Natural Supplements for Anxiety
Claims Made by Natural Supplement Companies
Food and Vitamins for Anxiety
Most essential micronutrients are absorbed through food, especially food like fruits, nuts, vegetables, and seafood. For most people vitamins and supplements are a waste of money.
However, some people don’t absorb vitamins well, and others have poor diet or health issues that lead to vitamin deficiencies. A deficiency in vitamins A, B6, B12 , C, D, and E can all contribute to anxiety and depression symptoms. The best source for vitamins is a healthy diet high in plants and low in processed foods.
Vitamin D deficiencies are very common; around 40% of Americans are D deficient, and that is associated with depression. You can be tested for a D deficiency and then choose to supplement. Getting sunlight helps your body process and absorb vitamin D.
There is a decent amount of research showing that for some people, supplementing with vitamins D, B6, and B12 can have a positive impact on anxiety and depression, and taking a multivitamin has been shown to help with generalized anxiety disorder. But one of the reasons that multivitamins are at the top of my list is that they are safe and cheap; there are few downsides to taking a multivitamin every day.,
Magnesium as a Natural Supplement for Anxiety
Magnesium is a common natural element that is essential for hundreds of bodily functions. Every single cell needs magnesium to perform its essential functions.
Magnesium assists with energy creation, protein formation, gene maintenance, and nervous system regulation. It is naturally found in foods, especially dark leafy greens, nuts, avocado, and bananas. A deficiency can make a big difference.
In case study I heard about a woman who started taking calcium supplements, and this depleted the magnesium in her body. She developed OCD symptoms that were really disabling, but when she decreased the calcium and increased magnesium supplements the symptoms went away. There is quite a bit of research showing that magnesium has positive effects but is relatively safe.
In a randomized controlled trial in depressed older adults, 450 mg of magnesium daily improved mood as effectively as an antidepressant drug. In another study, mice with magnesium deficiency were more anxious.
More research is needed, but again, magnesium is relatively safe and inexpensive.
Zinc for Anxiety
Zinc is a naturally occurring element. You can get it from your food, but there have been a couple of studies showing that a zinc deficiency is associated with OCD, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety. And a couple of studies have shown that supplementing with zinc can improve anxiety symptoms.
Fish Oil/Omega-3 Fatty Acids Supplements for Anxiety
Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important. They have many health benefits for your body and brain. In fact, few nutrients have been studied as thoroughly as omega-3 fatty acids. These are very safe but show mixed results in studies.
Some studies show a positive impact on brain health, depression, and anxiety. Other studies show little to no benefit. My interpretation is that some people are deficient and really benefit, while the majority don’t notice a difference.
The biggest downside is that fish oil harvesting can negatively impact the environment through overfishing (that and fish burps).
Kava for Anxiety
Kava, also often called kava kava, is a member of the nightshade family of plants and native to the South Pacific islands (1). Pacific Islanders have used it for hundreds of years as a ceremonial drink to promote a state of relaxation. More recently, kava has received widespread attention for its relaxing and stress-reducing properties.
Kava is one supplement that has good amounts of research backing its effectiveness at treating anxiety. Multiple studies that were properly conducted with large numbers of subjects found moderate improvement in anxiety symptoms with the use of kava. The American Family Physician Journal and the Nutrition Journal reported a review of multiple studies showing kava to be safe and effective.
However, kava is metabolized through the liver, and the potential for liver damage led to this supplement being banned in parts of Europe and Canada. More recent research has shown this side effect to be rare. But as a precaution, you shouldn’t take it with other medications metabolized through the liver, and it should be a short-term treatment using high-quality supplements.
I am less interested in supplements that seem to suppress emotion than I am in supplements that meet nutritional deficiencies.
Inositol for Anxiety
Also known as vitamin B8, inositol occurs naturally in food, and in the US the average diet includes about 1 gram a day. But studies testing supplementing with 12 to 18 grams have shown some pretty impressive results with relatively few side effects.
Inositol is considered safe and somewhat effective, specifically with panic disorder, agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house), depression, and OCD, though more research is needed.
Passionflower as a Natural Supplement for Anxiety
There are about 500 known species of passionflower. This family of plants is also known as Passiflora. Passiflora incarnata may help treat anxiety and insomnia. Native Americans have used passionflower to treat a variety of conditions, including boils, wounds, earaches, and liver problems.
Spanish explorers named these plants for their resemblance to a crucifix. In Christian traditions “the Passion” is a term used to describe the final period of Jesus Christ’s life, including his crucifixion.
In Europe, people have used P. incarnata to treat restlessness and agitation. And some people use it to treat anxiety. Traditionally it’s used as a calming herb. The effects of passionflower are milder than valerian or kava, so it’s often mixed with other herbs.
This supplement has multiple studies showing mixed results. one dental study showed positive results with low side effects. Another study tested passionflower as a way to ease anxiety before an operation and showed passionflower to be helpful. Other studies have shown minimal effect. Overall, the research is inconclusive.
One of the difficulties with passionflower and other herbal remedies is that the herb is a complex substance, meaning that mixed in with the active ingredients are a bunch of other ineffective or possibly toxic substances. As of 2010, three human trials have documented the efficacy of passionflower as a treatment for anxiety-related disorders.
Valerian for Anxiety
Valerian root is often referred to as “nature’s Valium.” In fact, this herb has been used since ancient times to promote tranquility and improve sleep. Although it has received a lot of positive attention, questions have also been raised about its effectiveness and safety.
Valerian may impact the GABA receptors and the amygdala (the fear part of the brain) and may work in a similar process to Valium and Xanax. As with most of these supplements, there aren’t enough studies with enough participants to really evaluate the effectiveness of valerian as a recommended treatment for anxiety. There is, however, quite a bit of research suggesting that valerian is helpful with insomnia.
With rare and mild side effects, valerian is a potential option to try yourself and see how it impacts you.
Chamomile as a Natural Supplement for Anxiety
Chamomile has been used for thousands of years as an anti-anxiety treatment. In animal trials it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. But these results haven’t been tested in humans.
Two small studies showed mixed results. One study showed those taking chamomile for generalized anxiety disorder to have less anxiety than the placebo group. Another showed that the placebo did just as well as chamomile. Results are pretty unconvincing. Chamomile is a blood thinner, so you need to be cautious around that, and some people do have allergic reactions to it.
Saffron has been used for centuries to treat cramps, depression, and asthma. Two studies showed that it had a positive effect on depression and anxiety. In one study, the participants took saffron by itself. In the other study, they combined its active ingredient with an antidepressant medication. Results showed that the group taking the saffron did better than the placebo group or the medication-only group.
L-Lysine and L-Arginine
L-Lysine and L-Arginine are essential amino acids that can be found in food. These are two supplements that most likely have an impact on the neurotransmitters in your brain — the same thing that medications like Prozac and Wellbutrin impact. L-lysine potentially impacts serotonin, calming the brain and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.
One study showed that participants were better able to handle stress compared to the placebo group. The other study measured cortisol in the body and found decreased levels, which means decreased stress. Both studies used a l-lysine and l-arginine combination supplement.
There aren’t enough studies to determine how effective these are and adequately evaluate risks, but the evidence points in the direction that these may be helpful, and there were no reported side effects.
GABA for Anxiety
Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain.
GABA can help calm us down when it’s released naturally in the brain. This can help with feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear. It may also help prevent seizures. As a result of these properties, GABA has become a popular supplement in recent years. This is partly because it isn’t available from many food sources. The only foods that contain GABA are fermented ones, such as kimchi, miso, and tempeh.
Lots of hype, not a lot of evidence. Not evidence-based. Not much known about side effects. There is some evidence in favor of a calming effect of GABA food supplements, but most of this evidence was reported by researchers who had a potential conflict of interest.
So basically this is a little-researched supplement, with evidence of a small positive effect on anxiety.
L-theanine is an amino acid found most commonly in tea leaves and in small amounts in bay bolete mushrooms. It can be found in both green and black tea. It’s also available in pill or tablet form at many drugstores.
Five randomized and controlled trials with a total of 104 participants found l-theanine reduced stress and anxiety in people who were experiencing stressful situations. Another study found that it increased relaxation without causing drowsiness and reduced resting heart rate.
So l-theanine has some limited research showing effectiveness, with the only side effects reported being related to caffeine. There’s just not enough evidence to strongly recommend this supplement.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort is one of the most popular natural treatments for depression and one of the most researched. Dozens and dozens of high-quality studies show its effectiveness at treating mild to moderate depression. Many studies show that it is as effective as antidepressant medication, and some show fewer side effects or similar side effects.
It has not been shown to be effective for anxiety, but since anxiety and depression are often comorbid (experienced at the same time), it may be a good supplement to consider. Because of the quality and quantity of the research, I feel more confident about knowing what to expect with SJW.
However, it’s not without side effects. It may cause side effects similar to SSRI’s, and it can interfere with other medications, including anxiety medication. Adverse events reported in RCTs were comparable to placebo and fewer compared with antidepressants. And like all supplements, it is not regulated by the FDA.
Caffeine: The Worst Natural Supplement for Anxiety
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive agent in the world. Most adults use caffeine every single day. But the effects of caffeine on the brain and nervous system can be pretty destructive.
Caffeine crosses the blood brain barrier in minutes and shuts down the production of adenosine, the relaxation and calming chemical in the brain. That’s why it helps people feel more energy in the short term, but one cup of coffee can increase anxiety and impact sleep for up to 48 hours.
If you’re unsure of how caffeine is affecting you, try going without it for seven days and see what a difference it makes.
Other Natural Treatments for Anxiety
There are a lot of things besides supplements that can help improve mental health, including the following.
Exercise has been shown to be more effective than medication at treating depression and generalized anxiety. It changes brain chemistry and runs your nervous system through natural cycles of excitement and relaxation.
Therapy: CBT, ACT, EMDR are more effective long-term than medication alone.
Mindfulness/meditation changes brain structure and chemistry, teaches emotion management skills, and turns on the parasympathetic side of the nervous system.
Gut health: Your gut is your second brain. It produces 95% of the serotonin (the happiness neurotransmitter) in your body. Probiotics, prebiotics, and fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut can all help improve your gut health.
Nutrition: Eating less sugar can help improve your mental health. In addition, some people have allergies/intolerances. One that comes up a lot this decade is gluten. You could also try eating more plants and fewer processed foods.
Relaxation: Train/practice strengthening your parasympathetic response. This will help train your brain to relax.
Life skills and habits: This includes having a morning routine, mono-tasking, practicing self-care, facing/resolving problems, minimizing, setting good boundaries, and getting enough sleep.
Research on Natural Treatments for Anxiety
According to one 2007 report, the following have had no credible research done on them: ashwagandha (Withania somnifera); Bach flower essences; bacopa; berocca; borage juice (starflower); bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus); catnip; chamomile; damiana; fennel; feverfew; ginkgo; ginseng; golden root (Rhodiola rosea); gotu kola; hops; kanna; lemon balm; lemongrass leaves; licorice; meadowsweet; motherwort; mullein (Verbascum sinuatum); mulungu; noni (Morinda citrifolia); peppermint; pine bark extract; reishi (Ganoderma lucidum); Relora (magnolia/phellodendron); schisandra; scullcup (skullcap); verbena (blue vervain) nutritional supplements adrenal extracts; carbohydrate-rich diet; garum armoricum (great bluefish); ginger; l-theanine (green tea); macrobiotic diet; milk peptides (New life Tryptozen); oats; perilla oil (perilla frutescens); vitamins B3, B6, B12, and C neurotransmitter and hormonal precursors Amino acids (l-phenylalanine/phenylalanine [norepinephrine precursor], l-arginine, l-lysine, l-glutamine, l-leucine); melatonin; pregnenolone; phytoestrogens (soy or Mexican yam); tyrosine (norepinephrine precursor); SAMe (S-adenosyl-l-methionine)
2010 These have reviewed data associated with a number of treatments, including St. John’s Wort, S-adenosyl-methionine (SAM-e), B vitamins, inositol, choline, kava, omega-3 fatty acids/fish extracts, valerian, lavender, melatonin, passionflower, skullcap, hops, lemon balm, black cohosh, ginkgo biloba, extracts of Magnolia and Phellondendron bark, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), theanine, tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). However, none of these studies have been conducted in a systematic way.
Best Summaries (Literature Reviews)
Regular English: https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/supplements-for-anxiety#takeaway
http://www.nutritionj.com/content/9/1/42 Bystritsky, A., MD, PhD. (2018, October 11).
Complementary and Alternative Treatments for Anxiety Symptoms and Disorders: Herbs and Medications (M. B. Stein MD, MPH & R. Herman MD, Eds.). Retrieved January 25, 2018, from uptodate.com