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In the face of the mounting costs of anxiety in the U.S. and globally, here are seven substances that act as natural anti-anxiety agents and may make a difference in addressing the unprecedented levels of stress people are facing today, in the wake of the COVID crisis.
In the U.S., nearly 1 in 3 individuals will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, and diagnoses are surging among young people in particular.[i] Direct health care costs go above $40 billion every year, and its recurring nature leads to sustained costs for individuals, families and entire societies.
The good news is nature offers anxiety relief in abundance. Here are some substances to calm your mind naturally.
Scientifically known as Piper methysticum, kava is a crop of the Pacific islands with an anxiolytic effect, mainly from modulating GABA activity in your brain. It's available over the counter in countries such as the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.[ii]
A meta-analysis of three trials suggests that kava extract is superior to placebo as a symptomatic treatment for anxiety.[iii] In a different study, the herbal therapy has been found to be an effective treatment alternative to pharmaceuticals in non-psychotic anxiety disorders, with greater effectiveness seen in females and younger patients.[iv]
2. Lavender, Rose, Bergamot and Orange Essential Oils
Aromatherapy through the use of essential oils has been widely studied around the world for its ability to relieve anxiety, stress and depression.[v] Some leading essential oils for this purpose are lavender, rose, bergamot, orange and lemon, to name a few.
Subjects of a study that had blended essential oil consisting of lavender and bergamot oils, applied topically to skin, rated themselves as "more calm" and "more relaxed" than control subjects.[vi] They had to rate their emotional state in terms of parameters such as relaxation, vigor, calmness, attentiveness, mood and arousal.
In a review of 14 studies, lavender and rose oils were also found effective for attenuating anxiety in various animal anxiety models.[vii] And even the mere ambient odors of orange and lavender slashed anxiety and improved mood in a dental office.[viii] While more studies are recommended, a set of results indicated an acute anti-anxiety effect from sweet orange aroma, supporting its use as a tranquilizer by aromatherapists.[ix]
3. Cannabidiol (CBD)
Both animal and human studies indicate that cannabidiol, or CBD, a major component of cannabis, offers not just pain relief but also anti-anxiety properties.
Results from a study among individuals with general social anxiety disorder (SAD) suggest that CBD reduces anxiety in SAD through its effects on the activity occurring in the limbic and paralimbic areas of the brain.[x]
In the case of a 10-year-old girl who was sexually abused and had little parental supervision under age 5, pharmaceutical drugs offered partial and short-lived results, with major side effects.[xi] A trial of CBD oil led to "a maintained decrease" in anxiety as well as steady improvement in her sleep quality and quantity amid her post-traumatic stress disorder.
A powerful psychedelic, psilocybin is the active ingredient of magic mushrooms or shrooms.
"Stimulation of serotonergic neurotransmission by psilocybin has been shown to shift emotional biases away from negative towards positive stimuli," wrote researchers in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical, noting that reduced amygdala activity during threat processing might be key to the substance's effect on emotional processing.[xii]
In a double-blind trial on patients with advanced-stage cancer and anxiety, researchers used a moderate dose of 0.2 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of psilocybin, revealing a trend toward improved mood and anxiety.[xiii] Psilocybin may also be useful in treating drug dependence, anxiety and mood disorders, particularly in treatment-resistant subjects.[xiv]
5. Gotu Kola
Also referred to as brahmi and Indian pennywort, gotu kola is a perennial flowering plant from the Apiaceae family. Native to the Asian wetlands, it is useful both as a vegetable and therapeutic herb, used in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to alleviate anxiety and depression.[xv]
Compared with placebo, gotu kola exhibited significant anti-anxiety activity in humans as measured by the acoustic startle response (ASR).[xvi] This shows its potential in treating anxiety syndromes, according to researchers.
Who would forget a favorite tea at night to quiet your mind and calm your tired body? The first controlled clinical trial of chamomile extract for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) found it may have moderate benefits in patients with mild to moderate cases.[xvii]
In separate research, chamomile also improved cortisol patterns in subjects with moderate to severe GAD.[xviii] The response to chamomile therapy may be partly attributed to normalizing stress biology dysfunction. On top of its established anti-anxiety effect, chamomile may also have "clinically meaningful" antidepressant activity.[xix]
Another natural anti-anxiety compound is Passiflora incarnata, more popularly known as passionflower, maypop and wild passion vine. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers in South America learned of the plant and brought it to Europe, where it was widely cultivated and became part of European folk medicine.[xx]
In managing GAD, passionflower proved effective, with the added bonus of low incidence of impaired job performance compared to the anxiety drug oxazepam.[xxi] Among outpatient surgery patients, passionflower served as an effective premedication in reducing anxiety without acting as a sedative.[xxii] Discover more natural anti-anxiety agents with the nearly 500 abstracts on GreenMedInfo.com.
[i] Shackman A et al "Two Decades of Anxiety Neuroimaging Research: New Insights and a Look to the Future" Am J Psychiatry. Epub 2021 Feb 1.
[ii] Sarris J et al "Kava: a comprehensive review of efficacy, safety, and psychopharmacology" Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2011 Jan;45(1):27-35. Epub 2010 Nov 15.
[iii] Pittler M et al "Efficacy of kava extract for treating anxiety: systematic review and meta-analysis" J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2000 Feb;20(1):84-9.
[iv] Witte S et al "Meta-analysis of the efficacy of the acetonic kava-kava extract WS1490 in patients with non-psychotic anxiety disorders" Phytother Res. 2005 Mar;19(3):183-8.
[v] Barati F et al "The Effect of Aromatherapy on Anxiety in Patients" Nephrourol Mon. 2016 Sep; 8(5): e38347. Epub 2016 Jul 31.
[vi] Hongratanaworakit T "Aroma-therapeutic effects of massage blended essential oils on humans" Nat Prod Commun. 2011 Aug ;6(8):1199-204.
[vii] Tsang H et al "A systematic review on the anxiolytic effects of aromatherapy on rodents under experimentally induced anxiety models" Rev Neurosci. 2010;21(2):141-52.
[viii] Lehrner J et al "Ambient odors of orange and lavender reduce anxiety and improve mood in a dental office" Physiol Behav. 2005 Sep 15;86(1-2):92-5.
[ix] Goes T et al "Effect of sweet orange aroma on experimental anxiety in humans" J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Aug ;18(8):798-804. Epub 2012 Jul 31.
[x] Crippa J et al "Neural basis of anxiolytic effects of cannabidiol (CBD) in generalized social anxiety disorder: a preliminary report" J Psychopharmacol. 2010 Sep 9. Epub 2010 Sep 9.
[xi] Shannon S et al "Effectiveness of Cannabidiol Oil for Pediatric Anxiety and Insomnia as Part of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Report" Perm J. 2016 Oct 12 ;20(4). Epub 2016 Aug 12.
[xii] Kraehenmann R et al "The mixed serotonin receptor agonist psilocybin reduces threat-induced modulation of amygdala connectivity" Neuroimage Clin. 2016 ;11:53-60. Epub 2015 Aug 22.
[xiii] Grob C et al "Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer" Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011 Jan ;68(1):71-8. Epub 2010 Sep 6.
[xiv] Dos Santos R et al "Antidepressive, anxiolytic, and antiaddictive effects of ayahuasca, psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD): a systematic review of clinical trials published in the last 25 years" Ther Adv Psychopharmacol. 2016 Jun ;6(3):193-213. Epub 2016 Mar 18.
[xv] Bradwejn J et al "A double-blind, placebo-controlled study on the effects of Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) on acoustic startle response in healthy subjects" J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2000 Dec;20(6):680-4.
[xvi] Bradwejn J et al "A double-blind, placebo-controlled study on the effects of Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) on acoustic startle response in healthy subjects" J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2000 Dec;20(6):680-4.
[xvii] Amsterdam J et al "A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral Matricaria recutita (chamomile) extract therapy for generalized anxiety disorder" J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2009 Aug;29(4):378-82.
[xviii] Keefe J et al "An exploratory study of salivary cortisol changes during chamomile extract therapy of moderate to severe generalized anxiety disorder" J Psychiatr Res. 2018 01 ;96:189-195. Epub 2017 Oct 16.
[xix] Amsterdam J et al "Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) may provide antidepressant activity in anxious, depressed humans: an exploratory study" Altern Ther Health Med. 2012 Sep-Oct;18(5):44-9.
[xxi] Akhondzadeh S et al "Passionflower in the treatment of generalized anxiety: a pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial with oxazepam" Clin Pharm Ther. 2001 Oct;26(5):363-7.
[xxii] Movafegh A et al "Preoperative oral Passiflora incarnata reduces anxiety in ambulatory surgery patients: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study" Anesth Analg. 2008 Jun;106(6):1728-32.