Nootropics are a class of substances known to enhance brain function. You can find both natural and synthetic nootropics that make bold claims about their ability to enhance focus, improve energy, prevent neurodegeneration, and more, but consumers are becoming interested in nootropics for a different reason–managing anxiety.
So, can you use nootropics for anxiety? And if so, which ones work the best? Natural options like nootropic mushrooms or their synthetic counterparts?
We’ll start by digging into the science behind nootropics' calming effects, and then we’ll introduce some of the most popular natural nootropics and explain how they may help.
Tables of Contents
- Nootropics may work for anxiety by altering brain patterns and neurotransmitter levels.
- Different nootropics have different mechanisms, similar to how prescription medications may work by increasing and decreasing different neurotransmitters.
- You can stack different nootropics to create a unique, personalized dosing regimen.
What are nootropics?
Nootropics, sometimes called “smart drugs,” are substances that interact with the body in a way that affects brain function and neurotransmitter production. The main goal of nootropic supplementation is usually to enhance focus, learning, and other cognitive functions. However, because nootropics interact with neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, they may have benefits that extend beyond helping you study, learn, or remember things.
What’s best is that there are plenty of nootropics that are natural, even many that occur naturally in the body, so you don’t need to take synthetic substances to reap these benefits. Most nootropics have a pretty sound safety profile and are safe to stack up, leading many to create (or seek out) the perfect nootropic “stack” to help reach their wellness goals.
How can you use nootropics for anxiety?
To understand how nootropics may be useful for managing anxiety, we need to first understand anxiety itself. Although anxiety manifests as physical symptoms, like nervousness, upset stomach, or difficulty breathing, it’s actually caused by interactions happening at the microscopic level within your brain.
In other words, anxiety is caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, GABA, glutamate, or norepinephrine. This is why anxiety is often treated with prescription medications, like SSRIs or benzodiazepines. Of course, these medications come with a slew of unwanted side effects, and some even cause dependence.
So, many people are turning to more natural methods to try and manage anxiety. Because different nootropics may help to regulate the balance of neurotransmitters in your body, many people believe they can help to manage anxiety. Some have been researched for their potential to manage anxiety and related symptoms, while others balance their reputation on their ability to regulate dopamine, GABA, and more.
To further explain, we need to dig into the nootropics most often used to manage anxiety and the research that exists around them. Here’s the round up:
Best Nootropics for Anxiety
Disclaimer: We focused on supplemental, natural nootropics for this list, which means these substances have not been clinically evaluated for their ability to treat anxiety, nor are they approved as a treatment for anxiety or related conditions. Always talk to your doctor before making changes to your wellness routine.
Although B vitamins are an afterthought for most people, you may want to move them up your priority list. Specifically vitamins B6 and B12, which are known to help provide cellular energy for the body that may impact brain functions.
In one recent study involving 478 adults, vitamin B6 was found to have substantial benefits for managing anxiety and depression. Researchers concluded that the vitamin helped to provide essential nutrients needed for mood regulation.
B12, which plays an essential role in regulating nervous system functions, has also been in the spotlight for its ability to help resolve mood imbalances. One study found that a higher B12 intake was beneficial for those suffering from major depressive disorder.
Ashwagandha is technically an adaptogen, a substance that helps the body deal with stress, but it behaves as a nootropic in some ways. For instance, it mimics the actions of GABA, which helps to calm the nervous system by supporting the production of dendrites and axons that improve communications within the nervous system.
Plus, ashwagandha may help to regulate cortisol, the hormone related to stress, which may help it to lower anxiety levels.
L-Theanine, an amino acid found in tea leaves, has been associated with reduced anxiety levels thanks to several mechanisms. A 2019 study found that adults taking 200 milligrams of L-theanine daily experienced a significant improvement in anxiety and stress scores.
First, L-Theanine is known to increase alpha brain wave activity which may help to increase calmness and focus. Researchers have evaluated alpha brain waves for their ability to treat both anxiety and depression with positive results.
L-theanine may also help to reduce anxiety by increasing GABA production. This may help to reduce elevated glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that can increase heart rate and blood pressure. Plus, L-theanine may help to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein known to aid in neurogenesis, the growth of new neural connections, which may help to improve all aspects of cognitive function.
Ginkgo is an ancient medicinal herb most often related to improving blood flow in the body, which may have multiple mental and physical benefits. One study found that its benefit may be significant–subjects taking 480 milligrams of ginkgo daily experienced a 45% greater reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to the placebo group.
Ginkgo also has powerful antioxidant properties that may help to prevent neurodegeneration caused by free radical damage, something that naturally progresses as we age.
Medicinal mushrooms are growing in popularity thanks to their purported benefits, like boosting energy and cognition or helping to regulate immune functions. Mushrooms are powered by beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber that feeds gut bacteria, allowing it to flourish.
Healthy gut bacteria is associated with a lower chance of anxiety and depression. This is because the gut microbiome is connected to the brain through the gut-brain axis and plays a role in nearly all neurological functions.
Furthermore, cordyceps mushroom has been found to exhibit many benefits, including potential anti-depressive effects by acting on neuroreceptors within the nervous system that are responsible for regulating mood. So far, only animal trials have confirmed this effect, but one human trial is underway.
Lion’s mane mushroom is another beta-glucan rich medicinal mushroom that may help to stimulate the gut microbiome to improve many aspects of physical and mental health.
Like L-theanine, lion’s mane is associated with an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which helps to support the growth of new neurons. Low levels of BDNF are linked to depression and anxiety, so this is one of lion’s mane’s greatest claims to anxiety-relieving fame.
That’s not all, though–lion’s mane exhibits significant antioxidant activity that can help reduce free radical damage. It may even help the body cope with stress by preventing a drop in serotonin and dopamine during stressful events. One study linked this stress-reducing effect to anxiety and depression-reducing effects in mice.
BCAA’s, or branched chain amino acids, are found in red meat, poultry, and dairy products. Consumption of these types of foods has been linked to a lower risk of various mental health conditions.
Some of these amino acids, like tyrosine, have been found to improve symptoms related to depression by helping to increase neurotransmitter production. A recent study involving 3175 adult subjects found that higher BCAA levels may be linked to significantly lower anxiety and depression scores.
While BCAA’s can be found in many common foods, many people do not get enough of these amino acids and choose to supplement instead.
Nootropic Side Effects
In general, most nootropics are thought to be safe when used in moderate doses. Of course, all supplements have some potential to cause unwanted side effects. The most common potential side effects associated with nootropic supplements include:
- Increased anxiety
- Constipation or upset stomach
- Insomnia or decreased sorry quality
- Increased heart rate
You may be at a greater risk for nootropic side effects and should talk to your doctor before taking new supplements if:
- You take certain medications, including blood thinners or antidepressants
- Have a history of substance abuse
- Have had a stroke
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
Like all supplements, nootropic supplements are not regulated as strictly as pharmaceuticals in the U.S., so you should pay close attention to the quality of supplements before you buy. Poor quality formulations are much more likely to cause side effects, some of which may be severe.
When looking for nootropic supplements, check to make sure they are:
- Made in a cGMP-compliant facility
- Lab tested and free of contaminants
- Accurately labeled, including dosage information
How to Choose the Best Nootropics for Anxiety
Choosing nootropics or building a nootropic stack can feel like a shot in the dark. In most cases, you'll need to take a trial and error approach to figuring out which nootropics work best for you.
However, if you've used anti-anxiety medications that have benefited you in the past, you may have a leg up. You can look at the mechanisms by which your medications worked to decide which nootropics may be appropriate. For instance, if you took a medication that helps to increase dopamine, and experience positive results from it, you may be interested in looking at nootropics that work by increasing dopamine.
Of course, nootropics will not necessarily emulate a prescription medication and they should not be used to treat any health condition without your doctor's guidance. Do not swap your current medication for nootropic supplements without first talking to your doctor. In some cases, you may be able to take nootropics with your current medications without disrupting your current wellness routine.
Conclusion: Do Nootropics Work for Anxiety?
Sinc everyone’s anxiety is rooted in their unique brain chemistry, it’s hard to say which nootropics for anxiety may work best. Still, most natural nootropics are dietary supplements or other natural substances with a low side-effect profile, so it may be a viable option for managing mood without the side effects associated with prescription drugs.
The best part is that you can stack different nootropics to help create a formula that meets your unique needs. Talk to your doctor about natural treatments for anxiety, and he or she will help you decide if a nootropic stack is the right choice for you.
If you’re looking to take advantage of the nootropics from this list (and much more) check out our Lucid nootropic stack, which contains:
- Lion’s Mane
- Ginkgo Biloba
Want to learn more? Read “Why We Chose Our Ingredients? What’s in a Lucid Stack?” Or, check out one of our three flavor varieties:
- “High-dose Vitamin B6 supplementation reduces anxiety and strengthens visual surround suppression” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hup.2852
- “High vitamin B12 level and good treatment outcome may be associated in major depressive disorder” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14641930/
- “Scientific Assessment of the Synergistic Effects of L-Theanine and Ashwagandha” https://nutriscienceusa.com/insight/scientific-assessment-of-the-synergistic-effects-of-l-theanine-and-ashwagandha/#:~:text=The%20biochemical%20mechanisms%20behind%20ashwagandha,phyto%20(plant)%20hormonal%20behaviors.
- “Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31623400/
- “L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18296328/
- “Ginkgo biloba special extract EGb 761® in generalized anxiety disorder and adjustment disorder with anxious mood: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022395606001026?via%3Dihub
- “Efficacy Evaluation of the Mushroom Beverage on Emotion Regulation” https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/study/NCT04002219
- “Investigating the Role of Hippocampal BDNF in Anxiety Vulnerability Using Classical Eyeblink Conditioning” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4513557/
- “Hericium erinaceus Extract Reduces Anxiety and Depressive Behaviors by Promoting Hippocampal Neurogenesis in the Adult Mouse Brain”https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29091526/
- “Psychological disorders and dietary patterns by reduced-rank regression” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41430-019-0399-8
- “The effects of tyrosine depletion in normal healthy volunteers: implications for unipolar depression” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-003-1586-8
- “Dietary intake of branched-chain amino acids in relation to depression, anxiety and psychological distress” https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12937-021-00670-z