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How Can Toxins Cause Panic Attacks?

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: jen2008 • updated: 8/19/2010

Can toxins cause panic attacks? There is some evidence that they can. Find out what toxins may bring on symptoms of panic - and why.

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    Are there toxins that cause panic attacks? It’s an intriguing question that hasn’t been completely answered – at least not yet. Most experts believe that panic attacks are caused by a combination of genetics and environment, but exactly what environmental triggers bring on these attacks isn’t known and it may vary with the individual. Diet may play a role, and, possibly certain toxins. What are some toxins that cause panic attacks?

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    Toxins That Cause Panic Attacks: Nicotine

    People who “light up" may be increasing their risk of panic attacks. Nicotine is a stimulant, so it’s not surprising that smokers might be more susceptible to anxiety and panic-type symptoms. Studies show that smokers are up to three times more likely to experience panic attacks than non-smokers. Why? Nicotine causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure which may be a stimulus that leads to a full-blown panic attack in susceptible individuals. One of the best things a person with panic attacks can do is kick the smoking habit.

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    Is Caffeine a Toxin That Causes Panic Attacks?

    Caffeine may have therapeutic benefits at low doses, but at high doses it’s a toxin – leading to rapid heart rate, insomnia, anxiety, and an increase in blood pressure. According to a study published on Medscape.com, people with panic disorders are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine and are more likely to experience anxiety or panic than those who don’t have a history of panic attacks. Most doctors recommend that people who suffer from panic attacks give up caffeine.

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    Toxins That Cause Panic Attacks: Alcohol

    Since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, most people assume it has a calming effect. Initially, an alcoholic drink or two may calm a person who suffers from panic attacks, but drinking too much alcohol or frequent, long-term alcohol use can increase their frequency. This is especially true during periods of alcohol withdrawal. The exact reason excessive alcohol predisposes a person to panic attacks isn’t known, but most experts believe alcohol causes imbalances in neurotransmitters and brain biochemistry. Alcohol also depletes vitamins, especially the B vitamins, and minerals that help to keep panic at bay.

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    Other Toxins That Cause Panic Attacks

    Other toxins scrutinized as possible triggers for panic attacks are synthetic food colors, artificial sweeteners, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). There isn’t good scientific data to back this up, but some people with panic attacks believe these ingredients worsen their anxiety and panic symptoms. The effects of these types of sweeteners and food additives may have varying effects, depending on the individual. Certain medications and illegal drugs that are stimulants or alter brain biochemistry can also increase the risk of panic attacks.

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    Toxins That Cause Panic Attacks: The Bottom Line?

    There are a variety of toxins that may play a role in triggering panic attacks. One of the best ways to reduce the risk of panic attacks is to quit smoking, eliminate caffeine and alcohol, and avoid processed foods that contain some of these toxins in question – and keep a diary to see if the number of panic attacks decreases with these changes. It’s a natural, drug-free way to reduce the risk of a panic attack.

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    References

    JAMA 284 (18): 2348–51.

    Psychopharmacology. Volume 164, Number 3, 309-317.

    Medscape.com. "Caffeine Challenge Induced Panic Attacks in Patients with Panic Disorder"