7 Hidden Physical Causes of Anxiety

April 27, 2020
Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS

Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS

Award-winning nutritionist and New York Times bestselling author.

If you’ve ever had the feeling that your anxiety isn’t all in your head, that it’s your body trying to tell you something – you could be right.

Your heart is racing, your head is pounding, you’re sweating, dizzy, nauseous, and every muscle in your body feels tight. Occasional fear and nervousness is a normal occurrence, but you’re pretty much living in your fight-or-flight response and just can’t seem to get past it. This is anxiety, and for many people, especially in these trying times, feelings of stress are heightened and can overwhelm us. For others, anxiety may seem to strike with no rhyme or reason – and there may be an underlying physical condition to blame.

Right now, more than 40 million adults in the U.S. alone are struggling with an anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental health problem. This means one out of every 5 of us has a diagnosed anxiety disorder. So, if your anxiety has you feeling like you are alone, you are far from it. But, what if the fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, and other anxiety-associated symptoms are actually trying to tell you there’s something more going on?

We hear a lot these days about the mind-body connection, and how we can use our minds to control our breathing, heart rate, and so much more. But did you know this connection goes both ways? When an illness or disease is attacking your body, it can feed back and affect your mental state, leaving you feeling anxious or depressed for what seems like no good reason.

This sign of a deeper issue is often missed because the tests they do in the ER to rule out an immediate, life-threatening emergency all come back normal, so they diagnose you with anxiety and send you to follow up with your primary care provider. But, if that follow up doesn’t take both your physical and mental health into consideration, something may be getting missed, and this is where you need to step in, take charge, and do the detective work. Here are my top 7 physical conditions that cause anxiety, and what you can do about it.

  1. Copper Imbalance

Nearly 80 percent of the population has a copper imbalance and most don’t even realize it. Copper is accumulated not only throughout your lifetime, but is passed from mother to child with increasing prevalence in each generation. There is an impressive array of symptoms that affects not only the body, but also the mind. My clients’ number one complaint with copper imbalance is feeling physically exhausted with a mind that just won’t slow down. This is because copper is a nervous system stimulant when there isn’t enough zinc and magnesium to balance the neurotransmitters.

“Copperhead” personality types originate from their highly charged nervous system, which can cause compulsive and sometimes addictive behavior. They are highly creative and intensely hyperactive people, and as you may have guessed from the nickname, copper imbalance is common in redheads.

Copper is an essential trace mineral that, in my opinion, ranks up there with magnesium in terms of importance. Properly bound and balanced copper is critical for collagen production, connective tissue health, immune system function, neutralizing free radicals, myelin nerve sheath formation, neurotransmitter synthesis, fertility, detoxification, and so much more. We only need about 2 milligrams per day, but it must be properly bound to be effective.

If you suspect copper imbalance may be a root cause of your anxiety, I encourage you to test using the Tissue Mineral Analysis from UNI KEY Health. This thorough, non-invasive hair test will provide you with an accurate measurement of your copper levels, along with other key minerals and toxic heavy metals. Start by taking 50 milligrams of zinc daily to offset high copper levels, eliminate dietary sources of copper like dark chocolate, and consider learning more about this insidious imbalance in my book, Why Am I Always So Tired?

  1. Hormone Havoc

Hyperthyroidism, Adrenal Fatigue, and Estrogen Dominance with low Progesterone are all hormone states that can cause anxiety. With hyperthyroidism, the anxiety is often accompanied by dizziness, fatigue, and heart palpitations. A full thyroid blood panel done by your primary care provider can confirm if this is your issue.

Adrenal fatigue is best described as that “wired but tired” feeling, where you feel exhausted all day then get a second wind at night and feel anxious when you should be sleeping. It has to do with both functionally high and low cortisol levels from chronic stress. One of the best ways to determine whether you have adrenal fatigue is by taking your basal body temperature for 10 days and charting it. If your temperature is within 0.4 degrees F each day, then your adrenals are functioning normally. If your temperature varies more widely, then it’s likely your adrenals would benefit from some support. Avoid stimulants like caffeine and processed sugars. After 6 weeks, take note of your energy level and your anxiety, and measure your basal body temperature for another 10 days and compare.

It’s common when we’ve been under long-term stress that our progesterone levels start to drop and symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and irritability begin to appear. These symptoms can also show up just as hormones begin to fluctuate before the onset of menopause. My bestselling book, Before the Change, is dedicated solely to the hormone changes and fluctuations we women go through both before and during menopause, and I encourage you to pick up a copy if your anxiety is hormone-related. In the meantime, many women find relief from applying a natural, topical progesterone cream like Progesta-Key from UNI KEY Health. It takes time for hormone levels to return to normal with supplementation, so start looking for changes in your symptoms to gradually appear in about 6 weeks.

  1. Messy Microbiome

If you’ve ever felt so anxious that you lost your appetite, became nauseous, or even had diarrhea, then you understand the power of the gut-brain connection. The trillions of microorganisms that make up your intestinal flora known as the microbiome produce and communicate with the hundreds of neurochemicals that your brain uses to regulate your moods, thinking, and countless bodily functions. Did you know over 90 percent of your neurotransmitters are created and used in your gut? GABA, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters that become imbalanced with anxiety – and all are made by your intestinal flora.

These probiotics carry on a constant 2-way communication with your brain and nervous system, directly affecting your moods, emotions, how you respond to stress, and so much more. Changes to even one strain of bacteria in your microbiome can directly lead to anxiety, according to studies. Consuming sugar, being under stress, overusing antibiotics, taking steroids and other medications, hormone changes, exposure to toxic mold, parasites and other “bad bugs,” and having chronic illness can all harm the helpful bacteria in your intestines and disrupt the delicate balance of your microbiome.

The solution is simple: keep your diet nutrient-rich and high in fermented foods, focusing on low-glycemic vegetables and fruits, while eliminating all the processed foods and sugars. Follow up your healthy diet with a gentle colon cleanse like Super GI Cleanse from UNI KEY Health, and supplement with plenty of natural probiotics such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and miso. These 3 power hitters were the subject of my latest Facebook Live video, “My Top 3 Ingredients for Immune-Boosting Recipes”.

  1. Infectious Diseases

Stealth infections are on the rise, and a messy microbiome certainly plays a part. Strep throat is turning chronic by maintaining a low level of activity in the guy, which results in everything from tics and behavior changes to anxiety disorders. Persistent infections like Lyme and other tick-borne diseases also make their homes and find protection in a disrupted microbiome because it can’t mount enough of an immune response to completely eradicate these unwanted invaders. So, what starts out as an acute infection becomes chronic and neurologic, with anxiety, pain, and coordination issues as a result.

In mainstream medicine, the first line of defense is typically to find the right antibiotic to kill off the infection, but this approach isn’t entirely effective with stealth infections because of how well they can hide in the microbiome and deeper tissues. A holistic approach to these diseases starts with supporting your immune system and unburdening your body of as many stresses as you can so it can begin to heal itself. Once your immune system begins to flush out these hitchhikers, you may feel worse with heightened anxiety as their numbers increase in circulation. This is normal and I encourage you to have a solid plan in place with binders at the ready to help you manage through this time.

  1. Heart and Breathing Problems

When we first start to develop a heart or breathing problem, we don’t always feel it as chest pain, fluttering, palpitations, wheezing, or shortness of breath. Sometimes the first symptom we have is anxiety, or even panic, as oxygen levels in the blood even slightly begin to drop. We may even be months or years from a diagnosis, but your body sends the signal through those feelings of anxiety and panic that something isn’t right at a deeper level.

The good news is that we have excellent blood and imaging tests to get a really good look at the health and functioning of the heart, blood vessels, and lungs. I encourage you to get a good medical workup done with your primary care provider (not the ER) if you’ve had heart or respiratory problems in the past, if they run in your family, if you are over age 50, or if you are having symptoms. People who have anxiety often have the added challenge of not being taken seriously because their symptoms overlap with these medical issues, but please be persistent about getting a thorough examination.

  1. Nervous System Disorders

Head trauma (even mild), tumors, dementia, and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s can all have anxiety as a symptom. The anxiety associated with trauma or adrenal and brain tumors can induce panic attacks and is often accompanied by a headache, but rarely has the worried thinking associated more with anxiety disorders. Anxiety from neurologic diseases is often accompanied by memory loss, tremor, or even aggression. The take-home message is this – nervous system disorders have noticeable, unique symptoms that aren’t explained by a diagnosis of anxiety disorder.

  1. Blood Sugar Imbalances

Your blood sugar affects your moods. Have you ever been “hangry?” What you eat, how often you eat, how much stress you are under, and whether you have a disease like diabetes or metabolic syndrome are all factors that can cause blood sugar fluctuations. When blood sugar goes too high or too low, this affects levels of both insulin and cortisol, your main stress hormone. When cortisol goes high or low, this can cause anxiety.

If your blood sugar continues to cycle high and low, going up and down like a rollercoaster, over time insulin and cortisol gradually creep higher and higher. As cortisol creeps up, what started as occasional bursts of anxiety and irritability becomes more frequent and can become more intense. So if you know you have blood sugar issues, or you eat a high carbohydrate diet, it’s time to get off that ride and even out your sugar levels. Eliminate processed sugars, eat low-glycemic vegetables and fruits, and eat good quality sources of essential fats and protein. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend both my New Fat Flush Plan and my Radical Metabolism Plan as a detailed guide to get your eating back on track and help you normalize your blood sugar, insulin, and cortisol to reduce your inflammation and anxiety.

Please feel free to let me know how I can help you with any feelings of anxiety you may be experiencing.

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Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, is an award-winning New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty books including The Fat Flush Plan series and her latest book, Radical Metabolism. She’s been rewriting the rules of nutrition for more than 40 years and is internationally recognized as a pioneer in the field of diet, detox and women’s health issues. 

For a FREE daily dose of tips and strategies for maintaining healthy weight, conquering insomnia, and much more…check out my Radical Health Tips.

I’d like to meet and greet you on my Facebook groups, so won’t you check us out at the Radical Metabolism RevolutionFat Flush Nation, or my Inner Circle!


  1. Judy H

    Very thorough exploration of the various possible causes of anxiety, with solutions. Thank you.

  2. Lynn

    Glad to know about the test for copper levels. It’s possible that could be contributing to my terrible anxiety.


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