What Our Anxiety Is Telling Us: The Gut Brain Connection & Other Functional Medicine Approaches to Healing Anxiety with Holistic Psychiatrist Dr. Ellen Vora

If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety or have supported a loved one who struggles, then you know how difficult (understatement), lonely, scary, and even debilitating anxiety can be. 

I know it can also often feel as though anxiety is our fate and destiny and is wrapped up in our identity. 

Today’s guest, however, is here to encourage just the opposite; that anxiety does not define who we are and that there are holistic yet powerful tools that can ease our anxiety.

Dr. Ellen Vora, is a holistic psychiatrist who received her B.A. from Yale University and attended Columbia University medical school. She’s a board-certified psychiatrist, medical acupuncturist, and yoga teacher! 

Ellen takes a functional medicine approach to mental health–considering the whole person and addressing imbalance at the root, and that’s exactly what we’re diving into on this episode of the Whimsy + Wellness podcast.

Whether you struggle with chronic anxiety, situational anxiety, or anywhere in-between, this interview with Dr. Ellen Vora is full of hope, encouragement, and even tools for healing.

In this episode we discuss:

• Intro

• How our mental health is impacted by so much more than genetics

• Stress and anxiety: the difference and overlaps

• What is true and false anxiety? 

• Is anxiety something we’re stuck with? Is it part of our identity?

• Asking “why” instead of applying bandaids

• Listening to our bodies and getting to the root cause of our anxiety

• Conquering the “How do I eat nutrient dense foods?” overwhelm

• How saying goodnight to our phones each night can help ease our anxiety

• Changing the path from defensiveness to empowerment

Our mental health is impacted by so much more than genetics

The messaging that we often receive about mental health from western medicine is this is your doom, your identity, your diagnoses. 

Ellen explains that this was not with bad intentions, she believes it was to de-stigmatize psychology, point out there is a genetic basis, chemical imbalance, etc. 

It was trying to help and make those who were struggling not look crazy! Because they weren’t! 

However, trying to prove the science in mental health, while helpful in de-stigmatizing, has also made it very easy to just slap on diagnoses and medications and not go any further. 

Ellen states that this is a limited narrative.  

While genetics can definitely play a role, “it’s a predisposition, that’s all it is. It’s a vulnerability its not a destiny”

Stress and anxiety: what’s the difference and why should it matter?

Something I’ve always wondered is what the difference between stress and anxiety was and if everyone experiences both at some point in their life.

Former Whimsy + Wellness Podcast guest and certified aromatherapist, Holly Brandenberger defines stress on her episode as: “the body’s response to a demand made upon it. Stress is not what happens to us in life, it’s how we perceive what happens to us. This is why our ability to cope differs from day to day.”

What I gathered from talking to Holly about stress and Ellen about anxiety is that stress is often a more obvious feeling or reaction to something that has happened or is happening and is easily relieved when the stressor is removed (i.e. stress from a work project. When the work project is over or removed that stress is lifted). Whereas anxiety is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor (apa.org) 

As you can see, there is a lot of grey area between stress and anxiety and that’s not to confuse us it’s just because they often do walk hand in hand and interchange with one another.

Modern and Western medicine tend to have criteria and benchmarks for anxiety and different types of anxiety. As a holistic psychiatrist, Ellen handles anxiety a bit differently (and we’re here for it!!)

The need to be diagnosed and reach certain criteria and benchmarks in order for a medical professional to consider someone to have anxiety is flawed in Ellen’s eyes. She explains that this model makes it so that you have to prove your anxiety or “earn it” meaning a diagnosis.

In her practice with her patients, she has completely thrown the criteria of anxiety out the window.

This is because none of it changes management. She says if she has a patient who is asking, “do I have clinical anxiety?” or saying they do have anxiety, in her book they have a meaningful amount of anxiety and don’t need a diagnosis for management and support. Whether an official diagnosis or not, her management is the same.

Bottom line, it’s not a good idea to try to box others or ourselves in and “prove” anxiety. If you or someone else are saying you’re feeling anxious, then you are. If you feel you need support, guidance, or help relieving anxiety then that is what you deserve. 

You can trust your feelings and others should, too.

False and true anxiety (spoiler: “false” anxiety doesn’t invalidate how you feel) 

Ellen breaks anxiety into two categories: false anxiety and true anxiety which is an original idea from Julia Ross who wrote The Mood Cure

False and true anxiety theory states that a lot of our moods and emotions are a result of things that have actually happened where other moods and emotions are a direct result of a physiological state of imbalance. 

Note: when Ellen says “false” anxiety, she is not saying that to invalidate how you’re feeling, it’s simply for classification purposes.

False anxiety she classifies as aspects of modern life that put us into a false mood and a physiological state of imbalance. Some examples of this would be: we’re in a stress response, we’re hungry (or hangry ;), our gut is not functioning properly, we’re in our late luteal phase. So we’re feeling a certain way and it’s a little out of alignment with what we’re going through in our lives.

True anxiety is when something is really happening and going on in our lives or our body and we’re feeling a certain way as a result. 

Even this however, according to Ellen, is not something we need to treat or medicate away. 

True anxiety is a call to action, it’s there purposefully to help us see somethings not right in the world or our lives and we need to take action accordingly.

Is anxiety something we’re stuck with? Is it part of our identity?

Something that is super common with anxiety in our culture is wrapping our identity up in anxiety. We speak about it in a way of, “I’m always going to have anxiety, it’s a part of me, anxiety is my destiny” but this doesn’t have to be the case!

Who you are is so much deeper and more malleable than any health struggle whether mental or physical. 

You know how when a baby is crying you go through the upset baby inventory checklist? Are they hungry? Do they need a diaper change? Do they have to burp? We don’t just throw our hands up right as soon as a baby starts to cry and say, well they’re just a miserable baby. We know that this mood or alarm is to tell us something.

Our anxiety is often the same, especially false anxiety! Because of this, Ellen encouraged us to take a false mood inventory. You can ask: 

  • Are you sleep deprived? 
  • Are you hungry? 
  • Is your period coming? 
  • Did you have too much caffeine? 
  • Are you hydrated? 

Even things that are a little harder to identify in a moment like thyroid dysfunction. If you can identify one of those things right away and realize, “I am hungry!” then you can feed yourself and do another check in. 

Obviously if we’re tired we can’t always just take a nap but we can at least have awareness that the sleep deprivation could be contributing to our fatigue. 

If you come to find that there is no false mood at play, it’s worth slowing down and taking this as a deep internal wisdom that something isn’t right.

This does not have to be that this feeling is your destiny and here forever.

Ellen followed up by saying, “I do believe that some of us on this earth to be dialed a little bit more sensitive.” 

It doesn’t have to be doom or a burden, it could be a gift. Ask how you can soothe and protect this part of yourself!

There is a beautiful metaphor that Glennon Doyle shares in her book, Love Warrior (my absolute favorite book, by the way). Back when we used to heavily mine in caves, there was a toxic gas that was invisible and odorless and would unfortunately kill miners. Canaries however were more sensitive than the humans and could sense this toxic gas before humans and so we started bringing a canary down into the mine with us in a cage. The canary would sing in it’s cage when all was fine however when the canary stopped singing, that was a sign to the humans that the toxic gas was present and they needed to get out. The canaries sensitivity is what would save the humans. The metaphor is that in our world, some of us are here as canaries and others are here as miners. And there is no right or wrong or preferred role. The point is that both are needed.

When those of us who are the metaphorical canaries “stop singing” that could look like a lot of things but it’s important to pay attention too and not just brush off as sensitive, “too” anxious, or crazy. 

This extra sensitivity, anxiousness that some of us are put on this earth with should not be viewed as a flaw or a doomed destiny by ourselves or others. It’s a gift. Our sensitivity serves the world in beautiful ways just as those who are a bit less sensitive and anxious have their service that is vital. We all play an important role here.

Asking “why” instead of applying bandaids

Often in modern or western medicine, we see a problem and are handed a bandaid. X is happening so here is X to make it stop. And sometimes those things are extremely necessary, there is a time and place for this kind of care. 

However it is overused. 

With functional medicine, Ellen explains that they ask, “Why?” “Why is X happening?” They dig deeper to find the source and work to heal that rather than covering up or stopping a single symptom.

By asking “why” and getting to the root we are not only avoiding problems that could and often do come up from putting a “bandaid” over the problem but we can solve and prevent an array of problems.

Do you remember the magic eye posters? Ellen explains that functional medicine and having the curiosity to get to the root cause of our anxiety and any health problems are the same way. 

At first, it’s very confusing and hard to see but then, once you see it you can’t unsee it. And you start to ask why and want to get to the root of everything. It’s hard to turn back to strictly all bandaids.

What Our Anxiety Is Telling Us: The Gut Brain Connection & Other Functional Medicine Approaches to Healing Anxiety with Holistic Psychiatrist Dr. Ellen Vora

Listening to our bodies and getting to the root cause of our anxiety

The first step to getting to the root cause of your anxiety is you’ll want to go through that false mood inventory that we talked about above.

Some things that can heavily contribute to anxiety:

  • Alcohol
  • Blood sugar
  • Caffeine
  • Digestive problems
  • Whether or not we have access to nutrient dense foods
  • Cell phone use and even addiction
  • Inflammation (anything from autoimmune to eczema and beyond, MS)

When your body is in a state of inflammation, that inflammation can cross the blood brain barrier. This tells the limbic system “something isn’t right, we’re under attack” so we of course, in turn feel anxious.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this was created to protect us. When we were living in caves, we had slow enough life styles and no access to processed foods or tons of coffee so it was easier to notice, oh I drank bad water and now I’m feeling bad. 

However now, finding the source can be so much more complex and tricky. 

“It’s a puzzle for each individual but it never hurts to start by looking in the gut. The gut is very central for autoimmune and other chronic inflammatory conditions.” 

Ellen says that for minor cases, there are things we can do on our own to try and heal our gut on our own without needing to see a fancy doctor. She recommends:

  • Avoiding foods that irritate the gut such as gluten, industrial dairy, processed vegetable oils.
  • Add in some of what soothes the gut such as: bone broth, collagen, turmeric, glutamine and fermented foods.

If however you’re struggling with something a bit more significant, she recommends seeing a naturopath or functional medicine practitioner if you have access to one.

I’ve shared before that when I was diagnosed with Lupus the doctor explained it by saying “Lupus is your body attacking itself” it was an extremely shaming diagnosis and I, right there on the table, believed that I could never get better (that was until a few years later. You can hear more about that on episode 33).

Ellen shared that with autoimmune and inflammatory illnesses, that is a lot at play. There are so many stressors in our lifestyle.

We do know that chronic childhood stress increases our risk of autoimmune illnesses later in life. Stressors in childhood play a role. We can sometimes internalize messaging and emotions and they later present themselves later in life physically.

Which came first? The chicken or the egg? (Or in this case, the physical health issue or the mental health issue)

I was very curious to know what the line is and how Ellen and other functional medicine practitioners figure out if a physical health problem is the root cause of a mental health problem and when a mental health problem such as trauma or something else is the root cause of a physical health problem.

Ellen explained that it is both! Most commonly she’s found a physical basis to what we call mental illness such as a severe gluten intolerance contributing to anxiety. But other times it is the reverse.

“I do believe that physical ailments are communication from the body.”

Sometimes it feels so extremely hard or even impossible for us to communicate “I am in pain, I am not well, I am not having my needs met” psychologically and so for some of us, it can sometimes feel easier or safer or more comfortable to say I’m physically in pain, something isn’t right, doctor please help me. And this is usually all completely subconscious.

Conquering the “How do I eat nutrient dense foods?” overwhelm

As you can tell our gut is so extremely impactful to our mental health and so many aspects of how we “feel” both physically and psychologically. 

Ellen has stressed the importance of eating nutrient dense foods however why does something that sounds so easy, seem so hard?

Everywhere we look these days it feels as though different people are telling us different things as far as what to eat and not to eat, what’s horrible for us and what’s great and they constantly seem to contradict one another, leaving us feeling lost and hopeless and therefor eating the same way we’ve been eating.

So if we know that the foods we fuel our bodies with are so important, how can we prioritize this and take some steps in the right direction without getting so completely overwhelmed?

Ellen says to really try to drown out the noise and labels and the diet culture (which I talk more about in episode 15 with holistic nutritionist, Margaret Powell) these black and white titles or diets are well meaning however they often make people feel very controlled and overwhelmed, plus every BODY is different! 

Our bodies often change! Sometimes we ebb and flow with what our bodies need, what time of year it is, where we are in our cycle, etc.

Ellen’s advice is this, “The useful compass, the one that I stick to and recommend to my patients is just to generally err on the side of trying real food and generally err on the side of trying to avoid fake food.” 

Simple yet empowering, right?! 

Listen to what your body is craving. Not the drug-like cravings of ice cream but the deep inner wisdom that’s telling you “I really need juicy fruit right now” your body is probably needing those nutrients.

Ellen and her family meal prep and she says making things ahead of time makes it so much easier to be more intentional, she also loves Daily Harvest smoothies which Haylee and I also really love (if you’d like to try Daily Harvest, use our code WHIMSY at checkout for up to $40 off your first box!).

Some other suggested actionable steps to ease anxiety:

Tip #1: Get your cell phone out of your bedroom

Cell phone use and addiction is a huge one Ellen says. We all can be guilty of doom scrolling and it is very addicting to know access to everyone and everything is right in our pocket or next to our bed. 

Because of this she highly recommends we keep our cell phones out of our bedrooms when we sleep at night or at the very least keep it across the room so you’re not tempted to check or scroll while laying in bed. 

This will help you fall asleep earlier, help the quality of your sleep, stay asleep throughout the night, improves your circadian rhythm, 

Tip #2: Blue-light blocking glasses

These make a huge difference according to Ellen. 

If you’re wanting to help ease your anxiety, protecting your sleep is a really great way. Light after sunset is a huge aspect of why we cannot sleep in modern life.

 Having blue light blocking glasses that you put on at sunset and keep on until you’re in the dark at bedtime helps protect your circadian rhythm which will help your sleep which will ease anxiety.

Tip #3: Get exposure to sunlight

The ideal best time to get exposure to sunlight is first thing in the morning! This starts your circadian rhythm and helps you feel energized during the day and tired at night.

Tip #4: Caffeine

This is a complex topic and one that’s not so fun to talk about (anyone else cringing and scrolling by this one?) Ellen acknowledges how helpful it can feel, how comfortinting, delicious it smells and tastes, all of those things. 

However she does state what a common factor it is to anxiety. Some of us are more sensitive to caffeine and it can be leading to increased anxiety (for me personally, if I have more than 1 small cup of coffee in a day my anxiety is 10X worse.)

Knowing this though, we should not go cold turkey off of caffeine. 

This could have the opposite effect and we could suffer with withdrawal. But gradually tapering off over a series of weeks is a great way to try and lower your amount of anxiety.

Tip #5: Alcohol

Alcohol is another one that many people don’t want to talk about or acknowledge, it’s pretty detrimental to our mental health (and physical health). 

We’ve been told how a glass of red wine each night is a heart healthy choice however Ellen explains that this is not true, that was industry funded research and the healthiest amount of alcohol is actually no alcohol. 

No amount of alcohol improves health. In terms of anxiety, alcohol has a really negative and problematic effect on the way a neurotransmitter, called gaba, functions in the brain. 

Alcohol rushes our synopsis with gaba so that we feel very calm and even confident and unbothered by what was bothering us a minute ago. However our bodies need to return to homeostasis, so it reabsorbs that gaba and converts it into glutamine, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter that makes us feel on edge. 

This is why we wake up in the middle of the night when we drink, why wwe often feel more anxious the day after drinking, and cumulative over time is why alcohol contributes to anxiety.

Changing the path of defensiveness to empowerment

This kind of information can sometimes make us feel defensive. I’ve shared before how when I was personally very sick with my autoimmune illnesses and someone first had asked me if I’d tried any natural remedies, I was deeply offended. 

The story I told myself was that their suggestion meant that they didn’t believe the level of pain and struggle I was experiencing. However this is simply because our culture does not talk enough about the impact the things that we’ve talked about today like caffeine, the food we eat, our gut health, etc. has on every aspect of our physical and psychological health.

If your first knee-jerk reaction is feeling defensive, know that you are seen and no one is downplaying your pain and struggle. 

Instead, try to choose to feel empowered with this new information. 

Feel empowered that there are things (many of them free) that you can try that could have a huge impact on how you feel. Run some experiments with what we’ve talked about today and see how you feel! You are worthy and capable of healing.

If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review here – even just a short sentence is so helpful & greatly appreciated!!

Connect with Dr. Ellen Vora

@ellenvoramd on Instagram

@ellenvoramd on TikTok

Pre-order Ellen’s book!

Episode Resources:

Want to bring along some whimsy on your path to healing and empowerment? Here’s what we recommend…

You know we love crystals and oils here at Whimsy + Wellness! As you walk this journey of supporting your anxiety, try out some crystals and oils to see if they’re of any support!

Ahh one of my all time favorite sets! The colors, the affirmations, everything! They’re so calming and encouraging and pair perfectly with this topic.

Fill our dreamy bamboo dropper bottle with your favorite emotional support blend but in bulk! Then, next time you’re feeling anxious, simply grab your rainbow dropper (let the rainbow remind you that there’s hope!) and drop a few drops right in your diffuser!

Oh and pssst!! Get 10% off at Whimsy + Wellness by using the code: PODCAST on your next order!

Let’s stay in touch! Make sure you’re subscribed to our show and follow Whimsy + Wellness and Whimsy + Wellness Podcast over on Instagram!

Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of the Whimsy & Wellness Podcast brought to you by Whimsy & Wellness and hosted by Meg Ryan. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review – even just a short sentence is so helpful & greatly appreciated!!

Music by Taylor Ryan

I'm Haylee!

Haylee is the CEO of Whimsy + Wellness and the brains behind the business. She has her hand in every area of the company…from product creation to supply chain solution to online marketing. When she’s not looking at spreadsheets she’s mom to Mason, Posey, and Golden. Her kids inspire her to run a company that values community over competition and people before profit.

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