Many people view anxiety as an illness, but it may be helpful to realize it’s a normal human emotion in response to fear or stress.
And rather than turning to drugs to chill out, several herbal supplements have been studied as safe, natural alternatives to help manage symptoms and anxious feelings.
It’s normal to experience bouts of nerves or anxiety, say when trying to meet a major deadline for school or work, dealing with job loss or even speaking in public or meeting a new date. It becomes a problem when it interferes with life in the absence of real threat, or goes on too long after the danger has past. Chronic anxiety can be exhausting and debilitating and makes it hard for a person to cope with daily life.
Anxiety triggers physical reactions in the body, as well as irrational fears and excessive worry, caused by real or perceived stress, worry, nervousness or unease. Some of those symptoms include insomnia and sleep problems, chronic digestive problems, breathing problems, racing heart, chest pains, feeling sick or shaking, sweating, muscle tension, obsessive thinking, perfectionism, compulsive behaviors and excessive, negative ruminating thoughts.
Many people turn to pharmaceuticals to relieve symptoms, but it doesn’t address the cause of anxiety or how to cope with it on an ongoing basis.
There are many safe, natural alternatives for anxiety, from mind-body techniques to herbal supplements and calming teas. Before popping a pill that could lead to addiction, try these herbal alternatives to help beat anxiety:
Chamomile: Some compounds in chamomile (Matricaria recutita) bind to the same brain receptors as drugs like Valium. Sip some soothing chamomile tea, try a relaxing bath with chamomile essential oil or you can even take it in supplement form. In one study at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) who took chamomile supplements for eight weeks had a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms compared to patients taking placebo.
GABA: The supplement GABA, sold online and at health food stores, may help calm anxious people. Remember, benzos act on GABA receptors in the brain. Short for gamma-aminobutyic acid, GABA is a brain transmitter that counteracts the action of another neurotransmitter, glutamate, which increases your excitability. Researchers found individuals who ate chocolate enriched with GABA before doing an arithmetic assignment were less stressed after they finished than those who didn’t eat the GABA chocolate.
Ginkgo: This herb is often used for memory disorders, thinking disorders, and conditions that seem to be due to reduced blood flow in the brain, including memory loss, difficulty concentrating and mood disturbances. Ginkgo biloba is one of the longest living tree species in the world and its medicinal uses date back to BC times. Ginkgo interacts with many medicines, so talk to your health care provider.
Kava: A plant native to the South Pacific, kava has been used for thousands of years by natives. It acts on brain and other parts of the central nervous system. The kava root is used for medicine, often to calm anxiety, stress, depression, migraines, feelings of restlessness and sleep problems. Studies have found it to be a promising option for anxiety. However, there are some major safety concerns with kava, ranging from liver disease to death, so consult your doctor before using it.
Lavender: This popular herb and essential oil is often touted for its calming effects. Research shows the scent lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and may act as an emotional anti-inflammatory. In one study, Greek dental patients had less anxiety if the waiting room was scented with lavender oil. In another German study, a specially formulated lavender pill (not available in the U.S.) was shown to reduce anxiety symptoms in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as effectively as lorazepam, an anti-anxiety medication in the same class as Valium.
L-theanine or green tea: Green tea has been widely studied for its antioxidant and health benefits. L-theanine is an amino acid in green tea. Research shows L-theanine helps curb a rising heart rate and blood pressure, and a few small human studies have found that it reduces anxiety. In one study, anxiety-prone subjects were calmer and more focused during a test if they took 200 milligrams of L-theanine beforehand.
Lemon balm: This herb has been used since the Middle Ages to reduce stress, anxiety and help with sleep. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is sold as a tea, capsule or tincture and often combined with other calming herbs. In one study of healthy volunteers, those who took standardized lemon balm extracts (600 mg) were more calm and alert than those who took a placebo. However, some studies have found that taking too much can increase anxiousness so follow directions and start with the lowest dose.
Melatonin: A hormone found naturally in the body, melatonin as a supplement is made synthetically in a laboratory. Melatonin helps to adjust the body’s internal clock and regulate sleep-wake cycles. Insomnia and irregular sleep often accompany anxiety, so melatonin many help restore regular sleep. Some people who have trouble sleeping have low levels of melatonin. It is also used to calm people before they are given anesthesia for surgery, as a sleep aid after discontinuing the use of benzodiazepine drugs and to reduce the side effects of stopping smoking.
Passionflower: Approved by the German government for nervous restlessness, this herb is a sedative and often used for insomnia. There have been a few small clinical trials which suggest that that it might help reduce symptoms of anxiety as effectively as prescription drugs. It can cause sleepiness and drowsiness and should not be used longer than a month at a time.
Valerian: This herbal supplement has a sedative effect and is often used as a sleep aid for insomnia. In some studies, people who used valerian reported less anxiety and stress. It contains sedative compounds, often combined with other sedative herbs such as hops, chamomile and lemon balm. Valerian has been used for centuries to improve sleep quality without feeling groggy the next day, yet it can cause some side effects such as headaches and drowsiness. The German government has approved it as a treatment for sleep problems. Most people take it as a capsule or tincture, rather than a tea. Valerian may shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and help you stay asleep longer.
Don’t take sedative herbs when you are also taking a prescription sedative without talking to your doctor. Be careful about using more than one sedative herb at a time. This information is educational in nature and not intended to replace medical advice. Before trying any herbal supplement, consult your physician. Some herbal remedies can cause dangerous interactions with medications.