Herbal Remedies for Anxiety: A Scientific Review

Herbal remedies for anxiety may gently relax you and stop stress from interfering with your day-to-day activities. They may also help you sleep well. This blog provides objective information about the effectiveness, safety, side-effects, interactions, and availability of natural herbs for anxiety.

Herbal Remedies for Anxiety
Herbs have been used since ancient times as sources of food, spices, scents, and medicines. The ancient civilizations of the world used medicinal herbs to alleviate the symptoms of a wide variety of physical and psychological disorders. The use of natural herbal remedies for anxiety, insomnia, stress, restlessness, depression and other mood disorders can be traced back to almost all ancient civilizations and cultures of the world. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, Australians, Native Americans, Africans, etc. have been using herbal remedies for anxiety and related problems such as insomnia and depression from time immemorial. In spite of the passage of hundreds or even thousands of years, the popularity and usefulness of some herbs for anxiety remain unparalleled till date.

In spite of using herbs to treat various illnesses, the people of the ancient civilizations did not know how those herbs actually worked. It looks like they were so impressed by the healing properties of certain plants, trees, and herbs that they attributed supernatural qualities to them and revered them. For example, the ancient and medieval Europeans believed that St. John's wort had magical properties and that it could "ward off evil" and "chase the devil and demons away". The ancient Egyptians thought so highly of the chamomile herb that they consecrated it to their deities. Some indigenous people of South America (e.g. the Urarina) still use certain herbs as religious sacraments. In Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, and other Pacific Islands, a relaxing and sedating beverage made from the kava-kava shrub is considered sacred and used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural and social purposes (it relieves anxiety symptoms, makes people more sociable, and eliminates social anxiety without disrupting mental clarity). According to popular folklore, a pillow filled with common hops cures insomnia. King George III and Abraham Lincoln are said to have used this herbal remedy to cure their sleeplessness.

This is not to say that herbal remedies for anxiety merely belong to the realm of mythology or that they have no pharmacological effects. In fact modern research lends support to the benefits of some anti-anxiety herbs used in alternative medicine and supplements for anxiety. With the advancement of neuroscience, we are just beginning to understand how these herbs actually work.

Natural Remedies for Anxiety & Insomnia During Turbulent Times

Have you ever imagined the horrors of a war? Civilian and military casualties, loss of life, limb, property, liberty, revenue, sanity, and what not. The stress, uncertainty and anxiety created in such a situation can be overwhelming.

During the World Wars, the Europeans had to brave extreme horrors. In those intensely turbulent times, a herb called valerian (botanical name, "Valeriana officinalis") was prescribed to anxious civilians and soldiers suffering from "shell-shock" (combat stress reaction). This simple herbal remedy for anxiety proved effective in keeping people calm.

Valerian was often prescribed with other herbs for anxiety to ease nervousness, sleeplessness, restlessness and other stress related ailments. These natural herbs played their own role in preventing mass hysteria and panic during the World Wars.

A Revival of Interest in Herbal Remedies for Anxiety

Herbs have been used to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and stress from time immemorial. However, after the industrial revolution it became very easy to synthesize chemicals and produce potent anti-anxiety medications on a large scale. Over time this led to a decline in the use of herbal medicines.

Lately there has been a revival of interest in holistic, alternative, Ayurvedic, traditional Chinese, natural, and herbal remedies for anxiety. Over the past 10 years or so, herbalists have been noticing a spurt in the demand of herbal medicines in general and in herbal remedies for anxiety in particular.

A number of reasons can be attributed to the revival of interest in herbal remedies for anxiety: -
  1. An increase in the levels of anxiety and stress in our modern lives.
  2. High competitiveness, achievement orientation, a fast pace of life and difficulty to find time to consult a health care professional.
  3. High consultation fee charged by psychiatrists and psychologists.
  4. Very high addictive potential of modern (non-herbal) anti-anxiety medicines.
  5. Concerns about the harmful side-effects of synthetic anti anxiety medications.
  6. Easy availability of over-the-counter herbal supplements for anxiety.
  7. The general (sometimes false) belief that herbal medicines are 100% safe.
  8. A general trend towards "organic foods", food supplements, and natural products that are free from synthetic chemicals.
Increased Levels of Stress in Our Lives

According to American Psychological Association (APA), stress is becoming a public health crisis in the USA! In a public survey conducted by APA in 2010, about 44% respondents reported that their stress levels have increased over the past five years.

In surveys conducted between 2007 and 2010, APA found that most Americans are apprehensive about the economy, job stability, money, family responsibilities, relationships, housing costs, and health concerns.

Given the global economic crisis, a fast pace of modern life, and the value that the modern society places on personal achievement and competitiveness, this might very well be a modern global phenomena.

Anxiety Disorders and Stress

Anxiety can be a normal reaction to stressful events such as death of a relative, loss of a job, excessive work pressure, long working hours, retirement, financial problems, physical illness, major life transitions, divorce, difficult interpersonal relationships, uncertainty, a threat to personal well being, etc. However, while a person might find it relatively easy to pinpoint the causes of stress, it is often difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety can manifest itself as a vague feeling of impending doom, apprehension, fear, or panic. It can negatively interfere with a person's effectiveness in day-to-day life.

When the causes of stress (stressors) are removed, stress starts to subside and disappear. On the other hand an anxiety disorder continues to persist and it has vague triggers -- a person suffering from an anxiety disorder often does not know the exact source of the anxiety.

American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, version number 4 (DSM-IV-TR) classifies anxiety disorders into about a dozen different categories. The most common anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder (panic attacks), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, social phobia (social anxiety disorder), agoraphobia, and other specific phobias. For details about the symptoms of various anxiety disorders, please see the anxiety symptoms page.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 28.8% people in USA have experienced an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives! The 12-month prevalence of anxiety disorders in USA is 18.1%. According to British Medical Journal (BMJ), the worldwide lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders is 16.6%

Anxiety, Sleeplessness and Depression

Sometimes a person suffers from anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression at the same time. A number of studies indicate that anxiety, insomnia, & depression are significantly correlated to one another. Incidentally, herbalists have often used a mixture of herbs to treat anxiety and complaints related to it (e.g. "feeling blue," feeling restless, not being able to sleep, etc).

Some herbal supplements for anxiety may contain extracts of two or more herbs, which work better in combination than when used alone.

Synthetic Anti Anxiety Medications Vs Herbal Remedies for Anxiety

The most commonly prescribed synthetic anti-anxiety medications fall into two major categories: benzodiazepines and antidepressants. Other less-used synthetic medications for anxiety are buspirone, a non-benzodiazepine anxiolytic, and beta blockers such as propranolol.

Benzodiazepines (also known as tranquilizers) relieve anxiety by slowing down the central nervous system. Both benzodiazepines and herbal remedies for anxiety may work by increasing the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter.

Though antidepressants were developed to treat depression, they are also effective in reducing the symptoms of anxiety or anxiety associated with depression. Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are prescribed for many anxiety disorders. Some herbal remedies for anxiety and depression, such as passionflower and St. John's wort are thought to possess mono amine oxidase inhibiting and serotonin re-uptake inhibiting properties.

It is a well known fact that benzodiazepines, the most commonly prescribed medicines for anxiety disorders are severely addictive, have a high potential for abuse, and produce benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome upon withdrawal. The symptoms of withdrawal can range from severe rebound anxiety, to toxic psychosis, to life-threatening seizures. Benzos also have side effects such as drowsiness, possibly permanent cognitive impairment, disinhibition, etc. They adversely effect judgment, attention, memory, muscle-coordination and other psychomotor functions.

The unpleasant side-effects of antidepressants include sexual dysfunction, anhedonia or inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, apathy, thoughts of suicide, nightmares or other sleep disturbances, tremors, weight gain or weight loss, dry mouth, nausea, stomach upset, constipation, headaches, fatigue, weakness, serotonin syndrome, etc. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs can also produce SSRI discontinuation syndrome and post-SSRI sexual dysfunction upon withdrawal, which can last for months or years!

On the other hand, natural or herbal remedies for anxiety have little or no potential for abuse and addiction. Herbal supplements have lesser and much milder side effects when compared to benzodiazepines ("benzos"), antidepressants, and other synthetic anti-anxiety medications. They are usually available both online and in the stores as natural supplements for anxiety.

How do Herbal Remedies for Anxiety Work?

Most herbal remedies for anxiety are thought to work by influencing neurotransmitters in our brain. A neurotransmitter is a neurochemical present naturally in the brain and nervous system. Its role is to modulate and communicate nerve impulses between nerve cells, and between nerve and non-nerve cells. A neurochemical imbalance plays an important role in anxiety disorders.

Many scientific studies have been conducted on the bio-chemical basis of anxiety and the role of herbs in curing anxiety. Neurotransmitters especially GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), dopamine, serotonin, etc. as well as some hormones have often been the focal point of a large number of such studies. Herbal remedies for anxiety are thought to work by correcting neurochemical imbalance, by making more neurotransmitters available, or sometimes by mimicking the action of certain neurotransmitters.

For details on how different herbs (used to treat anxiety, sleeplessness, stress, depression, and related ailments) work, see the mechanism of action of each herb listed on the herbs for anxiety page.

How Effective are Herbal Remedies for Anxiety?

Though many individuals feel very positive about herbal remedies for anxiety, the results of a majority of scientific studies are still inconclusive and further research is needed to establish facts. At this moment only a handful of herbs for anxiety have been studied extensively. These herbs have shown promising results and are generally believed to be safe, effective, and non habit forming.

How Safe are Herbal Remedies for Anxiety?

Many herbal remedies for anxiety are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, some people tend to assume that no herbal medicine has any side effects. That is not true. In fact, if a substance does not have any side effect it might very well be inert with no effect other than a placebo effect.

Compared to synthetic anti-anxiety medications, herbal remedies for anxiety have little or no potential for addiction and abuse. They also have very mild side effects. The benefits of herbal treatments for anxiety outweigh their potential side effects.

When taken in the recommended doses, herbal supplements for anxiety are safe and effective. However, one should not exceed the recommended dosage. Consider tea or coffee -- a cup or two can be rejuvenating, but even too much tea or coffee is known to cause nervousness, sleeplessness, fast heart rate, and anxiety. Also, some herbs used to treat anxiety can interact with alcohol, certain prescription medicines, or substances of abuse. For example, the popular St. John's wort can interact with synthetic anti-depressants to produce an adverse reaction called serotonin syndrome. It is therefore good to be informed about the interactions and side effects of herbal supplements for anxiety, insomnia, or depression.

Four Reasons to Have a Word With Your Doctor

Herbal remedies for anxiety are generally considered to be safe and you might want to try them if you are suffering from anxiety, if you are having difficulty falling or staying asleep, or if you are going through a situation that is straining you and causing you a lot of stress, but it is wise to have a word with your doctor before starting any self-treatment. There are at least four major reasons for doing so: -
  1. Sometimes anxiety is caused by an underlying physical illness such as hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), mitral valve prolapse (a valvular heart disease), Cushing's disease (a hormonal disorder characterized by high levels of cortisol in the blood), etc. Your doctor should rule out the presence of such physical illnesses. Self medication for anxiety can delay the diagnosis and treatment of an underlying physical illness, if that is present.
  2. Anxiety can be the side-effect of a medicine that has been prescribed to you by your doctor. It can also be the side-effect of substance abuse. Abrupt withdrawal of anti-anxiety medications, tranquilizers, or certain abused substances can also cause anxiety.
  3. Some herbal remedies for anxiety might adversely react with certain medicines prescribed to you by your doctor. Some herbs can also have adverse reactions with alcohol, or other abused substances.
  4. All medicines (including herbal medicines) should be avoided or used with great caution during pregnancy, breast-feeding, or recovery from liver, kidney, pulmonary or heart disease.
Advantages of Herbal Remedies for Anxiety
  1. The long term effects of natural remedies for anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, and related ailments are well known and predictable, since they have been in use for hundreds or even thousands of years. On the other hand, the long term consequences of the currently prescribed anti anxiety medications are not well known; what is prescribed today might have long term adverse effects and it might be marked unsafe with the passage of time. This has happened in the past -- many medicines once marketed as "safe" have been banned later.
  2. Herbal remedies for anxiety are far less addictive than synthetic anti anxiety medications. Some herbal anxiety treatments are totally non-addictive.
  3. They have fewer and milder side effects.
  4. They are available over-the-counter as herbal or dietary supplements.
  5. They are economical and inexpensive.
  6. If an easily recognizable, stressful situation of a transient nature is causing anxiety or sleeplessness, one may try herbal remedies for anxiety for relief.
  7. Herbs for anxiety are less invasive and more gentle types of treatment when compared to synthetic pharmaceuticals.
Disadvantages of Herbal Remedies for Anxiety
  1. Since herbal supplements are available over-the-counter, some people might ignore expert medical advice and go for self treatment without exploring the real cause of the problem. This can be harmful if the person is suffering from some serious physical illness that is causing the anxiety, or if the person is taking other medicines that can interact with a herbal remedy for anxiety.
  2. Natural remedies for anxiety are milder than prescription medicines and also slower to act; It might take several weeks before the full benefits of herbal remedies for anxiety become apparent.
  3. In laboratories, herbal medicines for anxiety have not been scientifically studied as extensively as synthetic pharmaceuticals. Most results of the studies of herbal medicines are inconclusive and require more research in order to be considered "scientifically established facts."
  4. Since herbs have been used from prehistoric times, the use of many herbs is mentioned not only in folklore and mythology, but also in religious scripts. It is not uncommon to find herbs being used by faith-healers in religious rituals. Sometimes faith-healing and objective results obtained from scientific double-blind studies are at odds with each other, and one should consider objective data.
  5. In rare cases a person can be allergic to a herb. It all depends on an individual -- some people are even allergic to peanuts, or to gluten in bread. What is safe for the majority of people might not be safe for a particular individual.
  6. Unless you are an expert botanist, never try to identify and use a wild herb yourself. Many herbs look alike, and using a misidentified herb might lead to a disaster.
Summary and Final Words on Herbal Remedies for Anxiety

Scientists explore alternative remedies for anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, etc. in an objective manner, uninfluenced by folklore, religion, myths, and expectations. Scientific evidence is based on objective research, experimentation, and statistically significant differences between the effects of a placebo and the effects of a herb under study. Randomized controlled trials and double blind experiments indicate that all herbs that are popular in folklore are not effective and one should consider objective research data, safety information, contraindications, and information about interactions of medicinal herbs with alcohol, prescription medicines, and other substances.

Most herbs used in folklore to treat anxiety disorders may have nothing more than placebo effects. However a few supplements and herbs for anxiety may actually relieve anxiety, sleeplessness, stress, and related mood disorders.

If you are concerned about the side-effects and addictiveness of synthetic anti-anxiety medications, you may want to try alternative medicines such as herbs for anxiety. You may also want to try them if you are suffering from mild to moderate anxiety, sleeplessness, or if you are going through a transient stressful situation.

The potential advantages of any good remedy must outweigh its potential disadvantages. Herbal remedies for anxiety are generally recognized to be safe, effective, and non-addictive. However, you should not combine anti-anxiety herbs with alcohol, sedatives, substances that cause drowsiness, and certain prescription medicines, because their interactions can be harmful.

This blog presents a scientific and objective evaluation of popular herbal remedies for anxiety, sleeplessness, and related mood disorders. It lists their side-effects, interactions, precautions, contraindications, mechanisms of action and other important aspects such as their effectiveness and safety. This information is intended to inform and not to replace or override expert medical advice.

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Disclaimer: The information present on this blog is not a substitute for expert medical advice. For the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of any illness, please consult a doctor. The owner of this website is not liable for any adverse consequences, whatsoever...More>>

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