An estimated 40 million American adults are affected by anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America – about 18 percent of the total population – making anxiety disorders the most common mental illness in the country.
For some, anti-anxiety medication will be the best solution. But for others, a combination of natural solutions – either instead of or in tandem with medication – may be helpful.
As with anything concerning your physical or mental health, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before adding any of these supplements to your daily regimen.
Samoon Ahmad, MD an NYC-based psychiatrist and founder of Integrative Center for Wellness notes that often, supplements, even natural ones, can interact with medications. He cites, in particular, serotonin syndrome, a serious issue linked to excessive amounts of serotonin, which can arise when attempting to counterbalance a lack of the neurotransmitter and can be fatal if not treated properly.
Once your healthcare practitioner has signed off on it, however, there are a number of ways in which more natural solutions can prove helpful.
“There is nothing wrong with needing medication for any condition,” says Brooke Alpert, RD.
That said, she notes, “I do find it worthwhile to try some other alternatives before jumping right to a prescription if the condition/anxiety is still manageable.”
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Anxiety can stem from a number of causes that professionals are still exploring. But one major cause of anxiety is a deficit in certain key vitamins and minerals.
“From a nutrition perspective, anxiety can increase the stress placed on your internal systems,” explains Scott Keatley, RD, of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. “To combat this your body is tasked with removing things like free radicals. There are a few vitamins (and whole foods) that can help you out.”
Whenever possible, Ahmad recommends getting these vitamins and minerals from whole food sources, as relying too heavily on pills and capsules can cause your body to become reliant on them.
“As soon as you stop them, they wash out of your brain,” he says.
He notes nevertheless that for some people, the idea of a regular supplement in capsule form is easier than attempting to manage too many whole food sources of a given vitamin or mineral, in which case opting for a pill is definitely a better solution than going without.
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1. B-Complex Vitamins
According to Dr. Eugene Charles, director of The Applied Kinesiology Center of New York and author of the forthcoming "Journey to Healing: How Applied Kinesiology and Functional Muscle Testing Can Restore Your Health and Improve Your Life," “the greatest vitamins for helping people reduce the feelings of anxiety are undoubtedly the B-complex, especially activated B vitamins.”
B vitamins, he notes, help decrease stress and anxiety in a number of ways:
- B1 helps balance sugar levels, reducing anxiety and anxiety attacks
- B3 helps with natural serotonin production
- B5 and B6 help the adrenal glands, which secrete stress hormones in times of stress
- Folic acid and B12 promote nervous system health and improve our ability to deal with perceived stressors
Dr. Elizabeth Trattner notes that people consuming a plant-based diet or people with digestive disorders like Crohn’s Disease are at particular risk of a vitamin B deficiency and should, therefore, pay special attention to their intake of this essential vitamin.
Find vitamin B naturally in high-quality meats, leafy green vegetables, and fish.
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Magnesium is an essential mineral for combatting anxiety.
“Without adequate magnesium, the brain will not properly release serotonin, the chemical that the brain uses to stabilize mood,” explains Charles.
“Magnesium naturally calms the muscular and nervous systems,” he continues. “When a person experiences an anxiety attack, it is likely that they are magnesium deficient, and the stress of an anxiety attack will further deplete the body of this beneficial mineral that most of us are sorely lacking.”
But people aren’t just low in magnesium as a result of stress and anxiety. A recent decrease in the quality of the soil in which fruits and vegetables are grown as a result of conventional, high-yield agriculture means that much of our food is lower in magnesium than it would have been in decades past.
“Our ancestors had an abundance of magnesium from organ meats, seafood, swimming in the ocean, and rich soil,” explains Charles. “The modern diet is sufficiently lacking in magnesium, and our soil is no longer as healthy as it once was.”
Supplementing with magnesium has been clinically shown to improve mood as well as assuage symptoms of depression and anxiety. Trattner recommends a minimum of 400 mg of magnesium before going to bed, “to help unwind and go to sleep.”
Find magnesium naturally in avocados, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Supplement with magnesium glycinate, which is easier on the stomach than some other forms.
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3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a very important element of any anti-anxiety diet, according to Ahmad, who notes that of the omega fatty acids, “Omega 3s are the ones that seem to play a significant role in reducing anxiety and stress.”
More specifically, he notes that EPA, one of three main omega-3 fatty acids alongside ALA and DHA, has shown promise in balancing mood and reducing anxiety.
“DHA is more related to the structural component of the brain, while EPA is the one that actually has an anti-inflammatory role,” he says. A clinically proven link between anxiety and inflammation lends credence to the theory that increasing EPA intake can reduce anxiety considerably.
According to one recent study, however, doses of omega-3s must be quite high to have any benefit on anxiety symptoms – far more than can be found in most fish oil capsules.
“But it is not an unrealistic dose to expect people to take,” says Bo Martinsen, MD, Omega3 Innovations Co-Founder, who notes that cod liver oil or liquid fish oil are often a better source of the essential substance.
Find omega-3s, specifically EPA, in fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and herring.
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4. Vitamin D
Most Americans spend more time at their desks or in their cars than they do in the sun, which could lead to vitamin D deficiency and, by extension, to mood problems.
"Even in South Florida where we have the most intense rays of sunlight, almost every single one of my patients is vitamin D deficient," says Trattner.
A vitamin D deficiency has been found to lead to mood problems including depression, so spending time outside – and supplementing your intake of this essential vitamin – is key.
Find Vitamin D in salmon, eggs, and certain enriched plant-based milk.
Supplement with Vitamin D3.
Herbal and Botanical Supplements
Plant-based anxiety remedies are common in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicine, and many of these remedies are used by practitioners in both the east and the west today.
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An ancient adaptogen common in Ayurvedic practice, ashwagandha is a versatile plant that can help the body cope with many kinds of stress, including anxiety. According to Erin Stokes, ND and Medical Director at MegaFood, “Ashwagandha is one of the most versatile of the adaptogenic botanicals because it is uniquely suited to benefit many people.”
“I find that its ability to strengthen the nervous system and soothe anxiety is unparalleled,” she continues, citing one 2012 study showing that people who were given ashwagandha showed a reduction in stress assessment scores and a significant reduction in serum cortisol levels after 60 days.
Consume ashwagandha root plain in a tea, or consider a supplement like Adrenal Strength, which combines the healing powers of both ashwagandha and magnesium.
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This amino acid was found in one 1999 study to boost alpha waves in the brain and increase synthesis of GABA, an essential neurotransmitter that increases brain levels of dopamine and serotonin.
L-Theanine is present in green tea, which, according to Trattner, is what Buddhist monks drink to achieve an alert and balanced state of calm.
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7. Nervine Herbs
Several common herbs including avena sativa (oat), passiflora incarnate (passionflower), and melissa officinalis (lemon balm) can induce relaxation and help alleviate anxiety, according to Dr. Jeremy Wolf, ND.
“Nervine is a term used to describe a plant that calms the nervous tension, irritability and sometimes even nourishes the nervous system,” he explains, noting that oat, rich in B-vitamins and minerals, is one of the best plants to feed the nervous system and may help with anxiety and insomnia. Passionflower, meanwhile, offers anxiolytic or anti-anxiety benefits and has a strong calming and relaxing effect.
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8. CBD Oil
CBD oil has emerged as a natural anti-anxiety darling. One 2016 case study examining the use of CBD oil in the treatment of anxiety in a ten-year-old girl proved promising, and a 2015 research review, showed a link between acute administering of CBD oil and reduced anxiety.
Other phytocannabinoids that may help with anxiety include supplements like AnxioCalm, made with Echinacea Angustifolia and clinically proven to significantly reduce anxiety.
“AnxioCalm works very quickly,” notes integrative health and natural medicine expert Cheryl Myers, RN. “For occasional stressful events, like flying or public speaking, people can take the product an hour before the event and feel a sense of calm and emotional control. It is also useful for people who experience higher levels of anxiety and stress every day. Though it works through endocannabinoid pathways in the brain to help calm the mind, it does not cause sleepiness or changes in judgment or focus.”
Consume CBD oil: our list of 10 great brands is the perfect place to start
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This adaptogen has long been used to combat depression, anxiety, and seasonal affective disorder in Russia and Scandinavian countries according to Charles, who notes that Rhodiola shows great promise in helping people to adapt to stress.
Clinical evidence shows that specific Rhodiola extract might lower anxiety in depression in people with generalized anxiety disorder, and Trattner notes that it is one of her favorite supplements for anxiety.
She does note that while rhodiola has almost no side effects, ”It does take some time to work, especially in the case of anxiety.”
Istock: Kava Kava Extract root Veg Capsules on round clay brown plate. Herbal Supplements with calming Relaxation, effect, helps support emotional balance
10. Kava Kava
Kava kava is a popular anxiety remedy in Polynesia, according to Lydia Noyes, health expert for HighYa.com, and there is a good deal of clinical evidence to support the efficacy of this traditional treatment.
“Kava acts as a muscle relaxer and improves your cognitive ability to help you overcome panic attacks,” explains Noyes.
Other Steps to Reduce Anxiety Naturally
Supplementing is only half the battle when it comes to fighting anxiety naturally. Reducing inflammation by transitioning to a whole food plant-based diet can be a great way to promote a more balanced mood, as can avoiding other foods that may exacerbate anxiety.
Trattner notes that according to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, greasy foods, alcohol, and heavy meats “agitate the liver, which can lead to anger.” Cold foods, meanwhile, like salad and fruit, can “drain your digestive chi,” causing anxiety.
If you are feeling off, she recommends avoiding fruit, cucumbers, watermelon, and salad to give your digestive chi a break.
Wolf also notes that meditation and mindfulness can be great natural anxiety solutions, especially when used in tandem with dietary and supplement choices.
“Anxiety, at its basic definition, is the inability to tolerate uncertainty,” he says. “Meditation and mindfulness are great tools for helping to calm the 'what ifs' and may help keep symptoms at bay.”
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