Do Herbal Remedies Work for Anxiety? 5 Most Common Questions

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Sometimes, life is tough.  Everyday stresses, trauma, incidents, accidents, or underlying health conditions can result in anxiety symptoms. 

Sometimes, the symptoms are short-lived and resolve as life gets back on an even keel.  Other times, those symptoms benefit from intervention – therapy, counseling, and medication.

Herbal remedies offer an option for complementing the management of anxiety symptoms.  In this article, we’ll address five of the most asked questions about herbal remedies and anxiety.

Before we start answering questions, here’s a practical check-in on the face of anxiety and why it’s so important to understand the support options available.

What Does Anxiety Look Like?

Anxiety can be something of a catchphrase for a very acute (short-term) symptom of stressors to a diagnosed mental health disorder.  With that, symptoms can vary widely.  In general terms, anxiety might feel like:

  • being overwhelmed by everyday tasks and events – everything is just too hard
  • persistent worry or intrusive thoughts
  • restlessness or a sense of being on edge
  • difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • irritability and crankiness
  • muscle tension
  • sleep disturbance – monkey mind, insomnia, broken sleep

Some of the more common physical symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • change in appetite
  • heart palpitations
  • social withdrawal
  • substance misuse

Once symptoms become chronic or interfere with day-to-day life, it’s time to have the right supports in place.  Left untreated, anxiety can have devastating physical and psychological impacts.

FAQ 1. What’s the History of Herbal Remedies?

There’s evidence of the use of herbal remedies being trusted and used as far back as 3000 B.C. in China and ancient Egypt. These civilizations employed their best science to treat and heal the ailments of everyday life. And some of those ancient treatments have stood the test of time. They’re the ones that are with us today.

Be aware, that because it’s an old remedy, does not qualify it as effective or helpful.  There are probably very good reasons why we no longer use lion’s ear, swallow gizzards, hair from between a bear’s ears (I kid you not), unicorn hoofs (good luck with that one), or snail poultices to repair and maintain good health.

But other remedies have persisted.  They’ve woven their way through time and across cultures, each adding to the collective knowledge and application of our plant-based pharmacy.  From a re-discovery and resurgence in the 1960’s, these herbs and remedies are now commonplace in health food stores and on pharmacy shelves.

And for those remedies, the world of science is turning more and more towards them, understanding and proving their potential and value.

FAQ 2. Is There Any Evidence That They Work?

There is a good reason why herbal remedies for anxiety and stress symptoms are the focus of ongoing research.  Herbal remedies use the same range of neurotransmitter pathways as common synthetic medicines. Often with fewer side effects. 

There’s a growing body of empirical evidence demonstrating that certain herbs, such as Valerian Root, Chamomile, Kava, Ashwagandha, and Lavender, possess properties that may help alleviate anxiety and stress as well as many synthetic formulations.  

I have to say that when I think of Lavender, I think of old ladies. But getting past that bias, Lavender has been used in Western society since medieval times as an anti-biotic, ant-fungal, preservative, and curative of emotional disturbance.  If you get a waft of Lavender when you next visit the dentist, it’s not an accident.  Trials have shown it to be effective in calming patient nerves. A meta-analysis (where many scientific studies are compared) published in Science Direct found that Lavender oil could be effective in reducing anxiety levels.

Similarly, a review of Chamomile research found that in the majority of studies, there was a reduction in anxiety symptoms and study participants reported improved sleep quality after 2 – 4 weeks.  However, it’s crucial to note that while these findings are promising, the body of evidence varies greatly in terms of quality. More rigorous, large-scale studies are needed to draw conclusive benefits.

What’s super-interesting is the biochemistry of it all – our growing understanding of the chemical pathways of these herbs and the very targeted way in which they affect brain function.  This becomes vital information when considering using a herbal remedy to help manage anxiety symptoms.

FAQ 3. How Are Herbal Remedies Used in Mainstream Health?

“Synthetic anxiolytic drugs are effective for treating anxiety, but they are burdened with adverse effects. Constraints on resources and time often render therapies such as psychologic interventions impracticable. Thus, an effective oral medication with few adverse effects would be a welcome addition to the therapeutic repertoire” (Pittler, Ernst, 2000)

Over the years, there’s been a noticeable shift towards integrating herbal remedies into mainstream health practices.  This is often referred to as complementary or integrative medicine. This approach combines traditional and alternative therapies to address health issues, including stress and anxiety.

Today, it’s common to find herbal supplements readily available in pharmacies and health food stores, with some healthcare providers even recommending them as the core of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Some countries, such as China and India, have a long-established practice of seamlessly weaving traditional and modern approaches. Think Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic Medicine.

FAQ 4. How Do Prescription Medications and Herbals Compare?

Like prescription medicines, when they’re matched with an understanding of symptoms, causes, and activation pathways, herbal remedies should be on the list of options.

Unlike prescription medicines, you and I can easily self-diagnose and self-select a herbal remedy without really understanding the quality, how it works, how well it is suited to our condition, and what dosage will be effective. This can result in wasted money and no positive gain.

Prescription medications, such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), are widely studied and have a known efficacy rate and side effect profile. Side effects of many synthetic drug treatments have a significant downside. Dependency and tolerance are not uncommon.

Herbal remedies often work more gently and with fewer side effects. Unlike their synthetic cousins, herbals have fewer dependency and tolerance issues.

Synthetics have been trialed in labs with animals and humans using control studies. Drug interactions are usually well-researched before they are approved for use.

While they’ve been used to treat humans for millennia, there are fewer clinical trials and studies and far more anecdotal data. Interactions, especially with synthetics may not be well understood.

Prescription medicines are produced in controlled environments, so there is confidence in the consistency of quality and strength.

More and more, remedies are being produced commercially to a standard where users can be confident in quality and potency.

Just remember, herbal remedies’ efficacy is really a matter of ‘horses for courses’. Some conditions don’t respond to herbals. Another consideration is the time it takes for herbals to effect change; while some prescription medications may offer quicker relief with effects achieved within a month, herbal remedies often require consistent use over weeks or up to 3 months to gain full benefits.

FAQ 5. What About Toxicity, Dependence, and Other Factors?

When exploring the use of herbal remedies for anxiety and stress, it’s important to consider potential risks such as toxicity, drug interactions, and dependence. While generally considered safe when used appropriately, some herbs can interact with prescription medications or cause adverse effects at high doses.

There is always the risk of underestimating the potency and effect of a herbal remedy. Never assume that because it’s plant-based it’s safe to use in any dose.

Dependence is less commonly associated with herbal remedies. Certain prescription anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, are well-known for their addictive nature.

The risk of toxicity, though relatively low, exists, particularly with improper dosages or the use of unverified products. It’s crucial to source herbal supplements from reputable suppliers and consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new treatment, especially if you are already taking other medications.

Last Thoughts

Anxiety is a normal stress reaction. Mild levels of short-term anxiety can sometimes be useful to us. It’s that ‘instinct’ that tunes us into potential danger or helps us to pay attention. while anxiety symptoms are the focus of a diagnosed anxiety disorder these same symptoms are present in many other psychological, emotional, and cognitive challenges.

While there is scientific and anecdotal evidence that certain herbs may offer relief for stress and anxiety symptoms, it’s essential to approach this field with caution, informed knowledge, and professional guidance. Don’t be a goose. If you live with the symptoms of anxiety, work with a professional to understand the best way forward for you and craft a mix that will offer the best results.

As research continues to evolve, so does our understanding of how best to utilise nature’s pharmacy alongside or as an alternative to conventional treatments. Whether you’re drawn to the allure of herbal remedies out of preference for natural options or curiosity about their historical use, take time to educate yourself and be comfortable with the potential benefits and limitations.

Be happy. Be healthy.

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Maree Machin

Maree Machin, founder of Calm-a-Calm, offers practical solutions for managing anxiety and stress. With a background in allied health and helping professions, Maree's expertise helps individuals of all ages navigate emotional health challenges effectively.

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