researchers have found that taking Ashwagandha can lower cortisol, the stress hormone. In a 2008 study, people with anxiety who took Ashwagandha for 2 months dropped their HAMA scale rating (a self-reporting tool used to assess levels of anxiety) by 75%! And in an animal study, Ashwanagdha was found to be just as effective as lorazepam, which is used to lower anxiety before surgeries.
When Spanish explorers came to Peru, they found people using this flower to treat stress and anxiety. Researchers think that its anti-anxiety effects come from the flower’s ability to increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain. GABA helps to calm brain activity, making it easier to relax or fall asleep. Passion flower been found to help lower pre-operation anxiety levels and one study proved that it was just as effective as a benzodiazepine for managing anxiety. It is especially useful for those with late night mental chatter.
If you’ve ever been to a Pacific island, you might have learned about Kava Kava, also known simply as Kava, a medicinal herb that is used in traditional ceremonies. It has a relaxing effect, and studies show that it helps to regulate GABA levels.
Other studies have been done to find out how Kava can help people with GAD in particular. Participants in one study reported significantly lower HAMA scores by the end of the experiment, showing that Kava is an effective treatment for anxiety. Another study found that 60% of the participants had their anxiety go into full remission. The researchers found that it was just as effective as pharmaceuticals like opipramol and buspirone for treating GAD. Avoid Kava extracted with hexane as it can be dangerous.
Banxia Houpu is a TCM herbal concoction made up of Banxia (Pinellia ternata), Poria, Magnolia, Beefsteak plant (Perilla frutescens), and ginger. Known in TCM for its Qi stimulating effects, Banxia Houpu also helps with GAD. In fact, in one study, it was found to be just as effective as the SSRI Prozac! Other studies have found that it doesn’t only help with anxiety–it’s a useful treatment for depression, too. In general, Banxia Houpu seems to improve your overall psychological state without any negative side effects.
WenDang Tan is for those who have excess phlegm and an imbalance between Gallbladder and Stomach qi. In Chinese medicine, the Gallbladder is responsible for courage and a lack of it would tend to cause timidity. This pattern is similar to metabolic endotoxemia in western medicine where dietary or insomnia related inflammation is an issue. It can be characterized by insomnia, chronic gastritis, timidity, anxiety, restlessness and nervousness.
When it comes to managing anxiety, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Most people combine medication, talk therapy, lifestyle changes, and CAM to figure out what works for them. So when you talk to your doctor about your anxiety, make sure to ask them about all the treatment options, not just pharmaceuticals. You might just find that a natural treatment works just as well, without all the nasty side effects.