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Over-the-Counter Anxiety Medications

You may get some relief from certain therapies, but see a doctor if your anxiety is affecting your life
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Written by
Ben Hagopian, MD.
Attending Physician, Western Maine Family Medicine, Norway, ME
Last updated August 10, 2021

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Over-the-counter anxiety medications

Millions of people have experienced anxiety at some point in their lives, whether related to a specific situation or a general feeling of daily anxiety. It’s important to see a mental health professional if your anxiety is affecting your quality of life, your job, or your relationships with others.

Your doctor may recommend talk therapy, a prescription medication, or a combination of the two. Deep breathing, meditation, and exercise may also help lower your anxiety.

You can try taking over-the-counter (OTC) anxiety medications or herbal products if you have a milder case of anxiety. Examples include supplements, such as CBD, and aromatherapy. These can also be used along with talk therapy.

While many of these treatments are natural and might seem harmless, it’s still important to talk to your doctor before trying them. OTC therapies aren’t right for everyone, and they aren’t as well studied as prescription anxiety drugs.

You should also speak with your doctor if you’re already taking a prescription anxiety medication and are considering combining it with an OTC therapy.

Pro Tip

OTC anxiety medications can be very helpful for mild or occasional symptoms. They are not appropriate for severe anxiety. —Dr. Ben Hagopian

Do natural anxiety medications work?

Natural anxiety therapies have not been studied as extensively as prescription medications, so there’s less evidence supporting their use. Studies that do show effectiveness are often small, so the findings need to be confirmed in larger studies. But sometimes, natural or OTC medications can be helpful if you have mild or occasional symptoms of anxiety.

Just keep in mind that dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, so their quality varies. You can find product reviews on ConsumerLab.com or LabDoor.com that allow you to compare different supplements.

Can any vitamins reduce anxiety?

The short answer is no. There is no good evidence that any vitamin or mineral can help reduce anxiety. You may have read that vitamin D helps, but there's very little evidence to support this claim. Plus, taking high doses of vitamin D can raise your risk of certain medical issues, such as high calcium levels and kidney stones.

Types of OTC anxiety medications

Inositol

Inositol is a natural sugar that’s produced by your body and is also found in foods such as beans and grains. It plays a role in metabolism and the stress response. You typically consume 1 gram of it daily through your diet, but larger doses of inositol can also be taken to help treat mood disorders.

Studies on inositol are mixed. For example, a small study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology found that people who took inositol had about half as many panic attacks as those taking a prescription antidepressant. 

But other studies haven’t shown positive results. A review of four studies of inositol published in the journal Human Psychopharmacology found it did not reduce anxiety.

Inositol may cause an upset stomach and diarrhea. It’s typically taken as a powder mixed with water that you drink over the course of the day.

Dr. Rx

Many patients think that anxiety medication is a magic bullet. That is rarely the case. People need to look at their lifestyle habits, specifically exercise (most important), sleep, and nutrition, and consider working with a therapist to change how they approach the things they are struggling with in life. —Dr. Hagopian

Kava kava

Kava kava is a well-studied botanical medicine. It’s native to the islands of the Pacific and is a member of the pepper family.

A review of 11 studies published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that kava extract is a helpful treatment for anxiety and that it is relatively safe for short-term use.

Headaches are a common side effect of kava extract. In rare cases, it has been linked to liver problems, so talk to your doctor about whether kava extract is safe for you before you start taking it.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub, whose root contains many compounds that have been used to treat chronic stress. People who took ashwagandha twice daily had less stress and reduced levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) compared to those who took a placebo, according to a small study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. No serious side effects were reported.

Some products that contain ashwagandha have been studied, including KSM-66 and Sensoril. Ashwagandha may cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if taken in large doses. Talk to your doctor if you plan on using ashwagandha regularly because it may increase your thyroid hormone levels.

CBD

CBD (cannabidiol) is a chemical isolated from hemp, which is a variety of the marijuana plant. CBD is not the same as THC, the chemical in marijuana responsible for the “high.”

People have been taking CBD for years to help ease pain and anxiety (some CBD supplements may contain THC as well, so be sure to check the ingredients). But there aren’t many studies that show that CBD helps with anxiety. Side effects of CBD may include decreased appetite and fatigue.

L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid found in the tea plant. It’s been used in Asian countries to treat anxiety symptoms, but there are only a few small studies that suggest it’s effective.

If you have high blood pressure and are taking medication for it, speak to your doctor before starting L-theanine as it may lower your blood pressure.

Rhodiola

Rhodiola is a root that grows in the arctic areas of Europe and Asia. It’s been used in traditional medicine in Russia and Scandinavia for centuries to help ease depression and decrease fatigue. A study in the journal Psychotherapy Research showed that mildly anxious people who took rhodiola twice a day reported less anxiety, stress, and depression. But more research is needed to confirm its effectiveness.

If you want to try rhodiola, it may be best to start taking a lower dose to reduce your risk of side effects such as irritability and agitation.

Lavender (capsules)

Lavender, the purple flowering plant, is used by many to help treat anxiety. As with most plant-based supplements, there isn’t enough research to prove that lavender is effective. One study in the International Journal of Psychopharmacology showed that people with generalized anxiety disorder who took Silexan (a lavender oil product) every day for 10 weeks experienced reduced levels of anxiety similar to that of people taking the drug paroxetine (Paxil).

Lavender can make you drowsy, so avoid using it before driving or doing other activities that require constant attention.

Pro Tip

OTC anxiety medications can be very helpful for mild or occasional symptoms. They are not appropriate for severe anxiety. —Dr. Hagopian

Essential oils

Essential oils are extracted from plants. The plant is processed to capture the compounds that produce fragrance. Essential oils are absorbed through your nose and lungs and, like conventional medications, can work on specific nervous system receptors in your body.

Commonly, people use essential oils by filling a diffuser with water and adding a few drops of oil to the water to create a pleasant scent in a room. This is called aromatherapy, and is used to help treat medical conditions like anxiety.

Studies on aromatherapy have shown an improvement in anxiety in people with different health concerns, like those who’ve had a heart attack, pregnant women in labor, and women with a high risk of postpartum depression.

The most common oils used for anxiety are orange and lavender. If your anxiety makes it hard for you to fall asleep, try placing the diffuser on a bedside table 15 to 20 minutes before you go to bed.

Never ingest essential oils, as they can be toxic to your body. If you have pets, talk to your vet before trying aromatherapy. Animals are more sensitive to essential oils and can be harmed by them, particularly if they have an underlying health condition such as a respiratory issue.

Natural remedies for anxiety in children

There is very little research on natural remedies for anxiety in children. Studies in children are lacking for almost all of the supplements that are available for adults. In some cases, they may even harm kids. For example, lavender shouldn’t be used in children because it can disrupt their hormones and lead to premature breast development in both boys and girls.

Always talk to your pediatrician first before giving any natural remedy to your child.

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Attending Physician, Western Maine Family Medicine, Norway, ME
Dr. Hagopian is a board-certified Family Physician living in the Portland, Maine area. He received his undergraduate degree in biology from Tufts University (2005) and graduated with an MD and a Masters in Public Health from Case Western Reserve University (2011). He completed his residency in family medicine at Maine Medical Center in 2014. He stayed on as chief resident (2015) and as integrative...
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