When you’re struggling with anxiety, everyday life can feel overwhelming and difficult. When you’re in the midst of it, it can be hard to figure out the best way to start feeling better.
There are wonderful and safe prescription medications that can help you cope with anxiety—including prescription drugs like benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—but some people prefer to look for herbal or “natural” options for treating their anxiety and panic attacks.
This can be due to a variety of reasons, both founded and unfounded, including fear of side effects, addiction, and stigma.
There are a variety of herbs and supplements that can reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Some botanical and herbal treatments have been well-studied and have hundreds of years of use across different cultures. Others have very little research into their safety and efficacy.
Since it can be difficult to tell which herbs and natural remedies are actually safe and effective, and since the FDA does not regulate these products to ensure their safety or that they contain the ingredient they advertise, it is important to discuss any supplements with your healthcare provider.
In this article, I’ll discuss what anxiety is, and which herbal supplements are best for alleviating anxiety symptoms.
What Is Anxiety?
Feeling anxious from time to time when faced with a stressful situation is normal.
Usually, anxiety usually presents itself when you’re faced with a challenge or trying situation, then improves when the challenge gets resolved.
For instance, you may experience anxiety when planning a surprise party or on a flight with turbulence, but the moment the guest of honor walks in or the flight becomes smooth, those feelings go away.
Common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Negative or fearful thoughts about the future
- Racing heartbeat
- Feeling like you are always in danger
- Feeling nervous or tense
- Difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep
- Rapid breathing
- An urge to avoid situations that provoke anxiety
- Trouble controlling worry
Anxiety becomes a problem when it feels either unbearable or constant, occurs with no trigger, and does not improve when you are out of a stressful situation.
When this occurs, you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are typically accompanied by frequent feelings of fear, worry, or distress.
To determine whether you suffer from a disorder, your anxiety must check off two criteria: first, your nervousness is out of proportion to your current situation, and second, it is interfering with your everyday life.
Many treatment options for anxiety can help you calm your symptoms and live life more fully.
When you seek medical help, a provider may prescribe medication for anxiety, and may suggest natural remedies and lifestyle measures.
Helpful non-medication treatment options include: psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) workbooks or worksheets, joining a support group, meditation, exercise, mindfulness and breathing exercises, and journaling.
What Are The Best Herbs for Anxiety?
There are a variety of herbs and supplements commonly used to help relieve anxiety-related symptoms, some of which have been used for centuries.
Below, we explain a little about 10 of the most popular: passionflower, lavender, ashwagandha, kava, lemon balm, valerian, St. John’s wort, cannabidiol, galphimia glauca, and hops.
In each section, we’ll describe what the herb is, how it’s used, how it can help to increase the well-being of those with anxiety (including any major scientific studies), and potential side effects and cautions.
Like medication, finding the right herb or supplement for you can take some time and trial and error. It is also important to know that because these supplements are not regulated by the FDA, they may not always contain the advertised ingredient or dose.
For this reason, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional who can help you make an anxiety plan of action, and ensure a supplement will not interact with anything else you are taking.
Passionflower, or Passiflora incarnata (sometimes referred to as maypop, apricot vine, maracuja, or water lemon), is a species of climbing vine native to the southeastern United States, and Central and South America.
Native Americans used passionflower as a sedative, as well as to heal various other ailments. Some small studies demonstrate passionflower can aid with insomnia and calming anxiety.
Passionflower can be taken in tablet form, in a tea, or as a liquid tincture. Studies of mice suggest that passionflower can increase the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain—a compound which can lower brain activity.
This decrease in brain activity could help put the mind at ease, helping those with anxiety relax and slow restless thoughts.
This can potentially be helpful as an alternative to sedating medications like benzodiazepines, which can be habit-forming, and come with a risk of serious side effects.
While the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says that passionflower’s effect on anxiety has not been extensively studied, they do feel that it is safe to use as long as it is not taken excessively.
The NNCIH suggests that pregnant women do not use passionflower, and note that it can cause drowsiness, confusion, and uncoordinated movement (ataxia) in some users.
Known for its soothing qualities, lavender, or Lavandula angustifolia, is one of the most popular aromatherapy herbs, with some studies suggesting that the fragrant, purple flower’s active ingredients can help alleviate stress and anxiety and boost one’s mood.
Lavender can be taken orally by making tea from its leaves, or in supplement form. Note that oral effects of lavender have not been fully studied. Many use its essential oil for aromatherapy, dropping it in a bath or using it for massage.
Lavender essential oil contains two terpenes called linalool and linalyl acetate, which both can have a calming effect on the chemical receptors in the brain. When inhaled, these terpenes may help with overall relaxation.
The NCCIH currently indicates that they do not have enough high-quality research needed to make definitive statements about lavender’s effectiveness or safety for treating anxiety.
While they believe that using it for aromatherapy purposes is safe, they warn that ingesting it can cause side effects such as constipation, headaches, increased appetite, and drowsiness when combined with other sedatives.
Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, is an herb that has long been used to help treat anxiety, with roots in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine.
Ashwagandha belongs to the group of herbs known as adaptogens. Adaptogens can help treat anxiety by impacting the systems and hormones in the body that regulate one’s stress response, and ashwagandha is thought to help reduce cortisol, one of the main stress hormones in the body.
Studies have shown that ashwagandha can significantly reduce stress levels when ingested, and can have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
Ashwagandha can be taken as a tablet or tincture, and is a common supplement in “health food” beverages.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests that ashwagandha only be taken for periods up to three months, as long-term safety is still unknown.
When taken in large doses, side effects of ashwagandha can include upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Kava, or Piper methysticum (sometimes referred to as kava kava), is a type of evergreen shrub native to the Pacific Islands whose roots have been used for many years as an herbal remedy for anxiety.
Studied more extensively than other herbs on the list, kava is often taken as a supplement by those suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), as some studies show that it can help reduce stress when used as a short-term treatment.
The results with kava are not overwhelming, though, compared with placebo.
Kava does carry a risk for a serious and dangerous side effect. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and NCCIH both indicate that kava has been linked to a risk of severe liver damage.
Other side effects of kava include upset stomach, headache, dizziness, and the inability to operate a motor vehicle.
Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, a member of the mint family with a lemony smell, is another herb that is known to reduce feelings of nervousness and irritability and help improve sleep.
Though it is not medically approved by the FDA, lemon balm is available as a supplement in liquid tincture and tablet form, as well as in tea.
The extract and oil of the plant is also sometimes used in salves and in rollerballs. Studies show that short-term use is generally safe, though side effects can include nausea and abdominal pain. Long-term use is not recommended.
Valerian, or Valeriana officinalis, is a plant native to Europe and Asia whose roots and underground stems have been used for centuries to help quell symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, depression, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopause symptoms, and headaches.
Most often taken as a tea, tablet, or liquid tincture, valerian contains active compounds that have sedative effects, according to studies.
Electroencephalography (EEG) results show that the compounds in valerian cause changes to areas in the brain related to stress and anxiety.
Currently, the FDA has not approved valerian for medicinal purposes, stating that there have not been enough long-term trials to determine its safety when taken for extended periods of time.
The NCCIH suggests that it is generally safe for short-term use by most adults, though side effects can include headaches, dizziness, and drowsiness.
St. John’s wort
Though most commonly used to treat depression, St. John’s wort, or Hypericum perforatum, is currently being studied for its potential effectiveness for those who suffer from anxiety, as well.
A yellow plant native to Europe which looks similar to a daffodil, St. John’s wort is most often taken in tablet or capsule form, and has been used as an herbal supplement for those struggling with their mental health for many years.
Though human studies are slim, studies on rats have shown that St. John’s wort can help decrease stress hormones in the body. That said, it is rarely used in place of conventional treatment, as it has a variety of side effects that need to be taken into consideration.
Side effects of using St. John’s wort can include upset stomach, dry mouth, headache, fatigue, dizziness, sensitivity to light, confusion, and sexual dysfunction.
One of the biggest risks of taking St. John’s wort, however, is that it can interact with other medications you may be taking, which can be fatal.
The FDA does not approve using St. John’s wort medicinally.
The organization also warns that those taking certain standard medications including birth control pills, HIV-AIDS medications, blood thinners, chemotherapy and more, should not ingest St. John’s wort, as it can decrease their efficacy or stop them from working altogether.
St. John’s wort can therefore have adverse effects for some with mental health problems, as it can stop other prescribed medications, like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, from working properly, or can increase their risk for serious side effects.
For this reason, St. John’s wort is not recommended in place of more standard mental health treatment, and is not suggested for those on other medications or with other medical conditions.
Chances are you’ve already heard of cannabidiol, better known as CBD, which has grown in popularity in recent years.
It can be found on the market in food and drinks, beauty and wellness products, as well as in tinctures, patches, tablets and vape cartridges.
CBD is not marijuana (which contains the psychoactive compound THC, which gives users a “high”)—but is derived from the cannabis plant.
Studies show that CBD, which is not psychoactive, can have a calming effect on the central nervous system, making it ideal for those suffering from anxiety.
Currently, only one CBD drug is FDA approved for medicinal use (Epidiolex, which is used in the treatment of seizures), but products containing CBD can be legal, depending on your state.
The NCCIH states that CBD use is generally safe for most adults, but can cause side effects such as diarrhea, sleepiness, and liver problems.
Galphimia glauca, often referred to as simply galphimia or Golden Thryallis, is a flowering shrub native to Mexico which has been used in Latin American communities for many generations for anxiety.
Studies suggest that the extract from the galphimia glauca plant can help reduce anxiety by modulating the serotonin neurotransmitters in the brain.
A 2012 study on galphimia glauca use in people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) found that participants who received a daily dose of galphimia glauca actually showed a greater reduction in GAD symptoms than those who received a daily dose of lorazepam, a common anti-anxiety prescription medication.
Like most medicinal herbs, galphimia glauca also comes with potential side effects, including fatigue and dry mouth.
There is also concern that it can interact with other medications in the body, but research is limited.
If you’re a beer connoisseur, you’ve likely heard of this next herb: hops, or Humulus lupulus, are a common herb with active compounds that have been reported to have sedating properties for those with anxiety when consumed.
Studies have shown that, when taken as an extract supplement, hops can help significantly decrease scores of stress, anxiety, and depression in those suffering by reducing restlessness, irritability, nervousness, and tension.
Though research is limited, it has been suggested that hops work similarly to the hormone estrogen in the body.
Hops are seen as generally safe for medicinal purposes, but it is recommended that the herb only be used short term, as long-term use has not been evaluated for anxiety. Side effects can include dizziness and sleepiness.
How Can K Health Help?
Stress and anxiety are among the most under-reported and under-treated diseases in America.
Nearly 20% of adults in the US suffer from mental health illness and fewer than half receive treatment. Our mission is to increase access to treatment for those suffering in silence.
You can start controlling your stress and anxiety and get access to the treatment you need with K Health. Starting at $12/month get prescriptions for mental health medications plus unlimited provider visits through the K Health app. Start your free assessment here.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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