Stress is a normal, dare I even say productive, part of our lives. But it’s meant to be a short-lived reaction to some kind of environmental trigger.
When it’s prolonged and chronic, it can lead to frustrating mental health issues like anxiety. And it can come in many forms: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), OCD, Panic Disorder, and PTSD.
Anxiety is typically characterized by symptoms that are different for everyone. It can be recognizable ones like difficulty controlling worry, exaggerated “fight or flight" response, feeling always on edge, tense muscles, or irritability. Or it can manifest as poor memory, sleep issues, being easily fatigued, or shortness of breath.
This is obviously not a fun way to live your life and I get a lot of clients who come to me and say “Help! How do I get rid of my anxiety?”
It depends on the person, but I typically start with diet and lifestyle modifications. In fact, I wrote a whole post about that here, and if you haven’t read it yet, I’d definitely recommend starting there.
If you’ve tried those tips and still feel like you need some extra help managing your anxiety naturally, I've got you. I’ve compiled a list below of the best supplements to help get your anxiety under control.
I mentioned this in my original article on anxiety, but it’s worth reiterating: This post isn’t intended to pass judgment on anyone who takes medication for a mental health condition. Many people take medications for both anxiety and depression, and at times they can be absolutely life-saving. Instead, this is for anyone looking for alternatives to traditional medications, since they can be addicting and have unwanted side effects.
Please note: These recommendations are intended as general advice only and definitely shouldn’t replace medical advice from your doctor. Please check with your healthcare provider before taking any supplements.
Surprisingly enough, gut health and mental health are inextricably linked. The GI tract and the central nervous system signal to each other through what’s referred to as the “gut-brain axis”.1 Problems in the gut can end up having negative impacts on mental health, so when a client I’m working with presents with mental health issues, one of the first places we look to support is the health of the digestive system.
Recent research has been looking at the gut-brain-microbiome axis, which is the connection between beneficial gut bacteria and physical/mental health. Emerging research suggests that probiotics can help boost mood and lessen the negative impact of anxiety.
Most of this research is relatively new, but the results appear encouraging. In one study, a 3-week intervention with a probiotic milk drink improved mood scores compared to those who received the placebo.2
In another study, a combination probiotic taken for 30 days reduced global anxiety and depression scores.3
Probiotics are a great supplement to start with because they have an incredibly wide array of potential benefits. Improving the health of your gut can have positive downstream effects on mental health, digestion, skin issues, sleep, brain fog, and more.
Interested in probiotics? Try this one.
The importance of zinc is hard to overstate. It's key for protein synthesis, immune function, wound healing, growth + development during pregnancy and childhood, and is imperative for a proper sense of smell and taste.4
Zinc also has an important role to play when it comes to mental health.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messenger that carry signals between neurons, or nerve cells, and other cells in the body. A neurotransmitter imbalance can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety. Research has found that zinc helps regulate the storage and release of neurotransmitters. So with a zinc deficiency, these chemical messages may not travel around the body very well, which can result in symptoms of depression and anxiety.5
Multiple studies show that supplementing with zinc can help improve zinc status in the body, and improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a study of school-age children, the group given a zinc supplement (vs placebo) reported improved mental health (depression + anxiety) after six months.6, 7
Many people are at risk of a zinc deficiency. Vegans and vegetarians may have a hard time getting enough in their diets since zinc is highest in animal foods like lamb, beef, oysters, and scallops. Various grains and legumes contain zinc, but they also contain a compound called phytic acid, which actually impairs zinc absorption by the body.8
Taking too much zinc can disrupt your ability to absorb copper. So if you’re going to be taking zinc for a prolonged period of time, it can be helpful to include copper as well to avoid inducing a copper deficiency.
Try this one. (It includes zinc and copper)
Note: Since certain things inhibit zinc absorption (phytic acid, excess iron), it’s best taken on an empty stomach.
Our brains naturally produce GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), which functions as a neurotransmitter. It’s known as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain because it has suppressive effects on the excitatory neurotransmitters, such as glutamate and norepinephrine.
In English, it means that GABA stops our brain from becoming over-active and enables the mind and body to unwind and relax.
Low levels of GABA are also correlated with anxiety, and many studies show that increased GABA = decreased anxiety.9, 10, 11, 12, 13
Anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax or Valium actually increase GABA. However, because they’re so strong, they can be pretty addictive and you can build up a tolerance to them over time.
Scientists think that GABA supplements may have a hard time making their way into the brain because the brain tightly regulates GABA levels, but many people still report feeling an effect from supplementation. Some researchers think this is because GABA supplements interact with the nervous systems in other ways, so it could be worth trying, especially if it’s combined with other anxiety-reducing nutrients.
Try this one or this one.
L-Theanine is an amino acid that’s found primarily in tea leaves. It works to reduce anxiety by blocking excitatory stimuli at certain receptors in the brain, while also promoting production of GABA, the relaxing neurotransmitter.
In an interesting study a few years ago, a group of adults consumed either an l-theanine-based nutrient drink or a placebo. The group that received the l-theanine drink reported a significantly lower subjective stress response to a cognitive stressor one hour after they ingested the beverage. Three hours after drinking the beverage, their cortisol responses were significantly reduced.14 Cortisol is our main stress hormone, and while it’s helpful in some cases, prolonged elevated cortisol (as often happens in our high-stress modern lifestyles) can cause brain fog, fatigue, and damage parts of our brain that control emotion and memory.
Another fascinating study showed that supplementing with L-theanine helps prevent the rapid rise in blood pressure that many people experience under stress.15
Try this one.
Magnesium is a vitally important mineral for proper bodily function. This nutrient plays a role in processes like keeping blood pressure normal, regulating muscle and nerve function, and maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. It’s sometimes referred to as the “relaxation mineral” and is critical to help our bodies cope with stress as well as improve sleep.
It’s also an important mineral for brain health. Specifically for helping to create strong neural pathways that are critical for establishing solid communication between the body and brain.
Magnesium also controls the HPA axis (our central stress response system), and a deficiency can induce anxiety.16, 17
Magnesium can also work on anxiety by increasing GABA in the brain. As discussed above in the section on GABA, this is important for lessening the effects of anxiety.18
To be sure, the research around using magnesium to help treat anxiety needs more work. Current studies rarely look at magnesium alone, but the results look promising for mild to moderate anxiety and also for PMS-related anxiety.19
Try this one.
Note: Magnesium threonate is more expensive than some of the other forms on the market, but that form has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and to help with markers of depression and anxiety.
CBD (long name: Cannabidiol) is one of the phytochemicals found in the cannabis plant.
However, unlike medical cannabis, CBD is legal everywhere in the United States (at least it is at the time of writing this post).
Also, unlike marijuana, CBD doesn't have a "high" associated with it. Instead, it has calming, anti-anxiety effects.
Cannabis has been used therapeutically for centuries - for help with sleep, stress, pain, and anxiety, to name just a few.
Research has shown CBD to be helpful for anxiety due to PTSD, GAD, OCD, Social Anxiety, Parkinson’s Disease, and more, without sedating effects.20, 21 CBD also has a good safety profile. Even chronic CBD use was shown to have no negative neurological, psychiatric, or clinical effects. Respiratory depression or cardiovascular complications haven’t been observed either. It’s possible that it may interact with other medications, like Xanax, so do your research and check with your doctor first.22
Try this one.
Note: Quality is very important when it comes to CBD, and many of the products out there do not have much therapeutic potential and won’t give you the desired result. Amazon doesn't sell authentic CBD and hemp oil is not the same as CBD. Make sure you are buying a high-quality product so you aren’t throwing money down the drain.
B vitamins are absolutely crucial for optimal health. They play key roles in maintaining energy, detoxification, coping with stress, keeping our hearts healthy, and moods balanced.
Unfortunately, deficiencies are incredibly common. This can occur due to things like the Standard American Diet, digestive problems, and certain medications, such as the birth control pill, Metformin, and PPI’s.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) is commonly referred to as the “anti-stress” vitamin. This is primarily because it can help reverse some of the damage caused by stress. Our adrenal glands produce stress hormones. When we’re under stress for a prolonged period of time (which often happens with anxiety), too many of these hormones can be produced, causing damage in the body. Vitamin B5 helps down-regulate the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, which helps the body recover.
Vitamin B12 is another nutrient with an almost infinite list of important functions. It helps convert the food we eat into energy, it helps make DNA, and it keeps our nerve and blood cells healthy. It also helps to support the central nervous system and the brain by helping stabilize adrenal function, assisting in nerve growth, supporting memory function, and promoting a balancing effect on moods. Low levels have been linked to mood disorders.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is involved in the making of serotonin and GABA, both of which help control anxiety and mood.23
Try this one.
Note: Some people find B vitamins stimulating. Discontinue use or check in with a doctor if you feel like they’re exacerbating your symptoms.
Lavender has been traditionally used for thousands of years as a medicinal plant but is probably most well known for its relaxation effects. Growing evidence suggests that lavender oil may be effective in supporting several neurological disorders.
Research shows that lavender can help calm nerves and ease the anxiety behind panic attacks, and may help increase GABA.24, 25
There are two effective ways to take lavender oil, by inhaling it or by taking it orally as a supplement.
Inhaling something through the nose sends it through the olfactory pathway. This is the most direct pathway to the brain and the effects can be relatively quick. It’s can help create balance between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, leading to feelings of calm.
I couldn’t find any corroborating studies, but I picked up an interesting theory practitioner who works with brain injuries. He suggests that inhaling it through the left nostril helps stimulate the left frontal lobe and balance over-activity of the right frontal lobe.
Oral supplementation with capsules is also effective. One study compared lavender oil capsules with Lorazepam (a benzodiazepine) in patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and researchers found that after a 6-week treatment, both groups had the same decrease in anxiety scores.26
For supplements, try this one
For aromatherapy, try this one.
Ashwagandha is an incredible herb with a history that goes back over 3,000 years. It's one of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine and can help with a wide array of conditions. It’s an adaptogen, meaning it helps our bodies cope with stress by balancing different bodily systems.
A systematic review on ashwagandha as an intervention for anxiety concluded that most studies found significant improvement in symptoms with its use.27
In a 2012 study, participants received either placebo or ashwagandha extract two times a day for 60 days. The group given the ashwagandha exhibited a significant reduction in anxiety scores after 2 months. In addition, cortisol levels (our main stress hormone) were lower in the group receiving the ashwagandha.28
The hormone-modulating effect of Ashwagandha likely comes from a few naturally-occurring phytochemicals. The most highly researched phytochemicals are called withanolides. The theory is that withanolides act as precursors to the hormones responsible for regulating our stress and relaxation responses.
When looking for a supplement, you ideally want an extract that contains between 5% - 8% withanolides.
Try this one.
Quite a few of the supplements listed above are even more efficacious when combined together in synergistic combinations. Some potent combo supplements for anxiety are:
Hopefully, one (or more) of these helps give you the extra boost you need in getting a handle on your anxiety.
It’s important to note that everyone is different, so some of these may not work (or even be appropriate) for you, and you may need to play around to find a product that helps reduce your anxiety.
If you need help managing your anxiety, I'd love to help.
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*A quick note here about CBD, medical marijuana, and privilege. What does privilege have to do with a health blog? Lots. Because of my privilege as a white woman, I’ve been able to talk about the benefits of cannabis on my platform without fearing any legal ramifications. Cannabinoids are becoming more trendy in the wellness world (which is predominantly white). Meanwhile, people of color continue to be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for marijuana possession and many remain in prison for crimes relating to pot, even though it’s now legal in many places. If you live in a city or state that hasn’t vacated possession charges, which disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic men and their legal standing as citizens, please contact your local representatives and vote for candidates that vow to make this a priority.
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