Anxiety is characterised by recurrent worries, doubts and fears; which like depression frequently has a biochemical basis. The brain and all of the nerves are driven by chemicals; firstly minerals from our food to make the electrical impulse that travels along the nerve, and then chemicals that the nerves make to pass the message from one nerve to another, from nerve to gland, and nerve to muscle. This need of a chemical is because the electrical impulse cannot jump across the tiny space that exists between the two components of the chain. There are three distinct groups of the nerve chemicals or neurotransmitter.

  • Group 1:  those that control all bodily functions and includes: serotonin, dopamine, noradrenalin, acetylcholine.
  • Group 2: those that control the amount of information that enters the nerve, its ability to be stimulated by making an electrical impulse.
  • Group 3: those that block the action of the 2nd group so that the nerve is not over stimulated.

Anxiety can be experience from an imbalance within all 3 groups and is frequently experienced along with depression, because serotonin inhibits the release of noradrenalin from Group 1;  inhibits the action of  the chemicals within Group 2, and augments the action of the chemicals in Group 3.  Because anxiety is frequently a symptom that accompanies depression I suggest you also read the section on Depression as well. The incidence of anxiety can be increased by drug therapy as some of the antidepressant drugs also cause greater amounts of noradrenalin to remain at the site of action.

The main chemical from Group 1 is noradrenalin. Noradrenalin stimulates the Sympathetic Nervous System, which has modified very little through evolution; remaining as an automatic response to danger, controlling the fight/flight mechanism. Unfortunately, in our modern world, we face few physical dangers and so the system is triggered more frequently by emotional or psychological factors. When faced with a physical danger the function of the increased levels of noradrenalin, resulting in greater energy to flee or fight, is appropriate and uses up the increased level of noradrenalin. Unfortunately, an emotional stress does not require, nor utilise, this increased physical energy and the noradrenalin is not used up, but remains in the system to fuel more fears, more anxiety. This is especially true as a raised level of noradrenalin affects many physical functions which, in themselves, can increase anxiety; changes in heart rate that can be misperceived, or experienced, as palpitations; changes in gut motility that may lead to pains and diarrhoea; and changes in the rate of breathing. All of these changes are created to enable the increase in energy output required by any physical threat.

Increased levels of noradrenalin can be caused by two factors:  the experience of stress, and failure to adequately breakdown the noradrenalin into a form that can be excreted. The experience of stress will be affected by both internal and external factors; something within life that is actually stressful, and or a greater experience of things as stressful.

Adrenalin is a chemical very similar to noradrenalin which is made by the adrenal gland, it has the same effect as noradrenalin and its release usually follows the same mechanisms. An adrenal tumour can also be a cause. Treatment for the adrenal tumour is surgical removal; otherwise traditionally it is drug treatment with tranquilisers.

When using Functional Biochemistry the aim of treatment is to enable the person to break down the noradrenaline/adrenalin so that it can be excreted. This means looking for a deficiency of one of the minerals, or specific activated vitamin, and repairing that deficiency through supplements. As deficiency of serotonin also causes an increase in noradrenalin production it is important in the diagnostic procedure to pick up any deficiency in serotonin and include supplements that would remedy this too.

It is not enough to simply correct any chemical deficiency but also to enable the individual to accept some of the events that have triggered the deficiency. Firstly, by helping the individual to recognise the impact of specific life events.  By helping them to modify their diet if this is a factor.  If part of the cause is a stressful lifestyle than obviously, for really effective treatment, this should be modified. Equally, if the cause is due to increased experience of stress then the individual needs to try and establish and offset the cause. They can get help from a variety of therapies: CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) hypnosis, counselling, or EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique).

Group 2 are made up of two chemicals aspartate and glutamate; these two chemicals enable the nerve to create an electrical impulse which is essential for the nerve to convert the sensory input into something that it can transmit. Too much of these chemicals will create too great an electrical impulse resulting in over stimulation. Over stimulation is very tiring and stressful, it results in the constant experience of stimuli; normally the brain filters out many stimuli that it does not think are important.  Constant experience of stimuli is very tiring and the constant whirring thoughts that accompany it will not stop. It is difficult to concentrate easy to be distracted, by the next stimulation, and the next; and difficult to relax and to sleep. Levels of irritation are raised and it is very possible to experience rages that spring from apparently nowhere. Raised levels are nearly always caused by failure to break these two chemicals down for excretion. Constantly feeling irritated and having explosive outbursts does nothing for the individuals self esteem and increases the anxiety as they  worry about their behaviour, which is liable to be out of control; and the potential for upsetting others. This of course increases the stress, and remember, stress is the biggest user of nutrients that there is and hence a major cause of deficiency.

Medical treatment rarely recognises this as a cause and the treatment is simply tranquilisers. The treatment using Functional Biochemistry is to isolate the specific deficiency that is causing the failure of breakdown of glutamate and aspartate. This is usually due to failure to activate sufficient levels of vitamin B2 and B6 both required in the breakdown. The enzyme that activates vitamin B2 requires thyroxin, the hormone made by the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland needs adequate levels of iodine to make thyroxin. Iodine deficiency is therefore a major cause of over stimulation due to an excess of glutamate and/or aspartate. As thyroxin also controls the level at which each cell produces energy it means that although the brain is working over time the body is tired, has no energy. This makes the over stimulation harder to bear, especially when this is accompanied with lack of sleep. Activation of vitamin B6 requires activated B2, so an iodine deficiency will also cause a decrease in the activated levels of B6. It also needs those minerals that I seem to write about more often than any other, zinc and magnesium.

Some of the artificial additives, namely MSG (monosodium Glutamate, flavour enhancer) and aspartame, (artificial sweetener) are so similar in structure to the naturally occurring chemicals that the nerves cannot tell the difference; and they too will stimulate the nerve to make an electrical impulse. As these two chemicals require the same ingredients to enable breakdown, they will also remain active in the body, increasing the problem. In fact it could be the widespread use of these chemicals in crisps, pre-prepared sauces and foods, and in all the low sugar drinks and foods that has resulted in the deficiency in the first place due to the increased utilisation of activated vitamin B2 and B6. Equally there are areas of the UK that are known to be naturally deficient in iodine and  to compensate iodine was added to table salt; however, we have been advised to reduce our salt intake which leaves many without sufficient iodine. Obviously as part of treatment the individual needs to recognise what foods contain these additives and how best to avoid them.

Group 3 are also composed of two chemicals GABA and glycine. These two chemicals block the action of glutamate and aspartate to: a) prevent over stimulation, b) enable focus and concentration by cutting out distractors, and c) shutting down the conscious brain to enable sleep. Reduced levels will obviously have the reverse effect, cause over stimulation, create distractibility as competing stimuli enter the conscious brain, and prevent the ability to easily drop off to sleep. The minor tranquilisers, the benzodiazepines such as valium, lorazepam,  are aimed at augmenting the action of GABA .

Treatment using Functional Biochemistry is of course to find the nutritional deficiency in the body that is causing the under production of GABA and Glycine. As GABA and Glycine require activated B6, zinc and magnesium in their manufacture, some of the same ingredients that breakdown glutamate and aspartate, it is very common for both problems to coexist; fortunately the same treatment frequently resolves both problems. Because serotonin inhibits the action of glutamate and aspartate, and augments the action of GABA and glycine, it is important to establish if there is any co-existing deficiency of serotonin and treat this with the appropriate supplements at the same time. However, as the manufacture of serotonin also requires activated vitamin B6, zinc, and magnesium, reduced production frequently has the same cause, and therefore the same treatment works to remedy GABA and serotonin levels.

Anxiety, just as depression, usually has a biochemical basis; which is precisely why drugs are used; but nobody has ever been deficient in a drug. Drugs inhibit symptoms by blocking enzyme action.  Nutritional supplements provide the body with the ingredients that the body uses in the first place to make or break down its own chemistry. Unfortunately the patterns of thinking create specific nerve pathways and the more frequently we have a thought the more that pathway is embedded. So despite resolving the nutritional deficiency and creating a balance within the brain chemistry, if the anxious thoughts have been a long term pattern then the individual needs to address this because it is likely to continue simply because the pathways are too well established. Having learned to ride a bike, no matter how long it was since we last rode, we still know how to do it because the pathway is established. However, the more we practice the better we get, because the pathway becomes even more established. This is exactly the same with thought patterns; it’s sad to write that some people practice anxious thoughts so well that they perfect the ability, but that is just how it is. Somehow, the mind has to give up these thoughts and be calm, of course that takes a lot of conscious will and is easier said than done, but it is the principle of many therapies, such as hypnosis, CBT, counselling, psychotherapy, and EFT.