It's pretty normal to feel anxious and tense in certain situations, like when going to a job interview, during an exam, or speaking to your new crush for the first time.
Unfortunately, sometimes we worry excessively about situations entirely out of our control. Chronic anxiety, accompanied by changes in blood pressure and heart rate, can lead to long-term health issues and even the development of a full-blown anxiety disorder. Possible stressors may include family problems, financial insecurity, the COVID pandemic, or simply uncertainty about the future.
Unless properly managed, anxiety can cripple your life and turn every day into a struggle.
It is vital to manage a stressful lifestyle and use natural remedies to alleviate anxiety symptoms wherever possible. Changing your lifestyle, improving your diet, meditation, getting quality sleep, and even adding soothing herbs to your daily routine can make a dramatic difference.
In this article, you will learn more about what anxiety is and some natural ways to deal with it. Let’s dive right into the science and discover a few natural remedies for anxiety!
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is defined as a conscious and continuous state of worry over a possible negative event in the future. Unlike fear, an adaptive response to imminent danger, anxiety occurs from just thinking about a possible event, which may or may not happen in reality.
Therefore, anxiety is often unreasonable, excessive, and disproportionate to the potential problem that triggered it. Despite the lack of immediate danger, your body still enters “fight-or-flight” mode and remains in it for prolonged periods.
The feeling of anxiety originates in a part of the brain that controls emotional responses, called the amygdala. Your brain sends signals to the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, and different parts of your body, such as your adrenal glands, which start producing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
If the body's stress response persists for weeks or months, it may impede your ability to function normally, in which case you should visit a medical specialist. If your complaints continue for at least six months, you may be diagnosed with anxiety disorder.
Regardless of how long you have had symptoms, you should always consult a medical doctor if your emotions interfere with your life.
Physical symptoms of chronic anxiety
- chronic fatigue
- brain fog
- trouble concentrating
- reduced working capacity
- sleeping problems
Physical symptoms often worsen over time, even though the triggering event may have never occurred in the first place.
Types of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, different types of phobia (incl. social anxiety disorder), panic disorders, and unspecified anxiety disorders (1). Two of the anxiety disorders are often restricted to childhood—separation anxiety and selective mutism.
Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million Americans, making them the most prevalent mental health condition (2). Researchers estimate that the lifetime prevalence of anxiety in recent years is 33.7%, meaning that one of every three people will experience a mental health condition at least once during their life (3).
Unfortunately, medication treatment plans are not always adhered to in the long term, and many individuals stop taking their medication once they start feeling better. Evidence suggests that quitting your medication prematurely carries a 25% chance of symptom recurrence in the first month and 80% in the first year (4).
Instead, it's best to combine your treatment with lifestyle changes and other natural remedies that are proven effective and may prevent recurrences. These include avoiding triggers, improving your diet, adding exercise to your routine, and more!
Foods that may increase anxiety
Anxiety and digestion are closely connected. For example, anxiety can affect your digestive system, leading to indigestion, pain, bloating, and diarrhea. On the other hand, some foods can act as triggers, which cause digestive problems and worsen your anxiety.
These complex interactions occur due to the unique connection between the digestive tract and the brain via the enteric nervous system. Scientists have found that this gut-brain axis plays a role in many conditions.
A large meta-analysis of 18 studies also revealed that a common gastrointestinal condition called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often associated with anxiety (5).
IBS is extremely common. It affects about 10% of the population and includes symptoms of pain and bloating and diarrhea, constipation, or a fluctuation between the two.
People with IBS often experience anxiety combined with heightened sensitivity towards specific food triggers.
Common triggers for IBS, which cause bloating and flatulence and may worsen your anxiety, include fermentable carbohydrates, sugars, and some artificial sweeteners (6).
Sources of fermentable carbohydrates include pulses, legumes, and refined grains. Onions also contain some and may trigger complaints when consumed in large quantities.
Foods containing simple sugars such as fructose and lactose may also lead to gastrointestinal complaints and increased anxiety symptoms. That’s because many individuals have poor absorption of these carbohydrates.
The significant sources of fructose in most diets are processed foods that contain glucose-fructose syrup, while the primary source of lactose is milk.
If any of these foods trigger your indigestion or other gastrointestinal complaints, it may also worsen your anxiety. Therefore, an elimination diet monitored by an experienced nutritionist may help identify and avoid food sensitivities.
Substances to avoid
Some substances such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can raise anxiety levels and should be avoided wherever possible.
Coffee is a commonly consumed source of caffeine for most people, and while many cannot imagine starting their day without it, caffeine can trigger anxiety in susceptible individuals.
To be more specific, studies report that consuming more than 400 mg of caffeine per day has been strongly associated with an increased incidence of anxiety amongst individuals who drink coffee regularly. That's equal to around four cups of brewed coffee or six espresso shots (7).
Keep in mind that the dose will be even lower for individuals who do not consume coffee regularly and thus haven’t developed any tolerance.
Caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours in your bloodstream which means that drinking a coffee in the late afternoon will still leave half of the caffeine in your system by bedtime. This is likely to reduce the quality of your sleep, further exacerbating your coping abilities during your waking hours.
Do you still want the benefits of caffeine without triggering anxiety? Then switching to green tea might be a good alternative. According to research, green tea also contains L-theanine, which has a strong relaxing effect on the mind (8).
Nicotine is another stimulant that you should avoid if you have problems with anxiety. Even though people often smoke to “calm” themselves down, nicotine actually increases excitability in the nervous system and may worsen anxiety symptoms.
Quitting “cold turkey” may not be the best way to go if you have developed a dependence on cigarettes. You need to gradually reduce the amount of daily nicotine to minimize cravings and irritability. Many smoking-cessation programs can help with this.
Alcohol is a depressant for the central nervous system, so it is often considered a way to reduce anxiety and induce calmness. However, scientists have discovered that alcohol inhibits melatonin secretion and cripples sleep quality even when consumed in moderation (9).
Interfering with sleep can lead to increased anxiety levels the next day. If alcohol consumption is high, feelings of hangover and dehydration can leave you feeling dreadful and reduce your ability to deal with stress. Therefore it is best to limit alcohol as much as you can or even avoid it entirely if possible.
Ways to Improve Your Resilience
We all know that certain things simply make us feel better. Increasing our exposure to sunlight and being outdoors in nature helps induce calm, and yoga, meditation, and walking help improve mood and happiness. Enjoying social interaction or finding your unique way to recharge your body and mind can go a long way toward making yourself less susceptible to anxious thoughts.
Boosting your physical activity is one of the simplest and most effective natural remedies you can implement quickly. A systematic review of 12 controlled studies revealed that regular exercise was significantly more effective than a placebo in reducing stress and anxiety symptoms (10).
Furthermore, researchers suggest that both aerobic and non-aerobic exercise can successfully alleviate the complaints of patients with anxiety disorders (11). Participating in regular exercise can also be a successful strategy for weight management, as long as it is combined with a healthy diet.
Improving your sleep is another crucial aspect of your lifestyle, which may impact your risk of anxiety. Studies suggest that people with sleep problems are 17.35 times more likely to have clinically significant anxiety symptoms (12).
You can improve your sleep quality by creating a bedtime routine, going to sleep at regular times every night, sleeping in a dark, quiet and cool environment, and taking supplements such as melatonin and ashwagandha.
Foods That Calm Anxiety
Eating foods rich in tryptophan can help induce calm thanks to the role of this amino acid in the production of serotonin (13). Foods rich in tryptophan include:
- Lean poultry (chicken and turkey)
- Fish (salmon, light tuna)
- Fruits (bananas)
- Nuts (peanuts)
Fatty fish like salmon is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids are showing great promise as a natural remedy to improve symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Studies in healthy young adults report that boosting their omega-3s intake improved anxiety levels and reduced inflammation markers, indicating both anti-inflammatory and anti-stress effects (14).
Fatty fish is also a great source of vitamin D, one of the most commonly deficient vitamins in developed countries.
Although there doesn’t appear to be a link between vitamin D deficiency and anxiety, this vitamin still plays an essential role in regulating mood.
Studies show that vitamin D supplementation may help reduce symptoms of depression in deficient individuals (15).
Supplements and Essential Oils
Lavender is arguably one of the most popular calming essential oils. Its soothing and anxiolytic properties have led to lavender oil being used as a natural remedy against stress, depressed mood, insomnia, and anxiety-related problems.
Research has proven that aromatherapy with lavender oil can successfully lower symptoms of generalized anxiety in otherwise healthy individuals (16).
A systematic review of all the evidence regarding the anxiolytic effects of lavender oil reports that the evidence is relatively consistent and clearly shows its potential in reducing symptoms of anxiety and stress (17).
Other essential oils with potential anxiolytic effects include bergamot orange, german chamomile, and wild chamomile. Similar to lavender, wild chamomile is also a popular sleep aid.
Another herb, called Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), has shown great promise in reducing anxiety when taken as a dietary supplement. Ashwagandha is a medicinal plant used in traditional Indian medicine called Ayurveda for over 3,000 years. The herb contains various bioactive molecules, including saponins and steroidal lactones.
Animal trials suggest that two saponins called sitoindoside VII and sitoindoside VIII may have potent anxiolytic properties (18).
These benefits may occur thanks to the activation of GABA receptors (19). GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a mediator in the brain that promotes relaxation and calmness while reducing excitation.
The benefits of ashwagandha are primarily mediated by the presence of steroidal lactones, which are called withanolides. The main withanolide thought to produce the stress-reducing and anxiolytic benefits of the herb is Withaferine IV.
These substances may mediate the ashwagandha’s effects on anxiety via an attenuating effect on the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (20).
HPA is an endocrine axis that regulates the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Ashwagandha helps relieve chronic stress and anxiety by suppressing the production of these hormones, decreasing adrenaline and cortisol level.
There is an abundance of clinical trials reporting the effectiveness of ashwagandha supplementation in attenuating anxiety symptoms. A 2014 systematic review concluded that all five studies included in the analysis showed clear benefits on different anxiety or stress scales (21).
Researchers reveal that Withania somnifera appears to be most beneficial for certain types of anxiety, such as social anxiety (social phobia) and generalized anxiety disorder.
According to the evidence, you may experience reduced anxiety symptoms and improved mood as soon as the 2nd month of your supplementation with ashwagandha (22, 23).
Anxiety symptoms can be troubling, but a combination of methods can significantly improve your resilience and quality of life.
Note: This article is for informational purposes only and not intended for use as medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplement.