Biological Causes of Anxiety: Root causes of Anxiety Part 2
Over the past few decades, medical professionals and researchers have developed a better understanding of the connection between our biological health; the health of our brain, body, nervous system and organs; and our psychological health; our moods, thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Research has shown that the health of the brain and body plays an essential role in our psychological health.
One major benefit of this new understanding is a better understanding of underlying biological causes of anxiety. When we correct these underlying causes, our anxiety is often significantly reduced or even eliminated completely.
Unfortunately, many of us may be completely unaware of this information or that an underlying health issue may be causing our anxiety.
Biological causes of anxiety (and depression) can range from a number of possible health issues and biological changes in the brain and body.
Issues can occur when we have too much or too little of a particular biological component.
For example; having excessive/deficient amounts of one or more brain chemicals, vitamins, minerals, or hormones.
Moderate to severe anxiety can also occur as the result of disease, injury or illness.
The biological directly affects the psychological.
Chemical changes in the brain can directly affect our mood and overall psychology – just as what we eat or drink can affect how we think and feel.
For the purposes of this article – when we say “biological causes”, “biological” or “biology” we are referring to the broad definition of organic processes of the brain and body.
Hopefully, the term “biological” or “chemical imbalances” doesn’t scare you off.
You don’t need to know the systems of the body, technical terms or brain processes for this article to help you.
The fundamental point is that our minds and bodies are interrelated.
By improving, repairing, or correcting our biological issues, we directly improve our psychological and emotional health.
If you want to check out the previous article on causes of anxiety, where we discuss psychological causes of anxiety, you can find it here:
Please note: this article is not meant to be taken as medical advice. The information provided is for educational purposes only. Consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before changing your diet, prescriptions, or making any other health-related changes.
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Health Anxiety: A Word of Caution
In addition to all of our other worries – anxiety around our health, disease and illness can be a problem for many of us.
Even reading about potential illnesses, diseases or other health concerns can awaken the hypochondriac in some of us.
Please don't let this guide cause more unnecessary anxiety for you.
As someone who has personally dealt with years of intense anxiety; I’ve spent countless hours Googling medical conditions that I “knew” I had after reading about it online. Jumping from one potential illness to the next.
Please don't use this guide in that way.
The purpose here is to provide information.
It is important to bring to light biological causes for anxiety you may not have known about and can take action to rule out – such as getting your thyroid tested or eliminating certain triggers in your diet.
This article is meant to educate you – not cause you more anxiety and worry.
By far the most popular theory behind the biological cause of anxiety (and depression), is the chemical imbalance theory.
This theory states that when there is too much or too little of specific neurotransmitters (chemicals/hormones) in the brain and body – the result is an anxious (or depressed) state.
This theory has led to the development of many prescription drugs aimed at effecting neurotransmitters in direct or indirect ways.
For anxiety, the focus tends to be on increasing the availability of neurotransmitters Serotonin or GABA.
The chemical imbalance theory has also led to pharmaceutical companies spending millions of dollars in advertising to promote their medications.
Simply take a pill and all will be right with the world.
These pharmaceutical companies also have powerful influence over doctors and psychiatrists and the medical community as a whole.
Even though this theory is still central to most medical practices – it has begun to come under scrutiny in the past decade or so.
Some medical experts claim there is no such thing as a “chemical imbalance” – these experts believe the brain provides the necessary chemicals as needed.
Others claim that there is no relation between an “imbalance” (such as low serotonin) and anxiety or depression.
Another theory is that a chemical imbalance is the direct cause of our anxiety and depression. Treating the imbalance directly will improve or even eliminate our anxiety. This is the belief and approach of most doctors.
Others say that having an imbalance can be one possible cause of anxiety and depression. If a chemical imbalance is an issue – the imbalance has a root cause – either biological (such as a poor diet) or psychological (such as excessive stress or trauma). The point – they say – is to treat the underlying cause and the imbalance will correct itself as a result.
Lastly, by way of recent neuroscience; there is the belief that the drugs that supposedly “correct” the chemical imbalance (anti-depressants in particular), work not because they fix some kind of chemical imbalance but because they stimulate neurons to remodel themselves. This leads to increased flexibility in the brain and the ability to form new responses and thought patterns.
The truth is – no one knows for sure. No one knows with complete certainty what causes anxiety or depression, let alone how particular medications work. This includes the drug companies, regardless of what their commercials may claim.
Regardless of which theory you believe; prescription medications, as well as many herbs and supplements that have a direct effect on neurotransmitters in the brain, can greatly reduce anxiety in the short and long term for many people.
Whether you want to chalk it up to placebo effect or correcting an imbalance.
After years of taking anti-depressants, herbs, and supplements for my anxiety – I've experienced this first hand.
I've also witnessed dramatic changes in others after taking supplements or medications.
But I also discovered the vital importance of correcting the source of the imbalance and developing the skills necessary to cope with life's challenges – otherwise your simply treating the symptoms and not the cause.
The goal is to find the cause of the imbalance (if there is one) and treat it there, while developing skills for dealing with anxiety.
That being said, for some, there may be a true chemical imbalance where the brain simply doesn't produce enough of a specific neurotransmitters.
Certain forms of schizophrenia, borderline disorder, extreme forms of OCD, having certain types of diseases and injury to the brain are common examples of this.
In these cases medications and/or supplements may be needed long-term or for the rest of the individual's life.
Causes of a Chemical Imbalance
The majority of the theories behind the causes of a chemical imbalance focus on psychological stress and trauma.
Any factors that cause repeated stress responses can cause neurotransmitters to become depleted.
Other common factors include our diets and health-related issues.
One way or another, all biological causes of anxiety have a direct effect on brain chemicals and stress hormones. Depletion of certain brain chemicals at the expense of others leads to a chemical imbalance, which can lead to anxiety and depression.
Believed Causes of Imbalances:
The Stress Response (Fight-or-Flight)
When we experience intense stress or trauma, whether it is biological stress or psychological stress, real or imagined, our brain and nervous system reacts by producing more stress hormones/neurotransmitters.
When these stress hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol are released in high amounts, our bodies go into survival mode or fight-or-flight response.
These responses are natural and serve the purpose of gearing our bodies up to either “fight” (defend ourselves) or “flight” (run away from the danger).
The stress response and the stress related chemicals aren't bad, they all serve essential functions, but major problems can arise when the stress response becomes our automatic response to situations that don't warrant a fight-or-flight, survival mode response.
For instance – if we have a stress response because we get to the grocery store and realize we left our purse or wallet at home. Is that really a fight for survival?
Problems will also arise if we remain in this ultra stressed state for long periods of time. Such as living in an unsafe, unstable or unpredictable environment or having an undiagnosed health issue that leaves us sick and stressed for a long period of time, such as thyroid issues.
Over time the stress chemicals and hormones can reduce the more calming, “feel-good” neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA.
There becomes an imbalance.
With less of the calming neurotransmitters and more of the brain chemicals and hormones meant to gear us up for fight or flee – it becomes harder to respond to experiences without stress and anxiety.
The stress response becomes a cycle. The mind can become “trapped” in a loop of negativity, hyper-alertness, fear and anxiety.
As an example – children that grow up in unsafe, abusive or stressful homes tend to produce less of the calming/feel-good neurotransmitters.
They become stuck in fight-or-flight mode, remaining in a hyper-alert state. Always on the lookout for danger.
This creates more of the stress hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain and less of the calming ones.
As these children grow up and become adults, they can remain in this stressed state – even if the original stressors are no longer there.
Whether a chemical imbalance is the result of stress and trauma or the cause – the point is the same. After long-term exposure to stress or trauma, the brain rewires itself in a way to create more of the hormones and neurotransmitters associated with fight-flight (or freeze) responses.
If we feel/believe it is necessary to be “on guard” against potential threats – the brain and body will comply by producing the chemicals and hormones to protect itself.
Going fully into how the stress response works and the role of neurotransmitters on anxiety is beyond the scope of this article. If you're interested in learning more about how anxiety works, check out our in-depth article below
Correcting an Imbalance
We shouldn't assume that we have a chemical imbalance just because we have anxiety – even though that seems to be a popular tactic among physicians and psychiatrists.
The truth is, as of right now, there is no accurate, reliable way to test the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. So, until tests become available that can do this, the chemical imbalance theory is always going to be just that, a theory.
That being said, if you are suffering from severe anxiety (and depression) to the point you can not function in life; a prescription medication, such as an antidepressant could be an effective option.
A prescription medication can be used long enough to calm the mind and balance out our mood, allowing us to learn the techniques to deal with our anxiety effectively.
In addition to prescription meds, there are many herbs, amino acids and other supplements that act in the brain similarly to prescription drugs and can reduce many different anxiety issues and symptoms.
These herbs and supplements can provide a safer alternative to prescriptions drugs.
With a true chemical imbalance, we can become stuck in the fight-or-flight response where we remain constantly on guard. We may have a difficult time relaxing and constantly feel stressed, anxious and depressed until the imbalance is corrected by addressing the core causes.
While some people are against medications of any kind, we believe prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications have their place.
Many medications recommended by a physician can help significantly. For those with severe anxiety and depression, they can even be life-saving.
If you are considering taking medication for anxiety you should do your research. Look into the potential for addiction, side effects and withdrawals and discuss it with your doctor.
I've personally seen antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications make a huge difference in people's lives, but I've also witnessed (and experienced) nasty side effects, addiction and painful withdrawals that can accompany some of these drugs.
For an in-depth guide to medications check out our article on anxiety medications: The Profound Guide to Anxiety Medications: Everything You Should Know
If you're more interested in natural alternatives to medication you can check out the herbs and supplements we recommend for anxiety in this article: Herbs & Supplements for Anxiety: The Profound Guide
Always discuss your options with your doctor before taking anything new – even natural supplements like herbs and amino acids- especially if you are currently on prescription medications or have a medical illness – as these supplements could possibly interfere.
Diet & Nutrition
What we put into our bodies has a direct influence on how we feel.
Think about how you feel after eating something unhealthy – like gorging on a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream – compared to how you feel eating something healthy like a fruit and vegetable smoothie or organic yogurt.
One can leave you feeling satisfied, light and rejuvenated – while the other can make you feel lethargic, spaced out or irritable.
Now think about how often we tend to reach for the ice cream or the fast food in proportion to healthier options.
Diet and nutrition go beyond just eating sweets or fast food, however.
The number of unhealthy choices we make on a daily basis, along with overall health of our bodies and our body's ability to metabolize and digest food and nutrients also plays a large part in diet and nutrition.
There are many specific factors in our diets that directly affect our daily anxiety. These factors include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, stimulants like caffeine, sugar intake, food allergens (like gluten) and excitotoxins.
Our brains and bodies rely on a number of different vitamins, minerals and amino acids in order for us to function at our best.
For many people, the body effectively supplies these essential nutrients with the foods eaten on a daily basis.
However, if we have a poor diet, take certain prescription meds or have trouble absorbing the proper nutrients because of an illness or other issues, we may be lacking in some of these important nutrients.
Common nutrient deficiencies related to anxiety:
Sugar exacerbates symptoms of anxiety. Sugar also has a direct impact on our mood and weight, can increase the risk of diabetes and even make us less intelligent.
We can also experience increased feelings of nervousness, irritability and even brain fog from consuming too much sugar.
As our bodies work to stabilize blood sugar levels, we may experience these, and other, negative effects.
This is typically known as the crash from the famous “sugar high.”
High sugar consumption goes beyond just short term sugar crashes and blood sugar level spikes. Over time, sugar can reduce important vitamins and minerals in the body, increase inflammation and oxidative stress, and even cause plaques in the brain (abnormal protein fragments).
Over the long term; continually eating excessive amounts of sugar can lead to insulin resistance, also known as Prediabetes. This can lead to a buildup of glucose in the blood; eventually leading to Type 2 Diabetes.
It’s best to reduce refined sugars as much as possible – eliminating them completely is the best option.
While the obvious culprits can be easy to spot – there are over 50 different names for sugar in our foods. Which can make it more difficult to eliminate entirely.
Foods to Limit/Avoid: Refined Sugars
If the list above seems to cover a lot of what you consume on a daily basis you should have a better idea of how much sugar you are putting into your body every day. Cutting back on most or all of these foods can make a profound difference.
It’s not totally necessary to cut out all sugars, however; some natural sugars like Agave Nectar do not spike blood sugar levels as processed sugars do. Honey is also considered a sugar but can have positive health benefits when used in moderation.
Refined sugars have no benefit.
The point is to be aware of what you are consuming on a daily basis and try to cut out refined sugars as much as possible. Your brain and body will thank you!
Caffeine is a popular stimulant in coffee, tea and sodas. While many of us enjoy caffeine, it can make our anxiety worse.
Many of us are already overstimulated – consuming caffeine daily can be like pouring fuel on the fire.
Some people are especially sensitive to caffeine and other stimulants and lead to increased anxiety and panic attacks.
Stimulants, in general, should be approached with caution for those with anxiety – caffeine being the most commonly consumed stimulant.
Excessive caffeine consumption can cause anxiety, irritability, overstimulation, feelings of being “wired”, insomnia, high blood pressure and even addiction/physical dependence.
Caffeine is not necessarily bad, in fact, caffeine can have many positive benefits.
Potential benefits can include increased energy and focus, improved physical performance and even an improved mood.
The problem is consuming too much caffeine on a daily basis.
It may not be necessary to cut out caffeine entirely.
I personally enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning several times per week.
But if you are sensitive to caffeine or other stimulants or consuming a lot of caffeine daily, you may want to take a look at how much you are consuming.
If you are drinking coffee in the morning and then sodas (which also contain high amounts of sugars) all day long – you may try eliminating the sodas and not drinking any coffee after noon.
In addition; we should all try to avoid drinking caffeine within 6-8 hours of going to bed, as it can – and will – interfere with sleep.
You could also try taking a break from caffeine completely.
Take a week or two off and see how you feel. If you're a daily coffee drinker you may notice you feel more tired at first but typically these feelings will pass in a few days.
You may find you feel better without it.
You may have already known that sugar, caffeine and nutritional deficiencies can all be possible causes of anxiety. But what about excitotoxins?
Excitotoxins are chemicals that overstimulate our brains and nervous systems (our neuron receptors). These overstimulated neurons essentially “burn” themselves out leading to all sorts of health-related problems.
The 2 most common excitotoxins are MSG and aspartame. These additives are found in many of the foods we eat every day.
While small amounts of these food additives are relatively harmless, the constant consumption of these toxins in large quantities can lead to overstimulation.
The result can be anxiety, depression, migraines and a whole host of other negative health effects.
It believed that constant consumption of these excitotoxins may even play a part in more severe diseases like Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis.
Common foods that contain the excitotoxins MSG and Aspartame:
Given the havoc these additives can reap on our brains and bodies – avoiding these excitotoxins as much as possible would be wise.
Many of us can be more sensitive to these additives than others – and we may not even know it. Which is an even greater reason to limit our consumption.
We can all agree that artificial sweeteners, processed foods and fast food are not healthy food options in the first place. If we can establish good eating habits we will eliminate most of these unhealthy foods from our diets and reduce the amount of these additives we consume on a daily basis.
Environmental Toxins & Heavy Metal Toxicity
Whether we realize it or not – we are all exposed to a large variety of toxins on a daily basis.
As part of living in an industrialized world – these toxins can be found in our soil, water supplies and even the air.
The level of these toxins is generally minimal and there are guidelines in place in most countries to keep these toxins out of our food and water – or at least reduced to a non-harmful degree. (Even if these guidelines are somewhat flawed or limited in many areas).
Our bodies are also master filters. There are numerous ways our bodies eliminate harmful toxins and other substances.
We run into problems when our bodies aren’t eliminating these toxins properly, we consume high amounts through certain foods or water supplies, or we are exposed to these toxins directly – such as through work, accident, ingestion or exposure in our homes.
If we experience toxicity – there can be any number of symptoms with a wide range of severity.
Many of the symptoms related to toxicity are neurological in nature as most toxins have a direct effect on the brain and central nervous system.
Common symptoms of neurological impairment due to toxicity includes – anxiety and panic attacks, restlessness, irritability, depression, “brain fog” and insomnia.
Due to the nature of toxicity – it may be difficult to diagnose – as toxicity can mimic many diseases that affect the nervous system. It can also be difficult to uncover through standard testing.
Common Toxins That Can Lead to Toxicity:
Copper: although copper is an essential nutrient, high levels are toxic and can lead to many psychiatric conditions including: high levels of anxiety, ADHD, bouts of anger and depression; copper has even been linked to schizophrenia; copper can be found in supplements, copper pipes, oral contraceptives and cookware as well as many other sources
Lead: not as commonly used as it once was (lead was banned in the U.S. for consumer use in the late 1970s), lead can still be found in industrial paints, car batteries, contaminated water supplies or pipes, herbal supplements, and some plastics; common symptoms of high levels of lead include developmental and neurological issues, nervous system and organ damage and many cognitive problems such as irritability, hyperactivity and anxiety; lead toxicity is especially dangerous for children;
Mercury: toxic to the human nervous system, mercury can find it's way into the brain, organs and spinal cord – leading to a whole host of psychiatric and physical problems; commonly found in fluorescent lights and batteries; the real culprit for exposure in most people is through dental (amalgam) fillings – also referred to as “silver fillings” – and high consumption of certain fish (such as tuna, swordfish and mackerel); mercury gases are also released into the air from coal-burning plants
Weedkillers (Glyphosate Herbicides): ingestion or direct contact with skin can lead to a whole host of problems, including cancer and various neurological disorders
Fluoride: although common and typically accepted as safe, fluoride is a neurotoxin that has been linked to brain fog, anxiety, memory loss and other negative neurological effects; it is commonly found in city drinking water and dental products such as mouthwash and toothpaste
Mold: found in damp/humid homes, basements and buildings where there has been a leak or flood; breathing mold (especially on a daily basis) can negatively impact your health in a vast number of ways including cognitive, emotional and physical issues
Aluminum: found virtually everywhere in our environment including city water supplies, deodorants and baking powders; although toxicity is not extremely common, those with poor kidney function or constant exposure to high levels of aluminum may accumulate aluminum in the brain and body leading to toxicity and resulting symptoms
Iron: another essential nutrient that can be toxic, iron toxicity is usually associated with children but can occur with anyone who has unhealthy levels of iron in their blood; causes of high levels of iron include disease, poor elimination, supplementation, direct exposure or ingestion or diet; iron toxicity can cause many problems in the brain and body
Pesticides (Organophosphates): long term exposure to even low amounts of organophosphate pesticides/insecticides have been shown to produce neuropsychiatric and neurological disorders in those exposed; this includes directly related increases in anxiety and other psychiatric problems; those with the highest risk are farmers
The list above is far from a definitive list of all the possible toxins we may encounter. However, it provides a solid overview of the most common ones that are most likely to lead to negative effects on our brains and bodies.
In addition to the toxins above – many of our essential nutrients can be toxic when we have way too much in our bodies.
These include Zinc, Vitamin A, selenium, copper (as mentioned above) and other vitamins. This can be the result of supplementation, diet or the body's inability to remove excess properly.
Effects of Toxins on the Brain and Body
Toxins have a direct effect on the brain and nervous system. Symptoms can vary based on the individual exposed, amount of exposure or the toxin encountered. The result is always a negative impact on our brains, bodies and nervous systems.
Symptoms of Toxicity:
- Aches and Pains – joint pain, headaches, migraines
- Neurological Disorders
- Brain Fog
- Mood Disorders
- Respiratory Problems
- Other Severe Health Issues – cancer, kidney problems, liver problems
Who's at Risk?
Our bodies do a great job of flushing out toxins but there are those who are at greater risk of toxicity
While it's not necessary to walk around paranoid about everything you touch, you should know the risks involved when handling certain chemicals or being in certain environments.
Always take the proper precautions whenever necessary.
If you have been exposed to these (or other) toxins, either in the distant past or recently and have been suffering from any of the above symptoms talk to your doctor. They can provide advice, tests and/or treatment if necessary.
Please know, this information is not meant to scare you. Most of us will not become exposed to these toxins to the degree that we develop toxicity. However, it is important to be informed if you have been exposed or you handle, work with or live with any of these toxins or have issues detoxifying due to liver or kidney problems.
Although rare, toxicity is a rarely discussed biological cause of anxiety. We've provided this information to bring this topic to greater awareness.
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Health-Related Issues: Injury, Illness and Disease
Our biological health plays an essential role in our psychological health. Injury, illness and/or disease can profoundly affect our mental state and can cause anxiety as well as many other psychological conditions.
When we are injured (especially with head trauma) our brains and bodies may not function properly until the injury is corrected or our bodies can recover.
If we suffer from an illness, disease or have an underlying infection, any number of our mind/body systems may be affected; causing imbalance or overcompensation in one system at the expense of the other.
Having any disease, injury or illness can make feel anxious, afraid and feed our worry. We may begin to worry about our recovery or future health.
But what we are discussing here are health issues that have been directly linked to causing anxiety symptoms – not anxiety/worry as our reaction to the illness.
Health issues that cause anxiety generally have a direct effect on the key systems we've been discussing. These include neurotransmitters and brain function, nervous system function, and hormones.
Always discuss any health-related issues with your doctor. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Chronic Inflammation (Brain, Gut and General Inflammation)
Inflammation is at the core of almost every chronic health condition.
There is also a well-known link between inflammation and anxiety as well as depression.
Recent research has repeatedly shown the link between brain inflammation and everything from anxiety and depression to autism and schizophrenia.
Over time – chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on our immune system, alter our brain chemicals and hormones, negatively affect our internal organs and damage the tissue and cells of our body.
Gut inflammation has also been linked to anxiety and much of the evidence suggests that most of our inflammation may actually begin in the gut.
The gut is generally the first line of defense as many of the toxins and bacteria we encounter enter the gut through the foods we eat. Much of what we consume – or don’t consume enough – has a direct impact on our inflammation levels.
Causes of Chronic Inflammation:
- Diet: caffeine, alcohol, food allergens (such as dairy or gluten), processed foods, refined sugars; see above
- Toxins: see above
- Nutritional Deficiencies: see above
- Bacteria and/or Infection
- Chronic Stress
- Underlying Disease
- Poor Sleep Habits: see below
Short term options for inflammation can include NSAIDs (Advil, naproxen, etc.), Turmeric/Curcumin or Fish Oil supplements.
While treating the inflammation directly is a good strategy in the short term – the goal should be uncovering the underlying cause of the inflammation. Treat the cause not just the symptom.
If you suspect chronic inflammation to be an issue – discuss it with your doctor. They can order blood tests – such as the C-Reactive Protein (CRP) test – to check inflammation levels.
Your doctor can also perform other tests/procedures to rule out any underlying disease, infections or illness.
There has been a long-established link between thyroid issues and anxiety and depression.
Many people whose anxiety stems from abnormal thyroid function may find their anxiety and nervousness greatly reduced or even eliminated once they correct this problem.
Not everyone with abnormal thyroid function experiences anxiety or depression as a direct result.
Some people may have little to no symptoms at all.
Others may experience severe physical, emotional and psychological symptoms that are reversed or eliminated once the thyroid has returned to normal functioning.
There are 2 major thyroid issues: Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) and Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Hyperthyroidism: caused when the thyroid produces more thyroid hormone than the body needs; can speed up the body's metabolism; those with Hyperthyroidism – or Graves Disease – may constantly feel “revved up” and typically suffer from anxiety, nervousness, irritability, insomnia, weight loss and restlessness; an overactive thyroid is more commonly associated with anxiety and panic attacks than an underactive thyroid
Hypothyroidism: caused when the thyroid is unable to produce enough thyroid hormone; can drastically slow the body's metabolism; those with Hypothyroidism – or Hashimoto's Disease – can feel slow or sluggish and can suffer from depression, weight gain, fatigue and muscle weakness.
Despite the general classifications – anxiety can be found in both Hyperthyroidism and Hypothyroidism. Depression can be found in both forms as well. Neither is exclusive to one or the other.
However, anxiety – especially moderate to severe anxiety and panic attacks – is much more commonly found in Hyperthyroidism.
This tends to make sense as the body, brain and metabolism are in constant high gear as the thyroid continues to pump out excess thyroid hormone.
It should go without saying: everyone should have their thyroid checked as a matter of personal health and preventative care.
Your doctor can order blood tests that can check the levels of your thyroid hormones.
The gut and the digestive system have recently come to the forefront in medical research as researchers have linked poor gut health and infections with numerous mental and physical diseases.
We commonly refer to our guts as our “second brain.”
The gut controls the enteric nervous system which contains more neurons than our spinal cords and can control gut behavior independent of the brain.
Our guts also communicate directly with our brains.
Disruption in their communication can directly affect our psychological and emotional health.
Neurotransmitters are also present in our guts. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels.
If you’ve visited any health websites in the past few years you’ve probably seen a lot of discussion around gut health.
Popular topics include leaky gut, probiotics and infections such as Candida.
Recent research and a better understanding of the role the gut plays in all of our bodily processes have placed the gut center stage in many of our illnesses.
Research has now linked a poor gut microbiome (the healthy/unhealthy bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in our guts) with autoimmune diseases, mental health disorders, skin conditions and many other issues.
We shouldn’t ignore this important link between the gut and mental health. A healthy gut is vital to an overall healthy mind and body.
We will dive into gut health and leaky gut in a future article as this is a deep topic we can’t cover in-depth here.
Hormones can have a direct impact on our mood and mental health.
The 3 major hormones Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone can cause anxiety and depression when out of balance.
A hormonal imbalance can often be an overlooked biological cause of anxiety.
Estrogen & Progesterone Imbalance
Estrogen and progesterone levels in the body – have a direct effect on a woman’s mood and psychological state (although they could potentially affect men as well).
Researchers are still studying the relationship between estrogen/progesterone levels and anxiety in women but there are direct correlations so far.
- Low Estrogen levels have been associated with an increase in anxiety symptoms in women: during the premenstrual period of a woman’s monthly cycle – estrogen levels are lower and an increase of anxiety is commonly reported during this time. Estrogen levels are also much lower during menopause and can cause increases in anxiety and panic attacks.
- Estrogen dominance refers to an imbalance in estrogen vs progesterone in women. Research has shown a direct correlation between this imbalance and increased anxiety. Progesterone has a direct effect on GABA receptors in the brain – which calms the brain and body. With low levels of progesterone – the brain may produce less GABA, resulting in increased feelings of anxiety.
For women – estrogen and progesterone imbalances can lead to increases in anxiety – as well as other mood-related problems.
If you are approaching menopause, have reached menopause or have noticed changes in your monthly cycle, your hormones may be a contributing factor to your anxiety.
If you believe estrogen to play a role in your anxiety, consult your doctor to discuss options and testing.
Testosterone is typically associated with a man's sex drive and muscle mass but testosterone also has a direct effect on a man's mood, cognition and energy levels.
Low levels of testosterone have been linked to both increased anxiety and depression – as well as changes in mood and behavior, decreased motivation and lower sex drive.
Although not as often discussed as the link between estrogen and anxiety – low testosterone levels can play a part in anxiety symptoms. Especially if low testosterone is caused by an underlying disease or illness.
It should be noted; testosterone imbalances are not specific to men nor are estrogen imbalances specific to women. Everyone has these hormones regardless of sex. Everyone needs these hormones to varying degrees.
While imbalances in either direction may or may not result in anxiety – it can often lead to mood, motivation or sexual health issues.
Our brains are sensitive organs with a complex network of billions of nerve cells – protected only by the bones of our skulls.
Any kind of force or trauma to the head can cause short term or long term damage to our brains.
Head trauma or injury can directly affect our brains in unseen ways.
Head injuries – even so-called “minor” injuries – can lead to cognitive, psychological and emotional problems, in addition to the obvious physical injury.
Head trauma has been associated with increased susceptibility to anxiety and depression, cognitive issues, increased risk of suicide, short term or long term memory loss, coordination issues and dementia.
Many symptoms of head trauma may not exhibit themselves until years or even decades after the initial injury.
This can make it difficult to diagnose head injury as a cause for psychological problems if issues do not appear soon after the injury.
Those who have experienced a head injury – ranging from concussions to skull fractures – are up to 400% more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness down the line. The potential for cognitive or psychological problems will only increase with repeated trauma or injury to the head.
Childhood head injury can lead to brain and behavior problems later in adult life.
These problems can be more pronounced if the injury was severe or if it wasn’t handled properly by parents or guardians (such as getting an MRI or other medical care directly after the injury).
Luckily – with better information, improved protective equipment and medical technology – there is much more we can do to prevent and treat head trauma than even a few decades ago.
There has been a marked rise in awareness of the potential for psychological problems from head trauma in the past few years.
CTE (which stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) has stood at the forefront recently with the problems current and former NFL players have faced with their psychological and emotional health after years of repeated head injuries.
The good news is – despite the sensitivity of the brain, it can be healed and repaired in many cases if handled properly. Brain cells and neurons have been proven to regenerate, but some injuries may need additional support and time to heal.
If you or someone you know have experienced moderate to severe head trauma or repeated injury to the head always seek medical attention immediately.
Always enforce the use of helmets with children when biking, rollerskating, skateboarding, etc.
Although an unpopular opinion; I always suggest children avoid or limit full-contact sports where a direct head injury frequently occurs; such as football, soccer or hockey.
CTE has been shown in football players as young as 14.
If you believe a head injury to be linked to your anxiety or to other psychological problems, always discuss it with your doctor.
Doctors can order MRIs or CT scans to rule out the potential damage to the brain.
Additional Health-Related Causes
Although there are other health-related issues linked to anxiety – it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss every possible disease or illness. It is also beyond the scope of this article to discuss severe illnesses such as brain tumors or cancer.
For informational purposes, we have created a shortlist of additional health causes linked to anxiety
- Neurological Disorders: there are too many neurological disorders to list here (well over 400), but two of the most common associated with anxiety are Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's disease.
- Cancer: cancer as well as the treatments for cancer can release inflammatory cytokines that can disrupt the brain's neurotransmitters; anxiety can also be a side effect of chemo and cancer medications
- Autoimmune Diseases: those with autoimmune diseases have a much higher rate of daily, long-term anxiety; this is most likely due to chronic inflammation in the brain and body and overactive immune system function
- Infectious Diseases: many viral and bacterial infections have been known to cause or increase anxiety and psychological distress including: Lyme Disease, gut infections (such as Candida), some STDs and other infectious diseases that can increase inflammation, disrupt neurotransmitters and immune system function
Genetics & Anxiety
It is believed genetics can play a role in our anxiety – especially if anxiety manifests in childhood, teenage or early adult years.
While research continues on hereditary anxiety, there seems to be a direct link between family members that suffer from anxiety, depression and other issues.
One common theory in the research today – and probably one of the most valid theories – is the inheritance of poor performing serotonin receptors. This would lead to naturally lower levels of serotonin in the brain, making the person more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
I would suggest that inheriting poor functioning GABA receptors or an overactive amygdala may also be a common issue.
There is a common argument between; genetics inherited from the parents that predispose us to anxiety; and inheriting anxious behaviors and beliefs from our parents (or caregivers) from living in the same environment.
I believe this argument goes both ways.
Psychological factors in addition to biological factors can influence our predisposition to anxiety as we are greatly influenced by those around us – especially our parents or caregivers.
If we grow up in a home with a severely anxious parent or parents – we may grow up around and witness avoidance behaviors, fear-based decisions and reactions and a tendency for the parent to talk about worries, fears and anxieties.
As children, we tend to model our parents and take in their emotions and behaviors unconsciously.
This constant early exposure to anxiety can lead us to become more anxious and fearful than we would be if we grew up in a home without the excess anxieties.
For me, there is a clear line of anxiety in my family tree – not just my immediate family but throughout my extended family as well.
Along with anxiety; excessive stress, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, depression, and prescription antidepressant and anti-anxiety use run in my family as well.
My household was filled with constant anxiety, fears, avoidance behaviors and worry and I developed severe anxiety at an early age.
Whether I inherited a predisposition to anxiety from my genetics, or if it stems from my early home environment is difficult to say, but it’s probably safe to guess that both of these played a large part in my early anxiety.
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter at this point as I have made the necessary changes and developed the necessary skills that have made anxiety a non-issue for me.
I believe anyone can do this regardless of genetics or upbringing.
If anxiety runs in your family or you grew up in an anxious household – that doesn’t mean you are doomed to anxiety. It simply means you may be more susceptible to anxiety.
If this is the case you simply need to take better care of your mental, physical and emotional health.
We can all make positive changes in our lives to improve our overall health – such as correcting many of the biological issues discussed in this article.
Sleep: Poor Sleep Habits
Getting a good night's sleep every night is essential for our overall mental, emotional and physical health.
When I say “a good night's sleep,” I mean 7-8 hours of deep uninterrupted sleep. Not 5-6 hours of sleep and a nap in the middle of the day. And not 7-8 hours of light sleep, tossing and turning or waking up in the middle of the night.
It's the deep, restorative, later stages of sleep that is essential to our overall health.
During the deepest stages of sleep (officially known as N3), our blood pressure drops, muscles become relaxed, tissue growth and repair occurs, energy levels are restored, essential hormones are released (such as Growth hormone), and other healing and restorative actions take place.
For those of us with anxiety; getting 8 hours of deep, uninterrupted, restorative sleep every night is probably more of a dream than reality.
We often never reach these deeper stages of sleep on a consistent basis.
This eventually catches up with us; creating neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain, mood disturbances and cognitive impairment.
This can start a vicious cycle. Anxiety can cause sleep deprivation, insomnia and sleep disturbance – sleep deprivation, insomnia and sleep disturbance can cause anxiety.
Ignore those who say 6 hours of sleep every night is fine.
If your not regularly getting 7-8 hours of deep sleep every night, it is taking a toll on your mental and emotional health and is likely contributing to your anxiety.
As important as sleep is to our mental health, most of us completely ignore the importance of a getting a good night's sleep every night.
We often never consider the possibility of improving our sleep as a way to reduce anxiety.
Sleep is vital to our health and is the one thing we could all probably use more of.
We have an in-depth article on sleep and how to improve your sleep, coming soon.
Taking proper care of our health is essential, not only for our bodies, but for our minds as well.
Psychological therapies and practices will only go so far to curb our anxiety if there is an underlying biological cause for our anxiety.
That is why this article is so important for properly taking care of our anxiety.
This is a piece of the puzzle that many self-help blogs and websites completely ignore.
No amount of Cognitive Therapy, positive thinking or meditation will eliminate our anxiety completely if our brains and bodies are going haywire from biological causes that need our attention.
If we are healthy overall – there are still things that we can do to reduce our anxiety and ensure we stay healthy.
Such as improving our diet, reducing our intake of refined sugars and caffeine, improving our sleep and scheduling routine tests and preventative care with our physician – especially as we get older.
Our brains and bodies are truly incredible.
When they are functioning at their best we can feel light, alive, energetic and present.
Our lives can flow naturally without excessive thoughts about our mental or physical health.
When these parts of ourselves develop issues – we may experience symptoms until we correct the underlying problem(s).
In many cases eliminating or correcting the problem can profoundly improve or even eliminate our anxiety entirely.
These are causes of anxiety beyond stress or having a “negative” psychological outlook.
Hopefully, with this article, we have helped to foster a deeper understanding of anxiety and the mind-body connection.
If you're interested in reading about the psychological causes of anxiety, check out part one of this series: Psychological Causes of Anxiety: Root Causes of Anxiety Part 1
- Clinical Advisor: Separating Anxiety From Physical Illness
- Healthline: 9 Side Effects of Too Much Caffeine
- Amy Meyers MD: 7 Underlying Health Problems That Could Be Causing Your Anxiety
- Today: 11 Surprising Causes of Anxiety
- Psychiatric Times: Mood and Anxiety Disorders Following Traumatic Brain Injury
- Harvard Health Publishing: Understanding the Stress Response
- Scientific American: How the Gut's “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being
- Science Nordic: Head Injury Can Cause Mental Illness
- Oxford Academic: Neuropsychiatric Evaluation in Subjects Chronically Exposed to Organophosphate Pesticides
- NCCN: Mood Changes Associated With Cancer Treatment
- Talk Space: Is Anxiety Genetic?
- Harvard Gazette: Estrogen and Female Anxiety
- NCBI: Genetics of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Related Traits
- Dr. Axe: Dangers of Heavy Metals & How to Do a Heavy Metal Detox
- The Atlantic: The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains
- Healthy Child: Excitotoxins, Neurodegeneration and Neurodevelopment
- NORD: Heavy Metal Poisoning
- Healthline: Your Anxiety Loves Sugar
- MD Edge: Identifying Hyperthyroidism's Psychiatric Presentations
- Fast Company: How Giving Up Refined Sugar Changed My Brain
- Holtorf Medical Group: Anxiety, Panic and Your Thyroid
- Psychology Today: Copper Toxicity: A Common Cause of Psychiatric Symptoms
- Science Direct: Inflammation In Anxiety
- Experience Life: Excitotoxins
- NCBI: Anxiety and Depression – Linkages with Viral Diseases
- NCBI: Estrogen Receptors Modulation of Anxiety-Like Behavior
- Amy Myers MD: 8 Nutrient Deficiencies Linked to Mood Imbalances
- Cleveland Clinic: Is a Hidden Medical Condition Causing Your Anxiety?
- Atlas of Science: Highlighting Inflammatory Markers in Anxiety Disorders
- Sleep Foundation: What Happens When You Sleep?