3 Key Facts About Herbal Remedies

31 March 2024

Feeling that life is getting more and more hectic? You’re not alone.  That busyness can lead to chronic stress. And that produces, amongst other things, anxiety. 

If you experience symptoms of anxiety, you’re not alone. Affecting one in three, it is the most common emotional disturbance in the Western world.

While medical and psychological treatments are important, traditional and herbal remedies are becoming more popular.  With our growing knowledge of brain chemistry, we have a greater insight into how these remedies work and are better equipped to select the ones that will best respond to our needs.

Old is new again

The use of herbal remedies to soothe anxiety and other psychological distress has roots in cultures that span the globe.  We have rich traditions that have evolved from local environments over millennia.

In ancient Greece, physician Hippocrates noted the use of herbs like valerian (Valeriana Officinalis) to address nervousness and promote sleep. The Romans recognised the calming effects of chamomile (Matricaria Chamomilla) and spread this knowledge across their vast empire.

Meanwhile, in traditional Chinese medicine, a holistic approach to healing included the use of adaptogenic herbs like ginseng (Panax Ginseng) and holy basil (Ocimum Sanctum).  These were understood and revered for their ability to restore balance to the body and calm (cool) the mind.

In medieval Europe, herbalists turned to lavender (Lavandula Angustifolia) and lemon balm (Melissa Officinalis) to ease anxious temperaments. Lavender, with its fragrant blooms, was valued for its fragrance and medicinal effects.

The Native American tradition contributed its wisdom, with herbs like skullcap (Scutellaria Lateriflora), a member of the mint family.  It was used for ceremonies, achieving clarity of mind, and supporting menstrual cycles. 

From the Oceania region, kava (Piper Methysticum) has a ceremonial and household use history.  For emotional turbulence, kava was used to elevate mood and induce a greater sense of calm.

Closer to my backyard, the First Nations people of Australia used Umbrella Bush Wattle (Acacia Ligulata Benth) as a remedy for dizziness and nerves/anxiety. 

Backed by science

While historical anecdotes offer a glimpse into the efficacy of herbal remedies, modern scientific research is unpacking how of these remedies.  Understanding the chemical interactions and pathways and our amazing brain chemistry, we are learning of the potent healing nature of some of our oldest medicines.  

One standout is kava. Research suggests that kava may influence neurotransmitters in the brain, promoting relaxation without impairing cognitive function. Before you start adding it to your smoothy, it’s crucial to note that excessive consumption of kava has been linked to liver toxicity, and consultation with a healthcare professional is advised before use.

Another herb making waves in the realm of anxiety relief is passionflower (Passiflora Incarnata). A 2001 study found that passionflower extracts significantly reduced symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder. Its mild sedative properties make it a popular choice for those seeking a gentle approach to anxiety management.

From a chemistry perspective, there are several common pathways and compounds associated with anxiety relief.  Having your head around these can help you to choose the options for your situation. The pathways will affect any interactions with other drugs or medications and any sensitivities you may have.

  • GABAergic system: Many herbs, including ashwagandha, valerian root and passionflower, interact with the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) system. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in regulating anxiety. Herbs that modulate GABA receptors can promote a calming effect on the nervous system.
  • Adaptogenic properties: Adaptogenic herbs like holy basil and ginseng help the body adapt to stress by balancing the endocrine system. These herbs may influence the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, helping to modulate the body’s response to stressors.
  • Anxiolytic effects: Compounds with higher levels of limonene (found in citrusy herbs) and linalool (found in lavender) have been associated with relaxation and reducing anxiety. Research suggests that these compounds may interact with neurotransmitter systems.
  • Kavalactones: Kavalactones, the active compounds in kava, interact with the limbic system, influencing neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. This interaction contributes to kava’s anxiolytic effects.
  • Flavonoids and Apigenin: Chamomile contains flavonoids and apigenin, which are believed to interact with benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. This interaction can induce a calming effect and reduce anxiety.

Herbal preparations

In a nutshell, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting a remedy. You can choose a straight-up herb or go for a proprietary blend. Proprietary blends have the advantage of labeling the levels of their active ingredients. A bit of online research will tell you if the product has the potency you need. A couple of the popular products around are Lemme Chill Gummies (ashwagandha, lemon balm, passionflower & goji), Natural Life Labs Organic Ashwagandha and OLLY Goodbye Stress Gummy with active ingredients of GABA, L-Theanine, and lemon balm.

Be aware of preparation strength, recommended dosage, and absorption pathways. I am always mindful of the source of herbs and other plant-based supplements. Honestly, there’s not much point in using extracts from plants grown in toxic soil!

Looking for something you can enjoy anytime as tea or infusion? Here are a few ideas of blends that can get you started.

These tried and tested tea infusions and powders can be brought ready-made.  You can also use these as inspiration for your own unique combination.  Have a look at your local or online health food store (shouldn’t all food stores be healthy?) or supplements stockist.

Chamomile-Lavender Fusion

The calming properties of chamomile combined with the soothing aroma of lavender create a tea blend that promotes relaxation and eases tension. It’s ideal when you need to dial the day down a bit.

Tranquil Mint Medley

Peppermint’s refreshing kick, coupled with the mild sedative effects of lemon balm and holy basil, is a combo pick-me-up and chill-out in one happy teacup. Great as an everyday supplement water.

Serene Citrus Harmony

The name alone makes you want to try it!   The citrus aldehydes gift a mood-brightening pop.  The powerhouse herb passionflower does the heavy lifting of calm combining with the clean lemongrass notes to make for an uplifting and relaxing shift.

Last thoughts

Nature’s pharmacy is wonderful, rich in tradition and plant-based remedies that work.

One big caveat.  It’s important to treat herbal remedies with respect and awareness. Do not underestimate their effect, especially if you’re taking other medications.  And remember, different types of anxiety and stress respond best to different approaches.

Don’t be a goose – Consult with your healthcare professional of choice to work out the best way to greater calm and serenity for you and your lifestyle. Because you’re worth it.

Calm a Calm