As the modernization of medicine and technology has accelerated, young Americans — who have become increasingly anxious and depressed over the past 80 years — have cultivated a curious fascination with natural wellness remedies from times past: Ayurvedic herbs, aromatherapy, and tai chi. We love our therapists, of course, but we also love our passion flower tea.
And understandably so. Though scientific studies around holistic treatments may be conflicting (or non-existent), no shortage of people would argue that natural remedies have helped them, and many psychologists and psychiatrists acknowledge that things like chamomile tea and mind-body practices can help alleviate mild symptoms of anxiety. While someone with a panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder wouldn’t give up their psychotherapist and Klonopin prescription for yoga and herbs, incorporating holistic treatments into one’s lifestyle can help manage stress — or, at the very least, be calming and enjoyable. Even if it’s just the placebo effect, well, placebos work.
Below, 11 natural remedies for anxiety to incorporate into your day-to-day life.
One of the first things that Dr. Marlynn Wei, a Harvard and Yale-trained psychiatrist, does when she meets a new client is ask them about their lifestyle, and that includes their diet. Because dips in your glucose levels can feel a lot like anxiety, Wei stresses that you should never skip a meal, and that it’s best so start your day with a high-protein breakfast to keep your blood sugar levels steady. She also recommends snacking on nuts — almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts — and eating beans, fish, and leafy greens.
Exercise is a bit of a cure-all, as it can benefit your physical, emotional, and mental health. Per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, regular exercise can have a lasting impact on your wellbeing, and just one vigorous session can help alleviate anxiety symptoms for hours. According to a 2012 study from the University of Georgia, both aerobic and resistance training can potentially reduce symptoms among those with generalized anxiety disorder.
If Wei were to recommend one herb for anxiety, that’d be rhodiola rosea, an adaptogen — a substance that’s supposed to help your body adapt to stress — that some studies show can help reduce the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, such as stress and fatigue. (While you can take it as a tincture, most opt for capsules or tablets.) However, Wei told the Cut that people should be just a little cautious with rhodiola rosea (also known as Arctic root and golden root), because it can have stimulantlike effects, which could possibly make someone even more anxious. Wei also often tells her patients — especially those with insomnia — to try passionflower, an herb that could help calm your mind and help you fall asleep.
Another popular herb for anxiety that you may already have in your pantry is chamomile. Though Dr. Chris D’Adamo, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told the Cut that sipping a steaming cup of chamomile tea won’t completely ease your anxiety, it certainly has “meaningful benefits.” There’s also a small 2016 study in the journal Phytomedicine found that long-term chamomile use “significantly” reduces moderate-to-severe symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.
(While Ashwagandha, the Ayurvedic herb heralded by Gwyneth Paltrow and Amanda Chantal Bacon, is especially trendy these days, Wei doesn’t personally prescribe it as much. One study, however, does suggest that taking the herb could improve your resistance toward stress.)
When it comes to herbs, though, you know your body best; not every herbal remedy will be right for everyone.
“Every one of us is unique, so I would not make a broad recommendation that could be considered universal,” Dr. Brent Bauer, the director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, says of herbal treatments. “Every individual should do their own homework and work with their primary care team to make sure any herb being considered is safe and appropriate for them as an individual.”
CBD Oil, Gummies, and Treats
As of now, there’s not enough scientific evidence to really tell us whether or not cannabidiol, a chemical found in marijuana that’s become especially popular in the past few years, is effective when it comes to treating anything from epilepsy to anxiety. However, some people swear by it.
While Dr. Margaret Haney, professor of neurobiology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center, told the Cut that although CBD “seems to act at a wide range of brain sites,” and could therefore “be acting at one of the serotonin receptors” in your anxious brain, many scientists say they still just don’t know enough about the chemical. If you’re interested in trying CBD, though, it comes in everything from edibles to eye serum to oil.
Vitamin B-12, Omega-3, and More
“Low levels of Vitamin D and B-12 can be related to anxiety,” says Wei, who recommends talking to your doctor about supplements, if that’s the case. A recent study published in JAMA also suggests that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid could help alleviate anxiety symptoms in those with clinical diagnoses.
As always, though, you want to be careful with supplements, especially given that the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements the same way it does drugs. If you’re looking to take supplements, speak to your doctor and/or research brands to make sure the brand of magnesium you’re buying actually contains the active ingredient. Wei recommends looking at ConsumerLabs.com for reviews, or eating foods rich in the above nutrients: salmon, for example, is a great source for Vitamin D, Vitamin B-12, and omega-3 fatty acids. For magnesium, incorporate dark green vegetables, beans, oatmeal, and nuts into your diet.
Lavender and Other Soothing Essential Oils
“Especially for sleep and stress and relaxation, essential oils can be used externally for aromatherapy,” said Wei, who recommends lavender and lemon balm before bed for “destressing,” or peppermint if you’re looking for something more stimulating. Lavender oil, in particular, has been shown to react the same way biochemically that some anti-anxiety medications do with specific neuroreceptors.
If you find that your mind spends more time imagining your extremely dark, unnerving future, and less time in the present, try practicing mindfulness through a mind-body practice, like yoga or tai chi, for even just five to ten minutes a day. Because these practices are low-risk, they’re often what Bauer will direct people toward if they’re looking to take a holistic approach to dealing with anxiety.
“For patients with anxiety, I always explore the concept of incorporating a mind-body practice on a daily basis as a key starting strategy,” he told the Cut. “It’s very difficult to find much risk with mind-body therapies, like meditation, yoga, tai chi, guided imagery, and the evidence is generally strong.”
Wei echoed Bauer’s message, going into more detail about practicing yoga — a type of moving meditation — in particular.
“If you do mind-body practices, when you feel a new anxiety-provoking challenge arise in your life, you will have taught your system to respond in a calmer manner,” she said. “For yoga in particular, it has been shown that practicing three to four times a week for six to eight weeks can help alleviate generalized anxiety disorder.”
Just maybe don’t jump right into a bikram (hot yoga) class right away, says Wei, because some of her patients have found that super hot yoga “can sometimes trigger their anxiety.” Start off with something a little less vigorous and a little more relaxing, like hatha yoga.
Meditation — Walking, Moving, or Guided
Another way to bring yourself into the current moment is through meditation. If you’re looking to meditate in the traditional sense, Ongaro recommends “starting with one minute of stillness and breathing to get the habit started,” during which you try to focus on your breathing. If sitting in complete silence seems impossible to you, try using an app for guided meditation, such as Headspace or Calm.
For people who are always on the run, Wei recommends incorporating walking meditation into their daily routine.
“Especially for New Yorkers, whether you’re walking to the subway or around the city, I like to suggest walking meditation, where you pair your breath with your steps,” she says. “Start out breathing in for five steps and then out for eight to 10 steps. As you increase your exhalation, your anxiety will actually go down, and you can always increase the ratio. That’s a very simple way to practice meditation, just using your breath.”
No one seems to know what to think about probiotics. One day, they’ll give you the clearest skin and healthiest digestive system; the next day, they could give you an infection and make you physically ill. But can they do anything for anxiety?
While research into this is in its early stages, a 2018 study published in PLoS One concluded that probiotics — especially the strain Lactobacillus (L.) rhamnosus — “significantly” decreased anxiety in animals. While these findings have “not yet translated to clinical research in humans, perhaps due to the dearth of extant research with clinically anxious populations,” the study reads, it says that more research is “warranted.”
Though the relationship between sleep loss and anxiety is relatively well-known, new research from the University of California shows that a lack of sleep could trigger the same brain mechanisms that make us sensitive to anxiety. According to lead researcher Eti Ben-Simon, “[brain] regions that help us regulate emotions are the ones that help keep us less anxious and keep us calm, and those regions are very sensitive to sleep loss,” he told Popular Science.
If you have trouble sleeping, some of the herbs and supplements recommended above — chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm, and magnesium glyconate in particular — can be helpful. (A quick aside: I tried The Beauty Chef’s “Sleep Inner Beauty Powder” last night for the first time, which contains passionflower and lemon balm, to help with anxiety and insomnia. My glowing review is that it completely knocked me out, and I only woke up once when my cat stepped directly on my face.)
For those interested in learning more about anxiety and how to best prevent or manage it, there are a number of books specifically about the disorder, whether you’re looking to read a fictional account about a teen girl with obsessive compulsive tendencies or a what feels more like a psychology workbook. As “self-care” has become trendy (and almost meaningless) in 2018, it’s time to look more closely at self-knowledge, which is just — if not more — powerful.