By: Sarah Galzerano, Integrated Marketing Specialist, Jefferson Health – New Jersey
Supplements can help manage countless health conditions, from high cholesterol to chronic stomach upset and more. While claims of physical benefits have been prevalent for years, conversations on how they can impact psychological well-being are more recently coming to light.
With cases of anxiety having spiked exponentially during the pandemic – and now, cases of re-entry anxiety and pandemic-related PTSD – we sat down with Leslie Madrak, DO, Jefferson Health – New Jersey psychiatrist, to learn what supplements can work for anxiety. Board-certified in addiction medicine and integrative medicine, she shares which supplements to turn to and how you can make the most of them.
How can supplements reduce anxiety?
The mechanisms in many supplements work similarly to the mechanisms in SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which are often prescribed for anxiety and/or depression, explains Dr. Madrak. They can help the body reabsorb neurotransmitters, like serotonin, to help reduce anxiety the same way a medication like Prozac would.
What to consider before ‘hitting the shelves:’
- Anyone can benefit from supplements, but they may not work the same for everyone.
- Changes aren’t always immediate.
- While certain supplements may help manage symptoms, they will not act as a “cure.”
- Some supplements are proven to have dangerous interactions with other medications.
- Supplements aren’t FDA-approved, and you should always talk to your provider before taking any.
8 helpful supplements for anxiety:
1. Vitamin D: Vitamin D – D3, specifically – has been a must for many of my patients during the pandemic, says Dr. Madrak. While lack of sunlight isn’t a sole contributor to anxiety, reports have shown that vitamin D deficiency can have a significant hindrance on mental well-being. A minimum of 2,000 IU (international units) is often recommended for adults.
2. Magnesium: Magnesium deficiency is another culprit. Studies have shown that a proper amount of the mineral helps regulate serotonin and improve brain function, explains Dr. Madrak; plus, it can improve other areas of our health, including digestion, cardiac function, and sleep patterns.
3. Melatonin: Melatonin is the most common sleep aid. Melatonin is a hormone that tells us when it’s time to sleep and wake up, but some people may not produce enough of it, says Dr. Madrak. It’s often used for insomnia but can also help reduce negative feelings that are associated with anxiety (that keep us awake at night). It’s relatively tolerable in doses of 1 to 10 milligrams.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fish oil, these compounds are best known for their benefits on cardiovascular health, but studies have shown they can also improve brain function and mood, adds Dr. Madrak. Some theories suggest poor cardiovascular health and inflammation contribute to anxiety – thus improving one could improve the other.
5. Chamomile: Often consumed in tea, chamomile aids in relaxation due to an antioxidant known as apigenin, which binds with specific receptors in the brain to decrease anxiety. However, it can have a significant blood-thinning effect when consumed excessively, explains Dr. Madrak. Those on blood thinners should consult with their provider before having any.
6. Valerian root: Research suggests that valerian root works well with the GABA receptor and subtly increases its levels, says Dr. Madrak. GABA is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter to decrease anxiety and depression symptoms. GABA can also help manage premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
7. Ashwagandha: Considered an adaptogen, Ashwagandha is a natural substance that helps the body adapt to stress and accommodate needs, explains Dr. Madrak, primarily by decreasing cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. It’s one of the more highly recommended natural products, typically dosed at around 500-1,000 milligrams a day.
8. Kava: This supplement causes dopamine levels to rise and works with other receptors to reduce anxiety symptoms. Many have described Kava’s effects as “euphoric,” which has led to harmful, recreational use of it. Research into medicinal advantages is still controversial.
Are there any supplements you would advise avoiding?
Kratom, says Dr. Madrak. Kratom has strong stimulant and sedative properties, and while some have claimed it aids with opioid dependencies, it’s actually very addictive itself. It can even contribute to psychosis, or disconnection from reality.
What are the risks?
“Many people assume that just because something is natural, it’s safe,” said Dr. Madrak. “This is simply untrue. They’re very potent substances, and, without professional guidance, any of them can be dangerous.”
Overuse and certain combinations can trigger harmful effects; for instance, too much kava can lead to liver damage, and St. John’s wort, when combined with an SSRI, can lead to a potentially life-threatening medical condition known as serotonin syndrome, explains Dr. Madrak, which causes mood changes, muscle stiffness, fever, arrhythmia (rapid or abnormal heartbeat) and high blood pressure. Other combinations can cause difficulty breathing and affect mental clarity.
Generally, vitamins and minerals are safer than herbal supplements, but it depends on the individual, notes Dr. Madrak.
How can I get started?
Do your research and talk to your primary care provider, behavioral/mental health provider, or both, about what supplements may work best for you, says Dr. Madrak. “Be mindful and tell them about anything else you may be taking or have already tried.”
From there, a regular blood panel/bloodwork may be ordered to find out if you’re deficient in any vitamins or minerals that could be contributing to your symptoms.
“It’s best to start slow; maybe that means taking vitamin D and melatonin or magnesium,” recommends Dr. Madrak. “If you’re really interested in a holistic approach, pay attention to what you eat. Gut health has a proven link to the brain. A healthy diet – and exercise, of course – should be at the base of your routine. Fulfilling basic needs helps a lot more than people realize.”
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