Panic attacks can be distressing for sufferers, and when severe can have debilitating effects on general well-being and quality of life. Now, new research suggests that panic attacks might substantially increase of risk of the most common killer of all ” heart disease. A study presented this month at a meeting held by the American Psychosomatic Society in California suggests that during panic attacks, blood supply to the heart muscle declines considerably. This condition, the medical term for which is ‘myocardial ischaemia’, may manifest as angina (heart pain), and may trigger a heart attack in susceptible individuals. It appears therefore that successfully controlling panic attacks may offer significant benefits for physical, as well as emotional, well-being. Conventional approaches to panic attacks are based on tranquilliser medication and mental approaches such as psychotherapy. However, panic attacks are very often amenable to a natural approach. Dietary changes, coupled with the use of natural agents, are very often successful in controlling and even eliminating panic attacks and anxiety.
‘Panic attack’ is a term which is usually used to describe episodes of rapid, shallow breathing known as ‘hyperventilation’. Common symptoms of this include light-headedness, tingling in the hands and/or feet and a feeling of anxiety. One dietary component which appears to increase the risk of panic attacks is caffeine. In one study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that in panic attack sufferers, levels of anxiety and depression correlated well with their degree of caffeine consumption. What is more, this research showed that as little as one cup of coffee was enough to trigger symptoms in anxiety-prone individuals. I generally advise that individuals suffering from anxiety and/or panic attacks eliminate all sources of caffeine (e.g. coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks and chocolate) from their diets.
Another factor which commonly seems to trigger panic attacks is a low level of sugar in the bloodstream. When the blood sugar level gets lower than normal, the body secretes a hormone called adrenaline which tends to push blood sugar levels back up again. However, adrenaline also has powerful anxiety-inducing effects in the body. For this reason, it is important that blood sugar levels are kept as stable as possible in the blood stream. Regular meals should be eaten, and it often helps to eat healthy snacks such as raw (unroasted) nuts and fruit in-between meals too. The diet should be based around foods which give a sustained release of energy into the blood stream such as meat, fish, brown rice, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta and vegetables other than the potato. Certain nutrients can help to ensure blood sugar stability. These include the B vitamins (especially vitamin B3), chromium and magnesium. A B-complex supplement, with an additional 200-300 mg of magnesium and 200 ” 800 mcg of chromium each day can often help to stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.
Possibly the most widely used and effective remedy for panic and anxiety is the herb Kava kava (Piper methysticum). This herb contains substances known as kavalactones which have both anxiety reducing and muscle relaxant effects. Several studies demonstrate that Kava kava can be effective in reducing anxiety. Interestingly, the herb does not seem to impair mental function. This is in stark contrast to the main drugs which are used to treat anxiety such as diazepam (Valium) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium). While these may reduce anxiety, they are known to reduce clarity of thought and induce sleepiness. Another potential hazard of conventional medications is addiction, which has never been reported to be a problem at the usual recommended dosage (70 mg of kavalactones, three times a day). Kava kava is widely available in health food stores.
Please note: Kava kava is not recommended for use by pregnant or lactating women.