Stress, anxiety and depression: your biology may be the missing link to recovery.

I see many cases of stress, anxiety and depression in my clinic, which is not surprising given that nearly half the adult population of Australia experiences a mental disorder at some time in their lives (45.5% according to the 2007 National Survey of Health and Wellbeing).  So, if you’re feeling alone and abnormal, take heart because the statistics show that you’re most definitely not!

It often starts slowly – the 50 million things that need to be done each day start to wear at you, eat at the edges.  You start losing your sense of humour, getting snappy with the people you love.  Soon you’re feeling a constant, low-grade tension.  You may start getting headaches, you’re exhausted from running about trying fulfill your idea of being a great wife, a great husband, a responsible employee, an awesome mum or dad.

And then, when you finally collapse into bed at night, you toss and turn, unable to switch off and relax.  The next day you’re even more tired, with less resources to draw on to stave off the growing swell of depression and anxiety.  And you worry. Constantly.  Mostly about how down you’re feeling.

If it gets bad enough, you go to your doctor and get anti-depressants.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get one that works for you and you’ll experience some relief – but even if you do, you know it’s just masking the symptoms, because you have to take them for the rest of your life.  If it was a proper cure, you could stop taking them once you felt better.

What if I was to say there could be a physical reason why you are stressed, anxious and depressed and it is not (just) to do with the neuro-receptors in your brain?  There are many people I have helped who still have their busy, impossible lives to lead but no longer feel stressed and anxious – and they even get a good nights’ sleep.

With clients such as these, stress, anxiety or depression is caused primarily by biological dysfunction, and when this is healed the problem goes away of it’s own accord.  For such clients, while measures such as counseling and changing their personal situation or environment can definitely help,  because their bodies are waging an internal biological battle, their relief is only temporary until the root physical cause is addressed. (Counseling, of course, is always a good thing even for people who are well, so we fully encourage it – however, understanding the biological aspect is another crucial dimension to the path to mental/emotional wellness).

Of course, many people experiencing anxiety or depression have had a major life event, or a number of minor ones, that has affected them psychologically and has compromised their ability to cope.   I am certainly not discounting the impact of these life experiences on a person’s mental state.  What I am saying is that for SOME individuals, addressing their biological processes is the key to relief, sometimes even more than addressing their psychological processes.

Even with people who are mentally unwell due to challenging life experiences, making sure their biology is in tip-top condition can give them the edge they need to cope and move forward with their lives.

From a biological point of view, the secret to permanently ridding yourself from stress, anxiety, depression, as well as getting more energy, lies in the heart, the adrenal glands and the gut.    Please be clear:  if you have optimum health in these areas, I am not saying you will never be unhappy.  However, when life throws you a lemon, you have the energetic reserves and mental clarity to turn it into lemonade, instead of collapsing in a depressed heap of lemon mush.

The physical factors that cause stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia

The heart is the key organ in the body.  We call it ‘key’ simply because if your heart stops then you die instantly.

If the heart is under stress then the body goes into an alert state.  This causes the body to send signals to the brain to alert it to the problem, and this in turn causes the body and brain to become anxious.  Switching off these signals to the brain (this is how anti-depressants work) may make you feel better, but it does not actually fix the underlying problem.

Depending on the severity of the situation, the adrenals may kick in with the ‘fight or flight response’ (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response). The fight or flight response causes the adrenals to secrete adrenaline and cortisol.  The adrenaline then stimulates the heart to pump the blood faster in order to get more blood and oxygen to the muscles and brain, and the cortisol binds to receptors in the liver, fat cells and pancreas, enabling more glucose to get to the muscles.  At the same time, cortisol acts on other systems of the body to send them into a temporary stasis – the immune system, reproduction, digestion and growth are all halted while the body puts all its available resources into survival.

The fight or flight response is very handy if you’re running from a paleolithic cave bear, or if you’re a soldier in a battle. However, it’s not always so great in the context of our modern day lives, where the causes of stress are often complex, ongoing and emotionally charged over a long period of time.  Nowadays, survival is not as straightforward as hunting and gathering and meeting the social expectations of your tribe.  To succeed in the modern world we have to get a good education, find a job, create a career, find a mate, juggle kids between just two adults and buy a house that many of us have to spend our lives paying off (and that’s before any unforseen stresses like illness, divorce, single-parenting or moving house).  Lacking a close-knit tribe, we take many of our social cues from what the media defines as ‘successful’ and socially acceptable.  This can create a constant disconnect between our life experience and our mental expectations of what we SHOULD be doing, and can add to the constant stress and worry.

The fight or flight response is designed to be used for a short time in cases of acute danger.  However, if the body is feeling constantly threatened (which can happen when the heart is subjected to the constant, extreme stresses of modern life), then the fight or flight response will be extended long-term.  Over time, this puts more stress on your heart, your body becomes depleted, your mind becomes over-active so you can’t sleep, and you simultaneously become fatigued.  Understandably, you feel on edge and highly anxious! Heart palpitations are also common if adrenaline is constantly coursing through your body.

Since cortisol inhibits some major systems of the body like your immune, reproductive and digestive systems, over-production of cortisol can have bad repercussions for these areas.  According to our biology, it’s only good sense – after all, it’s not a good idea to have a baby if there is danger around, or to stop for a snack. A breakdown of this biological chain reaction is outlined below (‘Steps on the Downward Spiral).

Treating adrenal stress

Ideally, adrenaline production in the body is switched off once the danger is past; however because of the nature of modern day stress, sometimes the body does not switch off the adrenaline when it should, due the constant stress on the heart.

Unfortunately, medical doctors don’t have an answer for this except to sedate you In some way.  Natural therapists are better equipped to help because they use herbal and nutritional support to help the body naturally turn down and then switch off the adrenaline production.  However, many natural therapists ignore the role the heart plays in the process.  Adrenal stress will keep returning as long as the heart continues to be subject to stress.

Why does the heart get stressed?

External Stress

The heart gets stressed when there is a decrease in the volume of blood available to it to function.  This seems a little counter-intuitive when we know that stress results in a faster pumping of the heart – wouldn’t that mean, therefore, that there is more blood available for the heart?  However, the heart is very intelligent – it knows that for IT to ultimately survive, the body that houses it must have every advantage to be able to either run or fight.  So, what actually occurs is that the smooth muscle of the arterial wall and the capillaries of the heart contract in order to push the blood out and send it to the brain and the limbs, where the blood is most needed in situations of danger.  The net result is that there is less blood available to the heart itself, resulting in a degree of stress on the heart.  The heart does this because the nature of stress when our bodies evolved was always short-term – a period of danger would be followed (if we survived) by a period of rest, where the arterial walls and the capillaries could relax and again be filled with the blood they need to function normally.

Really, our bodies are amazing, aren’t they?  What a wonderful biological system to have at hand if we’re faced with a sabre-toothed tiger or a gun-wielding murderer.  However, this incredible process does not work well in the presence of daily, constant stress.  Constant or regular contraction of the arterial walls and capillaries results in a chronic situation where the heart is never getting the volume of blood it needs to operate optimally.  Understandably, this constant ‘heart stress’ can damage the heart.  Even when the external stress disappears, in chronic situations the heart is so used to being on alert that it has difficulty letting it’s guard down and truly putting up it’s figurative feet while it chills out with a pina colada.  It’s too busy looking for the next argument, work deadline or any other everyday disaster, which could be hiding just around the corner …

Another nasty effect of prolonged heart stress is that if capillaries are continually in a contracted state, they begin to leak fluid, and this can result in water retention in the chest.  The immune system may then attack it because it shouldn’t be there, resulting in further inflammation around the heart (and also the lungs).

As you can see, the biological effect of stress is really not very pretty.  But don’t despair, as there is a way out, as I’ll get to soon, and it doesn’t involve drugs.

Diet and lifestyle

Diet and toxins play a huge role in causing stress, anxiety and depression.  Processed foods, refined sugar, excess carbohydrates and toxins in our food (preservatives, pesticides and insecticides, artificial colours and flavours, flavour enhancers etc), not to mention the environmental toxins that we breathe in everyday, are all substances we commonly take into our bodies that we are not biologically adapted to cope with.  Inflammation in the arteries is one of the consequences, and this in turn causes swelling and plaque build up on the arterial walls.  As a result, blood flow is restricted, causing further heart stress.

Please note that having your cholesterol checked is not always an accurate indication of heart health.  This is because cholesterol tests only detect free floating cholesterol.  As a blood test, it cannot check for cholesterol that is strongly bound into the arterial walls.

This means that your test results are not actually indicative of the amount of cholesterol coating your arterial walls.  Free flowing cholesterol is not generally considered to be problematic – indeed, it has a soothing, anti-inflammatory effect in the body.  The only thing a cholesterol test does effectively is to give you an indication of how much cholesterol is flowing through your blood at the time of the test.  This can be cholesterol the body is making (possibly to reduce inflammation somewhere in the body) or it can be cholesterol taken in from your diet (interestingly, about 85% of our blood cholesterol is ‘endogenous’, meaning it’s made by our bodies, and only 15% comes from dietary sources).  If your body is making a lot of cholesterol, this may indicate your body is in a state of stress and inflammation.  It does not mean your arteries are clogged with cholesterol.

It is important to note also that cholesterol is needed to make serotonin, which helps stabilise mood and regulates the sleep/wake cycle.  Another fun fact is that our brain is composed of approximately 60% fat, with over 25% of that being cholesterol (it does call to question the wisdom of low fat diets, doesn’t it?)  Far from being an enemy to be eliminated, free-flowing cholesterol is actually a key requirement of good health and optimal brain function.


Depression usually occurs when the heart is in a constant alert state AND the liver also becomes weak.  The liver is responsible for a number of processes necessary to maintain life and health.

The liver’s main role is to regulate the blood.  It keeps the blood the right consistency, it puts nutrients into the blood that then feed the tissues and organs of the body, it stores sugars from food as glycogen and releases glycogen into the blood when needed, it cleans the blood of toxins and it produces cholesterol, a precursor to serotonin production.   If the liver become weak or the blood flow to the liver is constricted, all these processes suffer.

Steps in the Downwards Spiral:

This, in a nutshell, is how the spiral of anxiety and depression develops on a physical level:

  1. Constant stress causes the heart goes into a perpetual state of alert, causing a prolonged fight or flight adrenal response.
  2. The liver responds by putting more sugar, B vitamins, cholesterol and other nutrients into the blood to help with the increased demand (remember this was designed to be for only a short time, but if the demand continues then the liver is weakened and the reserve nutrients become depleted). An additional stress on the liver happens because it’s the liver’s job to detox the adrenaline in the blood.  If the liver becomes weak or the blood flow to the liver is constricted, then the liver cannot effectively feed and detox the body, leading to fatigue and brain fog.
  3. As the liver’s glycogen stores become low, blood sugar drops. The brain uses sugars, processed by the body, to get the energy it needs to function. If the brain is not getting enough sugar it begins to crave it (remember that at the same time there is adrenaline coursing through the blood, telling the brain to be in a state of high alert, which of course demands more energy resources).
  4. When you consume more sugar you feel better for a short time, but this also causes an increased insulin response, and you can subsequently crash even lower.
  5. At this point the brain is not functioning properly due to lack of nutrients, and the liver is struggling to produce good quality cholesterol to make serotonin to stabilise your mood and help you sleep. Your B vitamins also become depleted, and these are a key part of energy production and nervous system function.
  6. Even though you feel tired and mentally vague, sleep often becomes difficult because your brain is too active, in conjunction with your serotonin production being ‘out to lunch’. (Alternatively, you may sleep excessively but don’t feel rested when you wake up.)
  7. At the same time as all of the above is occurring, ongoing cortisol production is inhibiting several of your important body systems – your immune system (you’ll be more likely to catch a cold or flu), your reproductive system (perhaps this is why fertility is at record lows and IVF is so popular) and your digestive system (your gut health is key to the health of many other areas of the body – check out this page where I discuss gut conditions such as Cronh’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticulitis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
  8. A further whammy is that high levels of adrenaline results in an increase in the production of the protein FAK, which is what cancer cells use to protect themselves (reported in an April 2010 issue of “Journal of Clinical Investigation.”).  Researchers have found that adrenaline activates FAK, allowing more detached cancer cells to survive until they can reattach in a different region.

The symptoms you experience as a result of the above spiral include brain fog, fatigue, lack of appetite, sugar cravings, heart palpitations, insomnia and yes, anxiety and depression.  Since your immune, digestive and reproductive systems are also not getting the resources to function as they should, you’re also at risk of developing diseases or conditions particular to these organs. If this cycle is not broken, it can get worse and worse.

This all sounds very scary, right?  It is.  However the point is not to frighten you, but to educate you.  Anything you can do to reduce your stress and allow your body to return to a normal state of functioning will begin to reverse the above effects.  Remember that the body’s prime purpose is to survive, and it is an excellent healer.  Just like your body will naturally heal torn skin, it will also heal internal damage.  We can speed this process up using the incredible gifts of herbal and nutritional medicine.

Before I further explain how I can help you, there are just two more things that are important to consider.

MTHFR gene mutation considerations

Other factors that impact on how well the body copes with stress is whether the individual has the MTHFR C677T and/or A1298C gene mutation.  Individuals with these common gene mutations find it hard to methylate (utilise) B vitamins and Folic Acid.  This in turn means it is harder for your body to produce the energy it needs, and your nervous system is further compromised.

Your Gut-Brain Connection

In recent years research has revealed that the gut has its own nervous system (the ‘enteric nervous system’), that functions all by itself.  Not only that, there are over 100 million actual brain cells in your gut!  Variety is the spice of life, and research is showing that the more complex and varied the species of microbiota in the gut, the more resilient a person’s health.   It goes without saying that a diet rich in nutritious foods, with a good dose of fermented foods like sauerkraut and miso, can do wonders not only for your overall health, but in particular your mental health.  Conversely, antibiotics and some pharmaceutical medications can kill vast communities of microbiota and have a negative effect on your long term health.

Leaky Gut Syndrome, where small particles of partially digestive food pass through the intestinal wall and into the blood stream, is another common problem which creates further stress on the body, and in particular the liver.  Foreign particles in the blood cause inflammation, and this adds extra stress on the liver through the twin processes of detoxifying the blood and increasing cholesterol production to soothe the inflammation.

Unfortunately, if your gut health is compromised then you won’t be able to absorb the nutrients from your food properly, and you won’t be able to eliminate waste as effectively either.

What can we do to stop this cycle?

The very first step in treating stress, anxiety or depression is to work out specifically what is going on in the biology of a particular individual.  The biological processes I have described so far gives an overview, but each individual will need to have particular areas addressed before others.  Also, the degree of severity of course varies from person to person

These factors are the first step in working out a personal treatment plan for you.  Knowing which areas to target is key in helping you overcome the physical causes of stress, anxiety or depression as quickly as possible.

Please note:  the body is a whole, integrated system where one biological function can impact on a number of other functions or actions.  In this article I have only mentioned the most common physical causes of anxiety and depression.   At our clinic we have devices that scan the entire body and give a detailed analysis of what’s going on, from general weakness, bacteria, yeast and parasite imbalances, inflammation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, poor circulation, thyroid problems, immune problems and more.

Once I know what is going on in your internal environment, we begin by adjusting your diet.  This usually means avoiding sugar, processed foods and carbohydrates, and increasing fresh vegetables, healthy fats and fermented foods.

I’ll also give you a customised herbal formula that, according to what you most need, can expand constricted arteries and break up thick, congealed blood, clear inflammation, strengthen the heart, relax the nervous system, calm the adrenals and strengthen the liver. We also use nutritional supplements to quickly restore the body’s reserves, such as good quality, active B vitamins and minerals to nourish the adrenals, relax the nervous system, help the heart and increase energy production.

Free stuff you can do yourself

There are a number of things you can do yourself, at no cost, to help reverse chronic stress.  I recommend these to all my clients who are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression. They include:

  1. Getting adequate sleep.  If you’re a night owl but also have to get up early, you need to change your pattern.  Also, please don’t watch screens for at least four hours before you go to bed, as research has shown that blue light emitted is very destructive for your body’s natural sleep/wake patterns.  This is because our bodies associates blue light with day time, so exposing ourselves to blue light after dark is confusing for our biological processes.  If you can’t manage to avoid screens, make sure you use a program like Twilight or Night Owl to eliminate blue light frequencies – or even better, wear a pair of orange tinted sunglasses (you might look a bit silly but this will also cut out the blue light frequencies from your house lights).  Orange tinted light bulbs are also good to put in the rooms you access if you need to get up in the night, like your toilet or hallway (think firelight, which our bodies have evolved to associate with night time).   If you need further help getting to sleep, we have some excellent in-house herbal remedies.
  2. Exercise.  In 1999, a randomized controlled trial showed that depressed adults who took part in aerobic exercise improved as much as those treated with Zoloft. A 2006 meta-analysis of 11 studies supported those findings, and a 2011 study took this conclusion even further:  it studied 127 depressed people who hadn’t found relief from SSRIs (a common type of antidepressant).  This study reported that exercise caused remission in 30% of them—a result that was as good as, or better than, drugs alone.
  3. Avoiding refined sugar and other inflammatory foods. Your body is already in a state of inflammation if you’re stressed.  It makes sense to avoid taxing your liver further, or your insulin reserves.  You want to strengthen your liver so it can work better.
  4. Meditation.  Meditation has been shown to calm the mind and reduce your heart rate.  Check out this study showing the effect of meditation on pain (pain is a result of inflammation).
  5. Choose to be a Victor, not a Victim.  Feeling like a victim is often the path of least resistance for those suffering from depression.  Read our blog post about this!

One of the wonderful things about my job is helping people get back on track mentally, for this is when they can start truly living the life they were born to live.  I really look forward to helping you conquer your stress, anxiety or depression.

Important:  Please note I do not treat clients who are actively experiencing psychosis.  Also, if you are experiencing any kind of condition which includes a manic element OR you are chronically depressed, you must have a carer, friend or relative accompany you to your consultations, who is willing to help you integrate the treatment requirements into your everyday life, who can objectively report on your progress and who can help advise you on your spending on consultations and natural medicines.  Because we focus on healing the body, rather than just suppressing symptoms, your treatment can take weeks, months or years depending on your individual circumstances, and there are no subsidies apart from private health rebates.  Please note I will always prescribe the medicines I believe will get you better (no more and no less), however with no insight into your budget I do not know whether this will be financially appropriate for you in the long term.  Since manic conditions in particular are known to result in overspending, we must insist a trusted carer, friend or relative accompanies you to uphold your budgetary requirements.

If you’d like to undergo professional treatment for stress, anxiety or depression, please contact us or book online (see below) today.

Finally, please be aware that despite many successes with past clients I can’t guarantee success with every client (no health practitioner can). Nevertheless, I am confident enough to offer a First Visit Guarantee, where we give YOU $30 (in addition to refunding you the full cost of our services to you) if you’re not satisfied with your first appointment.  Full details are below.

Scott Hankinson
Naturopath since 1994

Take out the risk with our $30 First Visit Guarantee.

We are so confident you’ll be satisfied with your first consultation that if you’re unhappy with our service, we’ll not only refund the cost of our services … we’ll also give you $30! All you need to do is inform our receptionist at the end of your consultation and answer a few questions so we know how we can improve the service we offer for future clients. The Guarantee must be acted upon within 24 hours of your consultation.

Products from third party suppliers purchased by you at your first consultation may be returned and fully refunded providing they are unopened and undamaged (excludes refrigerated products).  Products made in-house specifically for you (e.g. customised herbal medicines) cannot be returned or refunded.

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Stress, Anxiety and Depression
What if I was to say there could be a physical reason why you are stressed, anxious and depressed and it is not to do with the neuroreceptors in your brain?
Scott Hankinson


Scott Hankinson
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