I did a ton of research last year on natural supplements to treat anxiety, so in this post I cover 15 of the research backed natural treatments for anxiety that have been shown to have an impact on anxiety.
My online course “Change your Brain: Ten alternatives to medication to change brain chemistry” goes into a lot more detail about these life skills, how they change brain chemistry, and how to create a well- rounded approach to improving mental health.
When people are looking to treat their anxiety without medication, what they usually mean is that they want to know what herbs and supplements will work for them. And because I get asked about this a lot, I did a ton of research last year on the topic, so in this video I am going to go over 15 of the research backed natural treatments for anxiety that have been shown to have an impact on anxiety, but I am also going to talk about a much more holistic approach to mental health. At the end of this video I’ll list 7 other effective treatments for anxiety, but this video is mostly about supplements. So let’s talk about a couple of ways to combat anxiety other than medication
There’s this incredibly widespread misconception out there, this idea that if you get diagnosed with depression or anxiety that means that you were born with anxiety or depression that it’s so genetic that there’s nothing you can do about it….now of course there’s a biological factor, but there’s about 20 other factors too. It’s not your fault, but it is treatable, don’t get sucked into the unhelpful pattern of believing you just have to suffer through life. I go into a lot more detail on this in my online course “Change your Brain: 10 Alternatives to medication to change brain chemistry” and this course teaches ways to change your thinking and actions that actually change your brain chemistry, check out the link in the description. But in this video we’re going to talk about supplements, let’s see what some of our non-medication options for treatment are: If you want to download the chart or see the references hop on over to my website www.therapynutshell.com
First a few Disclaimers
Caveat #1 I’m not a doctor. You should work with a doctor before making any changes to medication or supplements. I’m a therapist who reads the research, boils it down and shares it with people.
Caveat #2 I am not "anti-medication", I recommend to my clients that they consider the pros and cons of multiple treatment approaches as we try to combat mental illness. Medication can be a very helpful option for many people. I just have many clients who don’t want to use medication so I want to make sure to help them understand other treatment options.
Caveat #3 just because something is natural does not mean it is safer or has less side effects. Snake Venom, Lead, and Arsenic are all natural substances that will poison or kill you. And supplements are not evaluated by the FDA, that means that they haven’t been rigorously tested for purity, safety or effectiveness. An example of this was some homeopathic teething tablets for babies, sold on the shelves of walmart and other stores. Turns out they weren’t pure enough, some contained varying amounts belladonna and some babies died. Because supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA supplements can claim all sorts of things that may or may not be true. So just because something is natural does not mean that it is safer.
Caveat #4 Also many of the people purporting a certain supplement are using mostly anecdotal evidence- meaning their friend or their sister in law or someone they know used this supplement and it helped. And while that may be true, it’s not enough to determine if that’s going to be effective for a majority of people. There’s also other factors were in action (like the placebo effect). This occurs when people believe they are going to get feeling better by taking something, and so they do feel better. So with many supplements, when people start taking them they report feeling better, but at the same levels as those taking a sugar pill. Meaning that the change came from their believe and not from the substance. I believe in plants and herbs as being helpful, but I also don’t like it when people selling oils or supplements promise more than is backed by rigorous research.
There Are So Many Claims Out There:
If you run a search there will be hundreds of supplements claiming to have benefits for anxiety-from CBD oil to Lavender- but the truth is that there isn’t enough research on most of them to know if these are safe or effective. I’m going to cover 15 supplements that at least have some research, but as far as the rest of these supplements go they just aren’t backed by solid research.
And that’s the reason most doctors aren’t prescribing these other supplements-because there aren’t big enough, rigorous enough trials to determine how safe they are. Good research includes multiple studies, high numbers of participants, randomized groups, compares with a placebo, and minimizes research bias and conflict of interest. For this reason controlled studies are expensive and often limited when it comes to supplements.
If you want to try any of these supplements, work with your doctor, but know that you’re basically running a little experiment on yourself. Now taking medication also comes with risks, there’s currently no way to know who will experience side effects from Prozac or Xanax, but the difference is that medications approved by the FDA have been shown through rigorous research to have a high enough benefit to risk ratio.
Ok-so if you made it through my disclaimers, then you’re ready for some scientifically backed information, not just “Hey this worked for my sister-in-law” so that being said-There are some supplements that have been shown to be effective, so let’s talk about some of the research backed natural treatments for anxiety:
Vitamins: 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 them to be vitamin deficiency. 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. Vit 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 deficiencies and then choose to supplement. Getting sunlight helps your body process and absorb Vitamin D.
There is decent amounts of research showing that for some people supplementing with Vit D, B6, B12 can have a positive impact on Anxiety and Depression- taking a multivitamin has been shown to help with GAD. But one of the reasons they’re at the top of my list is that they are safe and cheap, there are few downsides to taking a multivitamin every day.
Magnesium: Magnesium is a common natural element that is essential for hundreds of bodily functions, every single cell needs magnesium to perform it’s essential functions. It assists with energy creation, protein formation, gene maintenance and nervous system regulation. Magnesium 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, when she decreased the calcium and increased magnesium supplements the symptoms went away- There is quite a bit of research showing positive effects, but 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 Mg deficiency were more anxious. More research is needed, but again, relatively safe and inexpensive.
Zinc: Zinc is a naturally occurring element, you can get if 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 has improved anxiety symptoms.
Fish oil/Omega 3: 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.very safe, 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, biggest downside is that fish oil harvesting can negatively impact the environment through overfishing. That and fish burps.
Kava: 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 it’s effectiveness at treating anxiety. Multiple studies that were properly conducted with large numbers of subjects found moderate improvement in anxiety symptoms. The American Family Physiciansjournal and the Nutrition Journal reported a review of multiple studies showing Kava to be safe and effective. However, Kava is metabolized through the liver- 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: Also known as Vitamin B8 is naturally occurring in food, and in the US the average diet includes about 1 gram a day, but studies testing supplementing with 12-18 grams have shown some pretty impressive results with relatively few side effects. It 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: 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. These include 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 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 inneffective or possibly toxic substances. As of 2010, three human trials have documented the efficacy of passionflower as a treatment for anxiety-related disorders.
Valerian: 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.
It may impact the GABA receptors, 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: has been used for thousands of years as an anti- anxiety treatment, in animal trials it has been shown to have anti-inflamatory, and anti cancer properties. But these results haven’t been tested in humans. Two small studies showed mixed results- one study showed those taking Saffron for GAD 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, soyou 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, one study the participants took saffron by itself, 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: These 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 but response 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 adequate evaluate risks, but the evidence points in the direction that these may be helpful and there were no reported side effects.
GABA: 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 relesead naturally in the brain. This can help with feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear. It may also help to prevent seizures.As a result of these properties, GABA has also 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 with a potential conflict of interest. So basically this is a little-researched supplement, with evidence of a small positive effect on anxiety.
L-Theanine: 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-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, there are dozens and dozens of high-quality studies showing it’s effectiveness at treating mild to moderate depression. Many studies show that it is as effective as antidepressant medication and some show less 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 one 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 come with some symptoms like 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: Caffeine is the most widely used psychoative 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 7 days and see what a difference it makes.
Lets talk about other non-medicinal treatments:
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, teaching 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, fermented foods like yogurt and sourkraut
Nutrition- less sugar, some people have allergies/intolerances, one that comes up a lot this decade is gluten. More plants, less processed.
Relaxation Training/Practice Strengthening your parasympathetic response- learning to relax.
Life skills and habits- morning routine, mono-tasking, self-care, facing resolving problems, minimizing, good boundaries, getting enough sleep.
According to one 2007 report the following have no credible research 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 has 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