Reducing stress is an important part of good health, but can taking supplements help? Find out which ones may help and which you should avoid.

The right supplement might help quell stress and anxiety.

Most of us live with a low-simmering level of stress from trying to juggle work and family responsibilities to navigating sudden problems, such as a job loss or health scare. And now, we are all experiencing added stress from the anxiety and unknowns of living in the age of COVID-19. A May 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association found — not surprisingly — that stress about work and the economy has increased over the past year, especially among parents.

            Elevated stress hormones, especially cortisol, can increase inflammation, reduce immunity, and raise the risk for high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, chronic stress can negatively impact every aspect of your health and contribute to a wide range of problems that include:

  • headaches
  • sleep problems
  • mood disturbances, such as sadness, anger, or irritability
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • anxiety
  • depression

            Stress is a problem we clearly need to address, but what can we do? The good news is that there are numerous strategies that have been shown to be effective for relieving stress, including eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, talking to friends or a mental health professional, and engaging in relaxation techniques and meditation, just to name a few.

            Another stress-relief tool at your disposal: dietary supplements, some of which have been shown to help lower anxiety levels, tame sleep troubles, ease depression symptoms, and more. Here are seven products that may help (and one you’ll probably want to pass up) as you start your journey toward a more relaxed (and healthy) you. Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements in the same way they regulate medications, so you should talk to your doctor before taking any product.

Ashwagandha - What it is: Also called winter cherry and Indian ginseng, this plant has been an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Ashwagandha is what’s known as an adaptogen, which means it’s believed to resist disease and regulate the effects of stress on the body.

Benefits: The science behind ashwagandha for reducing stress and anxiety is promising, and there’s reason to think it might also be useful for improving sleep. In a study published in September 2019 in the journal Medicine (Baltimore), 30 adults were given 240 milligrams (mg) of the extract a day, and 30 were given a placebo. After two months, those who’d taken the ashwagandha reported feeling less anxious, depressed, and/or stressed. A similar study, published in December 2019 in Cureus, followed 60 stressed, healthy adults for eight weeks. Each day, one-third of the group received 250 mg of ashwagandha, one-third received 600 mg of the supplement, and one-third received a placebo. The result: Participants who were given ashwagandha reported sleeping better and feeling less stressed compared with those who took a placebo.

How you use it: You can take ashwagandha as a pill or capsule or add the powdered extract to smoothies, yogurt, and other foods. Be warned, though, that it tastes pretty bad; if you add the root or powder to food, you may want to add a sweetener like fruit or honey to help mask its bitterness.

L-theanine - What it is: An amino acid found in green tea. It’s believed to have a relaxing effect, among other health benefits.

Benefits: L-theanine’s anti-stress effects have been demonstrated in research; it can also be helpful for improving focus, memory, and verbal ability. In a study published in October 2019 in the journal Nutrients, 30 healthy adults were given 200 mg of L-theanine or a placebo every night for four weeks, after which researchers saw improvement in three stress-related symptoms — sleep problems, depression, and anxiety — in the group that received the supplement. And a review of nine studies published in November 2019 in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that getting 200 to 400 mg of L-theanine a day may help reduce stress and anxiety in people exposed to stressful conditions.

How you use it: Brew yourself a cup of tea: Green, black, white, and oolong all contain L-theanine, albeit in varying amounts. You can also find the amino acid in capsules, liquids, and powders.

Magnesium - What it is: A mineral the body uses to regulate dozens of processes, from the functioning of nerves and muscles to the synthesizing of protein and bone.

Benefits: So far, research points to magnesium as possibly being helpful in people who have mild anxiety. A review of 18 studies published in May 2017 in the journal Nutrients found that magnesium supplements may improve stress and anxiety but also noted that the quality of the evidence was poor and more research needs to be done before magnesium can be established as a stress reducer.

How you use it: Magnesium is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and some breakfast cereals and other fortified foods. That said, many of us aren’t getting enough, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). The ODS recommends 310 to 320 mg of magnesium a day for most women and 400 to 420 mg for men. If you opt for a supplement, consider magnesium aspartate, citrate, lactate, or chloride, which are absorbed better than magnesium oxide or sulfate, according to the ODS.

Melatonin - What it is: A hormone made in the pineal gland, is released when it gets dark, helping keep your internal clock on track and prime your body for sleep.

Benefits: Melatonin is famous for helping people nod off at night, but it may also help lower anxiety levels in people who are scheduled for surgery. A review published in April 2015 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews of more than 770 people found that melatonin may be as effective at reducing anxiety pre-surgery as midazolam, a sedative.

How you use it: Melatonin supplements are easy to find as tablets, capsules, and drops; most come in doses of 1 mg or 5 mg. Keep in mind that you might not always be getting what it says on the label, though: A study published in February 2017 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine examined 31 melatonin supplements purchased at pharmacies and grocery stores and found that most didn’t have the amount indicated — and one-quarter also contained serotonin, another hormone.

Rhodiola - What it is: Also known as golden root and arctic root, the Rhodiola rosea plant grows in the frigid mountains of Europe and Asia as well as the Arctic and has been used as a remedy for stress.

Benefits: A review published in January 2018 in International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice concluded that Rhodiola rosea extract may be effective in treating stress symptoms and preventing chronic stress and its complications.

            And a study published in December 2015 in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that people who were given Rhodiola rosea reported a significant reduction in anxiety, stress, anger, confusion, and depression as well as a significant improvement in mood at the end of 14 days. The researchers caution, however, that more research is needed to determine if Rhodiola causes these effects

How you use it: You can take Rhodiola as a liquid extract, capsule, or powder.

Lemon Balm - What it is: Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, is a lemon-scented herb that was commonly found in Europe in the Middle Ages but is now cultivated around the world. Traditionally, it was used as a mild sedative and calming agent and is now being researched for its possible antianxiety effects. Lemon balm is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA.

Benefits: Lemon balm can help ease anxiety and improve sleep, according to a study published in June 2019 in European Journal of Integrative Medicine. The researchers followed 80 people who underwent coronary artery bypass surgery and gave half of the group 500 mg of lemon balm three times a day and the other half a placebo. The results: Those who took lemon balm improved their anxiety by 49 percent and sleep quality by 54 percent.

            Lemon balm is also linked to improvements in mood in healthy young adults, according to a small study published in November 2014 in the journal Nutrients.

How you use it: The leaves of the plant are commonly made into tea. As a supplement, lemon balm can also be found in tablet and capsule form, and its extract is available in creams and ointments.

Valerian - What it is: Also commonly referred to as garden heliotrope or all-heal, valerian, or Valeriana officinalis, is an herb that grows in Europe, Asia, and North America. Valerian is known for its calming effects and is commonly used as a dietary supplement for insomnia, anxiety, and other conditions, such as depression, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

Benefits: While the NCCIH notes that there aren’t enough high-quality studies in people to draw any conclusions about whether valerian can be an effective sleep aid or relieve anxiety, depression, or menopausal symptoms, some research has yielded promising results.

            In a review of 100 studies published in May 2018 in Phytotherapy Research, researchers found evidence that valerian root extract may have antianxiety effects on people with anxiety disorder. The review also found that the herb may be helpful as a sleep aid, and its benefits were found to be comparable to a medication commonly used to treat anxiety and insomnia.

            In a study of 64 women undergoing an x-ray procedure (hysterosalpingography) published in May 2015 in Global Journal of Health Science, researchers found those who took valerian capsules saw a reduction in their anxiety levels compared with women who took a placebo.

How you use it: Dietary supplement capsules, tablets, teas, and tinctures are made from its roots and stems.

            While there are plenty of possible stress-relieving supplements on the market, not all of them are created equal. Here’s one supplement you may want to pass up.

Kava - What it is: A plant native to the South Pacific and a member of the pepper family.

Benefits: Some research looking at kava for treating anxiety has shown a small positive effect, but more recent research doesn’t back that up. A study published in December 2019 in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that when 171 people were given either kava extract or a placebo twice a day for 16 weeks, neither group experienced reduced anxiety. Most of the participants who got the kava tolerated it well, but a few had tremors, and those who got the extract were much likelier to show abnormalities on liver tests.

            Of greater concern is its safety: Back in 2002, the FDA issued a warning against kava supplements, citing more than 25 reports of liver damage.

How you use it: Traditionally, kava is used as a ceremonial beverage, but you can also buy it as an extract, powder, liquid, or capsule.

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Updated: August 16, 2017