Feeling more anxious than normal? From herbal hot chocolate to medicinal mushrooms, here are some surprising, affordable and easy ways to support a stressed-out mind and body
You've Googled 'how do I stop anxiety', had a warm bath, made a calming ritual of your skincare, perfected your sleep hygiene with fresh sheets and a cool room, and taken yourself off social media. But sometimes all the self-care acts in the world aren't enough to soothe a fretful mind.
While medication is a life-saving route for some (read our columnist Nicola Bonn's moving account of her journey with anxiety meds ), there's also a huge interest in natural or herbal remedies for anxiety. Can specific supplements and herbs really help make us feel less anxious? Alone, no, but they could help strengthen our defences physically to ensure we’re more mentally prepared to tackle its effects.
“Anxiety can present itself in many different ways, from feeling sick in the stomach to a full-blown panic attack,” says nutritional therapist and GTG Expert Zoe Stirling . “It’s becoming increasingly common. Anxiety and anxiety disorders can manifest for so many different reasons and therefore treating them will differ from one person to the next. The root of anxiety may be due to stress, poor sleep or a lifestyle high in stimulants. It’s important to note that managing anxiety is best done through a combination of dietary and lifestyle changes with a targeted supplement plan, best designed by a nutritional therapist.”
While there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach, there are some nutrients, vitamins and minerals that could make a difference depending on the cause of your anxiety.
Word of warning, some natural remedies don't have a lot of research or regulation behind them. Take CBD oil; a relative newcomer to the supplements scene. It has been lauded for being able to ease everything from anxiety to pain and sleep issues. Is it as good as it sounds? Nothing's ever that simple, says Charlotte Faure Green , who, as a BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) registered nutritionist, is unable to recommend CBD oils to clients. "CBD extracts have novel food status under the Food Standards Agency," she explains, "which means that as they weren't widely consumed in the UK before May 1997 there is no 'history of consumption' and each manufacturer needs to go through rigorous testing to prove safety. My understanding is that Brexit has also caused issues around CBD getting thoroughly regulated. But it's in process, so watch this space."
However, it's not all bad news on the CBD front. Many people swear by it anecdotally and research is emerging. Dr Sarah Brewer, Medical Director of Healthspan and author of CBD: The Essential Guide to Health & Wellness , says: "CBD is emerging as an effective alternative to anti-anxiety medication. User surveys show that anxiety is one of the most common reasons for taking CBD, second only to pain overall.
"A 2012 review of all the evidence concluded that CBD has clear anti-anxiety effects that are similar to those of prescribed anti-anxiety drugs. So, for dealing with day-to-day anxiety associated with the pressures of modern life, it is likely that CBD will help you feel more calm, relaxed and able to cope even at relatively low doses," she says.
Then, of course, there's St John's Wort, which came to prominence as a herbal remedy for depression in the 1990s. It's one of the most heavily researched for efficacy: a 2008 review of 29 international studies suggested that it may be as effective as standard prescription antidepressants for depression of mild to moderate severity. However, it's still not known why it is an effective antidepressant and anxiolytic (i.e. anti-anxiety med). "Some experts believe it acts much like an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) giving an increase of the happy neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the brain," Faure Green says.
But it's fallen out of favour in recent years because it can have side effects. "It can cause stomach upsets, headaches, fatigue, dizziness and dry mouth," Faure Green says."It also interacts with a whole host of medications and can make oral contraceptives less effective. Furthermore, it can take up to six weeks to take effect when most people are looking for immediate relief. While it can be effective for many, frankly, there are safer options readily available these days."
Which are the best natural remedies for anxiety? We asked Stirling, Faure Green, Brewer and Shabir Daya, pharmacist and co-founder of Victoria Health to give us their top picks.
1. Ashwagandha to ease anxiety
If you're feeling anxious, it might be wise to step away from your regular morning coffee, which can give you the jitters. "Your cup of coffee may be doing far more damage than you might think, especially if you’re susceptible to anxiety," says Stirling. Ashwagandha is a herb that feeds the body and mind and is known to calm the body, as well as give you natural energy - not that wired feeling you get after stimulants."
Drink an ashwagandha-spiked drink in the morning instead of coffee and see how your anxiety levels fare. Ancient + Brave's hot chocolate style Cacao and Collagen, £25 for approx 25 servings, blends a dose of collagen and ashwagandha into a warming drink that nourishes from within. It has a slightly bitter, cinnamon taste so is ideal if hot chocolate is too sweet for you. It has 200mg of ashwagandha per 10g serving.
If you prefer a capsule try Artah Enhanced Nootropics , £36 a mood blend of which the top ingredient is ashwagandha extract KSM66, derived from the root and considered to be the highest quality form of the herb. Formulated by nutritional therapist and GTG expert Rhian Stephenson , a two-capsule dose gives 1000mg of ashwagandha extract.
2. Magnolia rhodiola to reduce stress and help concentration
If anxiety is leaving you feeling foggy and unable to concentrate, magnolia rhodiola may be for you. Trinny Woodall hailed this blend as one of her all-time favourite supplements.
" Magnolia Rhodiola Complex is a herbal supplement in the form of capsules to alleviate stress, anxiety and low mood by lowering cortisol levels within the body. It contains stress-lowering herbs which help you to feel relaxed without drowsiness, elevate your mood and improve emotional well-being," says Daya.
"Magnolia extracts have also been shown to reduce cortisol - the inflammatory stress hormone - as well as physically relax muscles and nerves. Rhodiola may enhance the uptake of mood-elevating serotonin, whilst theanine, derived from green tea, enhances the brain's alpha wave production which relaxes the mind. And, conversely, helps concentration!"
3. Siberian ginseng to restore mood balance
“Siberian ginseng is an adaptogenic herb, a natural supplement that helps the body adapt to stress. The effects of long-term stress can be a common causative factor of anxiety and therefore reducing stress levels is often key in managing it," says Stirling.
"Siberian ginseng should not be confused with ginseng, American or Chinese/Korean ginseng as they’re used for very different purposes. Siberian ginseng is uplifting while also being calming; it creates equilibrium, especially for the nervous system, making it ideal for anxiety." Add Herbs Hands Healing EnergiRevive Powder , £20 to smoothies, porridge or your yoghurt.
4. L-Theanine to boost happy hormones
“L-Theanine is an amino acid commonly found in green tea and matcha. It has been shown to help increase low levels of serotonin and dopamine, both neurotransmitters that are essential for calming the brain and creating a sense of happiness," explains Stirling. "Try swapping coffee for a matcha latte or green tea to help increase l-theanine levels. Make a matcha latte using almond milk or simply add matcha to hot water to make a cup of tea.” If you find matcha a bit strong tasting go for a smoother ceremonial grade such as Clearspring Organic Matcha Green Tea Powder £15.67.
For a capsule option, we love Calm by Earth's Secret , £35 a blend that ticks so many of our experts' boxes with 100mg of L-theanine, 300mg KSM-66 ashwagandha root as well as the stress adaptogens rhodiola rosea extract and holy basil leaf extract.
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5. Probiotics for mental health
A good quality probiotic might benefit those with anxiety, says Daya. "Scientists have discovered that our gut microbiome has a direct influence on mood and stress, so having healthy levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut may help our stress response - aka the body’s ability to cope with stress. Probiotics aren't just to aid digestion - they're involved in numerous processes carried out within the body including calming, elevating mood, preventing urinary tract infections and even helping with oral hygiene.
"I advise looking for a multi-strain probiotic which contains, at the very least, L.acidiophilus strains and Bifidobacterium species. Generally speaking, probiotics should be taken before meals so that the stomach acid does not attack these bacteria," Daya continues.
"However Mega Probiotic ND capsules are coated to protect against stomach acids. And when taken with food, the beneficial bacteria thrive and colonise the gut rapidly. It provides eight strains of acid-resistant bacteria, including the two species mentioned above, which perform various roles including helping to support the immune system. It is also is free from dairy, gluten, wheat, soya, sugar and numerous other known allergens."
6. Flower essences to calm all the family
" Rescue Remedy contains five Bach natural, original flower essences that may help calm the nervous system and alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, fear and emotional disturbances," says Daya. "It can be used to help you cope with immediate everyday situations. It is gentle, safe and can be given to children, teens and adults. Though, for infants, dilute with water. And the brand does note that you should consult a doctor if your child is under 12." Put four drops on your tongue or in a drink of your choice.
7. Magnesium to help your muscles relax
When you feel anxious, sounds can sometimes seem too loud or lights too bright. Magnesium could be your helper here, says Daya. "Magnesium works with calcium for the optimal function of the nervous system, so without adequate magnesium, the nerve cells cannot give or receive nerve impulses. This results in sensitivity to all types of stimuli: lights may appear too bright, noises too loud and emotional reactions exaggerated."
What's more, a lack of magnesium can make you feel out of sorts. "Magnesium is required for the manufacture of adrenal stress hormones and for its relaxing effects on nerve and muscle function," explains Daya. "So if you have a deficiency it can lead to an increase in anxiety and irritability," she says.
"I swear by Better You Magnesium Oil Original Flakes, £9.95 - just put a handful in the bath. They're suitable for all ages and during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Children over 12 can also have a magnesium liquid such as Floradix Magnesium Liquid Formula, £10.69 ."
8. Vitamin B and C to up your stress defences
"At times of stress, the adrenal glands create huge demands on B and C vitamins, leading to possible deficiencies," says Daya. "As these nutrients are necessary for the manufacture of anti-stress enzymes and hormones and for the optimal function of the adrenals themselves, consider the use of Terranova Vitamin B Complex with Vitamin C , £15.80. It provides these nutrients in a food base to help absorption and utilisation by the body. Children can take an age-appropriate multivitamin which should provide these vitamins."
9. Medicinal mushrooms to boost mood
"Medicinal mushrooms are not new, but they're having a moment again," says Faure Green. "I use reishi a lot in my clinic with anxious clients. My favourites are Hifas da Terra Mico-Rei, £59 or for a cheaper option Myconutri Reishi , £22.99. Reishi contains polypeptides which are the building blocks of our neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine plus endorphins, all of which keep our mood stable and good. It can also calm an overactive mind and can be effective for those seeking calm quite quickly.
"It has the added bonus of providing long-term support by building our immune system, which in turn strengthens our adrenal response to stressors. When stressed our immune function reduces leaving us more susceptible to infections - reishi supports so many body systems that it is a bit of a wonder supplement!
"Take it alongside vitamin C containing foods, or your vitamin C supplement, to enhance absorbency."
10. CBD oil for anxiety disorders and sound sleep
Many people take CBD at bedtime and for good reason. "Anxiety is a common cause of sleep difficulties, and a study presented at the 16th Annual Conference of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, in June 2019, showed that taking just 15mg CBD for six weeks produced significant improvements in sleep and quality of life."
"Anxiety disorders are increasingly thought to involve an endocannabinoid deficiency, says Dr Sarah Brewer. "The endocannabinoid system helps to regulate the way we respond to stress and damps down excessive anxiety. When this regulation goes wrong, however, anxiety can result."
She adds that CBD can also help you feel more relaxed ahead of a big event. "Cannabidiol, aka CBD oil, helps to reduce muscle tension, restlessness and fatigue and in one study involving people with social anxiety, taking CBD supplements before a public speaking engagement reduced anxiety, muddled thoughts, social discomfort and anticipatory anxiety significantly more than a placebo.
Her pick is Healthspan Opti-CBD Capsules , £29.95 "as this form of CBD is absorbed more quickly and acts 16 times faster than normal CBD," she explains.
Drops too are faster-acting than conventional capsules as they go straight into the bloodstream. Dr Brewer suggests holding Healthspan CBD Oil Drops , £24.95 under your tongue so the active ingredient is absorbed quickly. (We've tried these and they have virtually no aftertaste).
"If you are on any prescribed medication, always check before taking any supplements as interactions can occur," she cautions.
Disclaimer: Certain supplements are used for different reasons and a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be adopted. In addition, pregnant women and anyone on medication should always consult a doctor before embarking on a supplements programme.