If you’re looking for a little help improving your mood, here are some of the best supplements for stress and anxiety.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to diagnose or treat. It is simply to provide information. Do not start a new supplement regimen or change your current prescription without consulting your personal health care provider.
One common theme that seems to be running high during the unprecedented COVID-19 times is STRESS and ANXIETY. It’s everywhere, from the latest headlines to the madness found in the grocery stores.
Personally I have been hit harder mentally than I ever expected during this time and have dealt with a really low mood and overall outlook. It’s new territory for me as an Enneagram 7 and it took me a while to figure out what was going on. Friends have reached out to me as well about their increase in anxiety and wondering what natural options are available to help.
In April 2020, I led a Facebook Live with my dear friend Carlene Thomas RD , author of CBD Drinks for Health to dive into the best supplements for stress and anxiety. It was an enlightening conversation and I was really blown away by the options that are available, but not as well known. This post is meant to educate you on those options and help give you new ideas for improving your mood and well-being. None of these are replacement for medication and should be discussed with your medical provider.
While there are many options out there, this is a short list of what I think are the best supplements for stress and anxiety. The supplements I will discuss here are CBD oil, vitamin D, ashwagandha, and holy basil. All of them have a unique way of working on the body to help produce an improved mood and outlook.
For more information on other types of supplements, check out these posts:
CBD oil (which stands for cannabidiol) has come on to the supplement scene with a fury! It can feel controversial because CBD is derived from the cannabis sativa plant (aka industrial hemp), which is similar to the cannabis indica plant that is used to make marijuana; however it’s not the same. Both types of cannabis contain many cannabinoids (natural plant compounds with benefits), and CBD and THC are the most commonly known, but certainly not the only ones.
FYI - cannabis plants also contain compounds called terpenes and flavonoids.
CBD oil is produced from “industrial hemp”, which is botanically different from cannabis used for marijuana. Hemp plants contain trace amounts of the THC cannabinoid (< 0.3%), the compound in marijuana that produces a high. This amount is extremely low and will not get you high, or even close. CBD is completely non-addictive and considered safe for daily use. You should be happy to know the FDA heavily regulates the hemp industry by means of the 2018 Farm Bill .1 It is no longer considered a controlled substance.
Many people are nervous about CBD since it seems so similar to the marijuana plant, but science actually supports its use in wellness including stress and anxiety.
The Endocannabinoid System
A surprising fact (for most people) is that each of us has an internal endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids are molecules in our body that are similar to cannabinoids. When cannabinoids, like CBD, enter the body, it can bind to receptors in the endocannabinoid system and produce an effect. This is a system that is ultimately involved with the Central Nervous System and the brain’s response to the environment. Ultimately, cannabinoids are not a random foreign substance; our body is designed to use them.
How Does CBD Work?
CBD has a positive effect on your body in the following ways:
- CBD binds to certain receptors in the brain and activates them, especially serotonin, which plays a role in mood and social behavior.2
- CBD boosts the GABA neurotransmitter, which plays a role in suppressing stress activity in the brain.3
- CBD oil enhances the dopamine neurotransmitter responsible for helping us feel pleasure.4
- CBD has another compound called CBN (cannabinol) that it works with in order to have an entourage effect that helps lower anxiety.5
Researching Supporting CBD
The effects of this compound on stress and anxiety have been researched numerous times and one particularly interesting study looked at the effects of CBD on anxiety prior to public speaking. The participants, officially diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, were separated into two categories: those who took the oil before public speaking and those who didn’t. The results were that pretreatment with CBD remarkably decreased anxiety and discomfort in their performances, as well as significantly reduced any sound of alert in their speech. The placebo group, the ones who did not take the supplement, ended up having higher levels of anxiety, discomfort and sounds of alert within their speeches.6
Another study found that long-term CBD oil use has actually restorative effects on a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is in charge of emotion, memory and many of our involuntary actions (breathing, heart rate, etc.) that react to stress. They found that this part of the brain works more effectively with CBD oil and can be used to enhance our response to things that stress us out.7
How to Find Quality CBD
There are a lot of bad CBD products and a few good ones available on the market. Remember, you get what you pay for when it comes to a product like CBD so be skeptical about cheaper options.
Here are the key things to look for when finding a reputable brand:
- Products that have third-party testing because that will always tell you what’s in the product. Many companies will include these reports in the product listing online. It will show you how much CBD, THC, and other compounds like terpenes, are in the product. Unfortunately, some products contain no CBD or other crap, and this is why testing is important.
- There are a lot of labels for CBD and here are what the main 3 mean:
- CBD isolate: the cannabidiol compound is isolated and extracted and suspended in a tincture. This ensures you are only getting CBD and nothing else.
- Full Spectrum/Whole Plant: All components of the hemp plant are utilized and included in this product. This is great as there are other awesome things in the hemp plant to benefit from. This product could contain those trace amounts of THC though so avoid this if that it is important or necessary for you.
- Broad spectrum: Similar to full spectrum in using the whole plant but the THC is completely removed. Expect to pay more for this product because it has an extra processing step.1
- Hemp that is grown without pesticides and processed without solvents. This is important because hemp can hold on to toxins from the ground and processing.
- The country of origin is important to know because it is regulated differently. The experts I know currently recommend American grown hemp.
- As you explore the CBD arena, just know this: the first brand you try may not be the best fit for you, so keep searching. Companies may use different strains of hemp or formulas and therefore one might work for you and one might not.
- Choose a tincture (oil usually) if you desire quick acting. Choose a soft gel capsule if you want a slow release of CBD.
How Much CBD Do You Take?
Each person is completely unique in how CBD will interact with their chemistry. A good rule of thumb is start with a low dose and systematically work up until you find a dosage that produces positive outcomes. A good starting place could be around 5-10 ml, working up in 5 ml increments. The only thing to keep in mind is that as we age, our endocannabinoid system changes, so dosages may need to be altered based on changing receptors instead of increased tolerance to CBD.8
I have to be really careful about brand recommendations here legally and ethically. PLEASE work with your health care provider before starting any new supplement as some of them can have interactions to other medications and conditions.
The CBD market is rapidly changing and therefore it's tricky to stay on top of all the best brands. I’ll share with you here the brands that I have tried and ones I’ve heard good things from trusted colleagues.
YUYO Botanics: I have personally used their AM/PM formulas, 300 mg Whole Plant Formula, 900 mg Turmeric Formula and Tumeric Salve. I’m very happy with my experience.
Spero CBD: This brand is highly recommended by my friend Carlene, who I mentioned above. The quality and purity seem excellent. I have used this brand and liked it. It didn't work as well for me as other brands, but this is 100% my personal body chemistry. I still recommend it as a trusted brand. Get 20% off your order with this affiliate link.
Jannabis Wellness: This is a trusted friend and colleague of mine who has vetted suppliers to find what she believes is the best source of CBD products. I highly trust her judgement.
Charlotte’s Web: As I understand it, they started the CBD industry boom.
Vitamin D is another commonly known nutrient that can help improve mood and anti-inflammatory markers. Vitamin D has other health benefits as well, such as decreasing the growth of cancer cells and aids in battling infections.9
From my experience as a Registered Dietitian, and seeing lab results from a lot of people from around the globe, a majority of people are probably mildly deficient in vitamin D. NHANES research data also supports this. Therefore supplementation could be a really helpful option for a lot of people.
How Does Vitamin D Work?
Anxiety and stress tend to negatively affect us by weakening our immune system and increasing inflammation. Although researchers are still studying this topic, some have actually found that vitamin D deficiency is related to poor mental health, poor sleep quality, depression and stress.10
Vitamin D positively affects mood by managing the responses to inflammation produced by white blood cells while simultaneously increasing the creation of proteins known to help fight against disbalances. It is also known to work on a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is responsible for regulating some hormones.This means that taking an adequate amount of this nutrient is vital for our overall well being and taking in the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) will be beneficial for us.
Choosing the Right Vitamin D Supplement
Vitamin D can be taken in through food, sunlight or supplements. Some food sources are cod liver oil, fish, dairy or cereals fortified with vitamin D. Sunlight, or ultraviolet light, can also convert a chemical, called 7-dehydrocholesterol, into vitamin D when absorbed through the skin. However, deficiency is common, even for those who live in sunny parts of the world.
The Recommended Daily Allowance for adults is from 600-800 IU, however supplementing with 1000-2000 IU per day has been proven to be effective in preventing deficiency. Vitamin D does have a risk for toxicity as a fat soluble vitamin and more is not necessarily better. I recommend getting your vitamin D levels checked in your annual blood draw because there is a risk for toxicity and because deficiency is common. Knowing your levels is the best way to determine (with your doctor or dietitian) the best amount to consume from a supplement.
Vitamin D Brands
Vitamin D is very easy to find anywhere supplements are sold. Most options are probably OK but here are a few brands that I trust for quality.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb. An adaptogen is an herb that helps with the body’s adaptation to stress and promotes endurance and attention during fatigue.11 Ashwagandha comes from a tiny shrub grown in dry areas of Asia and Africa. It was traditionally used in Hindu medicine and was believed to stimulate youthfulness and overall well being. Thousands of years later, new studies emerged revealing a plethora of benefits derived from this small, unassuming plant.
How Does Ashwagandha Work?
Ashwagandha has a plethora of potential benefits including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-stress and immune-supporting effects. It also positively impacts the brain, hormones and the heart.11 This herb affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is responsible for reacting to any stress on the body and increasing levels of cortisol (stress-response hormone) and DHEA (hormone that has reversing effects on depression). Any disruptions in the HPA axis can lead to more production of cortisol concentrations, exacerbating anxiety symptoms even more.
What Research Supports Ashwagandha?
In one study, researchers took ashwagandha and gave it to mildly anxious adults for 60 days. The overall results were that the adults had emotional improvement.11 This could be related to ashwagandha’s believed ability to reduce cortisol levels. The active compounds in Ashwagandha are anti-stress agents called sitoindosides and acyl-steryl-glucosides. These agents react with the brain to have calming effects.
The world of herbal supplements can get hairy because contamination and over-reported amounts of active ingredients are common. I look for companies with a long history of high quality ingredients and third party certifications.
Here are options for capsules or liquid:
Holy basil is another adaptogenic herb that works to alleviate symptoms of worry. Originally known in Hindu as Tulsi, this plant has been largely used in various Eastern cuisines, as well as in ancient Ayurvedic medicinal practices. It was considered to be an “Elixir of Life” and was greatly revered for its treatment of different illnesses.13
How Does Holy Basil Work?
There are many ways holy basil could have a positive impact on the stress response. It is believed to help with calming the mind, protecting organs and tissues and enhancing both memory and brain function.14 In addition, it seems to have similar effects in lowering the cortisol hormone while boosting the immune system.15
What Research Supports Holy Basil?
An animal study that induced stress found that holy basil increased aerobic metabolism, improved swimming performance time, decreased oxidative damage to tissues and normalized responses to physical and environmental stressors. This seems to suggest that this herb has potential to benefit the whole body.16
Holy Basil Brands
This supplement is typically encapsulated as an extract but can also be found in a liquid form.
Thank you to Avelina Paly, a dietetic intern student from the University of North Florida, for writing this article.
- Reference the video
- Bergamaschi MM, Queiroz RH, Chagas MH, et al. Cannabidiol reduces the anxiety induced by simulated public speaking in treatment-naïve social phobia patients. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011;36(6):1219‐1226. doi:10.1038/npp.2011.6
- Lu HC, Mackie K. An Introduction to the Endogenous Cannabinoid System. Biol Psychiatry. 2016;79(7):516‐525. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.07.028
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(1):188‐224. Published 2010 Jan 19. doi:10.3390/ph3010188
- Singh N, Bhalla M, de Jager P, Gilca M. An overview on ashwagandha: a Rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011;8(5 Suppl):208‐213. doi:10.4314/ajtcam.v8i5S.9
- Jamshidi N, Cohen MM. The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017;2017:9217567. doi:10.1155/2017/9217567
- Cohen MM. Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014;5(4):251‐259. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.146554
- Tabassum I, Siddiqui ZN, Rizvi SJ. Effects of Ocimum sanctum and Camellia sinensis on stress-induced anxiety and depression in male albino Rattus norvegicus. Indian J Pharmacol. 2010;42(5):283‐288. doi:10.4103/0253-7613.70108