Anxiety and Its Various Causes

Anxiety.  It’s showing up in news headlines daily, and I’m seeing more people in the clinic recently where anxiety is their primary concern, so I thought I’d provide some insights on underlying causes.

I am no stranger to anxiety.  It showed up for me when I worked in consulting.  I flew out at 7am each Monday to work on-site with my client, then flew back home late on Thursday and worked from home on Friday.  I racked up enough frequent flyer miles in a year to fly a family of 4 to Europe and back for free.  Up at 3am to catch a 7am flight, work until 6 or 7 or 10pm daily and projects always seemed to be fire drills, everything was due yesterday.  Demanding and chaotic.  It was an exhausting life.  This way of living drains the adrenals.  Add a little, or let’s be honest, a hearty dose of caffeine to the mix and you’re taxing your adrenals pretty heavily. 

In Chinese Medicine our general health and energy come from two sources: the kidneys (and adrenal glands) and our spleen and stomach (digestive function).  Kidney/adrenal health relates to our constitutional health meaning what we were born with and our general robustness, while digestive health impacts our day-to-day life and is greatly influenced by how well our digestion functions and what we eat.  Poor digestive function steals from our constitutional health while healthy digestive function preserves and even adds to our constitutional health.

So, let’s look at some of the primary contributors to anxiety.

Adrenal Insufficiency

A lifestyle of constant going, doing, and being “on” all the time, leads to adrenal insufficiency.  In Chinese Medicine, this drains your constitutional health and makes you less robust and less capable of handling the common stresses of life.  Common signs and symptoms include: easily feeling overwhelmed, easily startled, anxiety, long time to recover from routine illness, dizzy upon standing, sweating or wetness on hands when nervous, thin and/or dry skin, brown spots on the face, chemical sensitivity, exercise intolerance.

In Chinese Medicine, the Kidneys/adrenals are correlated with the emotion of fear, so it’s easy to understand how depleted adrenal function can result in anxiety.

In the clinic, I use an electro-acupuncture protocol called the beach treatment that helps the body relax and the adrenal glands to rest.  Many patients have seen significant improvement with this treatment.  Based on a person’s specific symptoms, there are also herbs and supplements that support recovery.

Poor Digestive Function

Many people suffer from acid reflux and are prescribed proton pump inhibitors to reduce stomach acid.  However, the more common reason for acid reflux is not too much stomach acid, but too little.  Weak stomach acid fails to trigger the signal from the lower stomach valve (pyloric sphincter) to close the upper stomach valve (cardiac sphincter) when food is digesting, and acid escapes up the esophagus. 

You require ample acid to properly digest food.  Without enough stomach acid, the proteins you eat fail to get broken down into amino acids.  Partially digested proteins get passed into the small intestine and absorbed into the blood.  Your body sees these proteins as invaders like a virus or bacteria and creates antibodies to attack them.  So, 30 or 40 minutes after you eat it’s like having a mini flu as your body attacks the invading proteins.  This is why some people feel tired after eating.

To create stomach acid, your body requires iodine, zinc, thiamine, water, salt, and carbon dioxide.  Most Americans do not have adequate iodine or zinc.  Interestingly low stomach acid also keeps you from being able to absorb zinc.  Nice little Catch 22: you need zinc to create stomach acid, and low acid doesn’t let you absorb zinc.  The reason we care about zinc is that inadequate levels of are correlated with anxiety and panic attacks.

So, how do you fix this problem?  Take iodine, zinc and thiamine so you can start making adequate stomach acid again.  While those deficiencies are being corrected, take Betaine HCl before each meal to support the stomach’s need for adequate acid to properly digest food. 

Blood Deficiency

Early in my practice, I had a patient who was taking an anticoagulant (Eliquis) for clotting issues and an SSRI for depression.  After several months on these drugs she developed rather pronounced anxiety.  She also had insomnia, fatigue, severe dizziness, and the most pale face, nails and tongue I’d ever seen.  All of these symptoms lead me to diagnose blood deficiency which is not just a lack of red blood cells like anemia, but a deficiency in plasma fluids which is noticeable when feeling pulses.

It seems that the blood thinner and SSRI, both of which carry a risk of bleeding, did lead to a GI bleed that caused anemia and resulted in her anxiety.

There is a well-known herbal formula called Gui Pi Tang that helps resolve blood deficiency and has relieved anxiety for my patients with blood deficiency.


In Chinese Medicine dehydration is called yin deficiency and is diagnosed by red cheeks, a red tongue with very little coat, and a sensation of heat in the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and in the chest, sometimes there are also hot flashes or night sweats.  When our bodies don’t have ample fluids to regulate our internal temperature, we overheat, just like an engine when there isn’t enough fluid in the radiator.  When our body fluids are low, our blood fluids are low and that can result in the heart working harder to circulate blood causing heart palpitations.

Again, there is very well-known formula called Liu Wei Di Huang Wan which is commonly prescribed for yin deficiency.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, schedule a discovery call to see how acupuncture can help your specific situation.

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