5 Top Herbs for Anxiety

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

Feeling anxious? You're not meant to feel that way. Mother Nature has some wonderful remedies cooked up for you... here are 5 of the best herbs for anxiety and stress relief. Add one or more to your diet, and watch your relationship to stress change.

Anxiety

Anxiety is prevalent throughout our society. Defined as a feeling of unease due to worry or fear, it can be triggered by a multitude of circumstances and conditions. Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the US. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), an estimated 31% of all adults may experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.

ADAA statistics also show that anxiety disorders are more prevalent in women than in men, that specific phobias are the most commonly occurring anxiety disorder affecting more than 19 million adults in the US, and interestingly, the prevalence by state ranges from the lowest in Florida (16.03%) to the highest in Oregon (22.66%).

The World Health Organization reports that the prevalence of all mental disorders increased by 50% worldwide from 416 million to 615 million between 1990 and 2013. Anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, can be out of proportion to the actual danger, and can last a long time.  

Symptoms

Numerous symptoms can accompany an anxiety disorder, among which are:

  • feeling restless or worried
  • a sense of dread
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • heart palpitations
  • muscle aches and tension
  • excessive sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • stomach or headache
  • insomnia (1)

Common Disorders

The most prevalent conditions of anxiety include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias such as agoraphobia or claustrophobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder. Triggers, intensity, and longevity vary from person to person. 

A common term applied to unspecified anxiety is General Anxiety Disorder or GAD. It is a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues rather than one specific event. People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. As soon as one anxious thought is resolved, another may appear about a different issue. GAD can cause both psychological and physical symptoms. (2)

Treatments

Classical treatment for anxiety has been psychotherapy and/or medication. The most successful psychotherapy counseling seems to be Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Treatment takes usually 12 to 16 weeks and focuses on learning skills that can help manage anxiety.

Medications for anxiety include antidepressants that help treat mood and physical symptoms. However, they can have some serious side effects. Other pharmaceuticals target the body’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is sometimes described as our body’s natural “happiness drug”, because it helps improve mood. It is also the precursor to melatonin known to help with insomnia. Others, like diazepam, help reduce tension and promote relaxation. (1)

There are also many actions you can take yourself to help reduce your anxiety. These are considered part of complementary and alternative medicine and work with one’s lifestyles and daily habits, offering options for more natural management of anxiety. Following are treatments that can be used alone or in conjunction with therapy and medications.

  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Stop smoking
  • Decrease sugar, alcohol, and caffeine
  • Eat healthy foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and omega 3-fatty acids
  • Herbal products and supplements (3)

Top 5 Herbs For Anxiety

Natural herbs have been used for thousands of years to treat many health conditions. Scientific studies indicate that certain herbs may help to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety.

Lavender

Lavandula includes more than 30 species and is found in many countries where the climate is sunny and dry. It is one of the oldest and safest herbs used for treating anxiety, insomnia, and pain.  Originally taken orally or topically, newer modalities of administration use aromatherapy and massage. Aromatherapy is thought to be therapeutically effective due to the physiological effects of the inhaled compounds. Clinical studies support its effectiveness in different neurological and psychological disorders. (4)

Passionflower

Passiflora incarnata has long been a folk remedy for anxiety. It helps control the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain thus promoting relaxation. When nerves fire too quickly and carry anxiety-inducing signals, GABA acts to slow the signals down, reducing overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Small clinical studies have been done suggesting that passiflora extract is effective for the management of GAD. (5)

Valerian Root

Numerous surveys conducted in countries around the world report that approximately 30% to 40% of adults have problems with insomnia. Valerian root can be used as a natural aid for insomnia, restlessness, and anxiety, and is often paired with passionflower as it promotes similar calming effects. Like passionflower, valerian controls GABA levels in the body. Valerian may be a more attractive option than other sleeping agents because of the lack of hangover effect. (6)

Kava Kava

The primary use of kava is for reducing stress and anxiety through its actions as a sedative, anesthetic, and euphoriant. It is made from the roots of Piper methysticum, a plant found in the islands of the Pacific Ocean particularly Fiji and Hawaii. It has been used in medicinal and sacred ceremonies for centuries. Kava contains substances called kavapyrones that act much like alcohol on your brain, making you feel calm, relaxed, and happy. The plant is also thought to relieve pain, prevent seizures, and relax muscles. Kava has been studied for its side effects, the most serious being liver damage. (7)

Chamomile

Matricaria chamomilla is a daisy-like flower commonly made into a soothing tea to promote calm and relaxation. One 2016 study found that long-term use of chamomile extract significantly reduced moderate-to-severe symptoms of GAD. It is generally considered safe and can be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety. There is very little scientific research done on chamomile. Possible precautions are for those who have allergies to plants in the Asteraceae family like ragweed, asters, and chrysanthemum. (8)          

Although these herbs have been used by different cultures for ages, more clinical studies are needed to understand their risks and benefits as natural alternatives to allopathic medicine. As with prescription medicines, some herbal products can cause side effects, especially if taken in excess or with other medications. Be sure to take only the recommended amounts and follow your health care provider’s advice.

SOURCES

  1. Team, S., 2021. Anxiety stats in the U.S. https://www.singlecare.com/blog/news/anxiety-statistics/
  2. NHS.uk. 2021. Generalized anxiety disorder in adults. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/
  3. Uma Naidoo, M., 2021. Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety – Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-20160413944
  4. Peir Hossein Koulivand et al. Lavender and the Nervous System; Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; DOI: 10.1155/2013/681304 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612440/
  5. S Akhondzadeh, et al. Passionflower in the treatment of generalized anxiety: a pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial with oxazepam. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2001 Oct;26(5):363-7. DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2710.2001.00367.x.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11679026/
  6. Stephan Bent, MD, et al.  Valerian for Sleep: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Am J Med. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2006.02.026 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4394901/
  7. Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 12, 2019. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/what-is-kava-kava  
  8. Jun J Mao et al. Long-term chamomile treatment for generalized anxiety disorder: A randomized clinical trial. Phytomedicine. 2016 Dec 15;23(14):1735-1742. DOI: 10.1016/j.phymed.2016.10.012.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27912875/

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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