8 of the Best Calming Herbs for Stress and Anxiety
Stress is a phenomenon we all deal with as human beings. While we may no longer be getting chased out of our caves by saber-toothed tigers, we still face life situations every day that our bodies react to with varying degrees of anxiety and stress.
Described as the health epidemic of the 21st century by the WHO (World Health Organisation), stress and its effects on our health costs the U.S. economy around $300 billion annually; indeed, stress levels have increased in the last several decades by 10-30% across the population.
Unless you’re a Zen master sitting in a tranquil garden all day every day, you are probably dealing with some combination of family, social, work, study, health, environment, or any of the hundreds of other stressors that can have long-lasting effects on our physical and mental health.
In this article, we’ll explore why we react to life with stress, how stress and anxiety can harm us over the long run, and what we can do about it. This article’s focus will be on several herbal remedies that have been used for thousands of years for their ability to calm the body and mind, relieving us of the burden of stress in our lives.
How Stress Works
Stress is a general bodily response to any outside demand placed on it. We are constantly under pressure, with life events, social situations, even coping with our self-concept, all eliciting a stress response.
The stress response begins in the brain. Several brain regions, which contain stress hormone receptors, release specific chemicals that have two primary purposes: raising our blood sugar, and ramping up our cardiovascular response, delivering a rush of blood to our muscles.
This immediate response is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ phenomenon, an evolutionary advantage that allowed us to survive against predators and other threats in the early days of humanity. Stress can be a positive thing in threatening situations, enhancing our alertness and ability to respond.
We begin experiencing stress early in life. A wide range of stressors, including illness, pain or injury, deprivation, and even the birth of a sibling, all shape our ability to cope with stress during childhood.
Psychological stress is unique to the general stress response of the body in that it has more to do with our behaviors and perceptions of events than the stimulus itself. For example, we may become overwhelmed at work, feeling as though the demands placed upon us are beyond our control and ability to cope.
We all know what it’s like to have a stressful day, and most people have dealt with some degree of fear and anxiety that can be caused by stress. But what happens when the stressful days start to outnumber the stress-free ones.
The Health Risks of Chronic Stress
The long term health effects of stress have been extensively studied over time, with many clinical trials on anxiety and other stress-related conditions. Because stress elicits responses from so many body systems – the neural, cardiovascular, autonomic, immune, and metabolic, to name a few – chronic stress can exacerbate dysfunction in any of these same systems.
To this end, stress has a role in many major diseases, including clinical depression, cardiovascular disease, even some cancers. Job stress – by far, the primary culprit of stress for adults – has been associated with increased instances of heart attacks, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and addiction.
Concerning addiction, stress exposure is a well-known risk factor of substance abuse, both in initial drug-seeking behavior and vulnerability to relapse. This behavioral response to chronic stress, in addition to many other lifestyle behaviors – such as smoking, overeating, drinking, and physical inactivity – is called allostatic overload.
In the brain, long term stress leads to chronic elevations of chemicals, damaging brain structures, with harmful consequences for memory and cognition.
Ironically, this section may have just added to your stress levels. Well, we’re about to fix that by exploring the benefits of alleviating stress in a healthy, natural way.
Managing Stress Naturally
For those looking for alternatives to pharmaceutical therapy for dealing with stress, more holistic approaches include exercise, social support, and the focus of this article, herbal remedies for stress derived from medicinal plants.
Around 80% of people worldwide use herbal medicine, with the adoption of these alternative remedies snowballing in the U.S. in recent years. This article’s products are a few of the best natural herbs for anxiety, stress relief, and other ailments.
But why use relaxing herbs as opposed to their synthetic counterparts? For starters, herbs are less likely to cause side effects than most pharmaceutical options. These milder and less frequent side effects may result from the compatibility of the plant constituents and the chemistry of the body.
Herbs that help with anxiety and stress also work more gradually and holistically than Western drugs, which are instead often isolated into single active ingredients, and targeted to individual symptoms rather than overall wellness.
The active agents in the herbs in this article are known as adaptogens. These compounds reduce the stress caused by psychological, emotional, pathological, and environmental factors.
With a little more knowledge about how these natural remedies for stress work, here are some of the best options to start with if you’re interested in trying some herbal solutions for your stress or anxiety.
8 of the Best Natural Herbs for Stress
Lavender grows in many temperate climates worldwide and has long been used in folk medicine, with much empirical evidence of its effects on improving mood, reducing anxiety and mental stress, and aiding in sedation and better quality sleep.
Lavender is thought to dampen the nervous system’s response to stress by acting on the amygdala and the hippocampus via the limbic system of the body.
You can use the essential oil of lavender in many ways to achieve these therapeutic effects. From adding lavender oil to a bath, which has been shown to increase relaxation and cause a deep sleep afterward, to air diffusion or even rubbing the oil directly into your hands or temples.
The lemon balm is a member of the mint family, native to southern Europe, the Mediterranean, and central Asia. Lemon balm has been historically used to improve mood and cognitive function.
This mild sedative and calming agent can increase cognitive processing, alertness, and your overall feeling of calmness. Studies have examined positive effects with doses from 300-600 milligrams.
Lemon balm comes in many forms, from essential oil, to capsule, coated tablet, topical, and tea.
Passionflower grows natively in Mexico and South America and is a traditional folk remedy for anxiety. Also a mild form of sedative, passionflower is often used in combination with other herbs and has been deemed safe by various studies.
Passionflower has been shown to have advantages over prescription drugs such as oxazepam. It provides the same calmative effects on anxiety, without the detrimental effects to job performance experienced by those who took oxazepam.
Overall, passionflower is a great herb, both in isolation and in combination with other herbs, for improving resilience and quality of life in those suffering from stress and anxiety.
The recommended dose of passionflower is 100-200 milligrams per day; it comes in dried, capsule, tea, and other forms.
Ashwagandha is a plant found in south and central Asia as well as Africa. It has long been used in ancient Hindu medicine, Ayurveda, for promoting vigor, enhancing strength, endurance, and health.
Ashwagandha has a moderating effect on the portion of the brain that controls our release of adrenaline. Through this mechanism, the herb can relieve stress and optimize wellbeing.
Further, the antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective effects of Ashwagandha have been found in various studies. It also helps anxiety by lowering the heart rate and blood pressure in chronically stressed individuals.
Another health bonus of this herb is that it can help manage body weight in adults with chronic stress.
This nerve-calming herb is revered in Ayurvedic medicine for its many healing properties. Dosages administered in many studies of Ashwagandha have been anywhere from 300-500 milligrams of standardized extract.
Chamomile grows naturally in 26 different countries and is one of the most commonly used herbal remedies globally. Chamomile has been used in many studies to treat generalized anxiety disorder, with significant reductions in anxiety symptoms compared to placebo groups.
Chamomile is often used in tea and oil forms for its relaxing, calming effects. Research suggests that the flavonoids and other plant constituents act on stress receptors in the brain, dulling the stress reaction.
Chamomile is also an excellent choice to treat stress, anxiety, and even depression because it is better tolerated than many prescription drugs used for these conditions, with minimal side effects.
Chamomile is most often consumed as a tea, although it does come in other forms such as topical creams and gels and most of the other common herbal supplement forms.
The Kava herb grows natively in the south Pacific Islands and is a member of the plants’ pepper family. Kava has been used since ancient times in social and ceremonial capacities in the Pacific Islands, with many potent soporific and narcotic effects.
Kava is becoming a prevalent short-term stress and anxiety reliever in the U.S., becoming well-known as a solution for stressors like performance anxiety and fear of flying.
Kava has muscle relaxing properties, making it great for treating tension-related pain such as headaches or back pain. This reduction of physiological reactivity is part of what helps make Kava useful in stressful situations.
Try Kava if you experience symptoms of nervous tension or restlessness. Standard dosages recommended by the American Botanical Council range from 60-120 milligrams of Kava per day for a safe and effective result.
Holy Basil is another herb that is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine. This plant is native to southwest Asia and is also known as the ‘Queen of Herbs’ or ‘Tulsi’ in India. Not to be confused with the pesto variety of basil that goes in your cooking!
Holy Basil contains hundreds of phytochemicals, beneficial substances that possess powerful antibacterial, antiviral, and adaptogenic qualities. These boost health and strengthen our defense against stress and other ailments.
The extract from the leaves of Holy Basil also protects the nerves, enhances cognitive function, and combats fatigue, in addition to its calming and relaxing effects.
Three hundred milligram capsules have been used in the research to provide the benefits mentioned above; however, Holy Basil comes in a range of forms, and dosages vary.
Cannabidiol, or CBD oil, has gained a massive surge in popularity in recent years. A naturally occurring part of the cannabis plant, CBD has many medicinal benefits, including calming, anti-inflammatory, and relaxing properties.
CBD also has cardiovascular benefits, including reducing blood pressure – both at rest and in response to stress. Other therapeutic properties include anticonvulsant, anxiolytic, anti-nausea, and antipsychotic, giving this herb many qualities that contribute to its ability to treat anxiety, pain, and stress.
Coming in various forms, the most popular is the many brands of drops being released on the market today. Recommended dosage will vary depending on several factors.
This leads us to the final section, which will explain some of the possible risks associated with using herbal remedies and the necessary precautions which should be taken to ensure that you are using any of these products most safely and effectively possible.
Risks and Precautions for Using Herbs for Stress
One issue with the exploding popularity of natural herb products is that people assume they are safe or don’t count them in the same category as medications. This is concerning as almost one in five prescription drug users are also taking supplements; these products can interact with each other in the body, having undesired consequences if not handled properly.
Another issue is that people often see the words’ natural’ or ‘herbal’ on products and assume they are safe. Keep in mind that supplements are not regulated in the same way as drugs by the FDA. Many companies produce these products, with a considerable variation in quality out there.
With these things in mind, here are some general guidelines to follow when using herbal medicines.
Inform your doctor of your history if using herbal (and other) supplements. Your doctor will be able to use your medical history and any other medications you’re taking to inform which herbal products may be useful and safe for your needs.
Herbal treatments may not be appropriate for different higher risk groups, including children, pregnant women, and others. Again, if you’re not sure, seek professional counsel before proceeding.
Finally, if you experience any adverse effects whatsoever when taking herbal supplements, record the symptoms, dosage of the product, and contact your doctor for advice if symptoms persist.
We hope this article has helped explain the importance of dealing with stress and anxiety in our lives and how some of these common herbal remedies may help. Remember to be safe, get professional advice, and incorporate these herbs alongside other healthy lifestyle choices, including nutrition, exercise, and good sleep habits.
Let us know your favorite herbs to use for stress in the comments below!
Jesse Hyson is an accredited exercise and sports scientist. He is currently completing clinical residency for a Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology at Charles Sturt University, Australia.