Herbal Remedies for Anxiety

Don’t Panic!

We all experience fear and anxiety from time to time.  At times we may feel overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities – work, family, our health, finances, the environment etc.  At other times emergency situations, traumatic events, or other stressful situations can induce feelings of anxiety.  For some people the symptoms are mild and easily managed, for others anxiety is replaced by stupor from prescription drugs.  The following tools are proven safe and effective for promoting calm and reducing anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety include poor concentration, persistent worrisome thoughts, shortness of breath, indigestion, headache, trembling, restlessness, sweats, and palpitations or accelerated heart rate.

Sage – a recent clinical trial has shown oral doses of this common herb to reduce anxiety.  It does so by inhibiting enzymes that break down neurotransmitters in the brain that effect mood.  It has a fortifying effect on the nervous system and is especially helpful for women experiencing menopausal symptoms related to stress.  It has a strong flavour and is best combined with other herbs in a tea or tincture formula.

Lemon balm – has anxiety reducing properties, acting like sage by affecting the life span of neurotransmitters in the brain.  It has a special affinity for the nervous component of the digestive system and is valuable for indigestion and intestinal spasm triggered by stress. It has a gentle calming and uplifting quality.  It is a pleasant tasting tea and easy to grow in the garden.

Kava – this strong acting herb decreases anxiety and relaxes the body without loss of mental alertness.  It is fast acting for times of acute need; I use it with people who experience regular panic attacks.  It helps to relieve muscle tension and headaches associated with stress.  Unfortunately, access to this herb is limited; most herbal practitioners carry it in their dispensaries.

Valerian – this herb has a tradition of use for nervous unrest dating back thousands of years.  It is a popular remedy for insomnia due to stress and anxiety.  It has a strong and quick acting action, like kava, for panic attacks.  It also settles the digestive system that is agitated by stress due to its soothing effect of smooth muscle.  It is best taken in tincture form, in 30 drop doses as needed, or as part of a sleep regulating herbal program.

Rescue Remedy – this is a combination flower essence that is intended for acute stressful situations such as accidents, bad news, dental visits, flights, performances, nightmares in children, etc.  I have had excellent results with this remedy with people and pets.  Good addition to any first aid kit.

Aromatherapy – essential oils give plants their aroma.  Essential oils have been extracted from plants for thousands of years for use in perfumery and healing.  When inhaled they have a direct affect on the brain thus giving relief too many psychological states.  The effects are usually instantaneous.  Essential oils are easy to use – they simply need to be smelled.  Small bottles can be carried at all times and sniffed often or as needed directly from the bottle.  They can be used in oil burners to spread the aroma throughout a room.  They can be diluted and added to the bath or applied to the skin.  Pure essential oils are generally well tolerated by those sensitive to perfumes and other chemical scents.  What better way to promote wellbeing than from a beautiful, aromatic essence!  Sample the oils at aromatherapy shops or health food stores to find one that you resonate with.  The following oils promote calm and reduce anxiety: Lavender, rose geranium, clary sage, rose, ylang ylang, jasmine, balm, cedarwood, lemongrass, vetiver, rosewood.

In addition to our herbal helpers, it is important to remember the value of deep breathing and exercise as tools for managing anxiety and stress.  When we are stressed we tend to take shallow breaths which only compound the problem.  A minute of deep belly breathing can take the edge off of any stressful situation.  When stressed and anxious we produce the hormones adrenalin and cortisol; these can build up in the body and contribute to more chronic stress states.  Exercise is a sure way to burn off these excess hormones in the system.  A brisk walk works wonders for relieving anxiety.

These valuable self-help tools are very effective for those with occasional anxiety.  I recommend that those with regular anxiety or anxiety disorders consult with a herbal practitioner to obtain a more comprehensive treatment strategy.

Holistic Sleep Strategies

Sleep is one of the primary pillars of health.  Unfortunately, many people suffer from some form of sleep disturbance on a regular basis.  Sleep depravation is one of the defining health problems of modern society, right up there along side obesity.  Our sleep time is crucial for bodily repair and restoration – chronic sleep deprivation is a factor in the development of chronic, degenerative diseases.

The causes of insomnia are varied.  Simply taking a sedative, herbal or pharmaceutical, is ineffective because it does not address the underlying cause of the problem.  A broad focused treatment is required to obtain lasting results.  Three common causes of insomnia: the use of stimulants, stress, and pain.

In one case of stimulant use, the person was drinking one cup of coffee per day, before noon.  This may seem like reasonable coffee consumption, it did to her and she overlooked it as the cause of her sleep problems.  Some people are especially sensitive to caffeine and may not notice its effect on their system.  She was advised to give up the coffee and other caffeine containing substances for two weeks.  In less than one week she reported better sleep and within two weeks she had completely resolved her issue with insomnia.  No other remedies were needed.

Those with chronic sleep disturbance usually rely upon coffee and other stimulants to get them through the day.  This only worsens the problem and further drains their energy.  Breaking this pattern can be challenging.  Accepting short term hardship is rewarded by long term results.  Herbal nerve tonics such as oats and St.John’s wort can help ease through the transition.  The herb Rhodeola rosea , an adaptogenic herb, is especially helpful to enhance endurance and alertness throughout the day.  Gotu kola is a cerebral circulatory stimulant and can improve alertness and mental capacity while producing a state of calm.  A perfect balance.

Stress and anxiety affect us all and can cause short term sleep disruption.  A personal favorite remedy after a stressful day is a strong brew of chamomile tea (2 tsp. herb per cup boiled water) with 20 drops of passionflower tincture added.  Passionflower is recommended for the treatment of nervous tension, restlessness, and irritability with difficulty falling asleep.  Passionflower can be repeated again at bedtime combined with valerian tincture which is a powerful sedative and muscle relaxant.  It is rare that herbal sedatives will cause grogginess the next day. To avoid this it is best not to combine them with sleeping pills.

When stress and anxiety are prolonged and/or severe it can lead to adrenal burn out and deep seated exhaustion.  This can be avoided by using herbal nerve tonics and other stress management tools.  If this does occur adrenal restoratives such as borage, licorice and eleuthero can be used along with other supportive herbal aids. 

Pain can cause severe sleep disruption.  One client was waking every hour for several weeks due to pain and numbness in the arm caused by repetitive strain.  Needless to say this was causing great interference in his life.   In these cases the cause of the pain needs to be effectively dealt with.  Many herbal sleeping agents also act as analgesics, anti-spasmodics and anti-inflammatories.  Examples include California poppy, valerian, black cohosh, and lobelia.  A liquid calcium and magnesium supplement taken at bedtime is relaxing to the nervous system and is an effective way to deal with muscle spasm.

Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland, is largely responsible for regulating sleep patterns.  Its release is stimulated by the dark; therefore the bedroom must be completely dark.  Cover windows to block out street lights and wear an eye mask if necessary.  Reduce lighting in the evening, dim the lights or use candles.  Conversely, it is important to have sunlight exposure during the day to maintain melatonin production by the body.

Simple lifestyle adjustments can be very beneficial in cases of sleep disturbance.  For example people respond well to a ½ hour walk after dinner.  Exercise helps the body burn off stress hormones, plus it improves digestion.  A soothing bath in the evening using relaxing essential oils like lavender, ylang ylang or spikenard is very helpful.  Light and pleasurable reading at bedtime can help to shut off mental processing and unwanted thoughts from the day. Turn off TV and computer screens at least an hour before sleep time.

Establishing regular, routine sleep patterns is important.  Sleep research shows that the hours between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. are critical for rejuvenation.  Sweet dreams.