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With the global prevalence of anxiety on the rise, researchers are discovering that nutrition may play a more important role in mental health than previously thought.
An interesting aspect to these discussions is the role natural supplements may have in easing anxiety.
Read on for the latest research and expert advice on supplements for anxiety, who may benefit, who may not and a few specific types of supplements that may provide relief for some people.
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According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is a constant, uncontrolled feeling of worry that doesn’t stop. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates approximately 12% of the U.S. adult population has regular feelings of worry, nervousness or anxiety.
When these feelings become strong enough and frequent enough to severely interfere with day to day activities, it’s possible you may be living with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the U.S., with 40 million adults (19.1% of the population) affected annually.
Traditional treatments and therapies for anxiety include psychotherapy—like cognitive behavioral therapy—and medication, such as antidepressants. These therapies are well-researched and scientifically proven to be effective for treating anxiety.
While traditional therapies can be extremely effective, some individuals living with anxiety may find that these therapies don’t work as well as they’d like. In fact, it’s estimated that close to 50% of people who receive common treatments for generalized anxiety disorder will not respond to first-line treatment, such as antidepressants. Additionally, antidepressants can come with side effects including fatigue, weight gain and loss of libido that may cause some individuals to want to avoid or stop taking them (although you should never stop taking your medication without consulting with your doctor first).
Approximately 40% of people with moderate mental distress, which often includes anxiety, say they turn to complementary and alternative medicine approaches, like supplements, for therapeutic relief.
So, can supplements help ease anxiety? The short answer is maybe—and it’s dependent on both the cause and severity of the anxiety. However, it’s always advisable to consult with your doctor before adding any type of supplement to your diet, or exploring alternative treatments.
“Anxiety can present very differently in two people with the same diagnosis,” explains Ripal Shah, M.D., clinical assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “One may have primarily physical symptoms (palpitations) when stressed or anxious, and another may feel physically calm but internally restless (racing thoughts).”
Trying a supplement that affects the part of the nervous system that controls our “fight or flight” stress response may help a person with physical symptoms ease their anxiety. But, this same supplement might not be effective for someone with emotional symptoms.
So, it’s very important to take a personalized approach when navigating anxiety supplements.
What also remains very clear about the role supplements may play as a therapy for anxiety is they’re not a standalone, “cure-all” solution—and they’re typically only one part of additional lifestyle approaches aimed at anxiety management
“If we are looking for a supplement to alter our brain activity but haven’t worked on our exercise pattern, developed a daily mind-body practice, found a workable whole foods dietary approach, etc., supplements are going to have a less-than-hoped-for impact,” says Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program.
“I always tell my patients, ‘supplements are supplementary.’ If there is a [vitamin] deficiency, we may consider supplements, but there can be risks to taking unnecessary and/or multiple supplements,” adds Michelle Loy, M.D., an integrative medicine physician with the Integrative Health and Wellbeing Center at Weill Cornell Medicine.
With all that being said, dietary supplements for anxiety may be beneficial for some people, especially for individuals who:
Experts stress the importance of always reviewing and discussing any new supplement aimed at easing anxiety with a licensed and knowledgeable medical practitioner before starting them.
“Anything powerful enough to have a beneficial effect must also have the power to have a negative effect as well,” explains Dr. Bauer.
There are potential side effects and even dangers to taking supplements for anxiety for the following people:
“In my personal practice, I encourage my patients to work with a variety of mind-body practices (in addition to nutrition, exercise, etc.) for at least three months before we consider supplements,” notes Dr. Bauer.
There are many supplements that claim to help with anxiety. The process of finding the right one may be a bit of trial and error, but should always be done with a doctor’s help.
“If my patient is considering a supplement, we review the known risks and benefits and then use a database to scan for any known interactions with their current medications,” says Dr. Bauer.
A few common supplements that may help ease anxiety include the following.
An Ayurvedic herb that may work especially well for those with anxiety and insomnia, ashwagandha has been shown to improve sleep and stress resilience. It’s also an herb Dr. Loy recommends.
Recent reviews on the safety and efficacy of ashwagandha for anxiety suggest that while effects are generally positive, study sizes are small. More research on the right amount and length of time ashwagandha must be taken as a replacement for or adjunct to traditional therapies are needed.
L-theanine is a plant-based compound most commonly found in tea leaves. “L-theanine has some positive studies for its effect on sleep initiation, and conflicting studies on anxiety,” says Dr. Shah.
A 2022 review of studies in Pharmacological Research found that compared to groups not receiving L-theanine, the groups taking L-theanine did not see a significant benefit in terms of treatment for anxiety. However, a 2015 study in Journal of the American College of Nutrition does point to L-theanine’s effectiveness in helping to improve sleep quality—so individuals dealing with sleep issues may find this supplement helpful.
Recent clinical studies suggest that magnesium supplementation, when combined with other vitamins like vitamin B6 or zinc, may be a promising treatment for easing anxiety in a range of populations, including stressed adults and people with type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, most Americans are deficient in this mineral and often don’t get enough from their diet.
When it comes to concrete recommendations for magnesium for anxiety across the board, however, more studies need to be done. “Currently, there is limited and inconclusive evidence on magnesium and its role in anxiety,” explains Monique Richard, an integrative dietitian and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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“While there are small studies that hint at the possible benefit of vitamin D in anxiety or depression, the research is still unclear as to whether vitamin D supplementation can relieve symptoms,” says Dr. Loy.
For instance, researchers still need to explore how vitamin D supplementation impacts people of different ages and types of anxiety. Scientists are also evaluating if taking vitamin D with other nutrients, such as vitamin B6 or omega-3 fatty acids, has any efficacy.
A 2022 randomized controlled trial in Human Psychopharmacology randomly assigned 478 young adults who were predominantly female to take lactose tablets, vitamin B6 tablets or vitamin B12 tablets for one month. The group supplementing with a high dose vitamin B6 self-reported a reduced level of anxiety.
However, an earlier review from 2019 found that in general, B vitamins did not have a noticeable effect on anxiety. Taken together, these two pieces of research illustrate the need for more studies around B vitamins and anxiety, especially when it comes to B6.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a plant-based bioactive compound found in the cannabis plant. One of the top reasons people say they use CBD is to help treat self-reported anxiety.
However, scientific evidence regarding CBD’s effects on anxiety is still very limited.
Interestingly, a small 2021 study in Psychopharmacology looked at what might be responsible for the self-reported reputation CBD seems to have when it comes to improving anxiety despite such limited and conflicting scientific support.
Researchers randomly assigned 43 otherwise healthy adults to take CBD-free hemp seed oil in two possible sessions. In the first, they were told it contained CBD (expectancy condition) and the second they were told it did not.
The participants who had the strongest beliefs ahead of the study that CBD can reduce anxiety also reported lowered anxiety when they were expectedly taking a CBD supplement. In this study, scientists effectively confirmed that a “placebo effect” was responsible for the lowered anxiety symptoms, not the CBD.
However, another small study from 2019 found that CBD supplementation did indeed reduce anxiety in 79% of the people involved in the research.
As with many of the other supplements involved in this article, these two conflicting studies show the need for more clinical trials around CBD and anxiety.
There are many other supplements marketed towards easing anxiety, including:
That said, “simply seeing it advertised or available on a store shelf does not mean it may be an appropriate option for your individual needs,” says Richard.
To navigate all of the conflicting and confusing messaging around which supplements are safe and effective for anxiety, it’s a good idea to work with a medical provider who has expertise in determining which supplements may be right for you, such as an integrative or functional medicine physician or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).
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“Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, [so] it is in the consumer’s best interest to do their due diligence about any item they are ingesting,” cautions Richard.
Making sure there has been third-party verification or testing of the supplement (i.e., not from the supplement manufacturer), is one way to gather information on the accuracy of the ingredients list and potency of the contents, adds Dr. Shah.
Look for one of the following third-party seals or verifications on the bottle or within materials accompanying a supplement:
Another factor is how transparent the supplement brand is. “I recommend choosing brands that are transparent about the Certificates of Analysis (CoA) for supplement purity and those that show where their herbs are sourced (QR codes in some cases),” says Dr. Loy. It’s also a good idea to look for transparency around the dosing of the active ingredient and to see if the brand prioritizes clinically validated ingredients overall.
There are many supplements that claim to help with anxiety, all with varying levels of scientific support for their safety and efficacy. As research continues, it may soon become more clear which supplements are actually worth your time, but for now, it’s always a good idea to speak with your doctor first before starting any new supplementation routine.
Additionally, supplements are only one tool in the toolbox for easing anxiety. Lifestyle changes, along with traditional treatments, are still widely recommended by physicians and experts. And supplements cannot—and should not—replace the role of anxiety medication for some individuals.
Lastly, if you’re interested in trying supplements to ease anxiety, always keep in mind that most supplements are unregulated and can have occasional side effects.
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Dylan is a registered dietitian and fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who works to ensure accuracy in reporting science and research communications. He has presented research at several academic conferences and has published several scientific manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals. Dylan spends time mentoring students about the growing field of nutrition communications and precepting dietetic interns around the country. He has served on the Executive Committee of the Cultures of Gender and Age Member Interest Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and is also the Social Media Chair for the Early Career Nutrition Interest Group of the American Society for Nutrition.
As an internist and board-certified physician nutrition specialist, Dr. Melina Jampolis specializes in nutrition for weight loss, disease prevention and treatment. She is a former president of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists. She’s also the host of the podcast Practically Healthy With Dr. Melina, is the author of several books including her latest, Spice Up, Live Long, and has appeared on national television programs such as Live With Kelly and Ryan, The Doctors, Dr. Oz and more. She currently maintains a small private nutrition practice in Los Angeles and serves as the chief nutrition officer of blk. water.