Thankfully, slow-motion crises like the coronavirus pandemic are rare, “black swan” events, because they’re both fearful and frustrating.
Naturally, fears of getting the COVID-19 virus and spreading it to others provokes anxiety. And while distracting, empowering action can ease anxiety, we’re mostly being told to stay home.
We’re also urged to practice “social distance” and even social isolation, which — because we're social animals that need other people around — tend to provoke or exacerbate anxiety.
Fortunately, there are ways we can act to ease our own anxiety and avoid emitting an anxious vibe to folks in our homes and (if you’re at one) workplaces.
The leading anti-anxiety drugs — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac or Zoloft and benzodiazepines (BDZs) such Diazepam or Valium — can ease anxiety, but also cause headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, sexual dysfunction, dependence, and significant sedation.
Earlier this year, we republished an article by James Carmody, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, titled We’re Hard-Wired to Worry: Here’s How to Calm Down. (Near the middle of that article, you’ll find an “Editor’s Note” that provides links to articles about the stress-relieving benefits of meditation.)
And last year, we republished an article by Olivia Remes, PhD, of the University of Cambridge, titled Surprising Ways to Ease Anxiety.
We’ve also covered scientific probes into promising anti-anxiety allies — omega-3s, essential oils, probiotics, and cannabis-derived CBD — and now’s the perfect time to review those relaxing findings.
In addition to those options, clinical studies suggest that healthful, whole-food diets and two traditional "tonic" herbs — ashwagandha and rhodiola — possess anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, anti-insomnia, and/or anti-stress properties.
First, we’ll summarize the findings of a recent review of the best clinical evidence about the anti-anxiety potential of seafood-source omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA).
Omega-3s and anxiety: Evidence review sees potential benefits
Although there haven’t been many clinical trials testing the anti-anxiety effects of omega-3 fish oil, Taiwan-based scientists who reviewed the best, most relevant trials came to a positive conclusion (Su KP et al. 2018).
They reviewed the evidence from 19 clinical trials testing the anti-anxiety effects of omega-3 fish oil, involving 2,240 participants, aged 42 years on average, more than half (55%) of whom were female.
The average daily omega-3 dose used in the various fish oil trials was 1,605mg — but the researchers said the strongest anti-anxiety effects were seen in trials that use test omega-3 doses of at least 2,000mg per day.
As the Taiwanese team wrote, “This review indicates that omega-3s might help to reduce the symptoms of clinical anxiety. Further well-designed studies are needed in populations in whom anxiety is the main symptom.”
Unsurprisingly, the anti-anxiety effect of high-does fish oil was significantly greater among participants who’d been clinically diagnosed with anxiety.
Prior studies on omega-3s for anxiety
We’ve reported on several studies that found potential anti-anxiety benefits from omega-3s and showed how they might help … see Feeling Anxious? Fish and Fish Oil May Help and Omega-3 Mood Benefits Get More Backing.
Several years ago, researchers from Ohio State University reported the positive outcomes of a small but rigorous clinical trial testing the potential calming effects of omega-3 fish oil in medical students who were not diagnosed with anxiety (Kiecolt-Glaser JK et al. 2011).
In brief, the results showed that a daily dose of 2.5 grams (2,500mg) of fish-source omega-3s may reduce symptoms of anxiety by about one-fifth (20%).
As the authors wrote, “The reduction in anxiety symptoms associated with omega-3 supplementation provides the first evidence that omega-3s may have potential [anti-anxiety] benefits for individuals without an anxiety disorder diagnosis … [and] can reduce inflammation and anxiety even among healthy young adults.”
Chronic inflammation is a major causative or exacerbating factor in most major degenerative conditions — from cardiovascular disease to dementia — and is also linked to anxiety.
The study authors explained the link between anxiety and inflammation: “Pro-inflammatory cytokines promote secretion of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), a primary gateway to hormonal stress responses; CRH also stimulates the amygdala, a key brain region for fear and anxiety. Accordingly, alterations in inflammation could also influence anxiety.” (Kiecolt-Glaser JK et al. 2011)
So, it’s important to note that tests of the participants’ blood showed two benefits in the fish oil group:
A recent review of the evidence by University of New York researchers found that in addition to inflammation-reduction, omega-3s appear to help ease anxiety by curbing the stress hormone cortisol (Polokowski AR et al. 2018).
They also found that omega-3s likely ease anxiety by fostering higher brain levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes beneficial growth of connections between brain cells. That’s something antidepressants like Prozac also do — but with adverse side effects and without omega-3s' ancillary brain and body benefits.
Anxiety might be alleviated by adjusting gut bacteria
Last year, Chinese researchers published their review of 21 human studies — and concluded that improvements in the composition of a person’s gut bacteria may help alleviate anxiety.
The studies they reviewed measured the effects of either probiotic supplements or prebiotic foods (i.e., foods that fuel the growth of various kinds of gut bacteria) on people with anxiety.
They reviewed 21 studies that included a total of 1,503 people. Of the 21 studies, 14 tested the effects of probiotic supplements, and seven tested the effects of adjusting the participants’ daily diets by adding or substituting various prebiotic foods.
Among the 14 studies that tested probiotic supplements, seven provided only one kind of probiotic, two provided two kinds of probiotics, and the other five studies provided participants with at least three kinds.
Encouragingly, more than half (11 of the 21) studies showed a positive effect on anxiety symptoms.
Importantly, 80% of the studies that tested the effects of prebiotic foods showed a reduction in anxiety symptoms, while only 45% of the probiotic studies produced anxiety relief.
The authors speculated that the dietary, prebiotic interventions were significantly more effective because dietary changes would likely have a greater impact on gut bacteria numbers and composition, versus taking specific types of probiotic bacteria in supplemental form.
Also, because some studies provided multiple probiotics, these bacterial strains might have neutralized each of these effects, and many of the probiotic studies were fairly short, and possibly not long enough to significantly impact the volunteers’ gut microbiomes.
Most of the studies did not report serious adverse events, and only four studies reported mild adverse effects such as dry mouth and diarrhea.
The authors of the review said the overall quality of the 21 studies was high, but acknowledged some limitations, such as differences in study design, subjects, interventions, and measurements.
Lavender mimicked Valium, without side effects
Scientists have begun to test essential oils as substitutes for problematic anti-anxiety drugs — and research shows that inhaling lavender is relaxing, without risk of side effects.
A recent Japanese study in mice was designed to test whether the smell of a lavender compound called linalool could induce relaxation, and whether its effects on the brain resemble those of the Valium. (Linalool is a terpene-type alcohol that occurs in the essential oils of some 200 plants, including lavender, cinnamon, basil, cannabis, laurel, and mint.)
Affirming the findings of prior research, the results confirmed that anxiety was eased in the animals that inhaled lavender-derived linalool (Harada H et al. 2018).
Critically, those relaxing effects stemmed from inhaling the fragrance compound, not from linalool in the bloodstream. And the researchers found that inhaled linalool affected the same parts of the animals’ brains affected by Valium — without the sedating effects of that drug.
Interestingly, lavender-derived linalool was no longer effective if the team blocked the mice’s ability to smell or gave the mice a drug that blocks smell receptors in the brain. Their findings suggest that linalool affects odor-sensitive neurons in the olfactory bulb, which in turn send “you can relax” signals to the same brain areas effected by benzodiazepine drugs such as Valium.
Study co-author Dr. Hideki Kashiwadani stressed that key point: “When combined, these results suggest that linalool does not act directly on GABAA receptors like benzodiazepines do — but must activate them via olfactory neurons in the nose in order to produce its relaxing effects.”
However, an earlier Brazilian study found that lavender essential oil eased anxiety in mice via the same mechanisms affected by SSRI drugs like Prozac or Zoloft. And a study by US Army researchers found that lavender-derived linalool did not act on the receptors affected by Valium and other benzodiazepines.
Accordingly, it looks like lavender essential oil exerts broad-spectrum effects that mimic the anti-anxiety effects of diazepam drugs like Valium and SSRIs like Prozac or Zoloft — without their adverse side effects.
Cannabis-derived CBD for anxiety
The best-known constituents of hemp and marijuana — psychoactive THC and non-psychoactive CBD — belong to the cannabinoid family of chemicals.
These compounds have counterparts in our own bodies, called endocannabinoids, which are key players in the body’s “endocannabinoid system”.
CBD is an acronym for cannabidiol — a molecule abundant in hemp and marijuana that appears to reduce anxiety by interacting with a variety of receptors, including cannabinoid and serotonin receptors and transient receptor potential cation channels (TRP).
Some say the best way to alleviate anxiety rapidly is to rub a cannabidiol (CBD) balm or lotion on your cheeks.
Like lavender, marijuana is generally rich in linalool and other relaxing aromatic terpenes — including myrcene, pinene, and limonene — that work in part by inhibiting TRP channels.
Recent research reveals that marijuana strains higher in cannabidiol and linalool have the biggest anti-anxiety effect.
Fragrance reveals much about a plant’s terpene content, with strong flowery, piney, herbal, lavender, citrus, and other scents signaling high terpene levels. And marijuana strains with high levels of linalool should feature a hint of lavender fragrance.
Few cannabis products — available only where cannabis is legal under state law — reveal the levels of terpenes on their labels. So, if you want a strain high in terpenes, especially myrcene and linalool, you’ll need to ask for a laboratory certificate of analysis that includes terpene levels.