Anxiety and stress are among the most pervasive mental health issues affecting people today. We’ve gone through the science and found evidence-based supplements for anxiety
It is a normal part of life to experience occasional anxiety. We need it to survive, we don’t need it for no reason though. Some people experience anxiety that is persistent, uncontrollable, overwhelming and outright uncomfortable. When this happens, it interferes with your daily activities, work and relationships.
If this is you, or someone you know, this information can be life-transforming and give your life back from the shackles of anxiety.
Anxiety comes in many forms but we’ll be talking about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and stress.
These can affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds.
Although there is not one single answer as to why anxiety is so common, many attribute it to factors such as social media, poor sleep habits, lowered stigma, and historical underreporting.
Anxiety can be physiological processes inside the body, underpinning the reason why anxiety, panic disorders and stress happen.
This is where food, medications and supplements for anxiety come to benefit.
We’re going to talk about the best supplements for anxiety but there are a few things we have to talk about.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety disorders are a group of psychiatric disorders including social anxiety, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, OCD, and phobias.
While not classified in the DSM, we’ve talked about the signs of high functioning anxiety before.
While we need certain anxiety to survive, too much becomes a problem in our lives.
Someone with anxiety will interrupt non-threatening signals as threatening, thus maintaining an unnecessarily high state of worry and arousal.
Underlying the exaggerated fear response is a network of brain structures that function improperly in a response to a stimulus.
The amygdala, which controls our fear response and fight or flight, is often overactive.
On the opposite end, the prefrontal cortex, which inhibits the fear generation of the amygdala, is under-active.
There are often other parts of the brain that are under-active, the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, striatum, and insula can also be involved with anxiety.
Some of these “malfunctions” may be accompanied by disturbances in neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, GABA), a dysfunctional HPA axis, altered immune functions, changes in heart rate variability, cognitive functions, and neurotrophic factors (BDNF and nerve growth factor)
What Are The Best Supplement Brands?
Not all supplements are created equal. It’s important to choose a quality supplement over the cheapest and few of them
It’s important to choose high-quality supplements and not just ones off of the shelf, but ones that doctors and naturopaths trust.
The ones you can get off of the shelf are most likely not good, there have been tests on them and they have quality problems.
Poor supplements may contain lead, arsenic, or plastics… yes even the ones that say “natural”. I’ve gone through and found quality supplements from trusted brands.
As a practitioner, quality is the most important factor to consider when looking for a trusted source to provide health products for patient wellness.
Fullscript offers practitioner-grade supplements of the highest quality.
The Quality of supplements is crucial as they help keep you healthy!
If supplements aren’t manufactured and resold under quality supervision, they can end up with expired ingredients, cross-contamination, improper labels, and other severe issues that can risk your health.
Dietary supplements and wellness products are approached differently than pharmaceuticals. In Canada, Natural Health Products (NHPs) are regulated by Health Canada under the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD).
Fullscript is incredibly easy to use, is certified carbon-neutral (important if you’re going to be shipping as a company).
You can order once or you can use the authorship feature, so you don’t run out of your supplements.
Do you have to use Fullscript? No.
You can still find quality supplements in stores but it’s hard. I constantly look for these and have found some for sure.
Remember that it’s a highly profitable business sector and they spend a lot of money on advertising – they are designed to sell you.
Not all magnesium does the same thing. There are different types of B12, some better and more effective than others.
Some formulations will make you deficient in other nutrients. This is why I highly suggest practitioner-grade supplements, they focus more on the quality and purpose of the supplements rather than selling you to make a profit (though, that’s their goal too).
Why I Take An Alternative Approach First
Why supplements for anxiety might be an appropriate start for you to manage your anxiety.
There are many pharmaceutical drugs that have been developed which can help alleviate anxiety, they often come with unwanted effects.
It’s hard to call them side-effects nowadays because we know a lot more about the human body than we did years ago.
We know that we can’t direct just one aspect of the body, the body works in complex systems.
For these reasons, there are a lot of people out there who are skeptical about jumping right into these types of drugs to control their anxiety.
These people are looking for other approaches and want to control their anxiety in more of a “natural” way and not rely on psychiatric medications.
With this all in mind, let’s look at what the science currently says about the best supplements for anxiety.
Certain supplements are especially effective at calming and balancing the brain, which can lessen feelings of anxiety.
The Best supplements for anxiety
Magnesium is used for more than 300+ different biochemical reactions in your body, it’s vital to make energy, plays a key role in blood sugar regulation, and it has a calming effect on neuronal function.
Low magnesium is associated with inflammation, diabetes, seizures, anxiety, and depression.
Magnesium is an essential dietary mineral and the second most prevalent electrolyte in the human body.
Magnesium deficiencies are common in the western diet because grains are poor sources of magnesium.
In Canada, magnesium, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D (see Box 1) were the nutrients with the highest prevalence of inadequate intakes.
Other prominent sources of magnesium, like nuts and leafy vegetables, are not eaten as often.
It is possible to fix a magnesium deficiency through dietary changes.
If magnesium is supplemented to attenuate a deficiency, it acts as a sedative, reducing blood pressure and improving insulin sensitivity.
68 percent of Americans eating the standard American diet do not consume enough magnesium.
Some researchers believe that supplementing magnesium can
This mineral is found in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard; legumes; nuts; and seeds.
In general, the foods that contain dietary fibre provide magnesium but the degradation of our soil has drastically reduced the magnesium content in our foods – which may explain why magnesium deficiency is prevalent.
Maintaining healthy magnesium levels is also associated with a protective effect against depression and ADHD.
The intestinal absorption of magnesium varies depending on how much magnesium the body needs, so there are not very many side-effects associated with supplementation of magnesium.
If there is too much magnesium though, the body will only absorb as much as it needs.
If you take too much magnesium for your body, it may cause gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea – a tummy ache and may shit your pants… start low and work up to it!
The typical adult dose for magnesium is 50-400mg
A number of studies suggest that it has anti-anxiety effects; studies are mostly supportive of a notable effect of ashwagandha for this purpose, and it seems to reduce cortisol levels.
Ashwagandha is an Indian herb usually consumed in a root extract.
It’s one of my favourites (along with maca) because it’s an “adaptogen” – it may help correct imbalances in the hormonal and immune systems.
It’s also great for restoring the biological functions disturbed by chronic stress.
Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce mood fluctuations and anxiety in 51 women with menopausal syndrome and some researchers have suggested that it may be useful in treating anxiety disorders in conventional psychiatric practice
Evidence suggests potent anti-anxiety effects in the context of chronic stress and anxiety disorder, with lesser potency in standard forms of anxiety not related to stress.
In 2012, a study looked at 64 randomized volunteers and asked the subjects to take either ashwagandha or a placebo twice a day for 60 days.
The group with the ashwagandha contained 300 mg of the concentrated extra made from the root.
During the treatment period, regular phone call check-ins that the volunteers were taking the herbs or placebo and to note any adverse reactions.
The group taking the ashwagandha for anxiety showed a significant reduction in anxiety scores after the 60 days relative to the placebo – without side effects.
More notably, the serum cortisol levels were substantially reduced in the herbal group – a marker for stress. Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone and goes up when we are stressed.
High levels of cortisol long-term create problems done the road which includes fatigue, mental fogginess, and damage to brain structures for emotion and memory.
The typical dose of Ashwagandha for anxiety is 300-500 mg of a root extract with meals.
Lower doses, 50–100 mg, have been shown to help in some instances, such as reducing stress-induced immunosuppression and enhancing the effect of other anxiolytic agents.
Ashwagandha root extract is statistically effective though at 1 gram per day after 2 weeks and even more so after 6 weeks of treatment. It has also been found to be safe to use while on SSRIs
Ashwagandha can also help
GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, which means that it functions as the mind’s brakes.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid, GABA for short, is an amino acid that helps to regulate brain excitability and calms an over-firing in the brain.
GABA and GABA enhancers, such as the anticonvulsants gabapentin and L-theanine (the one found in green tea), function to inhibit the excess firing of neurons.
This results in a feeling of calmness and more self-control.
GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, which means that it functions as the mind’s brakes.
It slows down and stops the firing of brain cells and brings the mind to a state of relaxation and calmness .
GABA counters the main excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate. You can think of it as Batman to the Joker.
The brain has a smart way to balance activation and relaxation, noise and silence, yin and yang. It does so through glutamate and GABA
Low levels of GABA have been found in many mental health disorders, including anxiety and some forms of depression.
Instead of overeating, drinking, or using drugs to calm your anxiety, you can use natural ways to boost your GABA
Rather than overeating or drinking or using drugs to calm your anxiety, natural ways to boost GABA may help.
Some researchers report that GABA doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier (think of it as a fence to block out certain molecules).
Some studies are contradictory, however, showing an increase in alpha brain waves – the ones that indicate a relaxed state.
GABA still seems to have a calming influence on the brain imaging studies the Amen Clinic has done.
The typical recommended dosages of GABA range from 100 to 1,500 mg daily for adults and 50 to 750 mg daily for children. GABA should be taken in two or three doses a day.
I would suggest starting with the natural ways to boost your GABA first.
Saffron Powerfully Modulates Anxiety and Depression. Saffron extract may support mental health by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.
Saffron supplementation improved anxiety symptoms in a study of 60 patients after 12 weeks.
You may not have heard of Saffron, mainly because it’s the world’s most expensive spices – it’s worth more than gold.
It is grown mostly in Iran, Greece, Spain, and Italy.
Its traditionally consumed to help digest spicy food and soothe an irritated stomach.
Saffron is my favourite spice because there has been significant research showing that it can help boost serotonin and benefit mood, memory, and sexual function (hello!).
It can also help with symptoms of PMS, and when it’s combined with methadone, it can help alleviate withdrawal symptoms of patients undergoing treatment for opioid addiction.
Though there are limited human studies on the subject of saffron and depression, they are still high quality.
The studies that exist are against placebo but also against reference drugs such as the SSRI fluoxetine – these are strong markers for its beneficial effects!.
These studies show that saffron, at the recommended dose, has antidepressant properties comparable to the reference drugs.
The antidepressant properties are related to serotonin metabolism.
Saffron’s side effects include reduced snacking and an elevated mood, which could be the result of increased serotonin action in the body.
The recommended adult dosage for Saffron is 15 mg twice a day.
Doses above 1,200mg may cause nausea and vomiting.
A study found that patients with panic disorder experienced reduced anxiety and panic when taking 5-HTP, although the study also found that patients who did not have panic disorder did not experience the same reduction in their symptoms of anxiety.
5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is the precursor to serotonin.
This neurotransmitter is sometimes touted to be responsible for happiness.
5-HTP is a simple way to increase brain serotonin levels.
It does this by bypassing the rate-limiting step, and users reap either the rewards or the hazards of increased brain serotonin.
It’s more available than L-tryptophan and easily taken up in the brain – 70% vs 3% of L-tryptophan.
It’s about 5-10 times more powerful than L-tryptophan, 5-HTP boosts serotonin levels in the brain and helps calm ACG hyperactivity. The ACG is the anterior cingulate gyrus, you can think of it as the brain’s gear shifter.
Several double-blind studies have shown it is also an effective mood enhancer and appetite suppressor.
5-HTP has been used with success to restore serotonin levels in those that may suffer from decreased serotonin levels, such as the depressed and those with high levels of body inflammation (those with metabolic syndrome).
The dosage for 5-HTP is from 50 to 300mg a day with children starting at half dose.
It’s best to take on 5-HTP on an empty stomach to help absorption. As with every supplement, start low and work your way up slowly.
L–theanine is thought to work by decreasing “excitatory” brain chemicals that contribute to stress and anxiety while increasing brain chemicals that encourage a sense of calm.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea.
It’s able to cross the blood-brain barrier and can increase dopamine.
It also increases GABA and serotonin, it seems to tend to have a balancing effect on the brain. L-Theanine is one of the main active ingredients found in green tea, alongside caffeine and green tea catechins.
It helps promote relaxation and reduce drowsiness, making it potentially synergistic with caffeine.
Studies suggest L-theanine’s greatest benefits are a reduction in anxiety, stress, and a greater ability to relax.
These effects will also likely lead to an increase in sleep quality due to a night of deeper sleep, though I don’t suggest it for insomnia.
The typical dose for L-theanine is between 100-200 mg two to three times a day.
We suggest that you get more green tea into your diet before trying supplementation.
Here are the benefits of green tea catechins
A double-blind study with 80 healthy males aged 18 to 42 compared the use of a daily multivitamin-mineral formula with a placebo control for 28 days.
The multivitamin contained B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Compared to the group taking the placebo, those taking the multivitamin showed significantly lower self-reported anxiety and perceived stress.
If you’re looking to feel better fast, now and later, you’ll need to give your brain the nutrition it requires.
There’s plenty of evidence that many aren’t getting enough to it.
A study from UBC found Canadian fruit and vegetable consumption down by 13 percent.
A piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association also asserted that most adults don’t get all the vitamins they need through diet alone and recommended a daily vitamin supplement for everyone because it helps prevent chronic illness.
If you want to look at the number of Canadians deficient in certain vitamins, you can look here.
Close to 90% of Canadians are deficient in Vitamin D, followed by magnesium, vitamin A, calcium, zinc, vitamin C, and folate.
I believe some of these numbers are higher than they appear as well.
In the last 15 years, there have been more than 25 reports of the mental health benefits from multivitamin/mineral formulas consisting of more than 20 minerals and vitamins .
Both of those trials showed the reduction of acute stress and anxiety scores in those taking a multivitamin/mineral.
Specifically, in the New Zealand earthquake study, the incidence of PTSD decreased from 65% to 19% after one month of treatment, the controlled group showed little improvement.
Both of these trials suggest that multivitamin/mineral complexes could be an inexpensive public health intervention for normal populations following a natural disaster.
A study in 2010 tested the effects of taking a multivitamin versus placebo on 215 men between the ages of 30 and 55.
After the month of supplementation, the multivitamin group reported improved moods and showed better mental performance. They also had a greater sense of vigour, less stress, and less mental fatigue after completing mental tasks – making them both happier and smarter.
The 2018 study found that nutritional status plays an important role in mental health, and poor nutrition may contribute to the pathogenesis of mental illness. Broad-spectrum supplements with a focus on optimizing vitamin D status may provide a new paradigm for the treatment and prevention of mental illness.
A placebo-controlled study looked at the effects of multivitamins on 81 healthy children and found those who took multivitamins performed better on 2 out of the 3 attention tasks.
The benefits of a multivitamin include
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Multivitamins likely improve a number of subclinical mood symptoms in people whose nutritional status is low
A 2018 review study suggests that a low intake of omega-3 fats can raise the risk of anxiety and depression and that taking omega-3 supplements could help prevent or treat these conditions.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to our well-being and brain health.
According to researchers at Harvard School of Public health, low levels are one of the leading preventable causes of death.
We do not get enough dietary omega-3 fatty acids, heck most Canadian kids are deficient in omega-3s, according to this article
We know that at least 40% of Canadians aren’t getting enough omega-3s
Low levels of EPA and DHA, the two most important omega-3s that we know about are associated with
- inflammation – HERE or HERE (inflammation has also been linked to depression)
- heart disease – HERE
- ADHD – HERE
- depression and bipolar disorder – HERE
- obesity – HERE
- suicidal behaviour – HERE HERE HERE
In a 2020 study from the Amen clinic, the research team correlated the SPECT scans of 166 patients with their EPA and DHA levels found that those with the lowest levels had lower blood flow (the number one predictor of future brain problems) in the right hippocampus and posterior cingulate (one of the first areas to die in Alzheimer’s disease)
In another study by the Amen clinic, they tested the omega-3 fatty acid levels of 50 consecutive patients not taking fish oil (the most common source for EPA and DHA) who came into their clinic.
They found that 49 had suboptimal levels.
On their cognitive testing, they found another correlation between low omega-3 levels with decreased scores in the mood.
The difference between fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids is that fish oil refers to a solution of fatty acids where the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are dominant.
Fish is the most common source of fish oil, but an artificially manufactured EPA/DHA dominant mixture from any source could be considered fish oil.
Typical fish oil can contain small amounts of other omega-3 fatty acids, usually DPA and fatty acids that don’t belong to the omega-3 category.
Alpha-linolenic acid (found most abundantly in nuts and seeds), is an omega-3 fatty acid that can be turned into EPA and DHA but is not itself a fish oil fatty acid and the conversion rate is low in many people.
The typical dose for Omega-3 fatty acids are between 1,000-2,000 mg of a high-quality fish oil per day balanced between EPA and DHA
Omega-3 fatty acids can interfere with certain medications, including blood thinners. You should always ask your doctor before taking omega-3 supplements or if you have existing health conditions or take any prescription medications.
If you do have anxiety, supplementation can be a nice alternative approach to addressing your anxiety. It should not be your only approach to it but we’ve found it can really help reduce the anxious thoughts, feel calm, improve sleep and improve the effects of working with a therapist or counsellor.
Anxiety has “software” and “hardware” issues. The hardware being your neurotransmitters, inflammatory markers, or nerve cells. You need the necessary stuff to build these, either with diet or supplements. The software being how you talk to yourself, your thoughts, and previous traumas. You need both working together to have a supercomputer (your brain)working optimally.
If you haven’t already, you can look at “betterhelp” for online counsellors.
We know now that the gut bacteria and diet play a large role in anxiety, if you want help with a simple diet plan or other lifestyle tips to improve your mood or anxiety, you can work with our nutritionist either in-person or online.