It’s normal to feel frightened or anxious if something is threatening you. For example, if a bear is chasing you through the woods, you’ll experience the classic signs of anxiety – a rapid heart rate, fast breathing rate, a sensation of impending doom, sweating, trembling, and mental distress. However, some people suffer from anxiety in their daily life in the absence of such threats. In many cases, there’s no identifiable reason an individual with chronic anxiety feels uptight.
What’s the best treatment for non-specific anxiety? Although there are medications that can relieve anxiety, most are habit-forming and cause side effects. That’s why more people are looking for lifestyle changes and dietary supplements to help them feel calmer. Let’s look at some five of the most popular supplements for anxiety that are backed by science.
Kava kava (or simply kava) is an herb that comes from the roots of a plant that grows in the Pacific Ocean. Can kava kava benefit anxiety? Several studies show promising results. A randomized double-blind study is the gold standard type of study, since it can show cause and effect. One such study looked at the effects of kava on 101 people with chronic anxiety. The participants took kava extract for 25 weeks, while a control group took a placebo. The results showed that those who took the kava experienced a greater reduction in anxiety than those who took the placebo.
Another smaller double-blind study found similar reductions in anxiety when subjects took kava for 4 weeks. In the studies, the benefits weren’t instantaneous; improvement in anxiety occurred after 1-2 weeks of therapy. Still, the results are encouraging.
How might kava kava reduce anxiety? The active ingredients in this herb are called kavapyrones and they have a calming effect on the central nervous system. Although kava kava has a calming effect, there are rare cases of liver damage among people taking kava kava as a supplement. However, it’s not clear whether the herb itself is responsible for the damage, or some other factor. Because of these questions, it has been banned in some countries. Although it’s still available as a supplement in many countries, talk to your physician before using it and avoid it if you have a history of liver problems.
Fish oil is rich in long-chain omega-3s that may be beneficial for heart and brain health due to their anti-inflammatory activity. Fish oil is rich in long-chain omega-3s that reign in inflammation. Can long-chain omega-3s help with anxiety too? In one study, medical students took either an omega-3 supplement, similar to what you find in fish oil, or an olive oil supplement. The olive oil served as a placebo.
The results? After 35 days of taking each supplement, the omega-3 group experienced improvements in anxiety and a reduction in anger and depressive symptoms. They also felt more energetic. What makes fish oil appealing is the potential it has for other health benefits as well. However, if you have a bleeding disorder or are on a blood thinner, don’t take fish oil or omega-3 supplements, as they also have a modest blood-thinning effect.
Ashawagandha is an herb used by practitioners of Ayurveda medicine. As an adaptogen, it helps moderate the effects of stress on your body. Therefore, practitioners say it may be beneficial for both anxiety and depression. How effective is it? A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 39 people suffering from anxiety symptoms shows benefits. Half of the candidates took Ashwagandha, while the other half took a placebo. By 6 weeks, the group taking ashwagandha had fewer symptoms of anxiety than the placebo group. Other small studies also find ashwagandha is effective for treating anxiety symptoms. Although it appears to be safe as a supplement short-term, it’s not clear what effects it has if you take it for a long period of time.
Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, a spice with anti-inflammatory properties. Since inflammation plays a key role in many health problems, including mental health issues, like depression, it’s not surprising that it could have an impact on anxiety. One double-blind study of 30 obese individuals found that supplementing with a gram of curcumin daily for 30 days reduced anxiety symptoms more than a placebo. Other research shows curcumin may improve the symptoms of depression too.
Currently, research is looking at other potential benefits that curcumin may have because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Although curcumin is safe for healthy people, it can cause mild stomach upset in some. Plus, it’s hard for the human body to absorb curcumin. If you take curcumin as a supplement, look for one that contains piperine, a compound in black pepper that improves absorption, or phytosome, a fatty membrane that boosts the absorption of curcumin.
Inositol is a compound abundant in certain foods, especially foods high in fiber. Good sources of inositol include sesame seeds, wheat bran, beans, and citrus fruit. However, it may be difficult to get enough through diet alone to relieve anxiety, which is why supplements are available.
How effective is inositol for relieving anxiety? A small, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 21 people with panic disorder took 12 grams of inositol per day or a placebo for 4 weeks. By the end of 4 weeks, the group taking inositol had fewer panic attacks relative to the placebo group. A plus side of inositol is that it almost no side effects and a good safety profile.
How does it work? One theory is that inositol boosts the release of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that play a role in mood. It appears to be safe since you find it in a number of healthy foods, however, few studies have looked at the effects of taking a high dose for a long period of time.
The Bottom Line
As with any medication or supplement, talk to your physician before taking it, and always buy from a reputable source. Also, don’t use them as a replacement for counseling or medical advice.
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