Antidotes to anxiety


Here's our guide to 8 calming supplements that can soothe a fretful mind.

as FREUD SAID, "The act of birth is the first experience with anxiety." For many of us, feelings of distress remain constant companions: About 19 million Americans suffer from serious anxiety conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and social phobia, reports the National Institute of Mental Health, while virtually everyone else deals with less debilitating but still harmful levels of anxiety.

Relief is as close as your supplement shelf. "There are many manifestations and degrees of anxiety," says David Bunting, director of botanical and regulatory affairs at Herb Pharm, an herbal remedy company in Williams, Ore. "My tendency would be to use botanical dietary supplements for any degree — but in severe cases only as a medically supervised complement to appropriate treatment."

Certain supplements are best taken for a limited duration. "For something that's short-term — say, anxiety related to an exam or an illness — kava and valerian are good options," says Cathy Wong, N.D., a Boston-based naturopathic doctor and's alternative-medicine expert. "But they're not good for managing long-term anxiety, like a high-stress job."

Remedies for ongoing, generalized anxiety always circle back to lifestyle solutions. Regular workouts and a balanced diet that contains adequate amounts of magnesium and B vitamins can do a world of tension-relieving good. "One of my first recommendations for someone who has a lot of anxiety is aerobic exercise, as well as calming exercise like yoga or tai chi," Wong says. Both types will help stave off the burnout caused by chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol

For occasional anxiety, try these supplements, which may soothe a temporarily troubled mind.

8 ways to beat anxiety
Legend for Chart:
B Complex
A good first step in relieving anxiety. "B vitamins are essential
for stress management, energy production, and neurotransmitter
health," says Cathy Wong, N.D. Helpful supplements usually include
vitamins B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3
(niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine
hydrochloride), B9 (folic acid), and B12
B vitamins are very safe. Thiamin may turn urine bright yellow,
and niacin may cause flushing — both are harmless side
Wong recommends taking a daily 6-50 supplement, which offers 50
milligrams each of most B vitamins, along with 400 micrograms
of folic acid.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid has a calming effect on the brain, working
similarly to the tranquilizers Valium and Xanax. "This nonessential
amino acid blocks stress and anxiety by preventing neurons from
overfiring," explains Wong.
Possible side effects include nausea (especially in doses over 3
grams per day), shortness of breath, and tingling in the hands
and face.
Wong suggests a daily dose of 500 mg to 3 grams per day.
Kava, or Piper methysticum, is traditionally used in its native
Polynesia to increase sociability and mild euphoria. Herb Pharm's
David Bunting calls it "the most specific and effective herb for
anxiety." It can be especially useful in anxiety-related cases of
asthma, high blood pressure, PMS, insomnia, and as a muscle
relaxant. Research in the journal Psychopharmacology has shown it to
be more effective than a placebo in non-psychotic anxiety disorders.
Liver damage is a potential risk, so anyone with liver conditions
or Parkinson's disease shouldn't take kava; neither should anyone
using alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other depressants. Kava is a
short-term treatment. "Using it for three or more months has
been associated with dry skin, pulmonary hypertension, shortness
of breath, and eye redness," warns Wong.
About 40 drops of tincture up to four times a day, or capsules up
to three times daily, according to instructions. Look for
capsules with 60 mg total kavalactones, advises Bunting. Discuss
any kava regimen with your physician.
This essential mineral helps ease muscle tension, anxiety, and stress.
A 2004 study published in Current Medical Research and Opinion found
that magnesium taken with hawthorn and California poppy extracts was
both safe and effective in treating patients with mild-to-moderate
anxiety disorder, says James Gormley, co-author of The User's Guide
to Brain-Boosting Supplements.
The most common side effect of magnesium supplementation is loose
stools, says Wong. The mineral may also interfere with the efficacy
of ACE inhibitors, diabetes medication, or tetracycline. Women
taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy may
need to increase magnesium to see a calming effect.
Gormley and Wong both suggest 200 to 300 mg two times a day; you
may need to experiment with the dosage based on side effects.
Food sources of magnesium include kelp, wheat bran and germ,
almonds, cashews, collard greens, and blackstrap molasses.
Dried passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) can relieve stress, anxiety,
and insomnia, says Gormley. In a double-blind study in the Journal
of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, giving patients with
generalized anxiety disorder 45 drops per day of passionflower
tincture was effective in reducing symptoms without impairing
job performance (unlike the anti-anxiety drug Serax, also part of the
Generally considered very safe, passionflower can cause drowsiness
and should not be used by anyone taking antidepressants or
anti-anxiety medication.
Available in tincture, tea, or capsule form, sometimes mixed
with valerian and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Use 40 drops
of tincture up to five times a day, says Bunting; Wong recommends
400 mg divided over the day.
This patented formula combines extracts from magnolia bark (Magnolia
officinalis) and the amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense), both used
in Traditional Chinese Medicine. "Magnolia bark contains two
compounds, magnolol and honokiol, which are believed to be responsible
for the stress-reducing effects," says Wong. Relora seems to work on
some of the same receptors as anti-anxiety drugs without causing
If you're pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs, consult
your doctor before using Relora.
Most company research on Relora has looked at a regimen of 250 mg,
three times a day, taken with food.
Rescue Remedy
British physician Edward Bach designed this formula to be used in times
of acute emotional stress. It blends five flower essences: star of
Bethlehem (for shock), clematis (for inattentiveness), impatiens
(for irritation and impatience), cherry plum (for irrational
thoughts), and rock rose (for panic).
One of the strengths of Rescue Remedy is that it doesn't interact
with medications, says Wong. It is at its most effective in
relieving short-term acute anxiety rather than chronic anxiety.
Available as an extract or spray. Place four drops of the extract
in the mouth four times a day, or as needed; add the drops to
water and sip, or rub on the lips. Two quick sprays have the
same effect.
The mild sedative qualities of Valeriana officinalis come from its
roots and rhizomes. "Valerian is used in treating sleep disorders to
shorten the time to enter sleep and to improve sleep quality," says
Bunting. "It's also used for anxiety, especially nervous anxiety,
mental strain, agitation, muscle spasms, stress, and stress-related
headaches and muscle tension." The plant likely works by accelerating
the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (see GABA, page 96),
explains Gormley. A 2002 study in Physiotherapy Research found that
valerian was as effective as Valium in reducing anxiety.
The use of fresh valerian has little, if any, side effects, though
Bunting cautions that taking the dried herb for more than three
months may result in headaches and restlessness. Avoid the herb
entirely if you have a liver condition or if you're taking any
drug that depresses the central nervous system, including alcohol.
As much as 40 drops of tincture up to five times a day, or a 300
to 400 mg capsule twice a day. "If you have anxiety-associated
sleep problems, take one capsule in the early evening and the
other 30 minutes to one hour before bed," advises Wong. Dried
valerian may be used as a tea, but many people dislike its
strong odor.


By Lone Parch

Photo-illustration by Nanette Hoogslag


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