5 Herbs for Anxiety

10 Mins read

It can be difficult to catch a breath nowadays. Between our always-on work and media culture, an accelerated pace of life, and timeless challenges like raising kids and providing eldercare, life in the 21st century can be anxiety provoking. To say the least.

“We live in unacceptably stressful times,” says integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author from the Chemistry of Calm. “People are so uniformly stressed that they're looking for quick relief, often in the form of alcohol or prescription drugs. We want better options.”

Fortunately, we have them — and have had them for some time. “Plants have been used to relieve anxiety for centuries, because anxiety has always existed,” he explains.

Anxiety originates in the brain’s amygdalae, two almond-size structures (one in each hemisphere) that modulate the body’s response to stress. Functional-medicine physician and herbalist Aviva Romm, MD, likens their function to some surveillance system: When we perceive danger, the body’s stress response sounds the alarm and releases a torrent of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This prepares the body to fight, flee, or freeze.

The hypervigilance that accompanies this response is key to survival, Romm says. “But when the alarm gets stuck within the on position, hypervigilance turns into anxiety.”

This may take many forms. For some, it feels like a racing heart or perhaps a queasy stomach. In others, it creeps in as a fog of overwhelming emotions or a persistent sense of dread.

An estimated 40 million Americans experience these sensations often enough to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, which is the most common.

Benzodiazepines — for example Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin — are some of the most commonly prescription drugs for acute anxiety, however their use often produces some unpleasant negative effects. This is why many functional-medicine physicians and healthcare providers recommend plant-based remedies.

Using plants this way is less mystical of computer may sound. Herbs and benzodiazepines both enhance the calming influence of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a naturally sourced amino acid that helps regulate the worry response. Yet some herbalists reason that herbs boost GABA more effectively than drugs.

“Most herbals are pluripotent, meaning they hit multiple molecular targets,” says clinical herbalist Lily Mazzarella, MS, CNS. And, in contrast to benzodiazepines, she explains, “plant-based remedies have a lower risk of dependence and a better safety record.”

Not only are benzodiazepines addictive and habituating (meaning increased doses are necessary to achieve the same result with time), recent studies link their use to cognitive dysfunction and decline. The reason why to avoid these drugs keep accumulating, says Romm.

“They have a place in emergency-rescue situations, such as panic attacks, but otherwise I tell people to steer clear.” She favors the security profile and efficacy of herbal remedies.

Sensible precautions are necessary when using any treatment, including herbs. Always follow the directions on the packaging. For prescription medications, especially antianxiety drugs, seek advice from your healthcare provider before adding herbs towards the mix. They may intensify a drug’s effect, explains Mazzarella, making you feel loopy or sedated. Some herbs also interact poorly with other medications — another reason to do your research first.

Finally, like people, antianxiety herbs don’t all act the same. This means that finding the correct herb to treat your anxiety can require a bit of persistence. This guide will help lead you to those most likely to relieve your particular symptoms.

Best Herb for Acute Anxiety Relief

Kava (Piper methysticum)

The root of a plant native to the South Pacific, kava is probably the best-researched herb for anxiety relief. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies show that kava significantly reduces anxiety. Most participants found relief when taking between 120 and 240 mg from the herb daily over a period of weeks, but it also works well as an on-the-spot remedy.

“Kava is the greatest example of an herb that matches the effectiveness of an antianxiety medication but with no side effects,” says Emmons. The herb acts fast, often in just 15 to 20 minutes. This makes it especially beneficial in acute situations — after a near accident, a heated conversation, or anytime the strain response kicks in.

Best of all, kava relaxes the muscles without sedating the mind. “Muscle tension can exacerbate, enhance, and amplify feelings of tension,” says Mazzarella. “But with kava you literally have the sensation of coming down.”

How to Use: When anxiety strikes, take a dropperful of kava tincture in a small glass of water. Your lips may tingle a little.

Safety Note: Kava is a potent herb and has been linked to liver damage. Romm recommends using it primarily as an “emergency remedy” for panic or acute anxiety, like stage fright or a fear of flying.

“It is overwhelmingly safe for occasional use — several times a month — and even daily use at really low doses,” she says. “For higher doses, taken regularly, I recommend working with a licensed practitioner. There's a remote risk of it affecting the liver.”

Best Herb for Insomnia

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Passionflower can relieve anxiety-induced insomnia. The herb’s flavonoids and alkaloids communicate with GABA to gently muffle the body’s alarm bells. Emmons calls it “a potent and underutilized herb for sleep.” It’s Mazzarella’s favorite fix for quieting circular thinking: “Many people find it both mentally and physically relaxing.”

In accessory for relaxing the mind for sleep, passionflower can help calm anticipatory fear. In a recent study, researchers gave 40 dental-surgery patients 260 mg of passionflower Half an hour before their procedures. The herb lowered indications of anxiety (measured by blood pressure and heart rate) as effectively because the pharmaceutical sedative midazolam but with fewer negative effects.

How to Use: Nighttime waking is the most common sleep complaint that Mazzarella addresses in her clinic. She suggests placing a small cup of water with passionflower tincture on your nightstand. “That way, if you find yourself awake and lost inside a worry loop, you’re prepared.”

Best Herb for Chronic Stress

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

This adaptogenic herb helps the body rein in a runaway stress response by addressing chronically high cortisol and adrenaline. Romm calls ashwagandha “a nerve tonic that builds resilience and coping.”

In overview of five randomized controlled clinical trials, researchers noted significant anxiety relief among 400 participants who took daily doses of ashwagandha ranging from 120 to 1,200 mg for six to 16 weeks.

Over time, ashwagandha helps return the body’s stress reaction to baseline, says Mazzarella. It may especially benefit anxiety sufferers with a history of trauma, who often experience anxious hypervigilance. (For additional on ashwagandha and other adaptogenic herbs, see “Ancient Healers: Adaptogens”.)

How to make use of: Mazzarella recommends taking ashwagandha for at least three months. “People taking ashwagandha report an almost imperceptible upturn in mood and overall energy,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I can handle things more easily’ or ‘Life is just better.’”

Best Herb for Restoring Mental Focus

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

Rhodiola has a history of use in supporting memory and mental focus, especially in northern locales, such as Siberia, where it grows wild. It’s also accustomed to treat immune depletion resulting from overwork, chemotherapy, radiation, and other stressors.

Mazzarella likes rhodiola because of its fast-acting assistance with focus, especially for stressful tasks like studying for an exam or rushing to meet a deadline. It’s ideal for “a big push of cognitive labor,” she says.

Despite rhodiola’s obvious appeal for individuals working long hours, research is scarce. But a small 2008 clinical trial at the University of California, La, found that people with generalized anxiety disorder who took 340 mg of rhodiola extract daily for 10 weeks felt significant improvements — and experienced few negative effects.

“Rhodiola is good for supporting and restoring a strained-adrenal system,” says Emmons, “especially if chronic stress has left you with brain fog.”

How to Use: Rhodiola can be mildly stimulating, so it’s best drawn in the morning or early afternoon. Tinctures and capsules are generally effective.

Best Herb for Mild to Moderate Anxiety

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Chamomile is among the oldest and most widely studied herbs. An estimated 1 million cups of chamomile tea are consumed worldwide every day. It can also be taken as a tincture.

“Chamomile is one of the safest calming herbs you can test,” says functional-medicine practitioner Mark Menolascino, MD.

Chamomile has numerous calming constituents, but one of the very most potent is apigenin, a flavonoid that influences GABA.

Although chamomile is typically used for mild anxiety, new information hints that it can tackle moderate to severe symptoms too. In a 2021 study published in Phytomedicine, individuals with generalized anxiety disorder took 500 mg of chamomile three times daily for up to eight weeks. A lot more than half-reported a “clinically meaningful” reduction in symptoms.

How to Use: Chamomile comes in many forms, but herbal tea is the most traditional form used to ease anxiety. Pour hot-water over 2 to 3 heaping teaspoons of dried chamomile, steep for five to 10 minutes, then strain. Drink as needed throughout the day.

Using Herbs for Anxiety

Most herbs could be taken in one of three forms:

  • Tinctures are ideal for acute – meaning “in the moment” – stress because the active ingredients are quickly absorbed through tissues within the mouth and upper GI tract.
  • Tea, made by steeping herbs in hot water, is a good choice. Wrapping both hands around a hot mug and sipping slowly can provide additional calming effects.
  • Extracts are typical for adaptogenic herbs, like ashwagandha. Freeze-dried extracts possess a guaranteed potency, providing a consistent dose easily ingested in capsule form.

Tips for Buying Herbal Remedies

Not all herbal formulations are the same.

“It's the wild, wild West out there as far as what's being sold and who's recommending what,” says functional-medicine practitioner Mark Menolascino, MD. The safe use of herbal remedies requires doing some homework and keeping a buyer-beware attitude. Knowing that, follow these basic guidelines:

  • Avoid buying herbs online unless you know and trust the company. When possible, go to a natural-food store or co-op and ask staff for help selecting a reputable product. If you do buy online, herbalist Lily Mazzarella, MS, CNS, suggests choosing manufacturers with solid reputations, such as Herb Pharm and Gaia Herbs.
  • Pass around the cheapest option. High-quality herbal formulas are costly to produce, so avoid the temptation of the lowest cost.
  • Notice certifications. A seal on the package may show the product is endorsed by a trustworthy third-party certification organization, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). However the absence of a seal doesn't mean a product isn't good, says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director from the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit herbal-research organization. “Some of the best products don't have certification, which leaves consumers in a tough spot.”
  • Start by trying single herbals instead of antianxiety mixtures. “With individual formulas, it's simpler to pinpoint what works for you,” says Menolascino.
  • Pay attention to shelf life. When looking for freshness and potency, realize that teas are the first to fade. Tinctures last quite a bit longer, because most are preserved in alcohol; Blumenthal believes these can last up to five years, and some maintain their potency a lot longer. For freeze-dried extracts, he suggests discarding them there are finished them before their expiration date. Still, there is little change danger if you do take an expired capsule.
  • Consider seeing an herbalist, a naturopath, or an acupuncturist for guidance, says Mazzarella. “A professional will help to identify if your anxiety is an indicator of a systemic imbalance that needs attention.”

Nutritional Support for Anxiety Relief

Herbal remedies might help manage acute stressors, but sustained anxiety relief usually needs a multitiered approach. Integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author from the Chemistry of Calm, advises including nutritional support in any anxiety-relief plan. He recommends these four supplements:

Magnesium: This nutrient is essential for the production of serotonin and the support of GABA. More importantly, Emmons says, nerve-cell membranes use magnesium to unwind after they've fired.

This relaxation is vital because it calms brain activity. “I use a lot of magnesium for people suffering from anxiety and sleep issues,” he states. Studies show roughly half of all Americans don't get enough magnesium from food alone. Emmons recommends a regular dose of 400 to 600 mg by means of magnesium citrate, threonate, succinate, or glycinate.

5-HTP: Made from the protein tryptophan, 5-HTP (short for 5-Hydroxytryptophan) is a precursor of serotonin, which also helps with depression, anxiety's co-conspirator. 5-HTP also boosts melatonin, which is essential for good sleep. “If you were making a serotonin pie crust, 5-HTP could be analogous to the flour,” says Emmons. “5-HTP is vital for getting the soothing brain chemical serotonin to become more available.” He recommends Fifty to one hundred mg up to three times each day.

B-complex: Vitamins B6, B12, and B9 (folate) support methylation, a procedure that tamps down cortisol production. “Plus, vitamin B6 helps with the production of GABA and serotonin, the 2 brain chemicals most likely to soothe the fires of anxiety,” Emmons says.

He recommends 25 to 100 mg daily of B6; 50 to 200 mcg (micrograms) of B12; and 400 to 800 mg of folate.

Some people's bodies don't convert folate easily due to a variant in the MTHFR gene. If tests reveal this is actually the case for you, choose “activated” Vitamin b.

L-theanine: A naturally occurring amino acid found in green tea, L-theanine balances the glutamine -GABA equation, explains Emmons. Glutamine is really a naturally occurring substance that accelerates brain activity, while GABA works within the opposite way, slowing brain action.

“For safety and efficacy, L-theanine is among the best antianxieties out there,” he states. He recommends taking 100 to 200 mg twice a day.


Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

A member of the mint family, lemon balm relaxes your body without sacrificing clarity of thinking. Lemon balm is great for quickly cooling off the sympathetic central nervous system, says functional-medicine practitioner Mark Menolascino, MD. “It's also extremely safe.” Inside a 2011 study, 300 mg of lemon-balm extract taken twice a day (morning and evening) lowered anxiety by 15 to 18 percent and reduced anxiety-related insomnia by 42 percent.

Although lemon balm is often combined with other calming and sedating herbs, such as valerian, lavender, and hops, Menolascino recommends giving it a go on its own first. “In general, I like to try one thing and see if it works before adding another or a third herb. Otherwise, whether it works you're not sure why, and if it doesn't work, same thing, you aren't sure why.”

How to Use: As a rule, start out by giving kids and elders half the dose suitable for adults and see how it goes. And, obviously, if your child or elder is on prescription medications, check with their healthcare provider before layering with an herbal antianxiety.

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