Supplements
Fact Checked

Natural, Herbal & Dietary Supplements for Anxiety Relief

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
Natural, Herbal & Dietary Supplements for Anxiety Relief

More and more people are straying from modern medicine and turning to natural and herbal supplements for their daily health needs. This shift has come as the list of side effects for numerous medications continues to grow, while more and more reports indicate that the medications themselves are not working as promised, or are not powerful enough to justify the side effect risk.

This is especially true for those living with anxiety. When you have anxiety, you want immediate relief. But the anxiety medications out there are fraught with side effects. So finding a natural solution or anxiety becomes so important.

The Value of a Quick Solution

Before we delve into the natural supplements that are valuable for treating anxiety, it's important to go over what these supplements mean for treating anxiety. The first thing to understand is that herbal supplements and medicine have the same purpose as prescription medication - to provide you with an immediate way of reducing the effects of anxiety while you figure out a way to cure it long term.

There's no such thing as a natural medicine that cures anxiety, because anxiety can't be "cured" through medicinal means. It can only be prevented in the moment, and will still come back as soon as you stop taking the supplement without additional help.

Herbal Supplements May Still Have Dangers

It's also important to clear up a very common misconception about herbal and natural treatments - that because they're natural, they're safe.

There is some additional safety to using a natural solution. Consuming chemicals simply cannot be as healthy for your body as consuming something natural, like an herb. At least, that is what many natural health supporters argue. Research into this is limited.

But the more powerful the herb is, the more likely you're going to have side effects. That is because the “side effects” of many medications is due to the drug “working” - it is not because the drug is a chemical. This is what many people struggle to understand about mental health medications. 

For example, increasing serotonin concentrations in the brain may reduce anxiety, which you can do with a drug like an SSRI. Changes in serotonin levels may also cause drowsiness. Not surprisingly, drowsiness is a common side effect of SSRIs. 

Thus, the side effect of drowsiness is because the medication successfully increased serotonin levels - it was not caused by the fact that the medication was a man-made chemical. 

In other words, if a prescription medication causes side effects because it increases or changes neurotransmitter levels, then a natural medicine that increases dopamine levels is also likely to have similar side effects.

Similar does not mean identical, so it's possible for an herbal medicine to be safer, but keep that in mind - especially if you take any other herbs or medicines. There may also be an interaction risk or a dietary risk. The best thing you can do is make sure your doctor approves of any herbal supplement before you take it.

Benefits of Herbal Supplements for Anxiety

With that in mind, herbal and natural supplements for anxiety are still a popular choice over prescription medications. That's because they have several advantages that prescription medications simply do not. These include:

We warned earlier about the safety of herbal supplements in general, but anxiety supplements do appear to be mostly safe and addiction-free. It's simply something to keep in mind when you take any herbal supplement, especially if you have any other health problems or are taking other medications.

Best Herbal Supplements and Natural Supplements for Anxiety

So now it's time to go over the best available herbal solutions for anxiety. We're going to overlook "homeopathic" supplements for now. There is little research supporting most homeopathic remedies, and the logic behind homeopathy (diluting poisons in water to cure disease) appears to be unscientific quackery. 

Herbal supplements suffer from a lack of research as well, but thankfully enough studies have been conducted to help draw some conclusions. The best herbs for anxiety include:

Kava (Kava Kava, Kava Root)

Kava is the king of all anxiety supplements, and the only herb that has substantial research supporting its use. Kava root is high in kavalactones, a type of compound that studies have shown is highly psychoactive. There is more than one type of kavalactone in kava, but all of them appear to promote relaxation:

All of these are extremely valuable for controlling anxiety. Interestingly, few supplement manufacturers seem to study the levels of kavalactones in their supplements, indicating that it's possible for each supplement to work differently from one pill to the next.

Kava is believed to provide everything one needs from an anti-anxiety drug, and is likened to both benzodiazepines (except without the addiction risk) and buspirone. These include:

Kava generally comes in pill form, and kavalactones vary. Because little research has been done on kava, it's believed that the proper dose may be as high as 250 mg of kavalactones, to as low as 100 mg. Most supplements that provide only 30 to 50 kavalactones are unlikely to have any real effects.

Kava originally came in teas, and is still sold in tea form today. Most modern teas, however, are extremely low in kavalactone levels and are unlikely to be effective. Furthermore, kava appears to be fat soluble, meaning it must be taken with meals or with some type of fat providing agent, like butter.

Not long ago, kava was taken off of most marketplaces because of studies that linked the herb to severe liver damage and toxicity. Since then, several follow up studies appear to show very little relationship between liver damage and kava use. There are several theories for the previous studies:

Many of those that took kava are believed to have been abusing alcohol as well, and the interaction of kava and alcohol is believed to have been the cause of liver damage. That's why kava is best taken under advisement of your doctor and without any alcohol whatsoever.

Overall, kava has been known to have powerful anti-anxiety properties with nearly no side effects and no addiction risk.

Valerian Root

Valerian root isn't generally considered an anxiety reduction supplement at all. Rather, it's a sleep and relaxation supplement that is most commonly used for helping those with insomnia find rest late at night.

But despite this alternative use, many people find that valerian root provides them with exactly what they're looking for - relief from the high stress and tension of anxiety. By relaxing the mind and body, valerian is essentially able to give people the "break" from anxiety they need to help themselves cope.

These days, valerian is being marketed as an anti-anxiety herbal supplement for the same reasons.

It's not clear why valerian works and most studies have found inconclusive results. There's no denying that anecdotally, _many_ people find valerian to work incredibly well. But like most herbal supplements besides kava, very few studies have looked at why it works or the mechanism of action. It's believed that valerian has an effect on GABA receptors, though it's not clear what that effect is.

Valerian has no known side effects, though it is strongly recommended that you do not take valerian with alcohol, other sleep drugs or supplements, or even other anxiety supplements like kava, because of the depressant qualities of valerian and the lack of information about how it works.

Passionflower/Passiflora

Passionflower is another common anti-anxiety herbal supplement, and may best be described as "kava-lite." A fair amount of research has been performed on it for an herbal supplement, and most conclude that it has some effect, but that it isn't as strong as kava and other medicines.

So while passionflower may be worth attempting when you have any anxiety disorder, it's best for mild to moderate anxiety, and possibly a smarter choice for those with daily, otherwise manageable anxiety; those that need a bit of an extra boost to help them cope.

Some species of passionflower - although not all, which could explain why some supplements are more effective than others - contain beta-carboline harmala alkaloids, which are believed to have MAO-I and anti-depressant qualities, especially in the leaves. The maypop flower is the only one that has received research, and it compared well to oxazepam in studies (an anti-anxiety drug).

The recommended dosing is roughly 90 mg.

Melatonin 

Melatonin is a hormone that helps promote sleep, and it is also available as a dietary supplement. Some countries require a prescription before disseminating melatonin. Very few studies have looked at melatonin as a potential tool for anxiety, but it is widely regarded in supplement circles and could be a decent way to get some much needed rest.

GABA Supplements

GABA is an amino acid that is believed to help anxiety. It is also a neurotransmitter, and there is strong evidence that there are relaxation benefits to taking GABA. Unfortunately, it is not currently believed that GABA supplements can pass the blood-brain barrier, so it is unlikely to have a strong effect, but there is some reason to believe that GABA related supplements can help with anxiety symptoms.

5-HTP 

5-HTP has been a popular amino acid supplement for both anxiety and depression, because it helps synthesize both serotonin and melatonin. While many studies have shown benefits of 5-HTP, most have been poorly completed, so there isn't much evidence supporting or denying the benefits of the supplement.

Magnesium Supplements

Not all anxiety supplements are herbs. Some people find that magnesium can be a powerful natural supplement for anxiety.

Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals on the planet. But modern day food production practices have essentially wiped it out of the modern day diet. Millions of people are magnesium deficient in some way, and while true magnesium deficiency (dangerously low levels of magnesium) is not terribly common, it's possible that low levels of magnesium contribute to some of the problems that are associated with not only anxiety, but also panic attacks.

Few people get a full daily value of magnesium in their diets, which some place as high as 350 mg. In addition, there are several issues that can use up magnesium deposits:

Magnesium affects more than 300 different processes in the body and is a crucial component in nerve health. It's possible that some of the symptoms of anxiety and triggers of panic and anxiety attacks are caused by or made worse by low magnesium levels.

Magnesium isn't likely to cure your anxiety or even prevent it. But if you're magnesium-deficient, it is possible that your symptoms are worse because of magnesium, so dietary changes or supplementation may be highly beneficial.

Other Natural Medicine for Anxiety

The four supplements above are some of the most common for anxiety, and the few that have real research supporting their use. Most other supplements either have no research or appear to be ineffective.

Some people find St. John's Wort to be beneficial. The herb appears to have a positive effect on depression, but depression and anxiety are linked in a variety of ways, so it's possible that St. John's Wort, could improve your anxiety symptoms. Other herbs include:

Research is highly mixed in these areas and their effectiveness is not entirely clear.

When to Choose Natural Medicine

Natural or unnatural, you should always talk to a doctor before taking any type of drug or supplement. But natural supplements are an interesting choice when you want to avoid the potential ramifications of prescription medications. Pharmaceutical supplements are not without value, but they are also not without risk, and so trying an herbal supplement first before depending on these medications makes a great deal of sense.

But never forget that not even natural medicine can truly cure anxiety. Once you stop taking the herbs, your anxiety is going to come back. Regardless of whether or not you choose to take an herbal solution, make sure you're partnering it with a long term treatment.

Do Any of These Work?     

Anxiety supplements are a popular alternative to anxiety medications, and more immediate than therapy or other long term treatments. But there are also thousands of them, as nearly every major natural medicine company seems to have developed their own product for the anxiety market.

There are two problems here: first, studies have rarely found any benefits to most natural anxiety medicines (more on that in a moment); second, with so many products on the market, it is hard to know which anxiety supplements are likely to work, and which ones aren't.

Finding a Long Term Cure

No matter what, it is important that you understand that no supplement should be used as the sole treatment. Supplements, like anxiety drugs, are merely a way to help manage day to day anxiety. As soon as you stop using them (assuming they work), the anxiety comes back almost immediately.

So while there are reasons to consider a natural supplement, make sure that you also combine those supplements with long term, non medicinal mental health treatment plans. Only then can you hope to achieve what you’re looking for - the abatement of anxiety and anxiety symptoms. And as always, consult your doctor before considering using these supplements.

Share Rate this article:
We’d like your feedback
Was this article helpful?
Yes No