It might start with a sense of dread, a familiar buzzing in your head or the feeling that you just can’t seem to catch your breath. This is anxiety announcing that it has arrived on your doorstep and that it’s going to try overpowering you at any moment.
Once anxiety digs its fingers in, it’s incredibly difficult to shake it off. Anxiety is more than a feeling of worry or dread, it’s a legitimate mental health condition that affects millions of people in the United States alone.
Many people suffer with anxiety in silence, quietly wishing that there was something they could do to eliminate the mental and whole-body effects of anxiety. Pharmaceutical medications for anxiety do exists but isn’t there something else, a more natural approach to anxiety treatment?
Today, both the medical and scientific communities are exploring the effectiveness of nootropics for anxiety disorders. Here’s a little bit about what we know.
For most of us, the occasional bout of anxiety is a normal part of life. Things will come up that catch us off guard or challenge us in new ways, and in these scenarios a little touch of anxiety is actually a healthy, typical response.
For a large number of people however, chronic anxiety is another beast altogether. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), there are approximately 40 million people suffering with anxiety disorders in the United states, and the effects can be debilitating.
Unfortunately, a staggering amount of people who experience severe anxiety never receive treatment. This is in part due to the many misconceptions and misunderstandings about what anxiety is and the multiple ways that it can affect a person’s daily life. Many of us are suffering without realizing that an anxiety disorder is the culprit and that treatments, both traditional and complementary, are available.
To understand anxiety, we need to first isolate it from the cluster of conditions it often gets entangled with. While we use the terms “anxiety”, “stress”, and “depression” interchangeably, they are not all the same. Anxiety starts in the brain but often spirals into whole body response.
The average person can experience anxiety in response to a situation and then easily gets past it. For a person with an anxiety disorder, it clings on and can be present even when there’s no rational trigger. An article in the Harvard Medical School Newsletter does a good job of summing up anxiety disorders.
In the article, the experts from Harvard Medical School state that generalized anxiety disorders are characterized by continual worry or agitation, often over nothing at all. Anxiety is an inescapable feeling of doom, that something bad is always on the horizon.
If you’re seeking a more thorough understanding of anxiety disorders and how they affect so many of people, this is a great video that explains the range of anxiety disorders and puts them in perspective.
The cause of anxiety is a hot topic for research scientists. There’s a strong connection between anxiety disorders and the over-activation of parts of the brain that are connected with the fight or flight response – a theory that’s supported by a study that connects the hippocampus and amygdala with fear expression.
But we’re also discovering that there may be more going on in the brain in the development of anxiety disorders. The human mind is a an incredibly complex network, with interactions and communications constantly sparking between the different regions.
The brain has regions that control both cognitive and emotional responses. Logistically, it makes sense that there is a misfiring between these regions when chronic or severe anxiety is present.
Anxiety can present with different symptoms in each person, but common symptoms include persistent racing thoughts, restlessness, irritability, fatigue, sleep disturbances, excessive perspiration, headaches, muscle tension, and panic attacks that may include dizziness, heart palpitations and shortness of breath.
While the obvious physical symptoms of anxiety are concerning, so is the effect that anxiety can have on the brain. Multiple bodies of research have looked at how chronic stress and anxiety can actually cause atrophy to occur in some areas of the brain. Anxiety is a chronic condition that must be treated.
Still, many people balk at receiving treatment for their anxiety disorder. This might happen because the full extent of the anxiety disorder isn’t recognized or due to limited accessibility to health care. Another reason is that so many of us are apprehensive about the traditional treatments for anxiety disorders.
Medications are often prescribed to treat anxiety in addition to complementary treatments such as talk therapy and behavioral modifications. Medications used to treat anxiety include benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and beta blockers, among others.
These medications serve an important role in the treatment of anxiety. Still, every medication comes with the risk of side effects that can range from mild to severe depending on the individual. This knowledge has left many of us searching for a different, more natural approach to treating anxiety.
Today people are seeking out relief from anxiety through nutritional support and supplements that boost energy in the brain, optimize mental performance, and reduce stress and anxiety. These supplements are called nootropics and they could be the solution to anxiety you’re looking for.
Nootropics – Are They a Solution for Anxiety?
Nootropics is a complex subject. We often hear the term nootropics connected to “smart drugs”, which refers to any supplement or medication that supports healthy mental function and brain health. The class of nootropics has grown to the point that it now expands beyond the original definition.
When we refer to nootropics to treat anxiety, we’re talking more about the true nootropics – meaning supplements, synthetic substances and even some vitamins that boost brain health. You know that morning cup of coffee that gives you a jolt of mental clarity? Caffeine is considered a nootropic.
When we stop to consider that anxiety likely sparks from an imbalance or misfired communication in the brain, it makes logical sense that anything that improves cognitive function might also improve symptoms of anxiety or banish the condition altogether.
The Science Behind Nootropics for Anxiety
But what does science say about all of this? Well, the idea of nootropics being beneficial in the treatment of anxiety disorders really isn’t anything new, even though the current trendiness around the topic might have you thinking otherwise.
For instance, a study published in Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science nearly two decades ago looked at the effects of ginseng, one of the most popular nootropics, on anxiety with positive results.
Another research report in the Brain Institute Bulletin noticed an increase of activity within the hippocampus after just one injection of a nootropic substance in animal studies. Considering the involvement of the hippocampus in anxiety disorders, this research provides promising insights.
These results are encouraging, and they really are just the tip of the iceberg. As we’re learning more about nootropics and witnessing through anecdotal evidence the effectiveness of nootropics against anxiety, we can expect to see even more interest from science and medical communities.
Nootropics, Anxiety and Our Modern Lifestyle
Does it seem like anxiety disorders are more prevalent today than they were in the past? The subtle shift that you’ve been picking up on isn’t all in your head. In fact, according to an article written by University of Michigan’s Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., 39% of adults are experiencing more anxiety today than they were a year ago.
It appears that there are a ton of nuances that affect our rising levels of anxiety. For instance, millennials tend to experience more anxiety centered on financial matters and women report greater anxiety across the board compared to men.
What’s interesting about the differences in how we experience anxiety is that so much of it seems to be culturally influenced. Washington Post neuroscience and mental health reporter Amy Ellis Nutt, explored our current culture and the connection to an increase of anxiety among adolescents.
Between social media, cyber bullying, political tensions and school shootings that make national news, adolescents and young adults are primed for developing anxiety disorders as they navigate their way into adulthood.
This younger generation is also the one that is being raised in a time when awareness and acceptance of mental health disorders is at the forefront. They’re also most likely to be open and accepting of alternative treatments that take a step away from traditional anti-anxiety medications.
There’s a little irony here between nootropics and the increase of anxiety in today’s culture. Many people have turned to nootropics to amp up their cognitive performance in response to added pressure from work, school and life in general – the very same things that are contributing to our anxiety.
Throughout our evolution, we’ve naturally gravitated towards what heals us. Our ancient ancestors instinctively knew what to consume to aid healing and today’s doctors marvel at a small child’s ability to regulate their food preferences based on their nutritional needs.
Could it be that our current fascination with nootropics is based from a self-protective instinct as we’re learning to adapt to a period in time when anxiety disorders, and all the mental and physical symptoms that come with them, are becoming more rampant?
Using Nootropics for Anxiety
The list of recognized nootropics is expansive. Many of these substances, like 5-HTP, CoQ10, DHA and Gingko Biloba are widely recognized and can be found on the shelves of your local drug store. Because of the ease of accessibility for many nootropics, some people tend to think they’re all harmless.
Many of them do present little in terms of side effects. For instance, the family of B vitamins are considered nootropics and most people tolerate these extremely well.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that nootropics work because they have a very real, physiological affect in the brain. The use of any nootropic substance, no matter how simple or complex the formula, should be used responsibly and with a thorough understanding of the potential side effects.
A literature review looked at multiple scientific resources that were available on the use of nootropics and potential adverse effects. In this review, it was determined that nootropics were beneficial in improving cognitive performance and helping young adults overcome other mental disorders.
The same review noted that in some cases of the use of nootropics, mental conditions were suddenly exacerbated, which reinforces the advice that nootropics, including the ones that are easily accessible over the counter, should be used responsibly, preferably under the guidance of a physician.
Can You Use Nootropics While Taking Other Medications for Anxiety?
Pretty much any supplement or medication that you take has the potential to interact with other pharmaceuticals you may be taking. In the case of anxiety medications, nootropics will sometimes interact in a beneficial way which we call synergy. Synergy is typically a good thing.
On the other hand, nootropics may interact and interfere with anxiety medications – something that we refer to as adverse side effects. These are the types of effects that a pharmacist would warn you about when picking up a prescription for medication.
The issue is that there is still a lot that we need to learn about the range of nootropics and how each of them interacts individually with typical anxiety medications. From there, we need to learn more about synergy products that contain several nootropics and how they may interact as well.
Let’s look at something many people consume daily, without even realizing its nootropic effects – caffeine. When a person is taking a medication for ADHD, such at Ritalin or Adderall, the additional stimulant effect of caffeine builds upon that of the medication, producing extreme hyperactivity.
Likewise, taking the nootropic 5-HTP while on doctor prescribed medications for depression can cause a serotonin overload, which isn’t a pleasant as it sounds. Balance is crucial with serotonin, and too much can create adverse effects that are counterproductive to the goals of treatment.
Does this mean that you should forgo nootropics if you’re already taking a prescribed medication, or even other supplements, for your anxiety? Absolutely not. The right nootropics can work in conjunction with traditional medications and possibly reduce the need for them – you just need to exercise caution and speak with a doctor or pharmacist first.
What About Self Treatment?
First, I wouldn’t hesitate from encouraging anyone that’s suffering from anxiety or any other mental disorder from taking positive steps in the direction to overcome their condition, including the inclusion of nootropics.
That said, you should also take steps to be assessed by a health professional that’s well educated in mental health conditions. There are risks to self-diagnosis, one of the most significant being that you could get it wrong.
If you choose to explore nootropics on your own, invest the time in doing a little research. Learn about how each nootropic works and how they might be beneficial in easing symptoms of anxiety disorders. It’s also advisable that you start out with nootropics from a reputable company that have been well researched before hitting the market.
Best Nootropics for Anxiety
Depending on how the definition is applied, there are more than 80 vitamins, supplements and synthetic substances that can be considered nootropics – sometimes more, depending on who you ask.
With so many known nootropics, it can be difficult to really zero in on the ones that will have the most significant impact on your anxiety.
It’s important to mention here that not all nootropics pair well with anxiety disorders. Before you take any nootropic, including “smart drug” formulations, it crucial that you do a little homework.
There are multiple nootropics that work well for anxiety. While this list isn’t by any means exhaustive, here are 5 of the most effective nootropics to consider for treating and overcoming anxiety disorders.
L-theanine is one of the milder nootropics, making it an ideal choice for individuals who suffer from anxiety but are prone to sensitivities with supplements and medications. L-theanine is an amino acid that’s found in tea leaves. In studies, it has been shown to have a positive effect on relaxing the mind, especially when combined with caffeine.
This nootropic works by blocking the overproduction of excitatory neurotransmitters – something that’s common in anxiety disorders. It also balances levels of other neurotransmitters to reduce the fight or flight reflex.
In addition to being well tolerated, L-theanine doesn’t produce any drowsiness as it works to calm nerves and reduce anxiety. It’s mildly relaxing, while seemingly mitigating the nervousness or jitters that can come with caffeine intake.
When looking at the best nootropics for treating anxiety, it’s important that we also take a closer look at the roots of anxiety. For many of us, it all starts with non-stop, relentless stress on a daily basis. You’re not a bottomless reservoir, and eventually this stress is going to build up and overflow.
Once this happens, anxiety steps in to play a bigger role in our lives. The nootropic L-tyrosine helps to keep anxiety in check by helping your brain produce more neurotransmitters to fight off the stress that leads to anxiety.
It’s important to note here that research on the benefits of L-tyrosine in treating depressive conditions is weak at best. If you suffer from depression, it’s best to not rely on L-tyrosine to relieve your symptoms. However, if your anxiety is heightened in response to daily stress, L-tyrosine has the potential to be incredibly effective as a preventative agent.
Ashwagandha is medicinal herb that’s classified as an adaptogen. This means that it assists your body in managing, or adapting to, stress. For thousands of years, Ashwagandha as been used in Ayurveda, a Hindu philosophy of health and healing that focuses on balancing the body primarily through herbs and diet.
A systemic review of Ashwagandha published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine points out that Ashwagandha was effective for improved outcomes on stress and anxiety across the board when compared to a placebo.
Gotu kola is an amazing nootropic for anxiety, and it’s one that has the advantage of being well accepted due to its familiarity. Like Ashwagandha, Gotu kola is and adaptogen that widely used in Ayurvedic medicine.
In addition to easing the symptoms of anxiety, Gotu kola supports healthy cognitive function by improving memory and focus. Gotu kola can be taken in supplement form but it’s also available as a tea, which makes it perfect as a daily soothing, anti-anxiety ritual.
Finally, we come to Aniracetam. There’s currently a lot of buzz surrounding “smart drugs”, with Aniracetam being one of the most well known in the class. This nootropic’s claim to fame is its ability to supercharge cognition but it also comes with the nice perk of calming anxiety.
Aniracetam works to combat anxiety by targeting dopamine receptors. These receptors, D2 and D3, play a significant roll in regulating the body’s response to stressful stimuli and thus help control anxiety.
Saying Farewell to Anxiety
While it might be hard to swallow when you’re caught up in the throes of anxiety, it is a normal part of life, and in the right amounts it’s even considered healthy. You might not have control over when anxiety pops up, but you can take control over how it affects your life.
Nootropics are a complex and incredibly interesting class of supplements, herbs and pharmaceuticals that have the potential to completely change our approach to anxiety disorders. This might seem like a far stretch now, but new research is always on the horizon and currently it looks promising for the future use of nootropics.
Don’t let anxiety interfere with living a healthy, happy and fulfilling life. If you’re suffering with an anxiety disorder, reach out to a doctor, counselor or trusted friend. Help is out there and nootropics are an option for helping you regain control and living your best life.
Angel Woodyard has a degree in biology, with a focus on genetics and an insatiable curiosity for neuroscience. She is also the owner and chief content strategist at Flourish Content Services, and has devoted several years of her career to writing articles and eBooks centered on health, natural healing and promoting sustainable, healthy lifestyles.