These uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused an increase in stress. Between isolation, financial instability and fear of disease, nearly half of all people in the United States report that their mental health has been negatively impacted, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

The paradise we call home is not always the calmest place in the world anyway. The glorious view we see each day does not solve the day-to-day troubles of job, family and finances. Add this current crisis, and it is understandable that many Jacksonites are struggling with anxiety.

In fact, about 20% of people will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. It is one of the most common mental health disorders in the world. Although life problems, including this present situation, cannot be avoided, there are some natural ways to handle them. As the temperature of summer rises, let us put some of these healthful tools to use.

First, lifestyle choices play a big role in keeping the brain calm. A plant-based diet, with plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts and beans, is a good start. Those foods, rich in fiber and carbohydrates, will keep the brain humming smoothly by keeping a steady blood sugar rhythm. That maintains positive thinking, as energy levels are strong. Beans, such as black, pinto and kidney, provide the most slow-absorbing carbohydrates of any food and so are an especially effective nutritional tool to treat anxiety.

Carb-rich foods also provide micronutrients for calming. B vitamins and magnesium supply nutrients to make precursors for the brain neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). Those chemicals help regulate brain function and keep thinking clear and focused.

Fats can be friend or foe of a happy, healthy brain. Fish, flax seed, canola oil, walnuts and spinach should be on your menu. Those anti-inflammatory foods keep blood flow to the brain. A steady supply of those types of fats, specifically EPA (eicosapentaenoic) fatty acids, has been shown to dramatically reduce anxiety. One 2008 study showed that a supplement of 2,000 mg of EPA reduced anxiety symptoms as effectively as some anti-anxiety medications.

On the other hand, simple sugars, meat, high-fat dairy and some vegetable oils will negatively affect the brain by increasing arachidonic acid, a known inflammatory fat. Keeping those items to a minimum will optimize the flow of the circulation in the brain, increasing communication of the neurons.

Drink water

Hydration in the summer is as important for the brain as it is for the body. A dry brain cannot function optimally any more than the heart, lungs, joints and muscles can. Good ol’ H2O is one of the best liquids to reach for, especially our own local “top of the divide” water. Rich in minerals such as calcium and magnesium, it is about as pure as it gets. Townies can decrease their intake of added chlorine by filtering in a Brita or Pur pitcher. Opt for at least half your body weight in ounces per day as a minimum amount of fluid. For example, a 150-pound person needs at least 75 ounces of fluid a day. With exercise, add more.

Avoiding excess caffeine in the form of coffee, tea and energy drinks will also help keep the brain purring along at a speed that prevents panic and dread. Maybe more importantly, it improves overall sleep, a necessity to recharge and optimize mental function. Likewise, to improve your mood and ability to handle life’s troubles, opt out of large quantities of alcohol, a known depressant. Although alcohol seems to help with initial sleep, it prevents the deep, recovering, stage four rest necessary for a full recharge.

Other drinks might decrease anxiety-producing adrenaline. Green and black tea contain an amino acid, L-theanine, that is known to reduce stress. They don’t provide large doses, compared with the amount studied for therapeutic use. But research shows increased calming Alpha brain waves at levels of 50 to 200 mg, so a few cups could be helpful.

Adding herbal supplements may help, too. One recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that passionflower, long used in native medicine, was as effective as an anti-anxiety medication but without the side effects. Scientists believe it works because it increases the GABA in the brain. That neurotransmitter makes you feel more relaxed. Passionflower can be found in teas, tinctures and capsules. To avoid interactions, consult with a pharmacist if you are taking other medications.

Kava is another plant that has been used for centuries to treat anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. A member of the pepper family, it too is believed to work with the GABA receptors. The first placebo-controlled, double-blind U.S. study, in 1997, showed a statistical improvement in self-reported and physician-determined symptoms. Further research has found kava to successfully help patients taper off anti-anxiety medications. However, most reports note the possible risk to the liver, especially at higher doses, so caution should be used in taking kava.

Chamomile, one of the most ancient herbs, has showed therapeutic success for everything from hemorrhoids to diabetes. But it is best known for its calming effects and is widely used as a mild tranquilizer and sleep-inducer. One of the many active chemicals appears to be a flavonoid called apigenin, which binds to the benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. One documented report, in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, noted that in a study of the heart health benefits of chamomile tea, 10 cardiac patients immediately fell into a deep sleep lasting 90 minutes after drinking it.

Get outside and move

Exercise, according to Dr. John Ratey from the Harvard School of Medicine, may be the single best nonmedical solution available for preventing and treating anxiety. He is a psychiatrist who studies the effects of exercise on the brain. He says moving the body decreases muscle tension, and changes many brain chemicals. It helps bolster the anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, GABA, endocannabinoids and neurotrophic factor. He recommends exercising outside and with a friend for even further benefits.

Do not forget other lifestyle therapies for the brain. Music, yoga, meditation, prayer, biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy have all been shown to treat anxiety. There is simply no reason to suffer, especially in these trying times. Try these natural remedies. And seek help if more is needed. You deserve to be well.

Therese Lowe Metherell, dietitian and nutritionist, has been in private practice in Jackson for 30 years. Contact her at peaknutrition68@gmail.com.

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