People know nootropics as smart drugs supplements taken for their cognitive benefits, such as improved memory, learning, and focus. But several nootropics also have powerful anti-anxiety properties. The reason for this is pretty straight foward — some nootropics enhance cognition by altering hormone levels, and often anxiety is the result of hormone imbalances. So the same mechanism that improves brain function can, for some nootropics, lessen anxiety.
- What Is Anxiety?
- How Nootropics Help Treat Anxiety
- The Best Nootropics for Anxiety
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a good thing — to a very limited extent. It’s a body’s useful and normal response when faced with the potential of a dangerous or stressful situation. Anxiety can intensify people’s awareness of their surroundings and increase their awareness of the circumstances around them. It helps a person cope. When anxiety follows that form, and is short-lived — ending when the stressful situation has ended — it has served its purpose.
Unfortunately, for roughly 40 million people in the United States, anxiety doesn’t always end when a stressful situation ends. This continued state of heightened awareness, emotions, and anxiousness gives rise to various types of anxiety disorders and psychological stresses.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Mild anxiety in response to stress is common and necessary. Severe, persistent or chronic anxiety can lead to a whole host of physical and psychological issues. The more time a person spends in an anxious state, the more of the many possible symptoms of anxiety that person will likely experience. The most common symptoms of anxiety include the following:
- Irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
- Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhea, ulcers, indigestion (gastrointestinal distress)
- Increased blood pressure (hypertension)
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
- General lack of interest
- generalized or localized pain
Causes of Anxiety
Anxiety can be brought on by situations or events in a person’s life — bad or troubling or worrying circumstances in a person’s life triggers anxiety. Anxiety can also be caused by the effects of drugs, mental conditions, chronic physical illness, a genetic predisposition towards anxiety, or even certain personality traits (perfectionists and inhibited people are more likely to experience anxiety).
Current problems or issues in a person’s life can trigger anxiety. While it’s common to feel some anxiety when any of the following occur in a person’s life, the anxiety should subside over time. If it doesn’t, then some form of treatment will be necessary.
- Significant emotional shock following a traumatic or stressful event
- Pregnancy and giving birth
- Change in living arrangement
- Relationship or family problems
- Job change or work-related stress
- Emotional, physical, sexual, or verbal trauma or abuse
- Loss or death a close friend or loved one
How Nootropics Help Treat Anxiety
Anxiety should end when a stressful or dangerous situation ends. When anxiety lingers on well past that, it’s often a hormone imbalance that keeps the mind and body in an anxious state.
Physiological Causes of Anxiety
Stressful circumstances can trigger anxiety. But what, inside the body or mind, takes place to bring about the outward negative effects of anxiety such as fatigue, sadness, or panic? When a person first faces an anxious situation, hormone levels change. Sometimes those changes can last well beyond the point when the body should have stabilized them. Numerous studies demonstrate that chronic or severe stress can change hormone balances in the brain long-term.
Increased Cortisol Levels Cause Anxiety
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that, like any hormone, is essential to a properly functioning mind and body. Cortisol, which is produced in the body’s two adrenal glands (one located above each kidney), manages the immune system, controls the body’s anti-inflammatory functions, and helps regulate blood glucose levels. Your body needs cortisol. But when your body produces too much cortisol, for too long of a time, the results aren’t pretty.
When your brain perceives a threat, it triggers the body to release chemicals to give you a boost in speed, perception, and reflexes, and to cause an increase in heart rate — all to put you in the “fight-or-flight” mode that will help you get out of a bad situation, and may even save your life. Chief among these released chemicals is cortisol (though other helpful chemicals are released as well, including the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine). Because of cortisol’s role in dealing with stress, it’s often referred to as the stress hormone.
Normally, when the perceived threat is over, the surge in these chemicals ends, and the body’s cortisol level gradually returns to their normal, pre-threat levels. Normally. For a person who has been under long-term stress, or intermittent but frequent stresses, their cortisol level might not ever properly balance. For such a person a natural, normal sense of calm may never completely return. That person is now a sufferer of anxiety.
Decreased Serotonin Levels Cause Anxiety
Being under constant stress can cause the body to continually produce too much cortisol. It can also cause the body to continually produce too little serotonin.
Serotonin is a hormone that plays a vital role in regulating sleep, mood, emotions, energy, sex drive, pain perception, and digestion. It’s known as the feel good hormone for good reason — a low level of this hormone is associated with anxiety and depression.
Sustained or chronic stress leads to a reduced level of serotonin, as many studies have proved. With a permanent drop in serotonin comes a depressed mood and despondency — principle players in anxiety and depression.
Nootropics Can Positively Affect Hormone Levels
First and foremost nootropics are thought of as congnitive-enhancers — that’s why they’re often referred to as smart drugs. Many nootropics do their work by enhancing neurotransmitter function and improving the ability of nerve cells to transmit electrical signals. Some nootropics also affect hormone levels. You might associate hormones primarily with mood, sex traits and sex drive, but hormones have a large influence on cognitive performance as well.
Hormone imbalances can lead to poor mental stamina, troubles with memory and focus, difficulties in concentrating and confusion — all factors that negatively impact cognition. Hormone imbalances can also cause mood swings, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, and even depression.
People who take nootropics for cognitive enhancement may also inadvertently be improving their mood and lessening any anxiety they have. People who take nootropics for anxiety relief may also inadvertently be improving their learning, memory, and other cognitive functions. Not bad, as far as “side effects” go!
Certain nootropics can play a role in stabilizing levels of one or more of the hormones serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, GABA, and cortisol — all hormones that play a role in stress, anxiety, and depression.
Why Nootropics Are Superior to Antidepressants and Anxiolytics
The medical community’s traditional means of treating anxiety is with the use of prescription drugs — antidepressants and anxiolytics in particular.
There are different types of antidepressants, with antidepressants in a class called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, being the most popular for the treatment of anxiety. SSRIs prevent the reuptake of serotonin — they limit the serotonin movement back into the nerve endings, thereby allowing released serotonin to remain in a person’s system. SSRIs don’t produce more serotonin, they keep existing serotonin available to the brain. Paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), and sertraline (Zoloft) are examples of popular SSRIs.
Anxiolytics, or anti-anxiety drugs, are a type of drug usesd to treat a variety of anxiety disorders. Unlike antidepressants — which need time to build up in the system and become effective work, and are usually a long-term approach to treating anxiety — anxiolytics work quickly and tend to be habit-forming. Benzodiazepines, which stimulate production of the calming hormone GABA, are the most commonly prescribed anxiolytic. Alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and diazepam (Valium) are examples of often-prescribed benzodiazepines.
If antidepressants and anxiolytics are widely prescribed, and are often effective, why is there any controversy surrounding their use? The fact that both types of medications can produce adverse side effects — sometimes severe — and lead to addiction are the main points of contention.
While everyone who takes prescription medications to treat anxiety doesn’t experience side effects, most people do. And many people experience multiple side effects — oftentimes even experiencing several of the following adverse effects:
- Sexual problems including erectile dysfunction
- Nervousness or restlessness
- Dry mouth
- Change in appetite resulting in weight gain or loss
- Vomiting or nausea
Unlike people who take prescription medications for anxiety, people who instead try nootropics that are known to have the ability to stabilize hormones seldom experience any negative side effects at all. And the small percentage of people who do, experience only minor, non-severe effects. That’s what makes nootropics a better choice over prescription medications to treat anxiety.
The Best Nootropics for Anxiety
Supplement manufacturers sometimes make exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of certain products. This is especially true regarding products that are touted as providing benefits for health issues people are desperate to cure — such as anxiety. Fortunately studies and years of anecdotal evidence shows there are numerous nootropics that can play a role in treating anxiety and stress disorders.
A nootropic falls into one of two categories: synthetic or natural. As the name implies, synthetic nootropics are made in a lab, usually with some particular goals in mind such as increasing blood flow to the brain. And again as the name implies, natural nootropics exist in nature — they’re vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other compounds that are extracted from herbs and other plants.
There are dozens — if not a hundred or more — natural compounds that are considered nootropics. Here we list several that are considered to be the best for relieving symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Ashwagandha is a small shrub that grows most commonly in dry regions of China, India and Nepal. Extracts of the plant’s roots and berries have been popular for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine — a thousands of years old India medical system from India with the aim of restoring balance in the mind, body and spirit.
Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen — a plant that assists your body’s ability to handle stress. One of ashwagandha’s traditional uses was as an in the treatment of anxiety, and to this day that remains one of its biggest claims to fame.
Like many adaptogens, ashwagandha’s main means of reducing stress is by reducing the body’s production of cortisol. Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone, as the adrenal glands release it in response to stressors. Cortisol certainly isn’t always bad — it’s responsible for the fight-or-flight response that can be important to a person’s survival.
The body is supposed to bring on this response only infrequently, and for only a very limited time when it is needed. Chronic stress can result in elevated levels of cortisol, which has a negative effect on the body. Studies have shown that ashwagandha lowers cortisol levels, with a resulting lessening of anxiety, disorder, and depression (since stress plays a prominent role in each of these disorders).
Magnesium is an important mineral in that it plays a role in hundreds of functions in the human body, including supporting the immune system, regulating blood pressure, and balancing hormone levels.
The body doesn’t make magnesium, it must receive it through a person’s diet. The best sources of magnesium are seeds, soybeans, nuts, greens, and whole grains. Over 50 percent of Americans are deficient in magnesium, which makes sense when you consider that in our fast-paced, fast food society many people don’t eat these healthy foods on a regular basis. Additionally, a stressful lifestyle has a way of depleting an already too-low level of this mineral.
Like ashwagandha, magnesium reduces a person’s release of the stress hormone cortisol. In the case of magnesium, this is done indirectly by suppressing the ability of the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH. ACTH is what ultimately controls the production cortisol by the adrenal glands.
Manufacturers of magnesium products usually bind the magnesium with other substances to make the magnesium more easily absorbable. The binding substance then appears in the product name. For instance, magnesium citrate is magnesium bound with citrate (citric acid). Magnesium citrate is used as a laxative, so obviously that’s not the supplement you’re interested in for dealing with anxiety.
Instead, look for magnesium glycinate — magnesium bound to the amino acid glycine. This form of magnesium has a high bioavailability (most of the magnesium makes it through your digestive system and is available for use by your body). Additionally, glycine has been shown to have a calming effect on its own.
Serotonin acts as both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. Serotonin plays a key role in regulating anxiety and mood. The amino acid tryptophan is a precursor (a compound that through chemical reaction produces another, different compound) to a chemical called 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP. In turn, 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin.
Consuming foods rich in tryptophan, or taking tryptophan supplements, would be one way to try increase your serotonin levels. But the path to go from tryptophan to 5-HTP to serotonin is an imperfect one, so if your goal is to increase serotonin, then it’s more efficient to skip the tryptophan and go directly to taking 5-HTP supplements. There are very few foods that are a naturally rich source of 5-HTP (the seeds of the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia being one of those few sources), so supplements are certainly your best bet if increasing serotonin levels is the goal.
Research has shown that 5-HTP reduces stress and anxiety as well as panic attacks. For some study participants 5-HTP even worked as well as popular prescription antidepressants to treat mild or moderate depression.
Inositol is a carbohydrate that is a sugar similar to glucose. Some foods, including nuts, beans, grains and fruits, are good natural sources of inositol. Inositol plays a role in the production of two “feel good” hormones: serotonin and dopamine.
People who suffer from anxiety or depression usually have low levels of inositol, so it’s thought that increasing inositol can contribute to lessening the symptoms of both of these conditions. Research has shown this to be the case, including one study that compared inositol and the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) prescription antidepressant fluvoxamine. Improvements in reducing anxiety were very similar for both treatments, with the participants given the inositol even experiencing fewer panic attacks than those given fluvoxamine.
People who try nootropics for anxiety issues often take more than one nootropic. That’s why Pure Nootropics has packaged the above four nootropics (ashwagandha, magnesium, 5-HTP, and inositol) together and sell them collectively as a product they call their Mood Support Bundle.
Rhodiola rosea, also called rhodiola, golden root, and Arctic root, is a plant that grows in some regions of Serbia, Europe, Britain, and North America. The roots of rhodiola rosea, like ashwagandha, is considered to be an adaptogen — a plant that has a natural ability to minimize the symptoms of stress in people.
Like ashwagandha and magnesium glycinate, rhodiola has been shown to regulate cortisol. Rhodiola has also been demonstrated to regulate another stress hormone — adrenaline.
Rhodiola root contains a host of compounds that are believed to contribute to the plant’s adaptogenic effects. Of these, salidrosides and rosavins are thought to be the most beneficial.
Salidrosides are phenolic compounds — plant molecules that provide our tissues with protection from oxidative stress (the negative effects of free radicals). Rosavins are a type of phenylpropanoid — plant compounds that are natural antioxidants.
In one significant study involving rhodiola extract supplements, the study’s subjects experienced significant reductions in anxiety and stress, and an improvement in overall mood. While the study ran for 10 weeks, subjects reported noticeable improvement after just the first two weeks.
Bacopa Monnieri (Brahmi)
Bacopa monnieri is an aquatic plant native to parts of Asia and Australia. Like ashwagandha, bacopa monnieri has been considered an essential part of the ancient medical system of India known as Ayurvedic medicine. Also like ashwagandha, bacopa monnieri is an adaptogen — it’s a plant that helps our body normalize (or adapt) to stress.
Similar to several other adaptogens, bacopa monnieri works its anti-stress and anti-anxiety magic by limiting the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol.
L-theanine is an amino acid present in large levels in tea — especially green tea. L-theanine is also an anxiolytic — a compound that reduces anxiety. Unlike many other anxiolytics, L-theanine does not come with sedative effects. So, while producing a relaxing, calming effect, it does so without making you tired or putting you to sleep.
One of the ways in which L-theanine reduces anxiety is its ability to increase alpha brain waves. Brain waves — the electrical pulses between neurons that allow them to communicate with each other — occur at various frequencies. Alpha brain waves are in the midrange of the spectrum of waves — they are neither fast or slow. When a person’s brain waves are in the alpha state, the person is in a non-aroused state, yet not tired — picture a person out for a leisurely, stress-free walk.
L-theanine also works as an anxiety reducer in that it contributes to a boost in the hormones dopamine, serotonin, and GABA. Dopamine and serotonin are both “happy” hormones that result in feelings of satisfaction and positive mood. GABA is a hormone that acts to inhibit your brain’s neuron activity — not enough to put you to sleep, but rather to put you in a relaxed state.
Like L-theanine, L-tyrosine is an amino acid that plays a role in the production of the mood-elevating hormones dopamine and serotonin. L-tyrosine also plays a significant role in producing epinephrine and norepinephrine — two similar hormones that are a part of your body’s fight-or-flight response.
It might seem counter-intuitive that a nootropic that may produce more of the hormones that are involved in your body’s fight-or-flight mode. But epinephrine and norepinephrine don’t cause your body to go into this state — they are a part of this state. They help your body properly handle a heightened state of alertness, adrenaline, and energy. If your under stress and don’t have enough epinephrine and norepinephrine in your system, your stress and anxiety will continue to increase rather than eventually subside. Having sufficient levels of these hormones helps you perform better under stress, allowing you to overcome the negative situation you’re in.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s mane mushroom is a mushroom native to many parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. If you’re looking for a nootropics that does much more than enhance cognition, lion’s mane will be one of your best choices. Among its many purported powers are that it’s neuroprotective, blood-pressure lowering, nerve repairing, mood improving, immunity-boosting, fatigue reducing, anti-inflammatory, and cholesterol-regulating. When it comes to health benefits, that’s one powerful fungi!
In terms of addressing anxiety, it’s the mushroom’s anti-inflammatory properties that are key. Lion’s mane reduces the production of inflammatory proteins, which increases blood flow. Increased blood flow means increased oxygen to the brain, which means better overall brain performance. Losing the brain fog that may be a part of your daily life will put you in a better mood, reduce stress, and in turn reduce anxiety.
Lion’s mane mushroom’s scientific name is Hericium erinaceus. The name derives from the names of two compounds in the mushroom — hericium and erinaceum. Together these compounds can stimulate nerve growth factor. Nerve cells, or neurons, are the basic working unit of the brain, making neuron health key to brain health. Nerve growth factor, or NGF, is a protein used by neurons to trigger neuron activity that includes neuron generation, development, maintenance, and growth.
Healthy neurons are vital to a properly functioning hippocampus — the area of the brain that’s in charge of emotional responses — including anxiety and depression. Improving the function of the hippocampus will result in fewer depressing or anxious thoughts.
The above-described nootropics are natural — they’re all substances found in nature. There are also a group of nootropics that are considered synthetic — each of these may originate from some natural ingredients, but those ingredients are synthesized in a lab to turn them into new chemical compounds.
Synthetic nootropics are divided into families (also referred to as groups or categories). Racetams is one such family. Aniracetam, described here, is one particular nootropic in the racetam family (other examples are piracetam, oxiracetam, and phenylpiracetam).
Because racetam is the name of a family, you won’t be able to go to an online health store and buy a bottle of pills labeled racetam. That’s similar to the idea that dogs and cats are both mammals, but you don’t go to a pet store and ask to buy a mammal — you need to specify which particular kind of mammal you want to buy.
Aniracetam is one of the most popular nootropics in the racetam family. Aniracetam is available only by prescription in Europe, but those of us living in the United States are fortunate in that it’s available in this country without a prescription. Like any nootropic it has a number of cognitive benefits, including better memory, faster learning, and increased focus. It also is well-known for improving mood and reducing anxiety — two benefits you no doubt are interested in.
Aniracetam works to lessen anxiety by increasing both serotonin and dopamine — two important stress-related hormones. Serotonin plays pivotal roles in mood, sleep, and appetite, while dopamine plays key roles in anxiety, pleasure, libido, and motivation.
Racetams are one family of synthetic nootropics. Peptide nootropics is another family of synthetic nootropics. Noopept is the name of one of the most popular members of the peptide nootropics family. Like the racetam aniracetam, Noopept is both a powerful cognitive enhancer and anxiety reducer.
Noopept is capitalized because it is actually a brand name of a particular peptide nootropic called N-Phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester. No one but researchers know how, or like, to pronounce that name, so pretty much everyone (including supplement manufacturers) has settled on referring to this peptide nootropic as Noopept.
One of the ways Noopept for anxiety works is by increasing alpha brain waves. Recall that the natural nootropic amino acid L-theanine operates in the same way. Alpha brain waves exist at a midrange frequency of the brain wave spectrum, and it’s how your neurons are communicating with one another when you’re in a relaxed, non-aroused state.
A second way in which Noopept reduces anxiety is by stimulating nerve growth factor, or NGF. This is the same mechanism that the natural nootropic lion’s mane mushroom uses to achieve the same result. NGF helps keep neurons (brain cells) healthy be triggering neuron activity including neuron creation, maintenance, and growth. These neurons are heavily concentrated in the hippocampus area of the brain — the part of the brain responsible for emotional responses. The hippocampus has plenty of dopamine and serotonin receptors and Noopept sets to work getting these stress-related hormones flowing.
Nootropic Stacks for Anxiety
When a person finds what they feel is the perfect nootropic for their needs, they buy it. Hopefully, and often, it works for their needs. But treating any health concern can be tricky, and sometimes there isn’t one single supplement that does the job. Enter stacking.
Stacking refers to finding two or more supplements that each target a specific health issue, and then combining those supplements and taking them together. The reasoning is that while each supplement targets the same issue, each may work in a slightly different way. And collectively these multiple nutrients will “fill in the gaps” that any one individual supplement may miss. In short, multiple supplements can compliment one another to create a unified, complete solution.
Nutrient stacking is more common in some areas of nutrition than others — stacking is extremely popular with bodybuilders, for example. Another area where stacking is very popular is cognition-enhancing. Any time you read about nootropics, it’s very possible you’ll read about nootropic stacking — nootropics seem to work best when two or more are taken together. Supplement manufacturers are keenly aware of this fact, and you can find a number of products that each consist of capsules that contain a half dozen or more nootropics.
Earlier in this article we mentioned a stack — the Mood Support Bundle from Pure Nootropics. That product is actually separate bottles of four different nootropics that each have anti-anxiety properties (ashwagandha, magnesium, 5-HTP, and inositol). We didn’t refer to that bundle as a stack, as a stack is most often thought of as a single bottle of capsules, where each capsule consists of the combined powders of several nootropics. But if you buy separate bottles of different nootropics, and take a capsule of each, that is in fact a stack.
If the idea of nootropic stacking to fight anxiety appeals to you, then might consider trying the Mood Support Bundle — its four nootropics were chosen specifically because each is well-known to have anti-anxiety properties. If you’re really into nootropics, then you might instead want to go with a stack that includes a few key anti-anxiety nootropics and several other nootropics in order to both reduce anxiety and stress and get more of the brain-benefiting benefits nootropics are best known for.
AWAKEN GOLD from Awakened Alchemy
Included in the dozen nootropic ingredients of Awakened Alchemy’s AWAKEN GOLD stack are four of the nootropics listed in this article: ashwagandha, L-theanine, L-tyrosine, and Noopept.
Mind Lab Pro from Opti Nutra
Opti Nutra’s Mind Lab Pro is another popular, high-quality nootropic stack that includes nootropics that specifically target the symptoms of anxiety and stress. It’s one of the best nootropics for social anxiety. Included in its eleven nootropic ingredients are five of the nootropics mentioned in this article: rhodiola rosea, bacopa monnieri, L-theanine, L-tyrosine, and lion’s mane mushroom.
While primarily thought of as brain boosters, nootropics often achieve their cognitive-enhancing results by altering hormone levels — and hormone imbalances are a primary cause of anxiety (as well as stress and depression). When it comes to treating anxiety, nootropics aren’t all equal — that’s why this article discusses only the nootropics best-known to serve as good anti-anxiety supplements.
When it comes to treating anxiety, the medical community instinctively turns to prescription antidepressants and anxiolytics. While these drugs can help some people, most patients experience side effects — often multiple side effects, and often severely negative side effects. Nootropics, on the other hand, can provide anxiety relief with, typically, no adverse side effects at all.