Article at a Glance
- As our society is becoming more and more plugged in, stress and anxiety is on the rise.
- Many natural supplements target the same pathways as anti-anxiety pharmaceutical drugs.
- Always check first with your physician, but simple botanicals like hops, ashwagandha and quercetin can be very calming for some people.
- If you’re experiencing anxiety, it can also beneficial to make sure you are getting adequate levels of omega-fatty acids in your diet.
- It’s not a supplement, but physical activity can also play a big role in calming the mind and restoring focus.
Anxiety is the most common mental health issue experienced by people in North America, with almost 1 in 5 American adults affected each year (R).
That’s around 40 million people, all suffering with a highly treatable condition. Sadly, only 36.9% of those with anxiety receive treatment (R), but the good news is that there are many natural remedies to help with anxiety.
For many people, anxiety is a result of specific circumstances, such as worries over money, housing, jobs, and relationships. John even wrote a post about how allergies can cause anxiety. A person’s propensity for anxiety is also influenced by genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and other factors. Happily, this means there is lots of scope for how to treat and prevent anxiety, with multiple possible biochemical and physiological targets.
The natural anxiety remedies listed below work in various ways to help calm down mind and body and are certainly worth trying if you’re struggling with anxiety.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Most of us are not getting enough high quality omega-3 fatty acids in our diets, and this is a problem because our brains are made of the stuff. In fact, there are a number of studies linking depression, anxiety, and in rare cases, even mental illness with deficient levels of omega-3 fats (R) (R). We’ve written about the murky waters of fish oil supplements before, so if you venture down this path, be sure to choose a trustworthy brand. For those of us that are Vegan, we need to convert alpha linoleic acid, which is a plant based form of omega-3, into the EPA and DHA the brain can use, and in some people with variants in the FADS1 genes, the conversion rate can be very low, so algal oil is a good option for a plant based product that has actual bioavailable EPA and DHA your brain can use.
Rhodiola rosea (or roseroot) is an adaptogenic herb that helps improve our resilience to stress and helps calm anxiety while promoting mental and physical energy. I’ve written about Rhodiola’s benefits before in a piece on supplements that improve focus, particularly how it is helpful fighting mental fatigue. Rhodiola appears to be safe to use in combination with common antidepressants and has demonstrated benefits for insomnia, emotional instability and somatization in people with depression and anxiety (R).
The effects of rhodiola are linked to its ability to modulate levels of neurotransmitters including adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine in the brain, in part by inhibiting the enzymes (such as monoamine oxidase) that break down these substances – the result being enhanced mood regulation (R, R). Rhodiola also prevents stress-induced increases in several substances, including cortisol, nitric oxide, and phosphorylated stress-activated protein kinase (R).
Taking a single dose of rhodiola before a stressful event seems to help prevent stress-induced disruptions in performance (R), while long-term use of 400 mg of rhodiola (in two 200 mg doses daily) has been associated with an anti-fatigue effect, improved mental performance, and reduced burnout, including improvements in anxiety, irritability, concentration, and zest for life (R).
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is another adaptogenic herb with a long history of traditional use. Also called Indian ginseng and winter cherry, ashwagandha has been used for over 3000 years in Ayurvedic medicine to support vitality and longevity. More recently, research has found that this herb has antioxidant properties, supports immune function, and helps to settle nerves to promote healthy sleep, mood, and reductions in anxiety. In fact, ashwagandha is used as a natural tranquilizer in India (R).
Ashwagandha is thought to induce its calming effects through the activity of alkaloids and steroidal lactones called withanolides. These substances inhibit overactive nerve cells in the brain (R), and help to decrease elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisone in the brain (R).
In one 60-day placebo-controlled clinical study, people with a history of chronic stress who took 300 mg of an Ashwagandha root extract had significant reductions in stress and a 27.9% decrease in serum cortisol levels compared to people taking a placebo (R).
A 2014 review also looked at ashwagandha and concluded that in the five available quality trials involving humans, ashwagandha was more effective than placebo for reducing anxiety and/or stress. Specifically, ashwagandha led to reductions in scores on the Hamilton Anxiety Scale in two studies, and in one study people taking ashwagandha has a 56.5% decrease in scores on the Beck Anxiety Inventory, compared to a 30.5% decrease for psychotherapy. In another study, ashwagandha was associated with a 44% reduction in Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) scores compared to just a 5.5% reduction in the placebo group (R).
L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves, particularly green tea. If you drink 6-8 cups of green tea a day, it’s likely that you’ll be consuming around 200-400 mg of theanine. This amino acid helps to promote feelings of relaxation without causing drowsiness, which makes it a good go-to for daytime anxiety such as before a big meeting or a first date.
L-theanine works by influencing levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Specifically, theanine increases production of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) and moderates the production of dopamine and serotonin. L-theanine is also a “glutamate antagonist,” meaning it works to block the action of glutamate, the “gas pedal” neurotransmitter linked to anxiety in some people, especially those with mutations in their GAD1 genes.
Theanine supplementation leads to increased relaxation, reduced feelings of stress, and improvements in focus. L-theanine also results in a switch towards alpha brain wave patterns (associated with calm alertness) away from beta brain waves (associated with anxiety and stress), particularly in the occipital and parietal regions of the brain, indicating a relaxation effect (R).
L-theanine has also been seen to improve responses in volunteers undertaking a stress task (R). And, in one six-week, placebo-controlled, double blind trial, volunteers who regularly drank tea experienced beneficial effects on psychosocial stress indicators (cardiovascular, cortisol and platelet responses) as well as subjective relaxation levels (R).
Vitamin B6 and Magnesium
Vitamin B6 is required by the body to produce important neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, as well as the neurohormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Vitamin B6 is also important for energy metabolism, so it’s no surprise that a deficiency in this vitamin can have adverse effects on sleep, nerve function, energy, and our ability to handle stress (R). However, be careful supplementing with vitamin B6. High doses of B6 have been linked to nerve damage and even cancer over the long term, so consult with your doctor before starting a regimen and keep doses on the low side (less than 10mg).
For more, see: B Vitamins and Cancer Risk: How to Make Smart Decisions
Magnesium is also an important nutrient for nerve health, relaxation, and sleep. This mineral is needed for muscles to relax, so can be helpful for anxiety-related muscle tension. Conversely, deficiencies can cause cramping and muscle spasms, as well as poor quality sleep and other issues (R).
A combination of magnesium and vitamin B6 has been shown to help relieve anxiety in people with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). In one study, people who took 200 mg of magnesium and 50 mg of vitamin B6 over four menstrual cycles had significant relief from PMS-related anxiety, compared to those taking a placebo or magnesium by itself (R).
Quercetin is known as a natural antihistamine as it has been shown to “stabilize mast cells,” meaning it stops immune cells from releasing histamine and other inflammatory molecules.
In fact, the reported benefits of quercetin are wide ranging, from heart health to a natural remedy for leaky gut, however, it has also shown promise as a calming agent. Studies show that quercetin helps to keep a lid on the fight or flight response of the adrenal system, leading to increased social interaction and a reduction in corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) which is a neuropeptide associated with anxiety and fear. (R)
Hops, like the ingredient in beer? Yes, you have that right, but we are not recommending a six pack, just a natural hops extract. John and Aaron swear by the stuff as a calming agent that can help with sleep, and they have some science to back them up. In a placebo controlled, double blind study, taking hops helped with anxiety and depression symptoms in a group of young adults. (R)
For more on hops, take a look at our post titled Hops and the science of sleep.
This one wasn’t on the list when we first published this post. Thankfully, a reader reminded us of the oversight, and it was a big one! For those of you who are squeamish about “pot,” do no be afraid, CBD is the non-psychoactive cousin of THC, the cannabinoid that gets you high. For more on the difference between CBD and THC, take a look at Aaron’s post on the state of marijuana use and mental health. While there is more research that needs to be done, CBD appears to be a very effective calming agent for many people, and unlike THC, the side effects are minimal.
For the science on CBD and anxiety, see this paper.
Alright, so exercise isn’t a natural supplement, but it is a natural remedy for anxiety! Study after study show that being sedentary is a major contributor to poor mental health, including increasing your risk of anxiety, depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Why is this the case? Well, these effects can largely be put down to the benefits of exercise for:
- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)
- Cyclic AMP (cAMP)
- Vagal tone.
Exercise, Endocannabinoids, and cAMP
Exercise increases levels of marijuana-like neurohormones called endocannabinoids, which help us to feel happy and calm. Animal studies have found that voluntary exercise increases endocannabinoids in association with decreases in anxiety and pain sensitivity, and that if you give animals chemicals that block the effects of endocannabinoids, exercise does not have these positive effects for mental health (R).
Exercise also increases production of cyclic AMP in the heart, which tells the heart to pump faster to meet demands. When cAMP travels to the brain, though, it helps to calm anxiety and panic and tells the body to relax again, creating a healthy feedback loop to moderate heart rate (R).
Exercise and BNDF
BDNF acts as a kind of fertilizer for the brain, helping the brain to form new connections, respond better to neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and to generally perform better and stay healthier for longer. Exercise greatly enhances the production of BDNF which, in turn, improves the function of the hippocampus, i.e. the area of the brain that handles memory and controls panic and anxiety (R). Effectively, the fitter you are the more it takes to make you feel stressed and anxious. And, if you take a walk when anxiety strikes, the exercise helps both to calm your brain and help you focus more clearly to deal with whatever might be triggering the anxiety.
In one study, physically inactive UK office workers who took a lunchtime walk for 30 minutes three times a week became more enthusiastic, relaxed, and less anxious and nervous at work, while their peers who remained sedentary had no such improvements in mood (R).
In earlier studies looking at BDNF specifically, healthy middle-aged volunteers who undertook a 10-week walking/jogging program had reduced anxiety, less tension, depression, and fatigue, and more vigor, compared to people who remained sedentary (R).
Interestingly, certain genetic variations have been identified that affect the BDNF gene and which appear to result in reduced learning capacity and memory impairment. Carriers of the Val/Met variant of the BDNF gene, for instance, perform worse on memory tasks compared to carriers of the Val/Val variant (R, R). People who carry the Val/Met variant may also have a higher likelihood of experiencing anxiety, although no studies have investigated this as yet. Fortunately, studies have found that exercise (in this case a 17-week running program) helps improve cognitive flexibility and control in people with either the Val/Val or the Val/Met allele (R).
Happy Feet – Happy Brain
As well as being more anxious, people who are sedentary (sitting for more than 8 hours a day) are almost twice as likely to be depressed as those who are physically active (R), and people who stop exercising are more likely to experience symptoms of depression (R). In many ways, physical activity is more effective than many medications for treating and preventing mental health issues. Recognizing these benefits, the American Psychiatric Association included in its 2010 guidelines the acknowledgement that exercise is a proven treatment for depression.
Most recommendations call for a 10,000 step target each day, but the recent “Happy Feet” study showed that simply walking more, whatever the step count, had significant benefits for depression, anxiety, stress, and general wellbeing (R). In postmenopausal women, a weekly increase of 500 steps led to decreased anxiety and insomnia after eight weeks compared to controls who did not increase their step count weekly (R). Other studies have also found that people who are sedentary who start walking for 150 minutes a week had decreased anxiety and depression and significant improvements in sleep quality (R). Walking also helped to decrease anxiety, as well as gastrointestinal symptoms, in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome in one 6-month study (R).
Evidence also continues to grow in support of the gut-brain-exercise connection as an important factor in mental health. Indeed, the vagus nerve that links the brain to the gut plays a key role in feelings of relaxation and comfort or, conversely, anxiety and stress. Vagal tone (how the vagus nerve functions) has been linked to the ability to regulate emotions, social anxiety, defensiveness, impaired attention, and unhealthy avoidance behaviors (R, R). Improving the function of the vagus nerve through exercise can improve resilience against stress and anxiety, with exercise and diaphragmatic breathing shown to improve vagal tone and help with symptoms of depression, anxiety and mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and inflammatory bowel disease (R).
Regular physical activity also enhances the health of the microbiome, i.e. the bacterial makeup in the gut (R). In turn, a healthy microbiome is linked to better mental health, including helping to reduce anxiety, depression, and feelings of stress (R). So, we could count probiotics as a bonus (sixth!) natural remedy for anxiety.
Other tips to reduce anxiety
Other top tips to help tackle and prevent anxiety include:
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol
- Avoiding sugary and over-processed foods
- Getting enough sleep
- Getting off your phone
- Meditation and mindfulness practices
- Building community and asking for help when you need it!
However you manage your anxiety, it can help to know that you’re not alone. There are plenty of support groups and resources available, including the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s online peer-to-peer support group.