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7 Natural Supplements For Anxiety (Backed By Science)

By on September 26, 2017 in Mood and Wellbeing with 0 Comments

An assortment of natural supplements

Stress and anxiety are extremely prevalent across the world, and the problem appears to be particularly bad in developed countries. We often blame these feelings on the demands of our challenging and busy modern lifestyles. However, anxiety can be detrimental to our lives in more ways than one. Everyone experiences anxiety at times, but when these feelings become too intense or too frequent, they can damage our well-being and even our productivity.

Data from the World Health Organization estimates the number of American adults suffering from an anxiety disorder at 40 million. A class of anxiety-reducing drugs known as benzodiazepines has long been used to treat these disorders, and while this kind of drug can provide effective relief in the short term, it can also have many undesirable side effects, particularly when used on a regular basis.

The use of prescription drugs to treat conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, and panic disorder has followed an alarming pattern in recent years. While the use of anti-anxiety medication among the elderly has sharply declined, use in child and young adult populations has grown significantly.

However, there has also been a trend in recent years toward incorporating natural supplements into our daily routines to combat mild-to-moderate cases of stress and anxiety. This process has been enabled in part by advances in our scientific understanding of how these supplements function within the body.

The dilemma we all face as consumers is in cutting through marketing fluff to the actual science. How can we separate the scientifically proven supplements from the minefield of unproven trash?

In this article, we explore the science behind all of the currently available nutritional supplements aimed at treating anxiety. We analyze each of them with in-depth scientific evidence from human studies and pack out the guide with additional tips as well as other supplements on which you should not waste your money. You can think of this article as the most comprehensive buyers guide for anxiety-conquering supplements anywhere on the web.

Here are your core supplements for anxiety summarized:

Supplement:Summary:Strength of Effect:Quality of Evidence:
KavaAnxiety-alleviating herb native to the Pacific IslandsMediumHigh
LavenderFlowering plant used in aromatherapy or taken in capsule form by mouthMediumMedium
AshwagandhaVersatile herb with a long history of consumption in its native South AsiaMediumHigh-Medium
MagnesiumDeficiency-related anxiety is linked to this mineral but it probably isn't effective in people with healthy levels already in their dietMedium-LowHigh
InositolCompound found in fruits and other food classes but with anxiety-reducing properties in high dosesMediumHigh-Medium
TheanineAmino acid found naturally in teaLowHigh-Medium
Arginine (+ Lysine)Combination of amino acids that appear to combat anxiety related to stressful situationsLowMedium

1. Kava (Piper methysticum)

Dried and partially powdered kava root

Kava is a herb with a long history of human consumption in the Pacific Islands to which it is native, including Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. It is one of the most researched natural supplements with proven anti-anxiety activity and exerts its calming effects quickly after oral administration.

There are many unique compounds present in the plant, but the primary active ingredients responsible for kava’s beneficial effects are thought to be kavalactones. Older plants typically have a higher concentration of kavalactones in their roots, from which most widely available kava supplements are prepared.

The evidence from studies investigating the effects of kava in humans suggest a notable and consistent reduction in anxiety, perhaps even comparable to the efficacy of low-dose benzodiazepines (1).

Kava appears to have anti-anxiety and anti-depressive effects in people with heightened but stable stress levels (2).

Daily use of a kava extract has been shown to reduce self-reported anxiety in a matter of weeks in people with pre-existing mild-to-moderate anxiety (3, 4).

A six-month-long study treating 101 patients with a kava extract noted a persisting beneficial effect starting at around eight weeks of use (5).

Furthermore, an analysis of eleven studies concluded that kava is both “relatively safe” and effective in the short-term alleviation of anxiety (6).

Pros

  • Anxiety-reducing effect proven in numerous studies.
  • Cheap and widely available.
  • Kava has a long history of safe use around the world.

Cons

  • Banned in some countries (e.g., the UK, Poland).
  • Most studies showing the effectiveness and safety of kava have been brief (< 6 months).
  • Kava appears to be safe for the liver, but it is not yet known whether prolonged use of kava at high doses can increase the risk of liver damage.
  • Driving while under the effects of kava may be hazardous in some cases.

How To Take Kava:

  • In most of the available studies on kava, participants received an extract multiple times per day (e.g. 100mg three times per day for a total of 300mg).
  • When purchasing a kava product check the kavalactones content and consider starting your supplementation at around 200mg per day.
  • Kava can be taken on an empty stomach or with a meal.

2. Lavender (Lavandula)

Lavender is a widely distributed flowering plant. A member of the mint family, it is recognized for its vibrant color and pleasant scent. It is an unassuming and perhaps surprising weapon in the fight against anxiety.

In traditional aromatherapy, lavender has long been regarded as an important tool in reducing stress. However, it is challenging to conduct high-quality scientific studies on aromatherapy using the same techniques as those used for supplements taken by mouth.

Lavender oil is widely available in soft gel capsules as an oral supplement and has been studied for its anxiety-combatting effects.

Studies on lavender and anxiety

The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder appear to improve noticeably in individuals using lavender supplements (7). One study found the benefit to be equivalent to using lorazepam, a drug from the benzodiazepine family.

Lavender oil appears to boost the quality and duration of sleep while improving markers of mental and physical health among patients with anxiety disorders (8). In this particular study, researchers found no undesirable sedative effects.

A further trial was conducted in 2012 using lavender oil in patients with a range of disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers found significant improvements in mood, sleep, and anxiety symptoms after six weeks of treatment with 80mg of lavender oil (9).

Pros

  • Good safety profile.
  • Can potentially work even more effectively when used in conjunction with lemon balm supplements.
  • Lavender oil can be used alongside a common contraceptive pill with no negative interactions (10).

Cons

  • Lavender has shown promise for its anti-anxiety properties, but more research is needed to understand its effects fully.
  • At high doses, lavender may have estrogenic side-effects of concern to men and developing boys. However, other researchers have downplayed these concerns.

How To Take Lavender:

  • Most studies to date have used Silexan, a standardized form of lavender oil containing the active ingredient linalool.
  • The supplement can be swallowed in the morning at breakfast.
  • Consider starting with 80mg per day and increasing to a maximum of 160mg if no benefits are observed after severak weeks.

3. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Flowering ashwagandha plant with leaves

Ashwagandha is an “adaptogen” – or in other words, a supplement that can lessen both the mental and physical effects of stress and anxiety.

Although studies on ashwagandha and anxiety are currently limited in number, there is a growing body of promising evidence. Specifically, studies on ashwagandha and social function suggest potential benefits for individuals who suffer from social anxiety (11, 12).

The stress-fighting properties of ashwagandha are similar in magnitude to other adaptogens like Rhodiola Rosea and Panax ginseng. Ashwagandha, however, appears to be the best choice for people suffering from anxiety related to social situations.

A high quality study was conducted in 2012 with treatment individuals receiving 300mg of ashwagandha extract for 60 days. Every participant in this trial suffered from chronic mental stress and researchers found a 28% reduction in blood levels of cortisol – a well-documented “stress hormone” (11).

Pros

  • Ashwagandha appears to exert effects on serotonin signaling in the brain. Studies in rats have shown increases in social interaction following supplementation (13).
  • It has been referred to as a ‘pro-social’ supplement, with the ability to significantly improve social functioning without the use of alcohol – a common “social lubricant.”
  • Appears to lower cortisol levels in chronically stressed subjects.

Cons

  • To date the body of evidence investigating the effects of ashwagandha on anxiety is limited.
  • The supplement may not be as potent in helping people handle acute stress, unrelated to long-term stress.
  • If taken before bed ashwagandha may cause insomnia.

How To Take Ashwagandha:

  • Take between 1 and 3 grams of a standard extract (2:1) approximately 1 hour before an event that may provoke social anxiety to improve function.
  • For daily use, take 150-250mg in a single morning dose.

4. Magnesium

Magnesium rich foods on a wooden table

Magnesium is included on this list as a precaution because a deficiency is known to cause or exacerbate anxiety in both rodents and humans (14).

Athletes are particularly prone to magnesium deficiency as the mineral is lost through sweat. However, deficiency is common in the wider population as well.

Research has identified two seemingly concurrent trends over time – the increasing prevelance of depression and anxiety in developed societies at the same time as dietary magnesium has fallen significantly (15).

Although we can’t say the two trends are directly linked, we know that in the 1800s average intake of magnesium was around 450mg daily. Staple foods like bread have less magnesium today than they did in these times and average intake is now around half the value from two centuries ago.

While there is no strong evidence that magnesium can alleviate anxiety in people who aren’t already deficient, we do know that around half of the US population consume less than the recommended amount of magnesium from their diet (16).

Rodent studies have shown that the deliberate removal of magnesium from the animal’s diet leads to anxiety and depressive-type symptoms (17).

Pros

  • Magnesium is a readily available mineral that can be obtained from foods such as fish, beans and green vegetables.
  • In supplement form, magnesium is both cheap and safe.
  • Individuals who are deficient in magnesium may also see improvements in other symptoms like fatigue and insomnia after upping their intake.

Cons

  • Magnesium is unlikely to help that much with anxiety if your levels of the mineral are not already low. Nevertheless, it’s a useful precautionary supplement to add to your stack for those in doubt.

How To Take Magnesium:

As the first line of action, try to adopt a diet with considerable amounts of fish, nuts and other magnesium-rich foods. This should solve any deficiency of the mineral.

If this isn’t possible, you may consider supplementation.

Various products are available on the market including: magnesium citrate, magnesium diglycinate, and magnesium gluconate. These supplements can generally be taken on an empty stomach with the exception of magnesium gluconate, which is best taken with food to maximize absorption.

Start with 200mg of elemental magnesium in one daily dose. It is generally best to take the supplement before bed to avoid any unwanted drowsiness during the day.

If possible, do not take magnesium with large doses of calcium, zinc, or iron as the minerals interfere with each other’s absorption at higher dosages.

Finally, bear in mind that magnesium can reduce the absorption of antibiotics so it’s advisable to wait 6-8 hours after your dose before taking a magnesium supplement.

5. Inositol

When sold as a nutritional supplement, inositol generally refers to myo-inositol.

The chemical has been researched in relation to its anxiety-beating properties, and the evidence so far is promising.

The dosage required to reduce anxiety appears to be relatively high – around 15-18g per day (18). However, a much smaller dose of around 5g per day may be effective when taking gel capsules rather than the powdered form of inositol.

One study found 12g of inositol taken daily for four weeks helped bring about reductions in symptoms of anxiety. Interestingly, it also appeared to help alleviate panic disorder and agoraphobia, which often occur together.

In another trial, supplementing with 18g of inositol daily for six weeks in individuals with OCD led to a reduction in symptoms of the disorder when measured by the commonly used Yale-Brown diagnostic scale (19).

Pros

  • Appears to have limited side effects, even when taken in larger doses.
  • Inositol research has shown potential promise for sufferers of a wide range of anxiety and depressive disorders including OCD, panic disorder, bulimia (20), agoraphobia, and depression (21).

Cons

  • Research conducted so far suggests a high dose is required to enjoy the benefits of inositol supplementation (up to 18g powder of 5g in softgels).
  • Although the evidence to date is positive, we still need more research and bigger trials before drawing firm conclusions.
  • A study conducted to evaluate inositol in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) failed to show any benefits (22).

How To Take Inositol:

  • Aim to take 15-18g per day, which can be split into multiple doses with food.
  • 5g per day can be taken if you’re supplementing with inositol gel capsules.

6. Theanine

Fresh and dehydrated tea leaves together

We’ve all heard about amino acids – these compounds are known as the building blocks of proteins and also play a role in healthy metabolism.

Theanine is not one of the nine essential amino acids that must be obtained from the diet to maintain good health. Instead, it’s known as a “nondietary” amino acid and is usually only consumed in therapeutic doses by green tea drinkers.

In this capacity, it has long been prized for its apparent ability to balance out the stimulation provided by caffeine and thereby improve cognition.

Theanine has also been researched for its stress-reducing properties, given its reputation for relaxing properties without associated sedation.

A 2004 study failed to prove that one-off supplementation of 200mg theanine can lower anxiety. However, theanine did appear to induce greater self-reported relaxation (23).

Research has been conducted on schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder patients using 400mg of theanine daily for two months. The group that received theanine in addition to their regular medication had reduced anxiety in comparison to the group on medication alone with no negative effects on functioning (24).

One particularly fascinating study found that people experienced less anxiety and stress when asked to perform a math task after first taking 200mg of theanine. Compared to those not taking theanine, the group using the supplement had a 50% lower concentration of a common stress marker in their saliva (25).

Pros

  • Appears to work in conjunction with caffeine to offer both relaxation and improved cognition.
  • Good safety profile within the normal range of daily doses (100-250mg).

Cons

  • Studies conducted so far have only a small number of participants.
  • Not all research supports theanine’s anxiety-lowering properties – one study found a one-off dose of 200mg did not reduce so-called “state anxiety” – the anxiety felt when facing a challenging or threatening situation (26).

How To Take Theanine:

  • Take from 100-200mg in up to two daily doses, with a meal.
  • Theanine can be obtained from green tea (hot or cold) and may act synergistically with caffeine to improve attention and cognition.

7. Arginine (+ Lysine)

When combined, these two amino acids appear to benefit people suffering from a particular form of anxiety.

As described earlier, state anxiety is the emotional discomfort we may feel in response to a stressful situation. Meanwhile, trait anxiety is a measure of an individuals general predisposition toward state anxiety when exposed to a stressor.

Researchers have found a combination of 3g each of arginine and lysine to be somewhat effective in reducing state anxiety associated with a public speaking test (27).

A similar study conducted with these two supplements found a reduction in both state and trait anxiety related to stress after just seven days (28).

Correcting dietary deficiencies of lysine in disadvantaged communities has been shown to help lower anxiety (29).

Pros

  • The benefits of these supplements can be enjoyed quite fast with the treatment period lasting seven and ten days respectively in trials.
  • The action of lysine on the brain’s serotonin receptors make it a useful candidate for beating anxiety and stress.

Cons

  • We can’t say for sure whether arginine has any major anxiety-reducing properties or whether lysine did all the heavy lifting in these studies.
  • The trials conducted so far focus on state anxiety, so it remains difficult to draw conclusions about the benefits of this combination for other forms of anxiety.

How To Take Arginine and Lysine:

  • Aim for 2.5-3g each of these supplements split across two daily doses. They can be taken with or without food.

Honorable Mentions

These are the promising supplements for anxiety that didn’t quite make the cut:

SupplementWhy wasn't it included?
Vitex Agnus CastusDespite one promising study suggesting improvements in anxiety related to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), there is insufficient evidence overall for this supplement to make the main list.
Lemon BalmLemon balm is a mild sedative, and when taken before bed it may help alleviate anxiety caused by poor sleep.

Some evidence suggests stress-busting properties but sedation and lowered alertness may be a concern for some.
Panax GinsengPanax ginseng is an adaptogen (like ashwagandha) and rodent studies have suggested a possible stress-reduction pathway.
Rhodiola RoseaAnother adaptogen, one study found benefits in patients with generalized anxiety disorder. However, more research is needed.
N-AcetylcysteineA twelve-week study on trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling) found significant reductions in the behavior, as well as improvements in anxiety related to the disorder. The potential benefits of the supplement for patients with other anxiety disorders isn't clear.
Bacopa Monnieri
Bacopa monnieri was found to lower anxiety and depression symptoms in elderly individuals in a small study. Again, more research is needed to understand the potential uses of this supplement.

Ineffective Supplements (Avoid These)

Refusing an alcoholic drink

These are the “supplements” or recreational drugs that won’t work. In some cases, they may even make your anxiety worse in the short and long term.

Tobacco

Nicotine can be taken in the form of gum or absorbed through a skin patch. However, the most common source is, of course, tobacco smoking.

Smoking is especially habit-forming because it delivers nicotine into the bloodstream rapidly. New users experience stimulation and anti-anxiety effects from the substance, but prolonged use leads to tolerance and addiction.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms are an inevitable part of quitting a long-term habit and are known to greatly increase feelings of anxiety, often leading smokers back into their old unhealthy habits. For this reason among many others, it is best to stay clear of tobacco when taking steps to manage your anxiety.

Alcohol

The vicious cycle of alcohol and anxiety

Socializing over alcoholic drinks from time to time is unlikely to cause or dramatically worsen anxiety. However, it’s easy to fall into the trap of self-medicating with alcohol to overcome anxiety-provoking situations. Using alcohol to overcome stress can cause dependency and addiction.

Not only does alcoholism exacerbate anxiety in the long run but it also leads to unpleasant psychological withdrawal symptoms on discontinuation of use. Indeed, anxiety is a common feature of hangovers and so even in the short term alcohol use may lead to worsened symptoms.

Yohimbine

This traditional African remedy has been touted as a fat loss aid and even as a cure for sexual dysfunction.

Unfortunately, it is also believed to cause anxiety and people with preexisting susceptibility to anxiety seem to be particularly prone to this unpleasant effect.

Bottom Line

The evidence-based approach of this article is intended to help you select supplements for anxiety with greater confidence in your ability to separate real science from marketing hyperbole.

We’ve seen, for instance, that combining arginine and lysine may offer help in tackling so-called “state and trait” anxiety; and ashwagandha (as an adaptogen) may assist in coping with the fallout of chronic stress.

But remember: nutritional supplements are not necessarily a cure-all for any physical or emotional complaint. Lifestyle changes can also bring huge benefits when it comes to relaxation.

Being outdoors in nature is effective at lowering anxious thoughts for many people. Other people find deep breathing and meditation to be a potent weapon against anxiety. Exercise can also help.

So, it’s always best to tackle anxiety on multiple fronts and if your symptoms are controlling your life then consider visiting your doctor to talk about avenues such as medication or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

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About the Author

About the Author:

Tom Andrews BSc is the founder of MentalWellnessToday.com and serves as its editor-in-chief. He devotes his time to psychology and mental health research and also enjoys climbing, hiking, and team sports. Tom is a contributor to several other highly regarded health magazines and blogs.

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