Thursday, 4 July 2013

Working Through ADHD & Anxiety with Nutrition

Welcome!  This post kicks off my Love Plants for Life Nutrition Blog, and I'm so happy to finally share this with you.  We're jumping right in with a topic that hits home for me: ADHD and anxiety.

My experience with ADHD and anxiety began in university when I was studying for my Bachelor of Music degree in piano.  I’d started noticing that I had trouble focusing in my classes, was quite restless, and frequently had trouble with working on assignments to the point where I would frantically try to pull them together the night before they were due; and that going onstage for graded recitals petrified me to the point that it really affected the quality of my performances.   These last items, since if they continued to affect my grades it could result in me getting kicked out of my program, prompted me to see my campus psychiatrist, following the suggestion of a close friend who had a longstanding diagnosis of ADHD.

I’ve always been considered an introvert – “quiet”, “shy”, and “withdrawn” are all words commonly used to describe me.  My acute anxiety (stage fright) symptoms include, but are not limited to: muscle tremors (my hands would shake so much that it affected my playing), gastrointestinal disturbances (indigestion, nausea, needing to go to the bathroom often), chills and cold extremities, heart palpitations… all of these usually starting first thing in the morning on the day of a performance, regardless of when it was scheduled during the day. 

Now, when the psychiatrist diagnosed (along with ADHD) social anxiety disorder, I was given a medication – a beta-blocker, usually for high blood pressure – to take half an hour before my performance.  And it did help, but rather than feel the weight of importance on a given performance, I felt pretty much the opposite – detached, that I was phoning it in, that the quality of this performance was inconsequential.  In a way, I almost preferred the anxiety, because at least it connected me physically to the performance.  That said, I’ve since found ways to better cope with anxiety. 

It took several years, until I started studying nutrition, to learn that following an Ayurvedic approach helps with both ADHD and anxiety.  In a nutshell, Ayurveda considers body and mind constitutions in terms of doshas.  The doshas represent Air (Vata), Fire (Pitta), and Earth (Kapha).  ADHD and anxiety are both considered Vata disorders.  It’s a state of being unsettled or chaotic, full of movement – like air currents.  A way to counter this is by eating foods that are considered Kapha – grounding.  This includes roots, fats, oils, proteins, warm and warming foods and spices.  It happens that building a diet around these foods at each meal and snack provides macronutrient balance, with complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats, and eating this way can help keep blood sugars stable.  Blood sugar imbalance can exacerbate anxiety symptoms, contribute to excess energy or restlessness, and disrupt concentration.  Keeping cold, dry, brittle, and raw foods to a minimum, as well as stimulants like caffeine, is also helpful.  Herbal teas such as chamomile, lavender, and rooibos can be calming as well.

On top of that, using adaptogenic herbs and foods can be very helpful for keeping the stress response and physical symptoms of anxiety down.  An adaptogen helps the body adapt to stress.  Herbs like rhodiola, ashwagandha, and maca; calming herbs like lavender and chamomile; carminative herbs like ginger, for reducing nausea and GI upset; vitamins C and B5 and magnesium can also be helpful to calm anxiety.  A formula I like is AOR Ortho-Adapt Vegan, which is a combination of some of these herbs and nutrients, as well as licorice and ginseng.  There’s also a non-vegan version that contains the addition of porcine adrenal tissue and cortex.  As with any herbal supplement, I strongly caution you to read the labels for contraindications and if you’re not sure, consult with your nutritionist, naturopath, or herbalist before taking them.  Discuss duration of usage as well, since many of these supplements are not meant to be taken long-term.

Homeopathic remedies like gelsemium may be helpful as well, and are usually not contraindicated with medications.  Bach flower remedies may also be useful.

Deep breathing, including an alternate nostril exercise helps, too.  To do this, block the right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril.  Close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right.  Repeat, breathing in through the right and exhaling through the left.  Repeat the series a few times to help calm your nervous system.  Additional breathing through the left nostril only can help further calm you down.  Combining breathing exercises with a gentle exercise routine, like yoga or tai-chi, can also be helpful to bringing the stress response under control.

Additionally, something I learned as I was preparing for my final oral exam in nutrition school, reciting positive affirmations or phrases to myself consistently and often, especially in the time leading up to the event, helps to keep hold of a calm state of mind.  I was able to literally talk myself out of being anxious.  Telling myself over and over again that I am calm, confident, that I know this, really helped, and I definitely encourage this practice of mental preparation.  A book I read at the time, and that I found helpful, is Shakti Gawain's Creative Visualization.  Using these techniques regularly can also help you uncover and release the root cause of your anxiety.  

Following this approach to balancing my ADHD and anxiety symptoms has really helped me become more focused and confident in my everyday life, as well as helping me get up in front of people to produce nutrition workshops, so that I can do what I love to do – teach people about the value of taking control of their health.

The Love Plants for Life Nutrition Workshop Series is running Monday evenings in July and Thursday evenings in August.

Please be advised that this article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor or therapist.  Always consult with your medical and/or alternative healthcare professional prior to starting a new supplement to avoid contraindications with your condition or medications.

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