We all get anxiety, and when it seems like it’s getting out of control we may not know where to look for a solution. Maybe, going to the doctor would seem like a fix to your problem. While many times prescriptions given out for medication can work, all too often it leads to abuse, dependence, or adverse side effects. Unbeknown to most, there are many supplements and herbal remedies that have been shown by science to be effective ways to reduce anxiety while avoiding the negative side effects of pharmaceuticals.
I used to work in a supplement shop, so I know how intimidating walking into one can be. The walls seem like they go on infinitely with millions of different colored bottles lined on the shelves. You read the nearest label, and it may say “Cat’s Claw”, “Pycnogenol”, or some other obscure name that you probably didn’t even know existed. Out of the corner of your eye, something no short of a monster makes you freeze with fear.
Luckily for you, it was just a poster of a muscular behemoth humanoid with the headline “GAIN 60 POUNDS OF MUSCLE IN 10 DAYS GUARANTEED!!” Where do you even start looking for something that may help with your anxiety?
Don’t worry, leave the searching part for me. I’ve spent a long time sifting through the research that is out there and found some legitimate candidates that have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies I read didn’t survive my scrutiny. I tried to pick only double-blind placebo studies. These present some of the most unbiased research and relatively trustable results. If your favorite supplement that you’ve been taking for years didn’t make the list, keep taking it. The research for the various supplements and herbal remedies was just the most convincing that I found.
Of all the herbal remedies out there, Kava has the most conclusive research resulting in anxiety relief. Traditionally, Kava would be taken as a drink in tea form, but the studies that tested it utilized kava extract form. A summary of a few studies concluded that 70-100mg of extract a day taken for at least 8 weeks led to the most benefit . While Kava may be effective for anxiety, be careful not to exceed 400mg of extract a day. This has been shown to be harmful to the liver and kidneys and led to it being banned in a few countries. We are trying to fix anxiety, not give you more with kidney and liver issues!
Passionflower (specifically Passiflora Incarnate) comes in a close second place when it comes to clinical research done on its use as a treatment for anxiety. Three different double-blind placebo studies all resulted in a significant self-reported reduction in anxiety . One of these studies tested Passionflower against oxazepam, a pharmaceutical anti-depressant. Amazingly, Passionflower extract was just as effective and avoided all of the negative side effects ! Between 1970 and 1990, Passionflower was even listed as an official plant drug for anxiety and depression. Once in the body, an increase in important neurotransmitters may be the reason it works so well.
Unfortunately, St. John’s Wort didn’t have any well-conducted studies that made me believe it belonged on this list of anxiety-reducing herbs. However, it gets an honorable mention because it does have a pile of evidence showing it may be effective in treating mild to moderate depression. Some researchers put it to the test against an antidepressant medication and a placebo group. Their conclusion was that “St. John’s wort was significantly effective when compared with placebo” . St. John’s Wort is also one of the most popular ones out there which must mean something, right?
While there are many other documented uses for Rhodiola, the research is less clear when it comes to anxiety. However, there was one very thorough double-blind placebo study that found 170g of extract twice daily produced significant reductions in both anxiety and depression . The specific extract utilized was rhizome so if you happen to find some laying around or get a good deal, take it.
“ standardized extract SHR-5 from [Rhodiola] possesses a clear and significant anti-depressive activity in patients suffering from mild to moderate depression”
Chamomile has been known as just a bedtime tea for far too long! While there isn’t a ton of research regarding its specific role in reducing anxiety, one double-blind placebo revealed promising results. After the subjects took extract capsules for an extended period of time, “analysis found a significantly greater reduction over time in the mean total HAM-A (anxiety measurement) score for chamomile versus placebo” . Break away from the norm and maybe give the extract a try.
Ginkgo biloba is well-known for its ability to increase mental performance, but what about its ability to improve mental health? Well, among participants who took 480mg of extract per day, changes in anxiety were found to be significant . Like many of the other herbal supplements above, this one may be worth a try. Also like many of the others, in addition to the possibility of reducing anxiety, you may also be able to obtain some of the other benefits as well.
These are two very useful amino acids that can be found almost anywhere. When the two are taken together (about 2.5g of each per day) for just a week, there was already significant reductions in anxiety . This may partially be due to the fact that L-lysine can act as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Another study found similar results, with patients taking the combination finding an increased ability to manage higher cortisol levels and therefore anxiety .
“A week-long treatment with L-lysine and L-arginine decreased trait anxiety [and] blocked stress-induced state anxiety”
Low levels of magnesium are consistently correlated with increased inflammation which is also associated with anxiety and depression. Magnesium deficiency itself has also been associated with depression. So, it makes sense that supplementing with magnesium may be a good idea if you are deficient, which will be the case unless your diet is very healthy. It makes even more sense after examining a study that showed a statistically significant reduction in depression and a general drop in anxiety after supplementation . 300-400mg daily of a high-quality magnesium should do the trick. If it comes in smaller capsules, start off by taking lower doses to feel out how it affects you and then work your way up. Aside from reduced inflammation, magnesium may also play an important role in cell function and enhances communication between cells. Some researchers found that increasing the amount of magnesium given to mice enhanced their ability to deal with anxiety and lowered anxiety related biomarkers .
We all know (I hope) that B-vitamins are crucial to brain health, and inositol is one of them. In a study comparing it against fluvoxamine, a common SSRI given for anxiety, 18g/day of inositol given for one month was actually more effective in reducing panic attacks . This is strongly related because many panic attacks result from uncontrollable anxiety. Unfortunately, most B-complex supplements have a minuscule amount of inositol, so if you want to try it, opt for a bottle of the powder.
Proving the importance of B-vitamins again, another recent study revealed some fascinating ways that folate (B9) and B12 are related to anxiety and depression. The link is homocysteine, a molecule that causes inflammation . This mechanism digs into biochemistry a bit, but it is interesting to know how it works. I think this is interesting, but if you aren’t curious in the slightest about the pathway, just skip to the last paragraph in this section.
In the diagram, there are a few important things we need to focus on. First, for our purposes we can consider THF to be folate. If we follow the arrows, we see that our bodies eventually turn folate into a product that is used for neurotransmitters. Second, B12 is used to convert homocysteine (Hcy) into SAM, another building block for our central nervous system .
So what does this all mean? Well, supplementation of both folate and B12 have been correlated with lower amounts of homocysteine within certain populations, which is also associated with lower anxiety and depression. With folate, high doses had the most success, but with B12, moderate doses showed the best results . Many B-complex supplements will have adequate doses of the two.
Look back to the top of the diagram above. SAM is the molecule made after the long process involving B12 and can be supplemented directly. The problem is that SAMe supplements are very expensive, but we will see that they may be worth the price. A large review of the literature found that many double-blind placebo studies achieved significantly lowered depression and a correlation with lower anxiety when 1g was taken per day . If the other supplements don’t work for you, this one may be worth a try. Alternatively, SAMe’s alter ego is a superhero who fights for the joints of people everywhere. Taking it for anxiety or depression may also give you the added benefits of stronger joints. Almost every supplement on this list has other known uses such as this.
Omega-3 supplements are becoming more and more popular because of their (you guessed it) anti-inflammatory properties along with general muscle maintenance and brain health. Most of the supplements come from fish oil and are taken because not enough is obtained from the typical western diet. So what can more omega-3 do for anxiety and possibly depression?
Well, a lot actually. The recurring relationship between inflammation, brain health and anxiety/depression still holds true here. Omega-3 supplements can be broken down into two main parts: EPA and DHA. EPA is the part responsible for knocking down inflammation while DHA helps our brains out. A review of a few double-blind placebo studies found that taking 6g/ day (this is a lot!) led to significant reductions in depression . Relating back to anxiety, one specific study found that 3g of omega-3 supplementation per day led to a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms and inflammatory biomarkers among medical school students . Medical school students are under a hefty amount of stress and anxiety, so if it can help them, maybe you can benefit as well.
“the [omega-3] supplemented group had 20% lower geometric mean anxiety scores post-randomization, adjusting for baseline anxiety scores, study visit, and gender”
What you choose to do with this information is completely up to you. Start with one or two supplements at a time and switch them out if you didn’t get the results you were hoping for. I would suggest starting with a good omega-3 (contains >750mg of omega-3 per serving), a B-Complex that has B12 and folic acid among others, and passionflower if you can find it. If you have the budget, feel free to expand and try others on the list. If you are currently taking any sort of prescribed medication, SPEAK TO YOUR HEALTH CARE PRACTIONER BEFORE TAKING SUPPLEMENTS as they may interfere with your treatment.
Are there other supplements out there that may work for you but aren’t on this list? Probably. These are simply supplements that had solid methods that resulted in convincing data. There is also practically no risk associated if you stay within the recommended dosage, so why not give it a try? Since everyone’s body is unique, you are sort of your own experiment when it comes to supplementation. Put some to the test and see what they can do for you!
What has your experience been while supplementing for anxiety?
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