Healing Herbs for Anxiety
Anxiety is a common experience for millions of Americans, but research-backed herbal remedies can help
Sherra Vorley Oct 31 2022
Research shows lavender has sedative, mood stabilizing, neuroprotective, and anticonvulsant effects.(annata78/iStock)
Anxiety is a natural and normal response to danger and challenging situations—most of the time. Our ability to feel anxious helps us to react and prepare for life events.
It’s perfectly normal, for example, to feel concerned that winter is coming. So we put snow tires on the car, save some extra funds for home heating costs, and bring out winter blankets.
On the other hand, anxious feelings are sometimes less tangible. They can become excessive or intrusive. In these situations, anxiety may negatively impact our daily life. The result of uncontrolled anxiety is the potential to develop an anxiety disorder.
Surprisingly, anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental disorder.
Anxiety affects about 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Anxious or intrusive thoughts might keep us awake at night, interfere with our productivity or enjoyment of tasks, or drive us to avoid situations out of worry. Fortunately, anxiety disorders are identifiable, and several effective treatments improve people’s lives.
According to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s 2019 Global Burden of Disease study, more than 300 million people in the world suffer from anxiety disorders.
Estimates of the number of Americans afflicted with anxiety range widely based on the definition and duration of anxiety, but according to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health, around 1 in 5 Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Statistically, women are more likely to experience anxiety disorders than men. Anxiety disorders are further characterized as specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder. Specific phobias are the most common type of anxiety disorder, followed by social anxiety.
Symptoms and Causes
Anxiety is different from fear. While fear is an appropriate, short-lived response to an identifiable threat, anxiety is often future-oriented worry based on a less demonstrable threat.
A person with a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder has anxious feelings with little provocation almost every day for more than six months. The anxiety negatively affects one’s home life, social life, and work life. A person with an anxiety disorder may have difficulty focusing and feelings of restlessness and irritability. Sufferers may also have trouble sleeping and often feel tired.
There are a variety of medical issues that may lead to an anxiety condition.
Respiratory disorders such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma can cause feelings of anxiety.
Similarly, heart disease, diabetes, thyroid disorders, and digestive issues, as well as side effects from medications can lead to anxiety that’s difficult to control. Sufferers of anxiety would benefit from seeking personalized medical advice regarding medical conditions that may exacerbate an anxiety disorder.
Many factors beyond our control can trigger anxiety, such as grief or trauma. People can also be genetically predisposed to anxiety and other mental health issues. This may prompt us to pay close attention to our mental health.
Lifestyle and environmental factors, some of which we control and some we don’t, influence our ability to manage anxiety.
Understandably, stress influences how we manage anxiety and comes to us from myriad sources. Financial issues and situations at work and at school, as well as our relationships, may cause stress that leads to uncontrolled anxiety.
However, lifestyle factors that we can control such as sleep hygiene, activity levels, and diet play a significant role in how we handle stress and anxiety. Perhaps it goes without saying that a high intake of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and other drugs can exacerbate issues with anxiety.
Managing an Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorder is identifiable and treatable. In conventional medicine, the two most common courses of treatment are psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, and medications. A type of talk therapy is cognitive behavior therapy, which aims to help people learn new ways of thinking, reacting, and behaving. The goal is to help manage anxiety disorders by learning to deal with anxious feelings differently. Medications are used to relieve symptoms of anxiety but aren’t able to cure anxiety.
An exciting new field of medicine, nutritional psychology, is exploring how nutrition regulates anxiety disorders by influencing the microbiome and inflammation. In a Frontiers in Psychology article, “Nutrition as Metabolic Treatment for Anxiety,” researchers at Harvard Medical School reviewed some of the research findings around nutritional interventions to treat people with anxiety disorders.
They note that nutritional interventions should be more widely considered among clinical psychiatrists. While nutritional psychiatry is relatively new, it has the potential of providing low-risk and high-yield results.
“Nutrition regulates anxiety disorders by influencing the microbiome and inflammation. The gut microbiome and inflammation are interrelated and influence anxiety,” it notes.
The authors explain that nutrition can either harm or help anxiety disorders by affecting the gut microbial ecosystem, regulating inflammation, and affecting other biochemical pathways, “Sugar, processed vegetable oils rich in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, artificial sweeteners, and gluten have a negative effect on anxiety, whereas omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric (curcumin), vitamin D, and ketogenic diets are thought to have a therapeutic effect,” it continues.
Beyond nutrition, certain psychological characteristics can also have a profound effect on anxiety. The American Psychological Association provides a persuasive argument in a 2019 article, “Perseverance Toward Life Goals Can Fend Off Depression, Anxiety, Panic Disorders.” It describes an 18-year-long study showing the protective factors of goal persistence.
“Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can create resilience against or decrease current levels of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder,” notes Nur Hani Zainal, from The Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study.
“Looking on the bright side of unfortunate events has the same effect because people feel that life is meaningful, understandable and manageable.”
The authors of the study used data from 3,294 adults collected three times over 18 years, from 1995 to 2013. According to the authors, “people who showed more goal persistence and optimism during the first assessment in the mid-1990s had greater reductions in depression, anxiety, and panic disorders across the 18 years.”
“Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience, and optimism,” Zainal notes. “Aspiring toward personal and career goals can make people feel like their lives have meaning. On the other hand, disengaging from striving toward those aims or having a cynical attitude can have high mental health costs.”
Plant-Based Medicines to Treat Anxiety
As with medications prescribed for anxiety, plant-based medicines may help with symptoms of anxiety. As accessible and cost-effective tools, certain herbs and spices have anti-anxiety and calming effects on the mind and body, many with comparable results to prescription medications. Derived from nature, herbs and spices have been used for millennia in traditional medicine. While there are many herbs and spices to choose from for soothing, relaxing effects, here are the top three: lavender, chamomile, and ashwagandha.
Lavender, genus Lavandula, has been used in traditional remedies for centuries due to its unique chemical compounds and ethnobotanical properties. Growing evidence supports the therapeutic and curative attributes of lavender, namely its sedative, mood stabilizing, neuroprotective, and anticonvulsant effects.
The famously aromatic properties of lavender flowers and foliage are found in 30 Lavandula species, from which there are hundreds of subspecies, hybrids, and cultivars. Native to the Old World, that is the world as people knew it before the discovery of the Americas, lavender was found on the dry, sandy hillsides surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and Southern Europe, as well as Northeast Africa, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Southeast India. That large variety of suitable climates means that by choosing the right species for your growing zone, you can also enjoy this rewarding, fragrant, woody perennial that thrives in full sun and is drought tolerant.
If growing lavender isn’t convenient, you may look to high-quality lavender essential oil and essential oil blends, which are readily available through most essential oil brands. Many whole food markets and health food stores may have a variety of whole flowers, foliage, or tea for sale. Be sure to source organic, naturally grown lavender to retain the integrity of the beneficial constituents.
Lavender Constituents and Healing Activity
Lavender’s main beneficial chemical compounds are linalool, camphor, linalyl acetate, 1,8-cineole B-ocimene, and terpinen-4-ol.
People experience specific benefits from lavender that aid in anxiety relief, including lowered heart rate, improved mood, improved sleep quality, breathing regulation, and lowered levels of adrenaline.
Lavender helps to control anxiety through the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates hormones, breathing rhythm, and heart rate. A 2013 study titled “Lavender and the Nervous System” showed lavender to be superior to a placebo in 221 patients suffering from an anxiety disorder. The patients also experienced associated symptom improvement, including reduced restlessness and higher-quality sleep, which positively influences general well-being and quality of life.
How to Use Lavender
Lavender essential oil has multiple uses generally common to essential oil aromatherapy methods. For example, lavender essential oil baths and massage products can induce calm and anxiety relief. You can make lavender bath salts by mixing 10 drops of lavender essential oil into 2 cups of Epsom salts. Add a half cup of this mix to a relaxing bath.
Lavender massage oil is similarly easy to make at home. Add five drops of lavender essential oil into a carrier oil of your choice such as coconut, olive, avocado, or sweet almond. Massage into skin, avoiding the eyes, and enjoy.
Diffuse lavender essential oil to bring a state of calm to your surroundings. Whole flowers and foliage make for a relaxing tea or tonic with excellent neuroprotective potential.
Capsules of lavender oil and tinctures of concentrated lavender extracts are a convenient way to achieve a daily lavender dose of 80 milligrams.
Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla L., has been used for thousands of years in folk and traditional medicine. Native to southern and eastern Europe, chamomile use goes back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Chamomile’s impeccable pharmacologic properties have multiple therapeutic uses that have been well-established through years of traditional use and scientific research.
This small annual flowering genus of plants of the Asteraceae family grows well in average to poor soils, requiring regular moisture and full sun. Chamomile is grown abundantly in Hungary and found throughout Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand.
Prized for its stable pharmacological properties, chamomile has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, digestive, soothing, healing, sedative, and anti-spasm activity.
As a natural substance, chamomile is widely used as herbal medicine for anxiety because it’s relatively free from side effects, easy to obtain, and considered healthful. The flowers are primarily used as tea or distilled to chamomile essential oil.
Chamomile Constituents and Healing Activity
Evidence shows chamomile helps regulate mood-influencing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid.
It may also assist the body’s stress response by helping to regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis.
Chamomile’s therapeutically interesting active compounds include sesquiterpenes, flavonoids, coumarins, polyacetylenes, and 11 bioactive phenolic compounds. These include caffeic acid (phenylpropanoids), apigenin, apigenin-7-O-glucoside, luteolin and luteolin-7-O-glucoside (flavones), quercetin and rutin (flavanols), and naringenin (flavanone).
How to Use Chamomile
The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Put chamomile essential oil in a diffuser and assess your body’s stress level. Or try a cup of chamomile tea an hour or two before bed. The calming effects may be felt quite quickly.
For even more proof, take the tea bag out of the tea and place it on an area of soreness like tense neck muscles, sore knuckles, or tight wrists. The calming, soothing effect just from a used tea bag is rather surprising.
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is a small shrub with yellow flowers native to India and Southeast Asia. It has a long history of traditional use based on Indian principles of natural healing known as ayurveda.
Ayurveda is a traditional form of medicine with a history of thousands of years. Ashwagandha, in ayurveda, is an adaptogen. The Cleveland Clinic describes adaptogens as plants and mushrooms that help your body respond to stress, anxiety, and fatigue. They can be added to food and beverages or made into tinctures.
Adaptogens bring the body into steady balance by managing both mental and physical stress. The roots and leaves of ashwagandha are used in this way to treat a variety of conditions.
Ashwagandha is available in many forms including tinctures, capsules, powders, whole roots, and extracts through whole food and health food stores.
Search for high-quality, whole-food products that are naturally or organically produced. Use as directed.
Ashwagandha Constituents and Healing Activity
A highly researched botanical, ashwagandha contains about 140 specialized compounds that make up its biological properties and active phytochemicals. Ongoing studies and research reviews continue to validate its use and provide insight into optimal ways to use it. The botanical is known to have anti-stress properties and a proven efficacy in mitigating the effect stress has on neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
How to Use Ashwagandha
An aqueous extract of the root is beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety. Although its name translates roughly to “smell of the horse,” many people find the whole root to have a sweet, pleasant odor.
Boil a tablespoon of dried whole root in two cups of water. Strain and serve. To improve the flavor, add other calming herbs such as chamomile and lavender.
For simplicity, ashwagandha is available in supplement form. Tinctures, powders, and extracts of the plant can also be found online and in health food stores.
Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health issue worldwide. While anxiety is normal, if it begins to harm our daily lives, there are a multitude of treatments available. Even though many causes of anxiety are out of our control, there are small adjustments we can make throughout the day to improve our ability to handle stress and anxiety. The powerful botanical compounds found in lavender, chamomile, and ashwagandha may also contribute to a healthy ability to manage anxiety.
Sherra Vorley is a writer passionate about food sovereignty, self-reliance, and holistic health. Her wish is to help people by providing actionable tools for disease prevention and holistic healing.