I’ve heard that many writers, whether it be TV, comedy, or book authors, swear that taking cigarette breaks is a crucial aspect of their writing process. It helps them be more creative, stay focused and remain relaxed. While we all know that smoking is bad, could there be some merit to these proclaimed benefits?
Science shows us that there actually are some cognitive benefits to taking nicotine. There was some conflict between the results of some studies, but I will be talking about the results that a majority of researchers came to. Before we go any further, if you didn’t already know, nicotine is an addictive substance so use it safely and at your own risk.
Maintaining Your Attention
No matter how hard you try to continuously grind away at a task, you have to give up at some point to take a break. Luckily for us, there are many tips and techniques to maintain your attention longer (for another cool way head here) and science has shown that nicotine use is one of them.
How Nicotine Affects the Brain
Many studies have been done on how nicotine affects our brains. In one interesting study, researchers administered a nicotine patch to participants and measured brain activity. Among many other changes, the largest change was a deactivation in the Default Mode Network which is the part of the brain associated with resting brain function .
Normally, we would interpret a deactivation in the brain as a bad thing. We want our brains to be as active as possible, right? Well, it turns out that the Default Mode Network requires a hefty portion of our brains processing power by working in the background. Turning this off allows our brain to put more resources towards the task at hand.
Use Nicotine To Stay Focused
Those same researchers also wanted to test how the nicotine patches affected the participants’ performance in a few standardized tests. Interestingly, nicotine didn’t improve performance early on but DID improve how long the nicotine group was able to concentrate which led to better performance later on in the tasks.
“when attention towards a task starts to dwindle and task-independent thought processes intrude, nicotine may help impede such internal processes and maintain the alerting properties of the task stimuli.”
This has also been found elsewhere; participants given nicotine in the form of tablets or smoking maintained attention during a monotonous task longer than a control who was given a placebo (tablet or cigarette with no nicotine) . Another study also found that smoking (possibly vaping) was most effective due to higher blood levels being achieved.
Other Interesting Benefits From Nicotine Use
Aside from the increased ability to maintain focus, there are many other benefits researchers have found that stem from nicotine use. One useful benefit was that short and long-term memory was improved in smokers and non-smokers who were given nicotine . This is awesome and further solidifies a case for nicotine as a useful nootropic, but they hypothesized that the reason for this benefit may be the result of maintaining quality attention for longer periods of time like we talked about earlier.
The same group also found that response accuracy increased in the nicotine groups which could also be a result of higher quality focus but may also be due to the relaxing effects nicotine has. Furthermore, nicotine increased the response accuracy, especially under high-pressure situations. An extreme example of this was shown in pilots. Amazingly, pilots that were given nicotine performed better in an intense flight simulator than the control group that was not given anything .
“At the behavioral level, we found that nicotine improved performance in all active conditions in terms of response accuracy”
Nicotine and Brain Diseases
When we think of cigarettes, we immediately begin thinking about all the diseases that arise as a result of smoking. It definitely wreaks havoc on the heart and lungs among others. However, I bet you didn’t expect to hear that smoking has been correlated with a lower incidence of some diseases.
These diseases are all typically diseases of the brain and have been specifically correlated to, you guessed it, nicotine. Some specific examples of these include improvements in condition and lower occurrence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and ADHD.
Where to Go From Here
With all the evidence shown here, I hope that you are still repulsed by the idea of smoking cigarettes. However, maybe some of the stigma around nicotine by itself, which is mostly unharmful unless abused, has been lifted. If you do want to try it, I would recommend trying some sort of vape with a liquid that contains small levels of nicotine and work your way up to a level that works for you. While I’m not asking you to try nicotine, keep an open mind when it comes to the benefits it may hold.
Wake up and smell the bacon! The birds are chirping outside your window and you feel great after a full night of undisturbed sleep. Or, you feel awful after “laying in bed” for 7 hours. You wouldn’t necessarily call what you just did all night sleep. To put the cherry on top, it probably takes you quite a while to fall asleep in the first place. Now, you feel tired and lethargic throughout the day, just to start the process over again at night.
If this is you, then listen up. Getting people to sleep easier and more efficiently is something that has been studied extensively, and for good reason. It’s estimated that sleep deprivation results in approximately $65 billion in lost productivity and healthcare just in the United States . This cost comes from the suffering of 70 million people, making sleep deprivation one of the most common health problems a person can have. Even more disturbing, it is estimated that 3.6 million human years are lost every year due to the burden sleep deprivation has on the body. Sleeping pills might be a quick answer, but many discontinue use due to the negative side effects. Because of this, it is crucial that we find natural ways to get to sleep faster and maintain it throughout the night.
In order to understand the studies on sleep (and for pure interest), let’s take a look at some of the different cycles we go through during sleep. Sleep consists of two major states: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). These are then split into four stages. For NREM, stages 3 and 4 are where we get our deepest sleep, called slow-wave sleep. This state is defined by a specific brain state . These are the ones where we get the most rest, but many times are the culprit when we wake up tired if they are not reached.
Interestingly, during REM sleep the brain maintains similar activity patterns as when we are awake. It takes about 90 minutes to cycle between REM and NREM sleep, and this happens with varying intensities 5-6 times a night. Our sleep patterns are generally controlled by circadian rhythm and homeostasis. Homeostasis regulates how tired or awake we feel and depends on how much “sleep debt” we have accumulated. This system then interacts with our circadian rhythm, which is in charge of sending the signals to our brain that put us to sleep.
Techniques That Improve Sleep
Now that we know a bit about sleep, it’s time to get into the plethora of ways we can improve it and consequently our lives. Surprisingly, science has actually uncovered many practical techniques and natural supplements that we can add to our daily routine to help us out.
Do Morning Exercise
Any and all exercise is bound to help you sleep better, but there are huge benefits if you exercise specifically in the morning . The thought is that by doing this, you help reset your circadian rhythm and homeostasis. Even if you can’t hit the gym, there are still great home exercise routines such as bodyweight lifts and cardio that will help you achieve this goal.
Change Your Environment
Many of us don’t realize how little natural light we see throughout the day. We wake up early when the sun hasn’t fully risen, head to work in a poorly lit building, and then wander home to relax with the blinds down. This can be detrimental to our sleep since our circadian rhythm runs largely on natural light . Seeing the sun signals our body to stay awake, and when it starts getting dark, we start producing melatonin to ease us into sleep. Try to make as many small changes as you can to get more natural light.
In addition to environment, it’s important to keep the temperature down at night. If you need to wrap up in a blanket, do it, but our bodies heat up when we sleep (ever wonder why you always wake up with the blankets kicked off?) . Because of this, keep your room around 65oF if possible.
Avoid Heavy Stimulant and Alcohol Consumption
This one is fairly self-explanatory, but many (including myself) try to downplay the negative effects that stimulants have on our sleep cycle. Researchers found that having a moderate to high intake of caffeine nearly doubles your chance of struggling to fall asleep and decreases the amount of time you spend in slow-wave sleep . This then leads to increased daytime sleepiness which causes a downward spiral of consuming more caffeine to counteract the tired feeling. If you need a couple cups of coffee in the morning to get you going, try to cut off caffeine at least 6 hours before bed.
“higher caffeine intake as early as 12 years of age is associated with shorter sleep duration, increased sleep onset latency, increased wake time after sleep onset, and increased daytime sleepiness”
The same is true for other stimulants such as nicotine, Adderall, Ritalin, etc. These will keep you from achieving deep sleep and make you more tired and unhealthy ,.
Don’t Let Weekends Throw Off Your Schedule
You made it through a week of work/school (or both) and finally get to stay up late and sleep in. What a good feeling! WRONG. Not to be a party killer, but this shift in our sleeping habits can wreak havoc on our circadian rhythm when Monday comes around . We completely throw our body’s schedule off by doing this and our sleep suffers.
Even if you don’t have a late night out on the town, just staying up a couple hours past normal and sleeping in a bit later can be detrimental . We accumulate “sleep debt” throughout the week and try to make up for it on weekends. Playing catch up is no good. Even sleeping the same amount at night but taking a 2-hour nap has been shown to harm sleep quality. The key here is, to the best of your ability, try and avoid accumulating sleep debt. If that isn’t an option, just sleep slightly longer at night on weekends and take a short nap (>1 hour).
Falling asleep when you’re tense and have a million thoughts running through your mind is near impossible. Because of this, relaxing your body and easing your anxiety is crucial to getting a good night’s sleep. There has been a lot of research done on the link between anxiety and sleep deprivation with some interesting findings. In the end, they are both deeply intertwined and can make each other worse . Generally speaking, there is a significant correlation between anxiety and sleep .
“sleep deprivation increased anxiety and depression, as well as general distress, relative to a normal night of sleep control condition”
Sleep deprivation can increase jitteriness and agitation, both of which are forms of physical arousal . Elevated physical arousal is a central symptom of anxiety which is felt as our fight or flight response, for example . From this, we can see how closely the two are related. These studies show how sleep deprivation causes more anxiety, but it has also been shown that anxiety itself can lead to a significant decrease in sleep quality . Once again, the downward spiral that can occur is evident. Because of this, it is imperative that we increase our sleep quality with the methods of this article and also decrease our anxiety at the same time.
“How do I decrease my anxiety?” you may ask. Well, I will name a few methods in brief, but you may want to check out some of our in-depth articles for more clarification. One study showed that Qigong led to significant decreases in anxiety while simultaneously increasing sleep quality . If that isn’t enough eastern mysticism for you, meditation has also been shown to be an effective way to decrease anxiety and get into deep sleep . If you want something a bit simpler to start with, just relaxing your muscles by focusing on different body parts one at a time has been shown to also help people fall asleep .
Put Your Electronics Away
This might be an outlandish statement, but would it be possible to keep all electronics out of your bedroom? I mean your TV, laptop, tablet and keeping your phone in airplane mode so that you can use it only as an alarm. If you could do this and stop using them an hour or so before bed, you would likely see a huge benefit in your sleep. Studies have shown that the blue light emitted by screens suppresses melatonin, making it much harder to fall asleep and get into the ever so coveted slow-wave sleep state . Using electronics increases mental and physical arousal (going back to what we saw with anxiety) which is NOT good for sleep.
Specifically, social media use before bed has been shown to increase anxiety and decrease sleep quality . I know that little dopamine rush from social media feels great in the moment, but it isn’t worth being tired all day. Besides the physical and mental stuff, just being on your phone will make you stay up past your bedtime. If you absolutely cannot part ways from your phone and Instagram, at least get a strong blue light filter to mitigate the damage.
There are a few other small things that could be causing you to not sleep as well. Researchers found that being overweight doesn’t directly cause poor sleep, but it does make you more likely to experience sleep apnea, which then leads to poor sleep . Another way to get more deep sleep is to avoid drinking fluids before bed . Children are told this all the time because they will wet the bed. When we get older, we gain the ability to wake up when we need to go to the bathroom. Problem solved, right? Well, not really, because the last thing we want is to get thrown out of NREM sleep just to urinate.
Supplements That Improve Sleep
Now we are going to shift gears in our discussion of improving sleep. Aside from all the techniques above, there are also many supplements that have solid research showing significant improvements in sleep. Natural supplements are desirable because they allow us to avoid the many side-effects that come along with many prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids. Alongside having very few side effects, they actually work!
L-Theanine is an amino acid in our bodies and is interestingly found in green tea. If you are a caffeine junkie, listen up. Studies have shown that l-theanine has the ability to “smooth out” the negative side-effects of caffeine while allowing us to maintain the stimulatory effect . Moreover, this amino acid also helps to decrease sleep disturbance throughout the night, allowing us to maintain slow-wave sleep . Along with a decrease in sleep disturbance, another double-blind placebo study found it may help you get to sleep faster as well .
“400 mg daily of L-theanine is safe and effective in improving some aspects of sleep quality”
5-HTP and GABA
The names of these two sound like they are from another planet and their effect on sleep is out of this world (pardon the pun)! Despite their obscure names, they are actually compounds found naturally in our body. 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin and has been shown in many studies to be a beneficial supplement for sleep. In mice, which have a sleep mechanism similar to humans, NREM sleep was increased after their diet was supplemented with 5-HTP . 5-HTP has also been shown to increase serotonin, a molecule that makes us feel good and helps us sleep .
GABA on its own has shown some remarkable results as well. The role of GABA is to bind to parts of the central nervous system that make us active, which in turn helps us sleep. Supplementation with GABA has resulted in increased NREM sleep as well . Another study reported better overall sleep when GABA was taken compared to a control . This supplement gets into the bloodstream fast, so take it right before bed.
“GABA significantly shortened sleep latency and increased the total non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep time”
The effects on their own are fantastic, but when taken together, they have been shown to have an even greater effect. One double-blind placebo-controlled study resulted in participants falling asleep easier along with making it easier to wake up . We all have mornings when it is almost impossible to get out of bed. Luckily, GABA and 5-HTP are here to help.
“GABA and 5-hydroxytryptophan reduced time to fall asleep, decreased sleep latency, increased the duration of sleep, and improved quality of sleep”
Melatonin is a long-time heavyweight champion in the supplement world when it comes to helping us get to sleep. This is the hormone made by our bodies that is ever so important in helping us actually fall asleep. There is also no shortage of scientific literature showing the efficacy either. Among night-shift workers, sleep problems are almost universal due to their circadian rhythms being in constant disarray. However, supplementing with 5 mg of melatonin helped them fall asleep with ease on their off days . But how does it work for the average Joe who is just looking to catch a few more Z’s? More researchers have come to the rescue! In one study, they found that melatonin was able to significantly improve overall sleep quality when compared to the placebo .
“Sleep onset latency was significantly reduced while subjects were taking melatonin as compared with both placebo and baseline. “
In general, one meta-study (a study that examines a bunch of other studies) from MIT came to the conclusion that there was enough research out there to say that melatonin does work . 1 mg is a dosage that can be taken on a daily basis, with higher doses being reserved for a night when you really can’t fall asleep.
This is another amino acid that you might know if you’ve heard the myth about eating turkey making you tired on Thanksgiving. While I’m not sure if you actually get enough from turkey to make you sleepy, I DO know that it will help you get to sleep as a supplement. This amino acid is the precursor to 5-HTP, which we have already talked about. Since it is the precursor, it holds many of the same effects, such as increasing serotonin . L-Tryptophan has also been shown to increase melatonin ; we already know how that works as well from earlier in the article.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in our brain and essential for many biochemical processes throughout the body . Specifically, being deficient in magnesium increases neural excitation , which is the opposite of what we want when trying to get to sleep. I know many people who take it just to relax, but let’s get back to the science. As we get more and more sleep deprived, our magnesium stores get depleted , which only compounds the negative effects. Because of this, supplementation is crucial. Like the other supplements on this list, magnesium supplementation has also been shown to improve sleep and increase melatonin . It also improves sleep in the most crucial area, which is NREM sleep .
“Supplementation of magnesium appears to improve subjective measures of insomnia such as ISI score, sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset latency, early morning awakening”
Onto the more herbal side of things, valerian root is a good place to start. People have been using this one for millennia, and science shows for good reason. In clinical studies, valerian was shown to improve sleep quality and decrease the time it took to fall asleep for the participants. Even more, it helped people fall asleep with an efficacy similar to a group taking benzodiazepines . One of the suggested mechanisms is that it increases GABA levels and also hits the same receptors as GABA . Both of these make it a good option for your next sleep aid.
Kava is well known for its anxiety fighting effect (check it out here) but is less known as a sleep aid, despite a heavy amount of research in this area. It was found that kava has the ability to decrease the time it takes to get to sleep and also improve the quality of the sleep . It can also work for pain relief and to relax muscles. Within kava, the extracts called kavalactones and kavain were shown to partially cause this altered sleep behavior . These extracts also go to work on the GABA system and that, if you haven’t picked up by now, is very important for sleep.
Passionflower and Chamomile
These two didn’t have as much research behind them as the other supplements on this list, but they get an honorable mention because there were a few studies floating in the ether fighting for them. One double-blind placebo-controlled study found that passionflower tea was able to improve the sleep quality of the participants in the study .
“sleep quality showed a significantly better rating for passionflower compared with placebo “
Similarly, chamomile tea is a long-time staple among recovering insomniacs. It is hypothesized that it works along the lines of the GABA pathway through an extract called apigenin . It may also be effective for lowering anxiety. So, if your local Seven-Eleven doesn’t have any of the other supplements on this list, give these two a whirl and see what happens.
This is a long list. To get better sleep, don’t feel like you have to try it all at once. Just implement the techniques for better sleep when applicable and try a couple of the supplements out. I would recommend starting with a 1mg melatonin and to stop electronic use at least an hour before bed. If you want to go further, pick and choose any others that seem appealing to you. Good sleep and unlimited energy awaits!
Do you have any techniques or supplements that help you sleep?
Any other comments or suggestions?
Leave them below!
 “Sleep Hygiene.” National Sleep Foundation, sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/sleep-hygiene
 Monti, Jaime M., and Daniel Monti. “Sleep Disturbance in Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, vol. 4, no. 3, 2000, pp. 263–276., doi:10.1053/smrv.1999.0096.
 Hidese, Shinsuke, et al. “Effects of Chronic l-Theanine Administration in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder: an Open-Label Study.” Acta Neuropsychiatrica, vol. 29, no. 02, 2016, pp. 72–79., doi:10.1017/neu.2016.33.
 Jang, Hwan-Soo, et al. “L-Theanine Partially Counteracts Caffeine-Induced Sleep Disturbances in Rats.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, vol. 101, no. 2, 2012, pp. 217–221., doi:10.1016/j.pbb.2012.01.011.
 Lyon, MR, et al. “The Effects of L-Theanine (Suntheanine®) on Objective Sleep Quality in Boys with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): a Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial.” Alternative Medicine Review, vol. 16, no. 4, 16 Dec. 2011, pp. 348–354.
 Shell, William, et al. “A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of an Amino Acid Preparation on Timing and Quality of Sleep.” American Journal of Therapeutics, vol. 17, no. 2, 2010, pp. 133–139., doi:10.1097/mjt.0b013e31819e9eab.
 Yamatsu, Atsushi, et al. “Effect of Oral Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Administration on Sleep and Its Absorption in Humans.” Food Science and Biotechnology, vol. 25, no. 2, 2016, pp. 547–551., doi:10.1007/s10068-016-0076-9.
 Sadeghniiat-Haghighi, Khosro, et al. “Efficacy and Hypnotic Effects of Melatonin in Shift-Work Nurses: Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Crossover Trial.” Journal of Circadian Rhythms, vol. 6, 2008, p. 10., doi:10.1186/1740-3391-6-10.
 Dolberg, Ornah T., et al. “Melatonin for the Treatment of Sleep Disturbances in Major Depressive Disorder.” American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 155, no. 8, 1998, pp. 1119–1121., doi:10.1176/ajp.155.8.1119.
 Thomson, Elizabeth. “Rest Easy: MIT Study Confirms Melatonin’s Value as Sleep Aid.” MIT News, News Office, 1 Mar. 2005, news.mit.edu/2005/melatonin.
 Ngan, A., and R. Conduit. “A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Investigation of the Effects of Passiflora Incarnata (Passionflower) Herbal Tea on Subjective Sleep Quality.” Phytotherapy Research, vol. 25, no. 8, 2011, pp. 1153–1159., doi:10.1002/ptr.3400.
 Gyllenhaal, Charlotte, et al. “Efficacy and Safety of Herbal Stimulants and Sedatives in Sleep Disorders.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, vol. 4, no. 3, 2000, pp. 229–251., doi:10.1053/smrv.1999.0093.
 Yurcheshen, Michael, et al. “Updates on Nutraceutical Sleep Therapeutics and Investigational Research.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2015, 2015, pp. 1–9.,
 Weeks, Benjamin. “Formulations of Dietary Supplements and Herbal Extracts for Relaxation and Anxiolytic Action: Relarian.” Med Sci Monit, vol. 15, no. 11, 1 Nov. 2009, pp. 256–262.
 Morrow JD; Vikraman S; Imeri L; Opp MR. Effects of serotonergic activation by 5-hydroxytryptophan on sleep and body temperature of C57BL/6J and interleukin-6-deficient mice are dose and time related. SLEEP 2008;31(1):21-33.
 Held, K., et al. “Oral Mg2 Supplementation Reverses Age-Related Neuroendocrine and Sleep EEG Changes in Humans.” Pharmacopsychiatry, vol. 35, no. 4, 2002, pp. 135–143., doi:10.1055/s-2002-33195.
 Examine.com. “Magnesium – Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects.” Examine.com, Examine.com, 29 Apr. 2017, examine.com/supplements/magnesium/.
 Takase, Bonpei, et al. “Effect of Chronic Stress and Sleep Deprivation on Both Flow-Mediated Dilation in the Brachial Artery and the Intracellular Magnesium Level in Humans.” Clinical Cardiology, vol. 27, no. 4, 2004, pp. 223–227., doi:10.1002/clc.4960270411.
 Abbasi, Behnood, et al. “The Effect of Magnesium Supplementation on Primary Insomnia in Elderly: A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial.” The Effect of Magnesium Supplementation on Primary Insomnia in Elderly: A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial, vol. 17, no. 12, Dec. 2012, pp. 1161–1169.
 Chollet, Didier, et al. “Blood and Brain Magnesium in Inbred Mice and Their Correlation with Sleep Quality.” American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, vol. 279, no. 6, 2000, doi:10.1152/ajpregu.2000.279.6.r2173.
U.S. Surgeon General. Frontiers of Knowledge in Sleep & Sleep Disorders: Opportunities for Improving Health and Quality of Life. National Institutes of Health; Bethesda, MD: 2004.
 Woods, Heather Cleland, and Holly Scott. “#Sleepyteens: Social Media Use in Adolescence Is Associated with Poor Sleep Quality, Anxiety, Depression and Low Self-Esteem.” Journal of Adolescence, vol. 51, 2016, pp. 41–49., doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.05.008.
 Crowley, Stephanie J., and Mary A. Carskadon. “Modifications To Weekend Recovery Sleep Delay Circadian Phase In Older Adolescents.” Chronobiology International, vol. 27, no. 7, 2010, pp. 1469–1492., doi:10.3109/07420528.2010.503293.
 Owens, J. “Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults: An Update on Causes and Consequences.” Pediatrics, vol. 134, no. 3, 2014, doi:10.1542/peds.2014-1696.
 Jaehne, Andreas, et al. “Effects of Nicotine on Sleep during Consumption, Withdrawal and Replacement Therapy.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, vol. 13, no. 5, 2009, pp. 363–377., doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2008.12.003.
 Chan, Jessie S. M., et al. “Qigong Exercise Alleviates Fatigue, Anxiety, and Depressive Symptoms, Improves Sleep Quality, and Shortens Sleep Latency in Persons with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome-Like Illness.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2014, 2014, pp. 1–10., doi:10.1155/2014/106048.
 Gregory, Alice M., et al. “Prospective Longitudinal Associations Between Persistent Sleep Problems in Childhood and Anxiety and Depression Disorders in Adulthood.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, vol. 33, no. 2, 2005, pp. 157–163., doi:10.1007/s10802-005-1824-0.
 Babson, Kimberly A., et al. “A Test of the Effects of Acute Sleep Deprivation on General and Specific Self-Reported Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms: An Experimental Extension.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, vol. 41, no. 3, 2010, pp. 297–303., doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2010.02.008.
 Everson C. Physiological consequences of sleep deprivation. Journal of Musculoskeletal Pain. 1998;6:93–101.
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.
Herbal Remedies for Anxiety
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.
St. John’s Wort
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.
Other Supplements for Anxiety
L-lysine and L-arginine
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 ofinositol 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.
Folate (Folic Acid) and B12
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 Fatty Acids
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 Should You Do?
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?
Any other comments, questions, or suggestions?
Feel free to contact us or leave them below.
Get the 'BranyMail' Sent To Your Inbox And Stay Up To Date With Us