As W.H. Auden pointed out, we live in the age of anxiety. Most of us suffer from a certain level of chronic anxiety because modern life is jagged, fast-paced, and divorced from the natural rhythms that tend to create a harmonious inner life. For some, this existential unease goes further and becomes a psychological disorder.
Typical symptoms of anxiety disorder include feelings of tension, irritability, worry, frustration, turmoil, and hopelessness, along with insomnia, restless sleep, grinding of teeth, jaw pain, an inability to sit still, and an incapacity to cope. Physical sensations frequently arise as well, including a characteristic feeling of being unable to take a full, satisfying breath; dry mouth; rapid heartbeat; heart palpitations; a lump in the throat; tightness in the chest; and cramping in the bowels. Anxiety can also give rise to panic attacks. These may be so severe that they are mistaken for heart attacks. The heart pounds and palpitates, the chest feels tight and painful, and the whole body tenses with unreasonable fear. Such attacks can be triggered by anxiety-provoking situations, but they may also come out of nowhere, perhaps even awakening you from sleep. When a person tends to suffer more from panic attacks than generalized anxiety, physicians call the illness panic disorder.
The medical treatment of anxiety involves anti-anxiety drugs in the benzodiazepine family, the unique drug BuSpar (buspirone), and antidepressants. Panic attacks are generally more difficult to treat than other forms of anxiety.
There are no natural treatments for anxiety that have been shown to be safe and effective. However, some treatments have shown promise for generalized anxiety disorder and related conditions. No natural treatment is likely to be effective for panic disorder.
The herb valerian is best known as a remedy for insomnia. However, because many drugs useful for insomnia also reduce anxiety, valerian has been proposed as an anxiety treatment as well.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 36 people with generalized anxiety disorder were given either valerian extract, valium, or placebo for a period of 4 weeks.8 The study failed to find statistically significant differences between the groups, presumably due to its small size. However, a careful analysis of the results hints, at least, that valerian was helpful.
In addition, a preliminary double-blind study found that valerian may produce calming effects in stressful situations.28 Again, though, this study was too small to provide definitive results. Another study evaluated the anxiety-relieving effects of a combination containing valerian and lemon balm taken in various doses; some benefits were seen with doses of 600 mg or 1200 mg three times daily, but the highest dose (1800 mg three times daily) actually appeared to increase anxiety symptoms during stressful situations. Furthermore, people taking the herbal treatment at any dose showed slightly decreased cognitive function as compared to those given placebo.
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full Valerian article.
Up until 2002, the herb kava was widely used in Europe as a medical treatment for anxiety, based on the evidence of a substantial body of double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. However, because of recent concerns involving its potential effects on the liver, it has been withdrawn from the market in many countries, and we do not recommend its use. For more information, see the full Kava article.
A large (264-participant) 3-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study tested the possible anti-anxiety benefits of a combination therapy containing the mineral magnesium (150 mg twice daily), the herb hawthorn (150 mg twice daily of a standardized extract), and the seldom-studied herb Eschscholtzia californica (California poppy, 40 mg twice daily).44 Study participants all suffered from generalized anxiety disorder of mild-to-moderate intensity. The results indicated that the combination treatment was more effective than placebo. No significant side effects were seen. This particular combination therapy is currently used in France.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 80 healthy male volunteers found that 28 days of treatment with a multivitamin and mineral supplement (containing calcium, magnesium, and zinc) significantly reduced anxiety and the sensation of stress.30
The supplement 5-HTP is best known as a proposed treatment for depression. An 8-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study compared 5-HTP and the drug clomipramine in 45 individuals suffering from anxiety disorders.31 The results indicated that 5-HTP was effective, but clomipramine was more effective.
Based on its apparent ability to promote sleep, melatonin has been tried as a treatment for reducing anxiety. However, while four studies performed by Saudi researchers reported benefits,32,33 52. 55 independent researchers have been unable to confirm these results.53,54
A 4-week, double-blind study of 36 individuals with anxiety (specifically, generalized anxiety disorder) compared the herb passionflower to the standard drug oxazepam.35 Oxazepam worked more quickly, but by the end of the 4-week trial, both treatments proved equally effective. Furthermore, passionflower showed a comparative advantage in terms of side-effects: use of oxazepam was associated with more impairment of job performance. And, in a placebo-controlled trial involving 60 surgical patients, passionflower significantly reduced anxiety up to 90 minutes prior to surgery.64 The only other supporting evidence for passionflower comes from animal studies.45
Several small double-blind studies by a single research group have found preliminary evidence that oral use of lemon balm ( Melissa officinalis) may reduce anxiety levels.46,47 Like other anti-anxiety agents, it may also impair mental function to some degree. A combination of lemon balm and valerian has also been tested, with generally positive results.48
A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 40 individuals found that gotu kola reduced the "startle" response to sudden loud noises.34 This suggests, but doesn't prove, that gotu kola may be helpful for anxiety.
The herb Galphimia glauca is traditionally used as a “nerve tonic” by Mexican herbalists. One substantial double-blind study purportedly found that a standardized Galphimia extract is as effective as the standard medication lorazepam.58 However, because this study failed to use a placebo group, these results mean little.
Other herbs or supplements that are frequently recommended for anxiety attacks include Chinese skullcap, flaxseed oil, chamomile, gamma oryzanol, hops, selenium, and suma, as well as inositol for panic disorder. However, there is no reliable supporting evidence to indicate that they work.
The substance GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that is used within the brain to reduce the activity of certain nerve systems, including those related to anxiety. For this reason, GABA supplements are sometimes recommended for treatment of anxiety-related conditions. However, there are no studies whatsoever supporting the use of GABA supplements for anxiety. In fact, it appears that, when taken orally, GABA cannot pass the blood-brain barrier, and therefore does not even enter the brain.60
A 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involving 68 healthy medical students without anxiety disorders found that taking fish oil supplements may reduce anxiety (ie, stress related to test taking).69
Various alternative therapies have shown some promise for the treatment of anxiety, including:
However, more research needs to be done on the effectiveness of these treatments.
There is a fair amount of evidence in support of relaxation therapies38,40,61,62,65 and massage (either alone or combined with aromatherapy),11,37 as means to treat the symptoms of anxiety, at least in the short-term. In a 2008 review of 27 studies, for example, researchers concluded that relaxation therapies (including Jacobson's progressive relaxation, autogenic training, applied relaxation, and meditation) were effective against anxiety. (Although, not all of the studies were randomized, controlled trials.)66 In a randomized trial involving 68 patients with generalized anxiety disorder, ten sessions of therapeutic massage, thermotherapy (application of heat), or relaxation were all found to be beneficial at reducing anxiety, though none was superior to the others.67
Meditation improved symptoms in a review of 40 randomized trials with 2,466 adults with anxiety. In the trials, meditation was compared to active controls (medication, exercise or alternative therapies), attention controls (education or non-directive therapy) or inactive control (waitlist) groups.78
Various herbs and supplements may interact adversely with drugs used to treat anxiety. For more information on this potential risk, see the individual drug article in the Drug Interactions section of this database.
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Last Updated: 12/15/2015
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