10 of the best natural supplements for anxiety and depression
All over the world, nature has provided us with the medicines we need to make ourselves well, in the form of plants.
Nature has given us molecules that not only relieve pain, but give us energy, clear our minds, calm us down, and help us adapt.
Many of these plants have been known to indigenous peoples for millenia; but traditions have also been lost and species gone extinct.
In the global internet economy, plants and supplements that were previously unknown are being rediscovered for their healing properties, and used to treat anxiety, depression, and stress.
So here are 8 supplements for anxiety and depression. Some have been used for thousands of years, and some have only recently been synthesized, but all are plants or found in plants.
Ashwagandha: when you need to de-stress
Ashwagandha is hard to categorize, because it’s good for almost everything. Also known as Withania somnifera or Indian Ginseng, the root of the ashwagandha plant has been ground and used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine to relieve stress, support the immune system, improve memory, stop premature aging, boost fertility, and reduce blood sugar. It’s been used to treat a wide range of conditions including epilepsy, depression, arthritis, and diabetes. One of the herbs compounds, Withaferin, has even been found to kill cancer cells. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, and is also an anxiolytic and an adaptogen.
Ashwagandha has only recently gained popularity in the west as an adaptogen, for its ability to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. It also improves energy levels, concentration, and memory.
In the past decade or so, several studies have put claims of ashwagandha’s myriad health benefits to the test.
Relieving depression, anxiety, & stress
In one study, those who took ashwagandha (600mg/day) reported a 72% reduction in depression, anxiety, and stress levels after 60 days.
Another study found 600mg/day of ashwagandha reduced self-reported stress levels by 38% after eight weeks, while reducing cortisol levels by 32%. Anxiety fell by 16.4%, and difficulty sleeping dropped by 46%.
The same study found that a lesser dose of 250mg/day reduced stress levels by 34% and difficulty sleeping by 25%.
- Ashwagandha relieves stress, anxiety, and insomnia
- Ashwagandha is also an antidepressant, and increases serotonin and GABA levels
- Ashwagandha improves energy levels and memory
- It’s a known aphrodisiac, and improves male sperm count
- People who take ashwagandha on a regular basis see their cortisol levels drop by around 30%
- Ashwagandha protects the brain by fostering the growth of neurons, and repairing ones that have been damaged. Its can even neutralize neurotoxic elements, such as those caused by Alzheimer’s
Reversing the effects of chronic stress
Acute stress can help us to survive – whether it’s escaping a tiger or meeting a deadline. Chronic stress, however, can lead to cardiovascular disease, anxiety disorders and panic attacks, fatigue, autoimmune disorders, and more. In the brain, it leads to excess glutamate and activation of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors, which causes neuronal atrophy and cell death. This in turn causes problems with memory loss and cognition, and down the line can lead to neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Ashwaganda has neuroprotective properties and has been used to prevent neurogenerative diseases. It protects against and even reverses the neuronal atrophy and death that occurs in people suffering from Alzheimer’s, AIDS, Parkinson’s, and other diseases by restoring mitochondrial activity and reducing inflammation, among other mechanisms.
Ashwagandha helps brain cells grow. It can increase synaptic density and even spur the regeneration of axons . It may also induce the regeneration of axons in the spinal cord after spinal cord injury.
Chronic stress also impairs our immune system, but ashwagandha helps restore it. A compound of ashwagandha, Withanolide A, increased the T cell population in mice after they had been depleted by chronic stress.
Treating alcohol withdrawal
Another study found Ashwagandha to be effective in reducing anxiety related to alcohol withdrawal, and led to voluntary reductions of alcohol intake in alcoholic mice. The same study found that administration of Ashwagandha increased GABA and serotonin levels in the brain.
Magnesium can cure anxiety & depression
“Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease” – Hippocrates
Our bodies need magnesium for just about everything.
Magnesium supports our cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and digestive system. It prevents the hyperexcitability of neurons that results in anxiety, stress, and depression. It may help prevent neurological diseases such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, and stroke. Magnesium also reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the frequency of migraines.
You probably aren’t getting enough of this essential mineral. Researchers estimate that about 60% of American adults are magnesium deficient, because magnesium is stripped out of most of our water and processed food.
Magnesium deficiency is extremely common
Chances are, you’re magnesium deficient, and if you’re depressed or anxious, this could be why.
Thankfully, magnesium supplementation can reverse these conditions as well. Several studies have established magnesium’s efficacy in treating depression and anxiety. In one recent study, daily use of magnesium significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, seeing results in just two weeks.
Magnesium & brain health
Magnesium improves synaptic function, learning, and memory. Magnesium regulates glutamate transmittion, preventing neural atrophy that can be caused by chronic stress and the overactivation of NMDA receptors. It helps neurons and neural networks grow through activation of the mTOR protein in cells.
- Magnesium is a strong anxyiolytic and anti-depressant
- It reduces stress and anxiety by regulating glutamate, increasing the availability of GABA, and moderating stress hormones
- It’s an anti-inflammatory, protecting against oxidative stress which can lead to cardiovascular disease and cancer
- Magnesium improves brain function by increasing levels of proteins neurons need to grow
- It protects against neurogdegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s
- Magnesium can help to reverse the lighter sleep patterns associated with hormonal changes during aging
Of course, mental health is complex; biological mechanisms interact with social, environmental, and historical factors. However nourishing your mind and body by getting enough magnesium is an excellent place to start to feel better.
GABA supplements for anxiety
GABA is both a neurotransmitter and an amino acid. Much of our bodies’ natural GABA is produced by microbiota in our gut, the “second”, emotional brain. Our brains listen to our guts and vice-versa. They communicate with lightning speed through the vagus nerve and what’s called the “gut-brain-axis”. GABA can be also be taken as a supplement.
Benefits of GABA
GABA relieves anxiety, improves mood, and leads to better sleep. GABA plays an important role in our ability to respond to anxiety and stress by directly preventing overactivity and overthinking in the brain. It generally promotes relaxation, and may reduce symptoms related to autism and ADHD.
- Low GABA levels are linked to anxiety, depression, ADHD, & autism
- GABA supplements have been found to lower stress & cortisol levels
- GABA prevents too much excitatory activity in the brain (anxiety)
- GABA reduces fatigue & bolsters the immune system
- GABA may improve memory & attention
How does GABA work?
As a neurotransmitter, GABA plays an inhibitory role in the central nervous system. Most CNS depressants, like alcohol or benzodiazapines, work by binding to GABA receptors in the brain, mimicking the effects of GABA. However GABA itself is quite natural, and as a supplement is not harmful or addictive.
So how does GABA work in what are assumed to be complex disorders like depression, anxiety, and ADHD?
GABA’s inhibitory function kind of shuts down those neural pathways, or, thoughts, that are making you anxious. It stops the overthinking or repetitive thoughts that often accompany major depression and anxiety. Similarly, it may prevent the excessive brain activity that leads to impulsivity or distractibility in ADHD.
Though lots of medical research has focused on the role of GABA in the brain, limited research has been done into its effectiveness as a supplement.
Nevertheless, a few studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of GABA supplements in alleviating stress in challenging situations, promoting relaxation and bolstering the immune system. GABA has also been found to reduce cortisol levels and fatigue.
In rats, GABA has been shown to stimulate protein synthesis, improve memory and attention, and lower blood pressure.
Despite evidence that they work, the medical community has been skeptical of GABA supplements, because the neurotransmitter was not previously thought to cross the blood brain barrier.
This has led to speculation that GABA supplements may work via the enteric nervous system, by increasing the neurotransmitter’s availability in the gut. However recent research shows that GABA works in the gut, too. One study found that higher levels of GABA in the gut was correlated wtih lower depression.
Getting GABA to the brain
GABA’s bioavailability in the brain was found to be dramatically enhanced when consumed along with l-arginine, an amino acid commonly found in protein rich foods, such as meat.
GABA can be found in many vegetables such as broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes. Fermented foods including tea are also rich sources of GABA.
The medication pregabalin is a GABA analogue and thought to increase GABA in the brain. It is sold under the brand name Lyrica, and a generic version was made available in the US in 2019. Pregabalin is used to treat generalized anxiety disorder, seizures, and pain, as well as alcohol withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal.
How should I take GABA?
Existing research suggests that GABA is more effective at higher doses of up to 800mg, but may be effective at doses as low as 30mg. The effectiveness of the dose likely depends on how available the supplement is made to the brain.
To enhance the effects of GABA, take it with L-arginine, or with l-arginine rich foods. GABA’s effects may also be enhanced when consumed with tea or l-theanine.
There are over 550 species of flowers in the genus Passiflora. Some are vines or shrubs, but they all can be distinguished by their purple and blue shades, which reflect their tranquilizing effects. They seem as though they’re about to lull you to sleep.
Passiflora species grow throughout the Americas, Oceania and Asia. Many species bear small, elongated fruits, which are cultivated and enjoyed in South America and Southeast Asia.
The most commonly cultivated passionflower is Passiflora incarnata, which has been used for thousands of years to treat anxiety and insomnia. It was part of Hippocrates’ pharmacocopeia in Ancient Greece, where he used it to treat epilepsy.
Passiflora incarnata has been traditionally used as a sedative, though it has other, less common uses. For example in Brazil it’s also widely used as an anti-asthmatic and analgesic.
Calming the mind
Across species, Passiflora is known for its ability to calm anxiety and induce sleep. Passiflora is a natural benzodiazapine. It contains GABA as well as other flavonoids that bind to GABA receptors in the brain.
Passiflora incarnata and Passiflora caerulea both contain chrysin, a natural flavonoid that acts like valium, and apegenin, another flavonoid. These compounds bind to the same place as benzodiazepines do on GABAA receptors, creating an anxiolytic effect. Passiflora species have been found to relieve anxiety as effectively as benzodiazapines without inducing the same level of sedation, cognitive impairment, or muscle relaxation. This makes passionflower a promising alternative to benzodiazapines or SSRIs for anxiety disorders, and should be safe to use on a regular basis without interfering with work or other responsibilities.
- Passionflower has an anxiolytic effect similar to benzodiazapines like valium by binding to GABA receptors in the brain
- Passiflora significantly decreased symptoms of anxiety in alcohol withdrawal
- Passiflora not only improves sleep, but reduces the harm caused to the brain by sleep deprivation
- Passionflower may be effective in reducing symptoms of opiod or alcohol withdrawal
- Passionflower increases synaptic plasticity and acts as an anti-depressant by stimulating the protein BDNF
Protecting the brain
A recent study suggests that Passiflora incarnata and its compound, vitexin, counteract the neurodegenerative effects of insomnia or poor sleep.
More than that, Passiflora incarnata stimulates adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus. It also upregulates BDNF, a protein that fosters the growth of brain cells and synaptic plasticity. As such it also works as an antidepressant and enhances memory.
Other uses of Passion flower
While primarily thought of as an anxiolytic, Passiflora incarnata has also shown promise for treating depression, neuropathic pain, convulsions, asthma, ADHD, palpitations, cardiac rhythm abnormalities, hypertension, and sexual dysfunction. And at least one study demonstrated a strong reduction in menopausal symptoms after treatment with Passiflora Incarnata.
Most species have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-viral, anti-carcinogenic, and antioxidant properties. Some species of Passiflora have been used to treat diabetes and even cancer.
Hippocrates used Passiflora incarnata to treat epilepsly. Similarly, native to Argentina, Passiflora tenuifila, known as Garlic passion fruit, is used an anti-convulsant, protecting against seizures.
In India, it’s being used to treat opium addiction. In one study, Passiflora was added to clonidine to treat subjects in opium withdrawal. The results were positive, with the group that took the passionflower was better able to manage their symptoms. It may also be effective in lessening withdrawal symptoms for those coming off of benzodiazapines.
On the North American plains, passionflower is sometimes mixed with the Illinois Bundleflower – the bark of which contains DMT– to produce prairiehuasca, a Midwestern version of ayahuasca. Passionflower is a source of beta-Carbolines, an MAO inhibitor that prevents the rapid breakdown of DMT in the body. The plants are boiled and combined for a synergistic effect and to permit a long, spiritual journey.
How much is safe to take?
Studies investigating the therapeutic properties of passionflower have safely used doses of up to 800mg/day for two months, with no adverse effects. For mild anxiety, a lesser dose of around 200mg/day will probably be sufficient. However for more severe cases, individuals may want to experiment with higher doses of 500mg/day or more. Avoid taking passionflower while pregnant. In animal trials, there were instances where it’s possible that Passiflora induced premature birth.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is an anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant… and it’ll turn your hands and clothes all yellow. And who doesn’t want that?
Some of the coolest people in history were yellow, like Lisa Simpson. And like Lisa Simpson, curcumin will make you smarter.
Our bitter yellow friend also stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that grows your brain cells. BDNF helps your neurons mature and increases synaptic strength and neuroplasticity, which is great not only for your mind, but also your mood.
Curcumin helps our bodies synthesize DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish. DHA deficiency is linked to anxiety, depression, impairments in learning and memory, and other cognitive problems including Alzheimer’s disease. By elevating DHA levels in the brain, curcumin reduces anxiety. However alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another omega-3 fatty acid, must also be present for it to work.
Curcumin as an antidepressant
Curcumin has antidepressant properties, increasing serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
Aside from increasing BDNF (a powerful antidepressant itself), curcumin increases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain.
Inflammation may be a major contributor to depression. Certain symptoms, including difficulty sleeping, low energy levels, and weight changes have inflammatory markers. Did I mention curcumin is an anti inflammatory?
Chronic stress can also cause depression. Too much stress not only wears us out physically, but too much worrying is literally toxic, and can shrink and kill off our brain cells. This can lead to entire regions of the brain atrophying, notably the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus. Soon we’re having trouble with learning and memory, our brain isn’t producing new neurons, and we can get stuck in a funk.
Studies have shown that curcumin reduces cell death in rats with stress-induced depression. Rats with cognitive impairments due to chronic stress recovered their learning and memory capacities after being treated with curcumin.
Curcumin also restored serotonin levels in rats with PTSD. The curcumin also promoted fear extinction in the rats – or, the rats stopped responding to a stimulus they had previously associated with pain (the stressful events that had induced the PTSD).
Turmeric is effective in this model of depression as well, by promoting neurogenesis, reducing cortisol, and restoring serotonin and BDNF levels.
Tryptophan & 5-HTP
A precursor to serotonin, tryptophan is one of the best supplements for anxiety and depression. Your body needs enough of it to create those feel good neurotransmitters and get them circulating throughout your brain, causing pleasant thoughts.
Tryptophan was commonly used as a supplement to antidepressants in the 1970s and 80s, until it was termporarily banned by the FDA after a bad batch of it got some people sick. So a variant of tryptophan, 5-HTP, began to be marketed in the US.
Both are now used as supplements for anxiety and depression. Tryptophan and 5-HTP are also used to treat insomnia, as the synthesis of serotonin is important for sleep, as well as cognition and memory.
Clinical studies have found both tryptophan and 5-HTP to be effective in increasing serotonin and improving mood.
Increased tryptophan in the brain, or “tryptophan loading”, leads to higher levels of serotonin. One way tryptophan (or, serotonin) works is by decreasing connectivity in the default mode network – the area of the brain involved in processes such as self-reflection and introspection, but also rumination and anxious overthinking.
Your body literally cannot make serotonin without these building blocks. So while it may not be the end-all-be-all cure, it’s an important ingredient!
Combined with a healthy diet, some exercise, sunshine and self-care, your body will synthesize these supplements into serotonin and get it circulating around your brain in no time.
WARNING: Mixing tryptophan or 5-HTP with other drugs that affect serotonin, like SSRIs or serotonergic psychedelics like psilocybin or LSD can cause a potentially fatal considtion called serotonin syndrome, especially at high doses. In severe cases, serotonin syndrome can cause fever, seizures, and even death. If you’re taking any other medications, be sure to consult your doctor before taking supplements like tryptophan or 5-HTP.
CBD for anxiety
CBD, or cannabidiol, is the non-psychoactive element of cannabis. It has many therapeutic benefits, and promotes a sense of calm by supplementing the body’s natural endocannabinoids.
The benefits of CBD
The sale of CBD, usually as an oil or tincture, has grown in popularity along with the use of medical marijuana. It’s now used to relieve stress, anxiety, cognitve disorders, insomnia, and even schizophrenia. It can relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and is also being investigated as a possible treatment for addiction, PTSD, social anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease.
How CBD works
Along with our bodies’ natural endocannabinoids, CBD helps our bodies adapt to chronic stress by regulating the secretion of stress hormones. Studies have linked CBD to lower levels of cortisol, the famous stress hormone. Continuously high levels of cortisol due to chronic stress is toxic, leading to inflammation that is thought to play a role in causing diseases ranging from high blood pressure to cancer. Chronic stress and exposure to increased cortisol also leads to depression.
CBD for anxiety
The medical community has only recently begun to seriously research the CBD as a treatment for anxiety. However initial studies are quite promising. In one study, 67% of participants with anxiety disorders or insomnia responded to CBD within the first month. Most were on a regimen of only 25mg per day for anxiety – much less than the 300mg or 600mg used in studies with social anxiety disorder. A review of eight different studies also found that CBD consistently reduced anxiety in people with anxiety related disorders.
CBD for PTSD
CBD and the endocannabinoid system appear to play a role in memory, and it is through this mechanism that CBD is thought to be effective in treating PTSD. Few studies have been carried out for PTSD specifically, but in one small study 91% of patients with PTSD experienced a reduction of symptoms, with an average daily dose of just 33mg of CBD. In addition to relieving chronic stress and anxiety associated with PTSD, it is thought to act by helping the brain to forget or preventing the reconsolidation of memories related to fear.
CBD for addiction
By relieving anxiety and supporting emotional regulation, CBD is also thought to help reduce cravings and anxiety in people giving up substances – including alcohol and even heroin withdrawal.
Hundreds of studies are underway to investigate more of the benefits of CBD.
CBD is being investigated for its role as an anti-inflammatory, preventing neurogenerative and cardiovascular diseases, as well as an antioxidant, preventing cancer and killing cancer cells.
Preliminary studies have shown CBD effective as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, as it reduces neuroinflammation and stimulates new cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
How to buy CBD
In the US, CBD products including CBD oil, flowers, pills, and cream, are widely available. However a small bottle of CBD oil can be expensive, ranging from around $50 to over $100 for a tincture. Moreover, not all CBD oil is the same – because it’s not well controlled, some sellers of CBD sell a much weaker product than the medical grade CBD used in studies. So what you think might be a good deal from a cheap seller may turn out to have no effect.
So, know your seller, and look at reviews online to make sure you’re getting a good product for your money.
The Albizia tree is native to East Asia and has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine. The flower and bark have been used for thousands of years to treat insomnia, depression, anxiety, improve memory, and promote a general sense of peace and well-being.
It’s so well known for its joyful effects that the Chinese name for the flower, “he huan hua”, literally means “collective happiness flower”.
Traditional Chinese medicine says that Albizia works by calming the spirit and removing emotional extremes, letting happiness enter the heart.
While the herb is only just beginning to be explored in Western medicine. In one study, depression was rapidly reversed in mice after being given a high dose of Albizia.
Albizia can be found online, as well as at many Chinese food and specialty stores. Albizia is usually taken in water as a tonic. It can also be made into a paste and applied to the skin. Topical application and absorption is recommended for treating anxiety.
Rhodiola Rosea grows in far northern climates in places such as Siberia, Greenland, and Scandinavia. It’s well known in Russia and was even used by the Soviet military .
In preclinical trials, rhodiola restored serotonin levels after they had been depleted by chronic stress. In a clinical trial, rhodiola alleviated depression, emotional instability, and insomnia within six weeks at a dosage of 340-680mg/day.
Like ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogen.
Adaptogens regulate our bodies’ neurotransmitters and neuroendocrine systems, allowing us to adapt to stressful situations.
They promote neurogenesis and proteins such as BDNF that help neurons to grow, protecting against cognitive decline while improving mood and memory. As anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, they protect against oxidative stress, an inflammatory state that leads to the development of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Rhodiola increases levels of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA in the brain. It also regulates stress hormones. When we’re stressed, rhodiola helps moderate the hyperactivation of the adrenal glands (HPA axis), lowering cortisol levels.
Rhodiola is also particularly good at rescuing our performance when we’re tired. It improves our cognitive skills and our physical endurance, while reducing fatigue, distractibility, and irritability.
“Peace, happiness and joy is possible during the time I drink my tea.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
L-theanine works by supporting the release of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine in the brain. It calms and awakens us.
L-theanine is an anti-depressant. Every three cups of tea consumed per day is associated with a 37% reduced risk of depression. It may be especially effective in cases of depression due to chronic stress.
It’s been found to improve sleep quality. Combined with GABA, it also reduces the time it takes to fall asleep.
In clinical studies, l-theanine has improved verbal fluency, memory, and attention span.
It has neuroprotective properties and may improve cognition following brain injury. It may also be useful in treating ADHD, anxiety disorders, OCD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
Theanine also boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and works to suppress cancer cells.