Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting about 18% of the population each year. While they're treatable, less than 37% of those who have one don't receive treatment for it.
Some people are opposed to taking medication—between deeply ingrained mental health stigmas and fear of side effects, there are plenty of reasons why someone may not feel comfortable taking an antidepressant. However, recent research has demonstrated some promising results. A new study published in Cell Reports Medicine from the Weizmann Institute of Science found that a plant-derived substance may play a key role in reducing anxiety levels.
The substance is known as beta-sitosterol, which is conveniently found in various plant-based foods such as avocado, pistachios, almonds (and other nuts), canola oil, and even in some cereals and other grains. In a series of behavioral experiments, researchers found that beta-sitosterol was able to produce a calming effect in mice both on its own and in tandem with the antidepressant, Prozac.
Interestingly, the mice that were just given the plant substance didn't experience any of the side effects that are typically associated with anti-anxiety medications, such as weight gain and fatigue. Still, this doesn't mean that eating foods that naturally rich in beta-sitosterol will automatically result in reduced anxiety. The findings from this study aren't necessarily suggesting that supplementation of the plant substance on its own will allow people with anxiety disorders to go off their medication, either.
Instead, considering the findings from this animal study are proven in clinical trials (on humans), it's possible that beta-sitosterol could allow people to lower their dose of anti-anxiety medications.
"One of the major problems with existing anti-anxiety medications is that they produce side effects, so if beta-sitosterol could help cut down the dosage of such medications, it might potentially also reduce the unwanted side effects," Dr. Nicolas Panayotis, co-author of the study said in a statement.
This also doesn't mean that you can get an adequate amount of beta-sitosterol through food alone. Panayotis adds that "you'd need to eat avocado day and night to get the right dose—and you would be more likely to develop digestive problems than relieve your anxiety."
It will be interesting to see if a clinical trial can put supplementation of this plant substance to the test on humans. Alex Feoktistov, MD and founder of the Synergy Integrative Headache Center in Chicago, Illinois says that while many plant substances, or nutraceuticals, can exhibit health benefits, that doesn't mean they're safe for everyone to take.
"Before taking this supplement patients should consult with their healthcare providers. It is a common assumption that all nutraceuticals are safe which is not always correct as we have evidence of nutraceuticals' related significant adverse reactions and side effects," he says.
"To improve anxiety management it is important to also look at the big picture and try to address some of the modifiable contributing or predisposing factors such as inadequate or non-restorative sleep, an excessive amount of stimulants (such as caffeine), and lack of or inadequate stress-coping skills among others," says Feoktistov.
For more, be sure to check out 17 Foods That Make Your Depression and Anxiety Worse.