An Orthomolecular Approach to Anxiety


The Anxiety Epidemic


by Billie Jay Sahley, PhD

Pain & Stress Publications, 5282 Medical Drive, Suite 160, San Antonio, Texas 78229 USA; 800-669-2256 Softbound, 128 pp., 1999, $9.95

All of us have experienced the physical sensations that accompany fear - an unsettled, "fluttery" stomach, tightness in the chest and/or throat, a racing pulse, dry mouth, muscle tremors and spasms, insomnia, restlessness, jumpiness. For an increasing number of Americans, fear, anxiety and panic attacks are part of their daily experience. Billie J. Sahley, PhD, a board-certified medical psychotherapist-behavior therapist and an orthomolecular therapist, was among them. Her journey to understand and heal herself led her to the study of amino acids and the interactions between emotion, thought patterns, and biochemistry. The understanding of anxiety and panic attacks gleaned from her own experience and that of her clients has resulted in a concise, helpful book, The Anxiety Epidemic.

Sahley attributes her own episodes of anxiety to five years of stress and unexpressed grief brought on by her mother's decline from pancreatic cancer. The body makes its own natural tranquilizers, she explains, but living in a prolonged state of stress or anxiety causes a depletion of the nutrients needed to make these tranquilizers. Grief, trauma, unresolved anxiety and psychological conflicts, and prolonged physical pain are among the stresses that can deplete nutrients. GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, plays a major role in relieving anxiety. Without GABA to inhibit it, the amygdala, which is part of the brain's limbic system, releases fear and anxiety messages. In research studies, pure GABA has shown the tranquilizing effect of Valium, Librium and Xanax. Sahley, however, warns against taking megadoses of GABA because of side effects.

Although Sahley emphasizes the importance of GABA in treating anxiety, it is by no means the only nutrient involved. The amino acids glycine and glutamine also prevent neurotransmitters from firing. At the Pain and Stress Center in San Antonio, Texas, which Billie Jay Sahley founded, a neurotransmitter formula is used to treat anxiety. The formula contains GABA, glycine, glutamine, B6, magnesium, passion flower, and Primula officinalis (primrose, not evening primrose) - all of which have a calming effect on the nervous system. Sahley also passes on a Clinical Journal of Nutrition recommendation that people with anxiety or agoraphobia reduce their intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates and that they eliminate caffeine and alcohol altogether.

Replenishing depleted nutrients and amino acids are only part of the solution, however. Food and inhalant allergies can cause many of the symptoms that are equated to anxiety. In her own situation, Sahley continued to experience rapid heart beat, shortness of breath, irritability, and tension even though she was on an orthomolecular program to replenish nutrients and had resolved much of her grief. Because she was aware that certain odors would give her a headache and cause her heart rate to increase, Sahley began to question what else caused her heart to beat rapidly: "...I realized what I thought to be a panic attack was, in fact, an allergy reaction to milk .... I stopped consuming all dairy products. Forty-eight hours later the symptoms stopped." She says that a person's pulse rate often increases after eating a food to which (s)he is sensitive. This change in heart rate can make anxiety-sensitive people feel as if they are having an anxiety attack.

Equally important to these biochemical and nutritional factors are the thoughts and behavior patterns that cause the body to go on the alert. Apparently, one typical scenario involves unresolved past traumatic events that surface from the subconscious. Sometimes a set of circumstances or a certain location will set off a memory of a past event or even a past panic attack. The person re-lives these events repeatedly; and, each time, the body responds with adrenaline and all the physical symptoms of anxiety. Sahley emphasizes, "The key lies in the ability of an anxious person to realize, 'It's over; let it go; let it rest in peace. I can't change it; the past is over; my control is in the present, not the past or the future!'" She recommends relaxation exercises and the use of self-hypnosis with biofeedback as tools for controlling stress and anxiety. Sahley also places importance on finding an empathic and insightful therapist, who understands the experience of fear and encourages his/ her clients to face and release it, "Changes in behavior," she writes, "change the brain chemistry."

In addition to explaining the physiology of stress, the nature of fear, and the orthomolecular approach to anxiety, The Anxiety Epidemic also contains a section of self-help information, another that profiles amino acids, vitamins, minerals, herbs, and hormones that are helpful in controlling depression and anxiety, and a section that provides other resources. The Anxiety Epidemic offers valuable insights, for patients and practitioners, into the biochemical and emotional causes of anxiety and panic.


By Jule Klotter

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