7 Underlying Health Problems that Could Be Causing Your Anxiety
October 3, 2018
by Amy Myers MD
Do you experience panic attacks, anxiety, depression, or overwhelm? And do these feelings seem to come out of nowhere, unrelated to life events or what’s going on around you? If so, it’s quite possible your anxiety is a symptom of an underlying health issue. From gut imbalances to thyroid dysfunction and even cardiovascular disease, anxiety is often the first sign that something deeper is going on in your body.
In fact, an article in Psychiatric Times lists over 47 medical illnesses that may initially present as anxiety or other mood imbalances.1 Treating patients with anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants could actually be masking what is going on underneath, and it’s only until the physical issues are addressed that the mental and emotional problems will resolve.
Fortunately, by getting to the physiological root of your mood issues, you can face what’s causing your symptoms head-on, regain emotional stability, and restore your sense of wellbeing.
The Brain-Body Connection
Many people forget that the brain is an organ, just as the heart, lungs, kidneys, and stomach are. There is no separation between our minds and our bodies; what’s going on with us physically affects our mental-state and vice versa.
The problem with conventional medicine is that most doctors are not trained to recognize emotional symptoms as being related to physical illness, and will either refer you to a psychiatrist or prescribe medications to mask your mood issues rather than finding and treating the underlying cause of your symptoms. Likewise, it’s doubtful a psychiatrist would diagnose your dizziness, fatigue, or racing heart as anything other than psychological distress.
Today, roughly one in six adults in the U.S. is on some form of psychiatric medication, compared to only one in fifty people just three decades ago.2,3Given the skyrocketing rates of autoimmunity, neurodegenerative disease, and cardiovascular issues in America over the last half century, it’s not out of the question that patients are being misdiagnosed and over-prescribed medications for mood issues, when in reality they could be suffering from a physical ailment.
With many physical ailments, early detection is key. Unfortunately, our current medical system treats the brain and body as separate entities, leading to missed diagnoses of chronic health issues that could have been prevented with some awareness of how the two are intrinsically linked. A study conducted at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that out of 30 patients with multiple sclerosis, three-fourths had a delay in diagnosis because they exhibited symptoms of major depression.4 That’s why if you’re experiencing anxiety or another mood disorder, it’s so crucial to get to the root cause in order to get a diagnosis early on.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common health problems that could be causing your anxiety, depression, or other mood issues, and what you can do to find relief from your symptoms.
1. Gut Infections or Imbalances
The gut isn’t called your “second brain” for nothing. Lining the walls of your gut is a mesh-like network of neurons that causes sensations such as “nervous butterflies” and “a pit in your stomach”–feelings that are an innate part of your psychological stress response. As many as 90% of these cells carry information to your brain rather than receiving messages from it, making your gut as influential–or even more influential–to your mood as your head is.5 Chances are, if you’re suffering from anxiety or other emotional distress, the answer lies in your gut. Here are some of the most common gut issues that may be behind your anxiety.
While there are many gut infections and conditions that play a role in mood imbalances, the number one cause I see in my clinic is Candida, or yeast overgrowth. Although you naturally have a small amount of Candida in your gut to aid in digestion and nutrient absorption, when the balance of good bacteria to yeast is disrupted from a round of antibiotics, a diet high in refined carbohydrates, excessive alcohol use, birth control, or chronic stress, the yeast is able to multiply unchecked. The Candida then coats the lining of your intestinal tract and suppresses your ability to produce or secrete serotonin, leading to anxiety, depression, and mood swings.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) occurs when healthy bacteria in your colon and large intestine overgrow and colonize the small intestine. This leads to nutrient malabsorption, which can present as weight gain, fluid retention, depression, and changes in mood. SIBO can also cause fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and IBS–all of which are linked to patients with anxiety.
To find out whether you might be dealing with SIBO, you can use this lactulose breath test from mylabsforlife.com. Thousands of my patients have successfully treated SIBO at home using Microb Clear™ and then restoring beneficial gut bacteria with a high-potency probiotic.
Gut infections such as Candida and SIBO–along with an inflammatory diet, toxins, and stress–have the power to break down your intestinal wall and cause leaky gut. Symptoms of a leaky gut include irritability, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, and depression. These symptoms are due in part to how a leaky gut interferes with nutrient absorption, specifically B vitamins, which are responsible for the production of neurotransmitters that help regulate mood.6
If you suspect leaky gut is behind your mood disorders, this article explains how to naturally repair your gut barrier, and my Leaky Gut Breakthrough Kit includes all the supplements you need to help seal a leaky gut!
Undiagnosed Food Sensitivities
The link between food and mood is undeniable, so there’s a chance your anxiety could be a sign of an undiagnosed food allergy or intolerance. A study conducted by The Journal of Biological Psychiatry showed how certain foods can create mental symptoms, including depression, nervousness, anger, loss of motivation, and brain fog. The main food culprits implicated in this study were gluten, dairy, sugar, and eggs. Other research showed that once problematic foods were removed from the diets of patients who suffered from lifelong depression, their depression completely resolved.7
Aside from removing the foods mentioned above (especially gluten and dairy, which no one should ever eat) you can try an elimination diet to determine your own personal food sensitivities to see if removing certain foods helps with your symptoms.
Anxiety can twist your stomach into knots and cause all sorts of digestive upset. However, it turns out that the opposite is true as well. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), characterized by abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea, can exacerbate anxiety and make you feel more anxious and depressed. That’s because the colon is partially controlled by the nervous system, which responds to stress signals. Most cases of IBS go undiagnosed, and an estimated 50-90% of those who do receive treatment for IBS also suffer from anxiety or another mood disorder.8
IBS can be caused by any of the above gut infections or imbalances and is also exacerbated by a high-stress lifestyle. To get to the root of your GI issues, take my Guide to the Gut eCourse!
2. Hashimoto’s or Other Thyroid Dysfunction
Depression has been found to be an early warning sign of thyroid disease, including Hashimoto’s and other forms of hypothyroidism. Meanwhile, hyperthyroidism (such as Graves’ disease) could be behind your anxiety. Thyroid hormone is responsible for creating and regulating a number of important neurotransmitters related to your mood, including GABA, serotonin, and norepinephrine.9 These neurotransmitters can get out of whack if your thyroid is not functioning properly, triggering anxiety and panic attacks. Low levels of these neurotransmitters are also linked to depression, fibromyalgia, negative thoughts, and low self-esteem.10
My book, The Thyroid Connection, walks you through how to get to the root of your thyroid dysfunction and get your life back.
3. Adrenal Fatigue
In my practice, I often see that Hashimoto’s and adrenal fatigue go hand-in-hand. Your adrenals are primarily responsible for managing your stress response. However, when you are under chronic stress (as many of us are in this nonstop modern lifestyle), you can develop adrenal fatigue, where your adrenals are no longer able to keep up with your stress levels and they produce insufficient amounts of stress hormones. Caffeine can also be a major drain on the adrenals, and can cause or worsen anxiety symptoms.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue can include:
- Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and depression
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Body aches and muscle pain
- Fatigue and difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
- Feeling “tired and wired”
- Low libido
So it’s no wonder this condition often gets misdiagnosed as “merely” a mood disorder! In addition to adopting stress-relieving strategies to cope with chronic stress, adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha, ginseng, and rhodiola can be particularly helpful for supporting the adrenal glands, a balanced stress response, and stress hormone production.
4. Estrogen Dominance
Just as when your thyroid and stress hormones get out of balance, sex hormone imbalances have a similar effect on your mood. Too much estrogen in your system is known as estrogen dominance. When you don’t have enough progesterone to balance out your estrogen–think PMS and perimenopause–you go into raging witch mode where you can’t control your emotions, which fluctuate wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other. Synthetic estrogens in particular (such as birth control and hormone replacement therapy) can cause both panic attacks and depression.
Estrogen dominance is due in part to the number of xenoestrogens we encounter daily in our modern lifestyle, including plastics, toxic beauty products, and heavy metals. Work on reducing your exposure to these synthetic estrogens while supporting your body’s natural ability to clear estrogens from your system to help restore optimal hormone balance.
5. Autoimmune Disorders
Chronic inflammation in your body can lead to autoimmunity, which may first manifest as a psychiatric problem. That’s because the inflammation responsible for autoimmune and other inflammatory disorders (including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and asthma) can also damage your brain and nervous tissues, leading to unexplained mood imbalances.11With neurodegenerative conditions in particular, such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis, anxiety and depression can emerge years before neurological signs become apparent.12
I have a number of resources that can help you pinpoint the underlying causes of autoimmunity and reverse your condition, including my books, The Autoimmune Solution and The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook, and my online course, The Autoimmune Solution Program.
6. Cardiovascular Disease
Roughly 5% of adults deal with generalized anxiety disorder. However, the incidence is much higher among those with coronary artery disease (11%) and heart failure (13%). It’s no coincidence then that panic attacks exhibit many of the same symptoms as heart attacks, including chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, and a racing or pounding heart.13 While it’s one of those “chicken or egg” scenarios, if you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety it’s important to closely monitor your blood pressure, cholesterol, and endothelial health to rule out any underlying cardiovascular issues, and make any necessary changes to your diet and lifestyle habits to help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
7. Toxic Mold or Mycotoxin Exposure
One of the most serious problems I encounter in my practice is mold toxicity, which can present as a myriad of psychiatric issues including anxiety, depression, brain fog, and insomnia, along with physical symptoms such as allergies, asthma, headaches, and chronic sinus infections.14 About 25% of the population is unable to effectively clear toxic mold from their systems (I’m one of them), and most people with toxic mold poisoning don’t even realize that mycotoxins are affecting them!
Allowed to build up, these mycotoxins can wreak havoc on your health long after exposure. I’ve personally suffered from toxic mold exposure on multiple occasions, and have been forced to move apartments and offices and get rid of the majority of my belongings because of how severely the exposure affected my health. If you’ve gone through the four pillars of The Myers Way® and your anxiety or depression have still not resolved, you might be dealing with a mold issue. I go over how to handle mold exposure in The Autoimmune Solution, and you can also check out my podcast episode on the subject.
Now that you’re aware of some of the main health problems that can cause anxiety, depression, and other mood imbalances, you can work on getting to the root of your emotional and mental distress. Repairing your gut, optimizing your diet, taming your toxic burden, healing your infections, and relieving your stress will help clear up many of the underlying issues you may be dealing with so you can figure out whether there is indeed a physical explanation for your symptoms. This is especially important if you have no family history of anxiety, you did not have anxiety as a child, and if your panic attacks seem to spring up out of nowhere. Remember: early detection is key, and a healthy body means a healthy brain!