Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, anxiety and stress levels have reached all-time highs in the United States. In New York City, the number of prescriptions for anti-depressants have increased 20 percent since the attacks. Many consumers are heading to the nearest natural products store in search of alternatives to these prescription drugs fraught with acute side effects.
Luckily, there are many. Just as no two people are alike, no two herbs are identical in their effects. There are several classes of herbs that can help with a range of symptoms including anxiety, sleeplessness and daily stress. These include adaptogens, nervines, sedatives and anxiolytics. Although a single herb can easily fall into several of these categories—passion flower, for example, is widely used for both its sedative and anti-anxiety properties—the category list that follows offers a guide to some of the most common uses of these herbs. Adaptogens are the exception; they actually help the body resist stress, rather than simply helping to alleviate symptoms. Retailers can also recommend supplements for reducing stress and anxiety.
David Winston, herbalist for Herbalist and Alchemist in Broadway, N.J., suggests adaptogens to help the body deal with long-term stress. "Herbs for stress are mostly, though not entirely, different than anti-anxiety herbs," he says. "For the average American who is working 50 hours a week and being stretched too thin, the first category to use would be adaptogens."
As the name implies, adaptogens work by helping the body adapt and balance during stressful periods. "Very simply, what adaptogens do is help to balance the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis," Winston says. "They help people become more resistant to stress, and help reduce cortisol and circulating adrenal levels."
Rhodiola, or arctic rose root, is one of Winston's first choices. "It's a cooling adaptogen, while most adaptogens are warming," he says. Which adaptogen works best depends on the person, but rhodiola would be recommended for those who find that stress often leads to outbursts of anger.
Certain types of ginseng can also be useful as adaptogens. "Siberian ginseng would be one of the better choices because it doesn't tend to overstimulate like Chinese ginseng," Winston says. American ginseng is also useful, but Winston suggests finding organic woods-grown ginseng, rather than wild-crafted ginseng because demand has greatly reduced the amount of wild American ginseng.
Winston generally recommends combining an adaptogen with a nervine. "To me, a nervine is an herb that helps normalize nerve function," he says. There is a wide range of gentle nervines available.
"Chamomile, fresh oat extract, linden flower and lemon balm are all recommended," Winston says. "Lavender helps increase sleep very nicely. Hawthorn and St. John's wort are also nervines."
Brigitte Mars, a Boulder-Colo.-based herbalist and author of Addiction Free Naturally (Healing Arts Press, 2001), also recommends many of these herbs. "Chamomile is a gentle herbal ally [for anxiety]," she says. "Lavender helps to lift the spirits and is calming and very mild. Catnip also goes on the list; it calms central nervous system activity and restlessness."
One of Mars' favorite nervines is oat straw extract, which is related to fresh oat extract but comes from a different part of the plant. "Oat straw is rich in trace minerals, including calcium and silica," Mars says. "In both Europe and Asia, it's widely used to help with the stress of giving up addictions. It's also nerve-nourishing and supports people through difficult times." Finally, Mars recommends hops, which is a bitter herb best used in tincture form rather than in teas.
Nervines and sedative herbs provide similar effects. Some sedative herbs also function as nervines, but generally have a stronger effect than herbs such as chamomile and lavender, for example.
One well-studied and widely recommended sedative herb is passion flower. "Passion flower has a traditional use for worry and insomnia," Mars says. "According to research, it slows the breakdown of calming neurotransmitters so they survive longer."
Winston also finds passion flower useful for specific conditions. "Passion flower is great for people who can't shut their heads off [when they attempt to sleep]," he says. "I recommend it for people with internal chatter, like a radio going on in their heads."
Sometimes stress and anxiety manifest in specific ways, such as nervous tics. "For something like restless leg syndrome, I might use skullcap," Winston says. "The specific indications for skullcap include tremors, palsies, nerve tics, tremors, et cetera. It happens to work well for that."
Mars' also recommends this herb. "Skullcap is really rich in magnesium and calcium," she says. "It has been used throughout history for fear, pain and muscle spasms. It's considered a tonic for the nervous system, and is believed by some people to help rebuild the nerve sheaths."
Valerian is also widely used for sleep disorders associated with stress.
Anxiolytics, or herbs with specific anxiety-reducing qualities, can also help with specific symptoms. Anxiety often arises as a response mechanism to long-term stress, so it's important to look at underlying causes of anxiety as well as searching for immediate relief of symptoms. "For anxiety," Winston says, "my favorite combination is motherwort and blue vervain—two parts motherwort to one part blue vervain. It works well for mild anxiety. For something stronger, I'd include one part California poppy, and I might add nervines as well." He also uses pulsatilla in his practice, but says that herb dosage should be determined by a practicing herbalist because the wrong dose can be toxic: "You don't want lay people messing with that one."
Ed Smith, founder and chairman of HerbPharm in Williams, Ore., prefers skullcap for anxiety. "I would definitely recommend skullcap above all else," he says. "Skullcap works really well with anxiety, anger, frustration and things of that sort. With sustained use, it can be helpful when the nervous system has been stressed for a long period of time."
A number of supplements have been shown to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress. Magnesium and calcium are both crucial in supporting the proper nervous system function. "If your body is depleted of magnesium," says Leandra Even, N.D., a practicing naturopath in Las Vegas, "it facilitates a poor response to stress." This depletion can lead to irritability, nervousness and lack of concentration.
"When I think of stress in a clinical setting," Even says, "my primary focus of concern is adrenal status. Ascorbic acid, magnesium and pantothenic acid [vitamin B5] are depleted when the adrenals are under stress. I would recommend a combination vitamin B product because the B vitamins are so important to nervous system function." Because B vitamins are water-soluble, they don't stay in the body long, so daily supplementation is especially important.
Another more recent discovery is L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea. For years, researchers wondered why green tea had a calming effect in spite of its relatively high caffeine levels. L-Theanine is the answer. Scott Smith, senior manager for Minneapolis-based Taiyo, says L-theanine is a proven relaxing and calming agent.
"This is not a green tea extract," Smith says. "We actually synthesize it to make a pure L-theanine. It's a pure amino acid, which is crucial for getting the benefits without the stability and flavor issues of an extract." The product is sold under the brand name Suntheanine. Smith says one of the benefits is that the product will only work when you need it: "If you're already calm and relaxed, you'll feel little to no effect. And it won't bring you past a calm and relaxed state into drowsiness."
No Magic Bullet
Both Mars and Winston say that, if a person is feeling long-term stress and anxiety, it's important to examine the underlying causes, and not simply treat the symptoms.
"It's important to ask, 'Why am I so anxious?'" Mars says. "Are you eating a lot of sugar? Are you deficient in calcium or magnesium? Maybe you should cut back on caffeine, or try yoga or meditation. You don't want to use herbs as a Band-Aid. If you use an herb [to treat symptoms] and continue living your unhealthy life, that doesn't make any sense; make your life better."
Although there are many single herbs and herbal blends that can effectively treat stress and anxiety, retailers should recommend that customers consult with an herbalist. "You don't treat anxiety, you treat the person who happens to be anxious," Winston says. "If five people are all anxious, they may get five different things. This makes it harder to put [products] in the marketplace, but it's good herbal practice."
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 42, 44, 48