Supplements for Anxiety: More Nutrition, Less Stress

Authored by Brady Holmer • 
November 11, 2019
 • 9 min read
supplementsnutritioncognitionnootropics

Your armpits are sweaty, butterflies are fluttering around in your stomach, and your heartbeat feels like a tiny little drum inside your chest.

Sound familiar? While you might not feel these same physical manifestations before a big performance or event, maybe you have things in life which make you constantly worry or preoccupy your mind. In today’s society where deadlines, relationships and a “more is better” mentality put pressure on us all, feelings of anxiety are almost a sure thing. This might have a hugely negative impact on health and well-being.

On the bright side, we know a lot about what can cause anxiety. This has led to research into ways to treat it. Findings have uncovered certain naturally-occurring compounds and nutritional treatments that may help stave off stress and reduce anxiety levels to help people live their best lives.

Defining Anxiety

You know it when you feel it. Constant, irrational feelings that something just isn’t right, thoughts that you or someone you know is in trouble, jittery or tight feelings in your chest, internal dialog that you “just aren’t good enough.” This is anxiety. It could be hampering your ability to perform at your best. Over time, it can sabotage health, well-being and impact personal relationships.

Anxiety affects over 40 million Americans—it’s the most common form of mental illness. While it can have a different manifestation for everyone, a standard definition involves symptoms including  “excessive, uncontrollable worry that causes distress and interferes with a patient's ability to function normally.”1

A bit of stress and anxiety is normal, even beneficial at times. We need these feelings in order to respond to the world around us and stay alert.

However, chronic stress, common in today’s society, puts us all at a greater risk for ill health.

Chronic anxiety has been associated with increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease in healthy people even after adjusting for other risk factors.2 Long-term health risks aside, high stress also leads to headaches, uncontrolled trembling, sweating, and muscle aches and tension; all of these can turn into great life annoyances.

An Alternative to Anxiety

A commonly-cited cause of anxiety is that it comes about due to a dysregulation of neurotransmitters in the brain. When levels of beneficial mood-stabilizing molecules like serotonin (the "feel good" hormone), dopamine (the “reward” hormone), and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are out of whack, it alters how we think and how we perceive reality.

As a result, anxiety treatments have often involved drugs designed to target neurotransmitters—these often take the form of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines. However, these so called “anti-depressants” have performed poorly in clinical trials for anxiety and often come with some nasty side effects.

No need to worry—there are other options besides prescription medications. Traditional natural remedies once used to treat anxiety are now being rigorously studied in clinical trials. While no supplement or herbal should be used to replace a prescription medication or doctor-approved therapy, certain natural remedies can certainly be used as adjuncts to an anxiety-relief plan. Always consult a doctor before adding supplements to your routine, as they might have side effects or drug interactions.

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Herbal Remedies for Anxiety

Thanks to science, we now have evidence that a variety of traditional and ancient herbs used to treat anxiety actually “work”—meaning they've been proven effective against a non-active treatment—ruling out the possibility of a placebo effect. Nature seems to have provided us with a bounty of compounds that might work to fight worry and boost your mental health.

Ashwagandha

Also called Indian Ginseng, Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an ultra-popular, historic shrub grown in India and the Middle East. It’s a staple in ayurvedic medicine.

Ashwagandha is considered an “adaptogen”—a substance that is thought to help the body cope with stress better and also adapt to stress over the long term, having a “normalizing” effect on physiology.

The proposed adaptogenic effects have passed muster in clinical trials. In two studies, Ashwagandha extract has been shown to have significant anxiety-reducing benefits when compared to a placebo treatment—with as much as an 88% reduction in symptoms.3,4

Ashwagandha was shown in another trial to significantly improve anxiety symptoms by 56.5%, while a psychotherapy treatment improved anxiety by only 30.5%.5 A large reduction in perceived stress was also observed when Ashwagandha extract was used as an anti-anxiety treatment in people with a history of chronic stress.6 This benefit came with the additional reduction in cortisol, one of the primary hormones released in response to stress.

When you're constantly on the move, there is often little time for sitting down and practicing stress-reduction techniques (who can meditate on the bus?). That’s why supplements containing stress-reducing compounds like Ashwagandha may be a perfect strategy to fend of stress.

You can find Ashwagandha (250mg of pure plant extract) in nootropics or daily supplement with ingredients that have neurological benefits. In addition to anxiety-reducing effects, after consistent supplementation, you might even notice increased memory, mental stamina, and efficiency in cognitive tasks.7,8

Bacopa

Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is another popular ayurvedic herb. It seems like modern medicine is catching on to these powerful plants; one survey showed that Bacopa is one of the most popular memory aids in among 60 - 64 year olds in Australia.9

Bacopa’s effects aren’t limited to memory, cognitive enhancement, and learning; they might extend to anxiety too. In one study, participants who supplemented with Bacopa for 12 weeks experienced lower state and trait anxiety scores compared to a placebo.9 Dose dependent anxiolytic effects have been shown with high-dose Bacopa—effects comparable to a benzodiazepine (Lorazepam).10

There is an additional benefit of Bacopa (and other herbal remedies) versus other prescription medications in the treatment of anxiety. Using this herb seems to promote cognition over the duration of supplementation and even after completion, meaning the benefits still last even once you stop taking the supplement. In contrast, many anti-depressant medications are known to inhibit cognitive performance as an unwanted side-effect. "Au naturel" for the win.

Bacopa may work alongside Ashwagandha in Rise for a combined stress-reducing, cognitive-enhancing effect.

They’re both power herbs of ayurvedic medicine with proven benefits for mental health and well-being.

Passionflower, Kava, and Saint John’s Wort

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a vine mostly found in Central and South America, with some species found in North America and Southeast Asia and Australia.11 While often used in traditional medicine, passionflower was once actually listed as an official “plant drug” in the healthcare pharmacopoeias of the U.S, Britain, Germany, and several other countries. Many uses for this plant exist, but its sedative and anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) properties are the most widely touted.

Results from one study indicate that passionflower extract was effective in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder and in reducing pre-surgery anxiety—effects similar in magnitude to those of a pharmaceutical benzodiazepine (Oxazepam).12 The benefits of the herb also came without the side-effects of the drug; which included impairment of job performance in multiple subjects in the study.13 While passionflower is one of the most historically used herbal remedies for anxiety, more research needs to be done in order to verify its potential benefits.11

Kava (Kava-Kava, from the root Piper methysticum) is a plant native to islands in the Pacific Ocean. The name literally means “intoxicating pepper.” It has been used for hundreds of years in traditional medicine and is gaining popularity in the west.

Substances in Kava, known as kavapyrones, can activate the inhibitory GABA receptors in the brain; they’re what give this herb its potentially anxiety-reducing effects. Kava can make you feel calm, relaxed, and happy (similar to alcohol, but without the other toxic, sedative, and mentally impairing effects).

In a 25-week trial, Kava extract improved somatic and psychic anxiety in people suffering from non-psychotic anxiety.14 Kava has been shown to be just as effective for treating anxiety as traditional medication,15 reducing depressive symptoms, and improving nervous system control in people with diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder and in perimenopausal women.16,17,18 However, there have been some reports of liver toxicity linked with higher-dose Kava use. At present it is unclear how unsafe long-term Kava use may be for liver health.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a flowering shrub native to Europe, long used to treat “the blues.” It might help calm nerves due to the ability of its nearly 10 different extracts to bind flavonoid-like compounds and inhibit the reuptake of certain neurotransmitters.

Despite the solid theory and historic use, findings for this herb have been contradictory.

For instance, SJW has shown an ability to improve OCD symptoms19 and anxiety,20 but was also shown to be no more effective than a placebo treatment in benefitting some of the same disorders.21 When SJW was used as a combination treatment with Valerian root (another herb), symptoms of anxiety improved more quickly than SJW treatment alone.22 More human studies need to be done to solidify SJW as a standalone treatment for anxiety.

Nutritional Supplements for Anxiety

Alone or in combination with other compounds, there are several non-herbal supplements that have been shown to effectively treat anxiety and related conditions. All of them can be easily purchased over-the-counter or found in various nootropics and natural supplements.

L-Theanine

This major amino acid is gaining popularity, and for a good reason.

Found primarily in green tea (giving it the unique taste), L-theanine has been used as a relaxing agent for a long time.

L-theanine raises levels of serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and other neurotransmitters, suggesting it might have anti-anxiety and other protective effects for your brain.

Many describe the L-theanine boost as a feeling of being “calm but alert.” Herein lies its power.

L-theanine is actually one nootropic with the most solid evidence from human studies to back its benefits. This amino acid has been linked with reduced central nervous system, heart rate, and blood pressure responses to a stressful situation. In other words, it might help you stay calm under pressure.23,24,25

At rest in healthy participants, L-theanine showed a relaxing effect, an effect not seen with an anti-anxiety medication.26 L-theanine supplementation has also been effective in treating anxiety in schizophrenic patients and emotional anxiety in cats (relevant maybe, for your pet).27 Even one 200mg dose of L-theanine in human volunteers was enough to boost the intensity of alpha-waves in the brain, hinting at lower anxiety along with a feeling of “relaxation without drowsiness.” 

An ability to reduce anxiety without compromising physical and mental performance is what makes L-theanine particularly special. Nootropics that included L-theanine along with caffeine and ginseng in particular can be used for increasing energy and focus. The combination of these ingredients has been well studied—support backs a compounding benefit for working memory, feelings of alertness, and induction of a calm yet focused “flow state.”28,29

Sometimes, more is better. While L-theanine has shown to be beneficial when used on its own, combining it with other powerful supplemental ingredients might give you more of what you’re looking for.

Magnesium

Magnesium is an all-important mineral, with roles in energy production, cardiovascular regulation, and muscle contraction. It also may have a role to play in mood stabilization, and there seems to be a relationship between magnesium and anxiety. Dietary magnesium deficiency has been shown to induce anxiety in mice and produce a dysregulation in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—a key regulator of emotional and hormonal responses to stress.30

Thankfully (for the mice), magnesium supplementation produces a strong anxiety-reducing effect. In humans too, several clinical studies of magnesium supplementation show that supplementing with magnesium reduces anxiety scores in people with mild anxiety, general anxiety disorder, mild hypertension, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).31

Magnesium is one of the most easily supplemented minerals.

There is a lot of evidence supporting the idea that a majority of people may have a “subclinical” magnesium deficiency. For this reason, it might be extra beneficial to supplement—in the name of long term health and anxiety reduction.

Magnesium supplementation comes in many forms. Some nootropic products that contain magnesium glycinate along with other ingredients, can promote high quality sleep—perhaps one of the best known anxiety-reducing techniques.

Fish Oil (Omega-3 EPA/DHA)

Your brain has the highest concentration of lipids of all the organs in your body; fat makes up a whopping 50% - 60% of your noggin. To be more specific, the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (including EPA and DHA) are particularly desired by the brain. As it turns out, many of us eat a diet that might be too low in omega-3 fats, which are particularly useful as brain food. We don’t get enough EPA and DHA.

People diagnosed with anxiety disorders have been shown to have lower levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) in their cells compared to healthy subjects, and social anxiety has been shown to be associated with lower EPA / DHA concentrations in cell membranes.32 Clearly, a link between these beneficial fats and anxiety exists.

Supplementation studies provide evidence of a causal link and give us a reason to recommend supplementing with essential fatty acids for reducing anxiety symptoms. Studies using an administration of omega-3 fatty acids show that supplementation can reduce test anxiety in students,33 and also can lower levels of anxiety and inflammatory cytokines in medical students.34

In times of stress, the omega-3s might come to the rescue. Rats which were subjected to an aversive stress maze protocol displayed lower anxiety-related behaviors after PUFA supplementation; this was related to reduced stress-hormone levels.35 If you were curious, omega-3 PUFAs also reduce anxiety and boost cognitive performance in the mouse lemur.36

The human and animal data make it clear, supplementing with omega-3s, whether you’re deficient or not, can have brain-boosting effects that take a load of anxiety off your plate.

Omega-3 dietary supplements with DHA and EPA (in a recommended 2:1 ratio) derived from animal sources are designed to serve as the building blocks of cell membranes. Ingredients found in some fish oil supplements have also been shown to boost memory, reduce depression, improve bone health, and enhance cognitive health when used consistently over time.37,38,39

Stress Relief

Whether you suffer from an anxiety disorder or just feel a bit too much stress and worry from day-to-day, there may be a role for natural anxiety supplements in your life.

Again, replacing medication with supplementation is not advised. Certain herbals and nutritive ingredients have been scientifically shown to reduce anxiety in a variety of populations, and adding them to a supplement routine may help you de-stress, enhance your well-being, and climb to the top.

Before starting a routine, consult a healthcare professional to determine the ideal supplement routine for you.

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Scientific Citations

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© 2019 HVMN Inc. All Rights Reserved. H.V.M.N.®, Health Via Modern Nutrition™, Nootrobox®, Rise™, Sprint®, Yawn®, Kado™, and GO Cubes® are registered trademarks of HVMN Inc. ΔG® is a trademark of TΔS® and used under exclusive license by HVMN Inc.