Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on
September 24, 2021
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on:

Anxiety symptoms and stress are a normal part of life, but when they start to interfere with your day-to-day life it can be very difficult. There is no quick fix for the anxiety that we all face in our lives, but some people do find relief with dietary supplements for anxiety.

Below we will propose some dietary supplements and their potential effects.

What exactly is anxiety?

Anxiety is a mental and emotional condition that can be described as feelings of worry, fear, and uneasiness. Fear is a natural and normal reaction of our body against threats.  It is a feeling that we experience in situations of danger when our well-being or survival is at stake.

Anxiety can be seen as fear mixed with doubt and uncertainty about the future. It often manifests itself through physical symptoms such as trembling, sweating, dizziness, etc.

How does anxiety look like?

Anxiety is what makes your body ready for survival, to fight or flight. Adrenaline and cortisol are the hormones that prepare our bodies for danger. 

Your heartbeat increases more and you start to breathe faster. Your muscles get tense and blood pressure rises: this is all normal in a situation of fear or anxiety.

That’s why people feel so restless when they are anxious – because their bodies want to do something!

A panic attack feels rather similar to this as you can imagine. That looks like:

  • Feeling like you are not able to breathe (choking, shortness of breath)
  • Your heart beating faster than usual, your chest hurts and it feels heavy
  • You feel dizzy or lightheaded
  • Chills or heat sensations, sweating included possibly
  • Feeling nauseous and abdominal discomfort
  • Fear of going crazy or dying
  • Numbness or pins and needles
  • Feelings of being detached from the world or from reality.

What are the types of anxiety?

When your anxiety symptoms have a negative impact on your day-to-day functioning, you might have an anxiety disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines generalized anxiety disorder as 

  • an excessive worry about several events or activities 
  • lasting at least six months, which is difficult to control. 

The perceived anxiety is usually unrealistic or excessive about everyday situations. 

Generalized anxiety disorder can be very disabling and interfere with your relationships, work and so on. Other types of anxiety disorders recognized are:

  • Panic disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Social phobias 
  • Separation anxiety disorder  
  • Selective mutism
  • Specific phobias.

What causes anxiety?

It is difficult to say how anxiety is caused. We do understand that certain people are more prone to it. Anxiety is probably caused by a combination of factors, including genetics and brain chemistry. Some risk factors for anxiety could be:

  • Stressful life event or difficult situation like trauma
  • Excessive or sustained stress
  • Personality types more associated with perfectionism, obsessive or compulsive behavior
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Medical illness or medications that can cause anxiety as side effects. Examples are hyperthyroidism, heart disease, diabetes or respiratory disorders.
  • Mental disorders like depression
  • Excessive caffeine consumption
  • Unhealthy lifestyle, such as smoking or alcohol abuse
  • Taking mind altering drugs (such as amphetamines)
  • Chronic pain or irritable bowel syndrome

Natural Supplements for Anxiety

As more than 30% of people suffer from anxiety in their lifetime, it is clear that interest in how to manage anxiety is high. Not only would a natural remedy be great to manage symptoms on a personal level, society would also profit from such a solution.

The interest in natural supplements might be a symptom of our time. Yet, it could also be that people prefer not to take heavy medication and have the side-effects.

Taking some supplements is a convenient way to get all your needed vitamins and minerals.

Magnesium

For example, Magnesium is an essential mineral that has a calming effect on the nervous system. It reduces stress and relaxes muscles so it helps with sleeping issues as well. Magnesium not only helps you to relax, but it also gives energy and increases your energy levels.

Some studies show an anti-anxiety effect, greater than the placebo, of magnesium supplements. Patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) found a positive effect on their anxiety levels.

The side effects were rare. Diarrhea is one of the possible side-effects. That is also why experts recommend starting with a lower dosage.

A sign that you might have low Magnesium is muscle cramps or muscle twitches. Another indicator of Magnesium deficiency is waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall asleep again.

Phosphatidylserine

Phosphatidylserine is a fatty substance essential in how our brain is functions. It can be found in food and in supplements. While the supplements were made before from animal products, today it is mostly derived from plants (like cabbage and soy).

If you want to try a supplement yourself, the FDA recommends avoiding the ones made from animal sources.

Phosphatidylserine could possibly normalize your body’s stress reaction and your stress hormones. Most men with high chronic stress seemed to find relief from taking such a complex (400 mg per day). Still, while some clinical trials do show success, others don’t.

As consequence, researchers can’t agree on whether the link is strong enough to recommend this supplement.

A sign that you are not absorbing enough phospholipids is dry skin or hair loss after taking this supplement for two months already.

Chromium

Chromium is known to play a role in insulin function. Some might use chromium for those with deficiency or as alternative support for those with diabetes, PCOS, or high cholesterol.

The effects found are rather small, and other recommended medication is available in those cases.

Certain trials do find a positive effect of supplementing when you suffer from atypical depression. This study showed mostly a positive effect on the carbohydrate cravings and the increased appetite.

Another study is done on rats. Here they also believe that chromium could have an effect on anxiety or depression symptoms. Chromium might decrease plasma corticosterone levels and increase serotonin concentration.

Again, while some trials find these effects, more research is needed to confirm the use of this supplement.

Lysine

Lysine is an essential amino acid that our body does not naturally make. We need to supplement or get lysine through food like meat, fish, and dairy. Supplements are used mainly as an extra treatment against the cold or to build muscle.

A study showed that L-Lysine combined with L-arginine might be good supplements for anxiety. Men see a significant reduction of anxiety symptoms, and stress hormones after use. So if you are highly sensitive to stress and anxiety, you can try this supplement.

Lysine doesn’t have a lot of side effects besides some occasional stomach pain. Too much lysine could also negatively impact your kidneys.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-fatty acids are essential fatty acids that our body doesn’t naturally produce. The two most important omega-fatty acid families for anxiety relief are EPA and DHA, both found in fish oil supplements.

Fatty acid supplements are shown to reduce anxiety symptoms, but also depression and other mental illnesses. 

Side effects of taking these supplements include fishy burps but are usually not severe enough to stop people from taking these.

Probiotics

Probiotics are live bacteria that can be found in supplements or fermented foods like yogurt. It is suggested to take probiotics if you have diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or other stomach problems.

A study with mice showed that probiotic supplementation could reduce anxiety-like behavior. It could also increase dopamine levels. Researchers that support the gut-brain connection are very interested in this topic.

They believe that probiotics support positive bacteria in the gut and show an effect on anxiety symptoms.

B Vitamins

B Vitamins are necessary for good brain health and mental well-being.

Ensuring that you have a B vitamin deficiency can be best done by taking a blood test at your doctor’s office. Some symptoms include: fatigue, depression, constipation, or weight loss. Supplementing with B complex vitamins might help temporarily with anxiety symptoms.

Vitamin B complex is generally safe for most people. Still, too much of this might cause digestive issues like nausea, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome

L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. It has a potential calming effect and helps you feel less stressed, more focused and calmer.

This supplement can be used for anxiety, but also to support ADHD. Some believe it could help with jet lag since it reduces the effects of stress hormones like cortisol.

A study with rats suggests that L-theanine might help anxiety and depression. This, since it increased serotonin, dopamine and GABA levels. Obviously, drinking a cup of tea is a cultural habit as well to calm some people down.

L-Theanine is generally considered safe. It is not recommended to to combine it with certain medications like blood pressure medication. Other side effects might be nausea, however the side effects are very little.

Natural Remedies for Anxiety

If medication or dietary supplements are not an option for you, you could choose natural remedies. The below mentioned herbal remedies could treat anxiety in another way.

Mostly these herbal remedies are a part of a complementary and integrative health program. They are alternative treatments to treat anxiety. Usually they are not prescription medications.

A doctor can provide professional medical advice. Also, usually it is not advised to combine these herbal remedies with prescription medications.

Passionflower

Passionflower is traditionally used to treat insomnia and anxiety within many cultures. More research is needed on what exactly is happening there.

The side effects are limited to drowsiness, confusion, or uncoordinated movements. That seems in line with a sleepy, relaxed feeling (and so what people use this flower for).

Rhodiola

Another herbal supplement with promising results in anxiety studies is Rhodiola Rosea. This herbal supplement is also known as Golden Root or Arctic root. It is used by the Scandinavians or Russians.

They might look for it during long, dark winter months. Evidence suggests its energizing levels and other benefits. Examples are cognition, mental and physical performance under stress and sexual function.

While research seems to focus on using this herb mostly for depression. Some evidence suggests that Rhodiola Rosea might treat anxiety. It would be a great alternative to prescription medications if you can’t stomach them. The side-effects seem limited to dizziness and dry mouth.

Valerian Root

Valerian is known as an herb/ flower sold over the counter as a supplement. It is a historically known sleeping aid.

Many cultures would recommend using Valerian to fall asleep, or to calm down your anxiety symptoms. Some researchers confirm this, however, results are not strong enough to give conclusive proof of that.

Valerian is pretty safe, however, it is not to be recommended in combination with other sedatives. Pregnant or nursing mothers should not take valerian either, it is also not recommended to use with young children.

Licorice Root

Licorice root is often recommended to help with stomach issues, but it might also have a beneficial effect on anxiety sufferers. It contains the active ingredient glycyrrhizin.

Evidence suggests that it counteracts stress hormones and lowers cortisol levels. The effects of licorice could possibly be interpreted as soothing.

Since Licorice Root can interfere with the hormone levels in your body, it is not recommended to use long term. A doctor can provide medical advice on how long to take herbal remedies.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an herb that is used in Ayurvedic medicine and has been shown to reduce stress-related cortisol levels. It might also have some benefits for your anxiety. An overview study confirms these effects and adds that it could help your energy levels.

The side-effects are very minimal, and mostly not noticed to withdraw from studies. Researchers advise not to take this herb if you suspect an allergy to this plant family.

GABA

These herbal treatments usually focus on the GABA-ergic (gamma-aminobutyric acid) system. This system plays a big role in sleep and wakefulness.

Prescription medication, like the addictive benzodiazepines, are also focused on those systems.

While researchers are not entirely sure, it seems that these herbal supplements also work on the GABA receptors. This might give us the hypnotic and anxiolytic effect, basically it feels so calming that you are ready to fall asleep.

How long does it take for anxiety supplements to have an effect?

The answer to this question is rather difficult. Different supplements for anxiety can have different effects. It also depends on what you are taking the herbal supplement for.

If you are suffering from a mental disorder a doctor can provide medical advice. These supplements might be a great addition when you go through a difficult time.

For some it takes weeks to take effect, or months. For others the effect might be close to a placebo effect. It is important to read the instructions on your supplements and ask the doctor for advice.

If your anxiety is taking over your life, supplements or herbs might not be enough. When your issues keep arising and this is a chronic situation, it might be time to try regulated treatment. The recommended treatment in those cases is a combination of medication and therapy.

Are anxiety supplements safe for everyone?

The side effects of supplements are usually very minimal. They are in general considered to be safe if you get them from a reputable manufacturer. Side-effects are usually more of an issue with pharmaceutical drugs, that is why many prefer to try a supplement or herb first.

Still, there are cases in which one should be more careful with supplements.  If you have heart disease, liver or kidney problems or epilepsy, ask for advice from your doctor.

Also, when pregnant, it is important to be cautious. Some could also interact with medication, so it is better to look that up as well. Some people are also allergic to certain herbs or plants so make sure not to take any if you know that beforehand.

Getting the Right Supplements for Anxiety

In this article, I shared the most common natural remedies for anxiety relief. In some cases, anxiety or stress might be a question of taking supplements or herbs to manage a difficult time in your life.

In other situations, the best option is to combine medication and counseling in order to reduce anxiety symptoms. If you are still figuring out what you or your loved one is dealing with, you can take this short quiz to get a personalized overview.

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