Sadly, supplements are not magic pills. They are ideally taken to support oneself alongside a generally healthy lifestyle and not as a Band-Aid to mask anxiety symptoms while we carry on with our unhealthy nutrition and lifestyle habits. But supplementing for anxiety can be important.
We live in a toxic, high-stress world with soils that are deficient in certain nutrients (ex. selenium in various parts of North America). Because of this, some in the health realm advocate handfuls of supplements every day. I totally understand why.
Yet for various reasons I prefer to limit the number of supplements I take at one time (revisiting this seasonally) and to vary things up. For instance, I might prioritize curcumin and Vitamin D3 in the winter but then switch to spirulina and various herbs in the spring for a bit. On the other hand, I take a methylated B complex, multi-strain probiotic and adaptogens throughout most of the year. I also like taking breaks from all supplements (ex. on weekends or in the summer). But of course, we all have different needs and if we are working to overcome or manage a health concern (anxiety, hypothyroidism, osteoarthritis) then we may need to diligently take a regimen of supplements day in and day out for an extended period of time.
And while I totally believe in the power of good quality supplements to support wellness and help us boost health in times of illness, they are not cheap and we must always prioritize healthy groceries for our families (If you have to choose between good food or supplements, choose the food, but also look honestly at areas of life where you could reduce expenses to allocate more funds for health-care).
So in my own home and with my clients, I encourage real food and health-promoting lifestyle habits first. Food has a major impact on brain function including cognition, mood and associated illnesses and can be used to reduce oxidative damage linked to anxiety. Furthermore, nature provides the nutrients we need in beautiful balance and synergy. While taking supplements can actually lead to nutrient imbalances (ex. too much zinc without copper; too much selenium without iodine, too much vitamin D3 without K2), a varied, whole food diet tends to do a better job of providing a balance of micronutrients, amino acids and essential fatty acids. The more limited we are in our diet whether due to allergies, disordered eating, availability, or eating preference, the more potential for deficiency.
Just a little side-note here: when I was vegan and vegetarian I always respected other people’s right to choose for themselves, and now that I am more of an omnivore, I still do. In fact, I never wanted to eat animal products but slowly added them in over the years because I just wasn’t thriving. I do urge my vegan or vegetarian friends and clients to be very conscious of potential for deficiency, up their nutritional game and consider testing for themselves and their teens to avoid any long-term issues such as I experienced. I just don’t want any of my readers to assume I am anti plant-based eating.
So in addition to my D3 supplement I add mushrooms (I haven’t sundried my own yet but plan to try it this summer), eggs, and fish to my weekly menu plans and, of course, I aim for sunlight exposure when possible. Rather than just take probiotics, I reduce antagonists to beneficial gut bacteria (ex. chlorine, fluoride, agrochemicals, antibiotics) and consume prebiotics and fermented foods (which also provides some K2 to balance the D3). Although I regularly take a B-complex I also consume plenty leafy greens, nuts and seeds, eggs, fish, avocado, beans, broth and some meat AND engage in stress and anxiety reducing practices to avoid burning through my B vitamin stores. I’m sure you get the idea. Real food. Health promoting lifestyle. Then supplements.
As a reminder, this is part 4 in a series of posts (1, 2, 3) exploring anxiety or mood balance in general. Depending on the root source(s) of your anxiety, the supplements that will provide you the most benefit may vary wildly. As such, I strongly recommend that you work with a practitioner to help you identify the supplements that would best support you according to your symptoms, health history, medications, current life circumstances, and so on. And I have said this many times before but will repeat it yet again: if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, taking SSRI’s or any other prescribed medication, or heading to surgery, check with your doctor before taking any supplements or medicinal herbs/roots to avoid negative interactions.
Following are some of the supplements that I personally use and which I believe have helped move me from anxiety to greater calm and balance:
Building a healthy gut microbiome is essential to optimal brain function, mood, and overall health and yet science is still in the process of trying to understand the amazing interconnectedness of the gut, brain, immune and hormonal systems.* Nonetheless, animal studies show that Bifidobacterium longum has the ability to reduce anxiety-like behavior caused by chronic gut inflammation. Lactobacillus probiotic strains have been shown to exert beneficial effects in the gut and the brain and Lactobacillus rhamnosus specifically appears to normalize GABA (calming neurotransmitter) expression in the brain (source). We should keep in mind that our digestive system is considered our “second brain” for good reason. For example, up to 95% of our serotonin (happy, feel-good neurotransmitter) is made in the gut. Choose a multi-strain, acid-resistant formula, with a CFU count in the billions.
Many of the B vitamins work together to help with mood balance, handling stress, heart health, energy and more; B1, B3, B6 and B12 have been studied extensively due to their effects on the brain.* While I might sometimes recommend extra supplementation of a specific B, for a specific reason, I generally think they are best taken together in a quality complex to help prevent imbalances. I prefer methylcobalamin (better absorbed/more effective) over cyanocobalamin (which is the form of B12 more often used) and folate (or folinic acid, methylfolate or L-5-MTHF:, bioavailable/lower potential cancer risk) over synthetic folic acid or B9.
Magnesium (calming to nervous system/insulin receptor sensitivity), Zinc (calming/plays a role in neurotransmitter synthesis/insulin receptor sensitivity/often too little zinc and too much copper in diet), Selenium (antioxidant/thyroid health), Chromium (controls blood sugar levels*/raises serotonin). These minerals can be taken separately or as part of a multi-mineral which will also provide a balance of other trace minerals but perhaps not in more ‘therapeutic amounts’ and will probably contain copper which some of you may want to avoid for a time.
EPA and DHA help lower inflammation, boost cognitive function and lower rates of anxiety and depression. One should simultaneously reduce consumption of omega 6’s (fried/packaged/processed foods, vegetable oils) to restore Omega 3-6 balance to reduce inflammation. In my home we experienced the huge benefit of fish oils to one of my children who struggled with moderately severe allergies and related lack of attention and mood imbalance. I also wrote about how consuming a ton of fish after the birth of my third child helped me emerge from a time of intense brain fog and some scary symptoms (like thinking one thing but completely random things coming out of my mouth). I don’t love taking fish oils (preferring to consume fish) and only do so in fits and starts despite the research. Some people feel better with an Omega 6 like Evening Primrose Oil rather than or in addition to Omega 3’s and getting tested can help determine individual fatty acid needs.
I have written about adaptogens a couple times already and previously linked to this overview. I regularly use Tulsi, Reishi, Cordyceps (sometimes in tincture, sometimes in these drinks) and Licorice in tea or tincture form. Rhodiola rosea or Ashwagandha are a couple commonly recommended herbs for mood disorder including anxiety or mild to moderate depression. You may like a blend like AOR Ortho Adapt or its vegan counterpart (click through well.ca link on sidebar or at the bottom of the page to check out these products); it also contains a bit of Vitamin C which is helpful for stress and anxiety and which I often recommend.
Curcumin seems to boost DHA in the brain (and conversion from its precursor, ALA, which may be great news for those eating a plant-based diet). It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, inhibits enzymes which degrade neurotransmitters, promotes neurogenesis, modulates certain neurotransmitters, can cross the Blood Brain Barrier and directly induce neuroprotection.**
There are a ton of other possible supplements one could take, of course, like short-term amino acid supplementation for neurotransmitter imbalances: GABA, L-theanine*** or 5-HTP for instance (these should be chosen really carefully according to a person’s unique circumstances) or herbs such as valerian root, passionflower or kava kava. Vitamin D3 has long been thought to play a role in alleviating mood imbalance, and Seasonal Affective Disorder in particular, although there are some who feel there is insufficient evidence to support this claim (I personally felt like it helped me in the past and continue to take it for various reasons, including benefits to cognitive function, bone health and immunomodulation, through the winter).
Whichever supplements you choose to take, do some research for appropriate dosing, quality or contraindications. Remember to pay attention to how you feel as you make changes to your diet, lifestyle or supplements; something might be great for other people and yet be over stimulating and anxiety-producing for you.
And remember: real food first; healthy lifestyle next. Then supplements.
*Research isn’t conclusive on this
**Integrative Therapies for Depression (2016) Edited by James M. Greenblatt, M.D. & Kelly Brogan, M.D.
*** Dr. Zendi Moldenhauer, PhD, NP, RN (psychiatric nurse), successfully uses L-theanine with her patients of all ages (modifying dosage), including children with ADHD, as it can help enormously with adrenal function, neurotransmitters, anxiety, focus, calm and sleep issues. My favorite interview from The Anxiety Summit, season 4.