Shaun Ward MSc ANutr
Anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders in the world.
It is defined by a feeling of persistent worry that disables someones ability to relax.
Short-term anxiety is completely normal, especially just before starting a new experience, however a continuous feeling of anxiety may be defined as an anxiety disorder (generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and social phobia).
Treating anxiety can be a complicated process, but one that is necessary for good health, as it can commonly lead to other issues such as an increased risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.
Not to mention the typical side effects like headaches, uncontrolled trembling and sweating, muscle tension and aches.
Unfortunately, there is still no confirmed physiological explanation for what causes anxiety disorders, but it is hypothesized to be due to the dysregulation of specific neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Although some antidepressant medications have been shown to improve the symptoms of anxiety , they do not always work effectively and usually cause a long list of side effects such as suicidal thoughts, and decreased alertness and sexual dysfunction.
Certain people may also turn to experimenting with supplements to help with reducing their anxiety. Below we have compiled a list of supplements with credible scientific-backing for treating/relieving the symptoms of anxiety.
It has long been theorized that the dysregulation of neurotransmitters in the brain is the cause of anxiety, including GABA, serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline .
This is important because, in animals, the amino acids l-lysine and l-arginine have been shown to regulate the levels of these neurotransmitters .
Specifically, l-lysine can act as a serotonin receptor antagonist, thus reducing the brain-gut response to stress as well as effectively lowering cortisol “stress” levels.
In human clinical trials in people suffering from anxiety, supplementation with l-lysine and l-arginine improves the ability to handle stressful situations by negating any increases in cortisol levels .
This same result has been identified in randomized controlled trials in healthy adults, with notable improvements in state anxiety symptoms such as apprehension, tension, and fear .
Such studies make it appear as though l-lysine may be able to help people suffering from anxiety, however more research needs to be conducted on lysine for clearer observations.
Magnesium is a positively charged ion that acts as a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme systems that regulate diverse biochemical reactions in the body, including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation.
Recently, it has also been linked to anxiety-related disorders .
The first signs of benefit were seen when supplementation with a multivitamin, containing large amounts of magnesium, zinc and calcium, significantly decreased psychological distress . However, the potential effects of magnesium could not be separated from the other nutrients found within multivitamin supplements.
Since then, magnesium supplementation has been better isolated and studied within anxiety. For example, in women suffering from premenstruation-related anxiety , ~300mg of magnesium per day daily reduced anxiety, cravings, and symptoms of depression .
Although the exact mechanism is yet to be determined, it appears magnesium supplementation is effective at treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, based on anxiety assessments like the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale, and a specialized physician’s evaluation.
Passionflower has a long history of use as an anxiolytic agent in older generations across the world .
To many peoples surprise, it was even listed as a “plant drug” from 1970-1990 passionflower in many European and Asian countries, being primarily used as a treatment for restlessness and nervousness .
The anxiolytic benefits were first documented in animals such as mice, but now there are more well-controlled human studies in anxiety sufferers about to enter surgical procedures. Such trials have shown that passionflower monotherapy pre-surgery is able to prevent psychological behavior changes towards anxious moods. However, passionflower is seemingly always used in combination with other herbal products and its hard to isolate its effectiveness .
There are also studies comparing the differences between passionflower and the prescription medication oxazepam, used to treat chronic anxiety symptoms, with very similar effects seen for treating anxiety disorders .
Studies like this really confirm that passionflower is a viable alternative to the current prescription drugs used today.
The mechanism or compound within passionflower which is responsible for its effects is not known, largely because herbal supplements contains thousands of phytochemicals, thus making it challenging to pinpoint the specific biochemicals responsible for a given action .
Kava is a drink that is prepared from the plant piper methysticum, and is consumed in many cultures for the main purpose of relieving anxiety and insomnia .
The popularity of kava is because it is claimed to be an anxiolytic agent without the typical sedative side effects caused by traditional anxiety medications.
Several studies in animals have demonstrated the kava plant’s abilities as an anxiolytic agent .
Randomized controlled trials for kava in humans diagnosed with anxiety disorders have also shown that supplementation of kava extracts for 6 months can improve primary and secondary anxiety symptoms based on the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale .
However, it is important to consider that many similar trials could not find any improvements in anxiety from kava supplementation compared to placebo .
The mechanism by which kava may exert its anxiolytic activity may be due to its binding to GABA type receptors, thus blocking sodium and calcium ion channels, and inhibiting the reuptake of adrenaline and dopamine.
Such binding of kava extracts to neurotransmitter receptors has so far only been demonstrated in lab and animal models, but could potentially occur within the human system .
The Bottom Line
Many people turn to supplementation to help with anxiety issues, however the amount of products on the market advertised to benefit this problem is vast.
Based on our research, the best supplements that may with anxiety are lysine, magnesium, passionflower, and kava.
However, there is a clear need for more human research in this area, with most supplements for anxiety having only been studied in animals.