Perhaps you’re struggling with anxiety and you want to try a natural option to help you manage it. Or maybe you’d like to find an herbal tea or supplement to soothe stress and complement your current anti-anxiety treatment plan, whether that includes therapy, prescription medications, time outdoors, exercise, or meditation. There are plenty of herbs out there that have anti-anxiety properties, but before you take an over-the-counter supplement or incorporate herbal teas in your diet, it’s important that you educate yourself on what you’re ingesting. “Herbs can be extremely beneficial in the treatment of anxiety,” says Alissia Zenhausern, a naturopathic physician at NMD Wellness of Scottsdale. “It is, however, important to understand how particular herbs work when it comes to anxiety. Some herbs start working quickly while others take a few months to see an effect. But if you can stay consistent, the benefits of these herbs is tremendous.”
Understanding Herbs and How They Impact the Nervous System
Herbs that affect the nervous system are called nervine herbs or nervines, says Zenhausern. Nervines can be broken into three different categories:
- Nervine relaxants, which relax the nervous system
- Nervine stimulants, which stimulate the nervous system (meaning they can help with fatigue),
- Nervine tonics, which help nourish the nervous system, improving symptoms of anxiety
When looking for herbs to soothe anxiety, nervine tonics are your best bet. Zenhausern points out that sedatives, another category of herbs that are not nervines, can also be used in the treatment of anxiety. “Sedatives help calm the nervous system and help improve your body’s ability to respond to stress and nervousness,” she says. They can induce sleepiness, so she suggests trying them at home near the end of the day to see how much of a sedative effect they have on you. Since anxiety can lead to insomnia, many people with anxiety also seek out natural sleep remedies, which can include herbs like valerian root, lavender, and chamomile.
Which herbs can be used for anxiety?
A number of different herbs have anti-anxiety properties according to the experts. When it comes to herbal supplements, unfortunately there are typically few high-quality peer-reviewed studies that confirm their effectiveness—often due to a lack of funding according to Joseph Feuerstein, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital. This means that many physicians rely on their personal experience and training to discern what will work best for their patients. Feuerstein points out that a lack of evidence doesn’t mean that an herb doesn’t work, and since most herbs for anxiety are safe and relatively inexpensive, it’s worth experimenting to see what works for you if you’re interested in pursuing natural remedies for anxiety—even if you’re initially skeptical of the science (or lack thereof) to support their application. Here’s what you need to know about the most commonly used anti-anxiety herbs.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
Many of us have heard of drinking chamomile tea before bed to induce sleep. Chamomile can also soothe anxiety. “Matricaria chamomilla is a great herb to combat both anxiety and depression,” Zenhausern says. “If used as an essential oil, it can help create a mild sedative effect as well as calm your nerves by traveling to an area of your brain known as the olfactory. It is in this portion of your brain that you receive signals that allow you to smell. Smelling chamomile will help your brain relax and also reduce your body’s response to stress,” she says. Feuerstein suggests using chamomile essential oil in a diffuser. There are a limited number of scientific studies on the anti-anxiety effects of chamomile. Two scientific studies conducted in 2016 looked at the short-term and long-term effects of chamomile on people with generalized anxiety disorder. The results indicated that chamomile extract can soothe anxiety significantly in the short term, but the long-term study results showed no significant findings. Another study showed that chamomile can reduce the severity of both depression and anxiety in people who experience both. Although this is promising, more studies are needed to verify these results.
“Lavender has been used for centuries as an essential oil for it calmative effects,” Feuerstein says. “There is now a new clinically tested lavender extract called lavela ws1265 which has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety levels.” Feuerstein, who administers lavender in a pill or capsule form, goes on to say, “I use it all the time for anxiety with my patients with good effect.” Zenhausern notes that lavender is also effective at inducing sleep. “Lavender, which can be taken as a tea, topically, or even as a capsule, can be very beneficial for anxiety. I have seen the most success when combining lavender with other nervines.” Many small studies, including a 2010 study that showed lavender capsules to be as effective in treating anxiety as Lorazepam, a benzodiazepine, indicate lavender has an anti-anxiety effect. Unfortunately, this study was very small and there is a lack of peer-reviewed evidence to confirm whether lavender should be used to treat anxiety.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
“Lemon balm is a great nervine that can not only help with anxiety but also insomnia,” Zenhausern says. It’s also often used for those with hyperthyroidism. “Although relatively safe, it should not be used in patients with acid reflux (GERD) and possibly those with hypothyroidism, but this is still under investigation,” she notes. She adds that it takes at least one month of consistently using lemon balm before you will notice its effects.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Passionflower is both a nervine and a sedative, Zenhausern says. It’s often used to treat insomnia and anxiety. “Although this is a wonderful, powerful herb that I use often, it cannot be used in patients that are currently on SSRIs as well as other pharmaceutical medications used to treat depression and anxiety,” she says. SSRIs—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors—are medications that are often prescribed for depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, passionflower can alter the effect of these and other pharmaceuticals, preventing them from working correctly. Zenhausern also adds that passionflower is not safe for use during pregnancy. “So be careful with this herb and make sure just like all herbs that you consult with your physician prior to taking any herbs.”
While some scientific research indicates that kava root—also known as kava kava—might have anti-anxiety properties, it’s a risky treatment. “I don’t use this at all as there have been cases of liver damage with kava,” Feuerstein says. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a consumer advisory for products containing kava, which is a member of the pepper family native to the South Pacific, because of its link to liver damage.
A sedative, Valerian is often prescribed by Feuerstein, who finds it to be an effective treatment for anxiety in his patients. Valerian can be had in a tea or capsule form. “Valerian and hops taken orally together have also been shown to be effective in improving sleep in clinical studies,” he says. “The studies on using this combination for anxiety were not as conclusive, but it can also be tried to reduce anxiety levels, too.” As for the scientific research on Valerian alone, there’s a mixture of results. A few trials have indicated that it can help with insomnia, while another review of studies on Valerian found it a safe, but not necessarily effective treatment for insomnia. A study that focused on bipolar patients found Valerian to be the most promising herbal treatment for both anxiety and insomnia. These mixed conclusions indicate that more research is needed.
How safe is it to use these herbs for anxiety?
We often mistakenly believe that herbs are safe for everyone because they can be bought without a prescription. This isn’t true, and it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider before taking herbs or supplements of any kind. Zenhausern says that although herbs can be very safe, they should only be taken after consulting with a healthcare provider as herbs can interact with one another and with certain medications.
Can these herbs be used if you’re pregnant or lactating?
Sometimes, but it’s important to discuss it with your physician first, Zenhausern says. “Although science is beginning to investigate the powers of botanical medicine, the mechanism by which certain herbs work is not completely understood, which is why I recommend patients to avoid herbs when pregnant or lactating unless they have consulted with their physician,” she explains. Some herbs can be safe for children, but again, due to the lack of complete understanding, it is extremely important that you consult with your physician first. Zenhausern says she loves using chamomile tea for small children who have trouble falling asleep or kids who are anxious about getting on an airplane. She says chamomile tea can be made in advance and then served cool or at room temperature (she advises against hot drinks being given to littles since they might burn themselves). Feuerstein adds that you should only consume tested, pharmaceutical-grade herbs. The FDA doesn’t test herbs and supplements as strictly as it tests pharmaceutical medication, so the quality isn’t always consistent across brands.
Other Natural Methods for Managing Anxiety
If you’re looking for some natural, inexpensive methods for managing anxiety, consider making the following lifestyle changes. These changes, like herbs for anxiety, can complement your current anti-anxiety treatment and therapy.
- Breathing exercises are a relatively easy, free remedy for anxiety. Deep breathing has been shown to help soothe stress, anxiety, and insomnia.
- Exercise isn’t just great for your body—it’s also fantastic for reducing your stress levels and improving your mood. A quick run or some time spent on the yoga mat can be a smart investment in your mental health.
- Ecotherapy, which is the practice of using nature to heal and improve your health, is another free way to manage anxiety. Scientific studies have shown that ecotherapy is a great way to reduce stress and depression.
- Meditation is one we’ve all heard of, but it bears repeating. Meditation is a fantastic way to lift your mood and reduce anxiety and depression.
While these anti-anxiety treatments can be effective, it’s important to remember that they aren’t necessarily better than prescription anti-anxiety medications. If you need anti-anxiety medication, there’s no shame in that. Self-care includes giving your body what it needs, whether that comes in the form of lifestyle changes, botanical medicine, or a prescription medication from a trusted healthcare provider.