Nutritional or Herbal Supplements for Anxiety Symptoms?

Nutritional or Herbal Supplements for Anxiety Symptoms?

Let’s face it. Life can be very stressful. We all have stress in our lives and those levels can vary from day-to-day depending on a myriad of circumstances. Work? Relationships? Finances? Family? Health? These tend to be the major sources of stress in our lives.

Fear and anxiety differ in one key respect, fear is a response to a real threat or danger while anxiety is a similar response to an imagined or perceived threat. Anxiety disorders are very common.

Altogether, approximately 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. Though there are different types of anxiety disorders (Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, among others), the effects of which can be terribly debilitating for those who suffer from them.

Several people who suffer from one of these anxiety disorders often seek natural treatments with the hope of finding a remedy that has fewer side effects than conventional medication. If you fit in this group, make sure that you consult with your doctor first. It’s important to have a proper diagnosis and medical treatment so that you’re not just self-medicating with an herbal remedy or dietary supplement.

Speaking of these types of treatments, a recent study published in the Nutrition Journal [1], reviewed the safety and efficacy of nutritional and herbal remedies for anxiety symptoms and disorders.

Here’s a brief summary of the particular supplements that they reviewed clinical trial data for:

Anxiety Supplements

1. Passionflower –

Passionflower or Passiflora incarnata Linn. has been used as an herbal remedy for anxiety around the world for several years.  It’s difficult to ascertain the active ingredients responsible for its anxiolytic effect since it contains numerous phytochemicals.

To date, there have been 3 studies on passionflower for treating anxiety disorders.  One study, in particular, compared passionflower to a benzodiazepine drug.  This study found that both treatments were equally effective for treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  The group that took the benzo noticed a faster response while the passionflower group noted less impairment at work.

Mild adverse effects were reported in these studies including drowsiness, confusion, and dizziness.

2. Kava –

Kava is another herbal remedy with a long history of use for treating both anxiety and insomnia.  Kava itself is a drink made from the plant, Piper methysticum.  When I was in medical school, it was also widely sold as a supplement prior to concerns over potential liver toxicity (just prior to the new millennium).

Unlike benzodiazepine medication, kava does not cause sedating effects.  In terms of research, five randomized controlled trials have found Kava to be effective for treating anxiety disorders.  Conversely, four other published studies found it to be no more effective than placebo.  None of these trials found serious adverse side effects at doses under 400mg/d.

Kava and liver damage

In 2002, the United States Federal Drug Administration issued a warning over the potential for severe liver damage for kava supplements including hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure.  This lead to counties such as Canada and the UK banning this supplement.

None of the 435 participants who took Kava in the previously mentioned clinical trials suffered any adverse liver problems.  It’s been speculated that the case reports of liver toxicity may have resulted from poor quality kava, medication interactions, or overdoses.

3. St. John’s Wort –

More research is still required to suggest a potential role for St. John’s Wort in treating anxiety.  The authors of the review note that it has a potential anxiolytic effect with minimal side effects.

4. Lysine –

L-lysine is an amino acid that acts on serotonin receptors and has a potential role in treating anxiety symptoms.  Two studies have been conducted in supplementation with l-lysine and l-arginine to reduce anxiety scores.  Both trials found this combination to effective and without side effects.  More research is needed on these amino acids to confirm these results.

5. Magnesium –

Three studies on magnesium in combination with other herbals, vitamins, and minerals have shown positive results for treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders.  More research is needed on magnesium alone to confirm its effectiveness. Magnesium is also thought to be an important supplement for those who suffer form chronic migraine headaches.

Bottom line:

Overall, Kava is the most researched supplement in this study’s review. Passionflower too showed promising results in studies for relieving anxiety symptoms. Kava had mixed results in the studies included in this review. Both magnesium and the specific amino acids cited above show promise, but also require further research.


  1. Nutr J. 2010 Oct 7;9:42.
  2.  J Psychopharmacol January 2011 vol. 25 no. 1 71-77
  3. CAMH
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