Finding the Best Herbs for Anxiety

By Justin Fowler-Lindner

In the United States alone…

  • Over 15 million adults have social anxiety disorder (SAD).
  • Over 6.8 million adults have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
  • Over 6 million adults have panic disorder (PD).

These aren’t small numbers, especially when you consider that many cases go unreported.

Conventional anti-anxiety medications, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have a long list of short-term and long-term side effects, including nausea, loss of appetite, sexual dysfunction, dizziness, headaches, and agitation.

Natural herbal remedies, on the other hand, can reduce anxiety and stress without the downsides.

Here are a few of the best herbs for anxiety:

  1. Lavender oil
  2. Ashwagandha root
  3. Chamomile tea
  4. Hemp (CBD oil)
  5. Passionflower
  6. Kava root
  7. Lemon balm
  8. Green tea (L-theanine)

There is never a “one-treatment-fits-all” plan for anxiety, so a natural remedy like lemon balm might work wonders for one person yet have little-to-no effect for the next.

With that said, the following herbal supplements are a great place to start:

1. Lavender

Lavender oil has been used for over 2,500 years for its antibacterial, antimicrobial, and sedative properties. However, its main use is as a natural remedy for anxiety and depression.

For example, a 2010 double-blind, randomised study demonstrated that oral lavender was comparable to the benzodiazepine lorazepam for reducing anxiety. Benzodiazepines are highly addictive substances with potentially lethal consequences, especially when mixed with alcohol and other depressants.

Here’s what the researchers who conducted the study had to say:

“Since lavender oil showed no sedative effects in our study and has no potential for drug abuse, [lavender] appears to be an effective and well tolerated alternative to benzodiazepines for the amelioration of generalised anxiety.”

What makes lavender truly unique, however, is how effective it can be when inhaled or applied topically. Research shows that lavender aromatherapy can induce calmness and reduce symptoms of anxiety like headaches and muscle tension.

In a 2010 study conducted by King’s College London Dental Institute, patients were exposed to the scent of lavender oil while awaiting dental procedures. Researchers found that individuals in the lavender group reported significantly lower anxiety than those in the control group.

2. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen and one of the most effective herbal supplements for stress and anxiety. It works by conditioning the adrenal gland and normalizing the stress response. Chronic stress and excessive cortisol production can lead to a variety of health issues, including hypothyroidism, insulin resistance, and widespread inflammation.

At least five rigorous human studies identify ashwagandha as a viable natural remedy for anxiety.

In one recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 39 participants were split into a test group and a placebo group. The test group received 1000 mg of ashwagandha a day for six weeks. Self-reported anxiety scores were significantly lower for patients in the ashwagandha group.

Smaller doses can also yield similar results, like this 2012 study where patients with chronic stress received only 300 mg a day. After 60 days of treatment, individuals treated with ashwagandha reported improved stress resistance.

But stress reduction is just the beginning of ashwagandha’s broad mental health benefits. It may also fight everything from fatigue and brain fog to cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Here’s what a few of the studies have found:

  • In a 2017 study, rodents were injected with natural steroids found in ashwagandha. After 21 days of treatment, researchers documented decreased plaque buildup and reduced cognitive and behavioral deficits.
  • In another 2017 study, patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) from aging received 300 mg of ashwagandha twice daily for eight weeks. Researchers concluded that “Ashwagandha may be effective in enhancing both immediate and general memory in people with MCI as well as improving executive function, attention, and information processing speed.”
  • A 2015 pilot trial conducted at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine found that ashwagandha reduced sensory dysfunction in schizophrenia patients, allowing them to have better social interactions.

But what if you don’t have a serious condition? Can you still enhance cognition with ashwagandha? Yes!

According to a recent rodent study, ashwagandha may reduce the effects of sleep deprivation and improve sleep quality by enhancing GABA activity in the brain.

3. Chamomile

Chamomile tea contains high levels of disease-fighting compounds, including 28 terpenes, 36 flavonoids, and 52 additional compounds that display pharmacological activity.

Together, they can treat anxiety, reduce inflammation, fight cancer, and prevent insomnia.

In a 2012 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, researchers analyzed the effectiveness of oral chamomile extract as a treatment for anxiety and depression.

Out of the 57 participants, 16 had anxiety with a past history of depression, 19 had anxiety with comorbid depression, and 22 had anxiety with no history of depression.

Patients in the test group received 220 mg of chamomile extract containing a 1.2 percent concentration of the active ingredient apigenin. Compared to the control group, which received only a placebo pill, individuals in the chamomile group reported a significantly greater reduction in symptoms over time.

Chamomile may also treat anxiety at the source by reducing chronic inflammation, which is strongly linked to higher rates of anxiety.

In a 2010 laboratory test, researchers found that chamomile reduced the expression of genes that promote inflammation.

4. Hemp (CBD Oil)

Cannabidiol (CBD) oil from hemp plants is one of the best natural remedies for inflammation, and recent research indicates that it may also reduce anxiety.

Hemp is a member of the Cannabis sativa plant species but lacks the psychoactive effects of marijuana. The stalks have various industrial uses, but the oil from its resin glands contains CBD: a compound that acts through the endocannabanoid system and has widespread effects on several body systems.

Here’s what the research has to say:

  • When researchers treated mice suffering from chronic intestinal inflammation, biopsies revealed reduced biomarkers of inflammation.
  • A 2004 study showed that CBD significantly reduced symptoms of subjective anxiety by mediating activity in the limbic and paralimbic brain systems.
  • In a 2018 clinical overview conducted by the Department of Neurosciences and Mental Health University of Milan, Italy researchers determined that, “CBD administration may exhibit acute anxiolytic effects in patients with generalised social anxiety disorder…”

It’s important to distinguish CBD oil from the hemp oil you can find in the grocery store. Hemp oil comes from the seeds of hemp plants and doesn’t contain CBD, whereas CBD oil comes from the resin glands. So if you want to alleviate anxiety directly, you’ll need to take CBD oil as opposed to hemp oil.

Although more human trials still need to be done to rule-out any long-term side effects, CBD is a generally safe substance with promising mental health benefits.

5. Passionflower

Passionflower is one of several herbal remedies that may reduce symptoms of anxiety by boosting gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.

GABA is the body’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter and is responsible for reducing activity of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. In anxiety, it’s common for patients to have overactive glutamate and underactive GABA.

In one 2001 study, 36 patients diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) were treated with either passionflower or the pharmaceutical drug oxazepam for four weeks. Both treatments were effective at reducing anxiety, but passionflower reported a lower incidence of job performance impairment.

In a 2008 study, 60 patients were administered either passionflower or a placebo before undergoing inguinal surgery. Anxiety scores were significantly lower in the passionflower group.

6. Kava

Kava root is a natural anxiety remedy that works by stimulating dopamine and can induce a mild-to-moderate euphoria in high doses. Research also shows that it may be an effective treatment for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

In a 2015 study funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, 210 currently anxious patients were treated with either 240 mg/day of kavalactones (the active ingredient in kava) or a placebo. By the end of the study, researchers determined that kava could be a first-line treatment for GAD.

However, it’s important to note that kava can be hard on the liver, especially when mixed with alcohol and other medications. Always consult with your doctor before trying kava. Common side effects may include drowsiness, headache, and diarrhea.

7. Lemon Balm

Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, has been used traditionally since the Middle Ages as a treatment for anxiety and insomnia.

In one double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover experiment, participants were treated with either 300 mg or 600 mg of lemon balm extract and were then asked to take a series of tests under stress.

Individuals who took the 600-mg dose reported less stress and higher self-ratings of calmness and alertness, while individuals given the 300-mg dose increased their mathematical processing speed with no reduction in accuracy.

In a meta-analysis of the anti-stress effects of lemon balm-containing foods, researchers from the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology, Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia determined that, “lemon balm treatments were generally associated with improvements in mood and/or cognitive performance,” although some participants did experience “behavioral costs” due to the sedative nature of the substance.

8. Green Tea (L-theanine)

Caffeine tends to promote inflammation, stress, and anxiety by stimulating the adrenal glands and boosting cortisol production. However, green tea is a mild source of caffeine and also contains L-theanine: an amino acid that supports GABA function and may reduce anxiety.

In one study, anxiety-prone individuals who received a 200 mg daily dose of L-theanine reported less anxiety and displayed several signs of stress reduction, including reduced blood pressure and heart rate.

At the same time, green tea is full of antioxidants, including large amounts of a catechin called EGCG, which is known to prevent cell damage and reduce inflammation.

Like most of the herbal supplements in this article, green tea has little-to-no side effects. Others, like kava, may cause serious health complications when mixed with other medications, which is why it’s always best to consult a medical professional before beginning treatment.

Due to your unique body chemistry, it’s hard to know which herbs will work best, and the only way to find out is to split test. Start small and gradually increase your dose until you achieve the desired effects with any of these natural herbs for anxiety.

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