10 Herbs That Can Help Ease Stress
Stress presses in from all sides, but you can help manage it by exploring the world of natural herbal remedies.
Tetra Images/Getty ImagesIn today’s world, there’s no shortage of daily stressors, big and small, that can make you feel overwhelmed. There are many ways to manage daily stress, including meditation, a healthy diet, good sleep, and spending time with loved ones. You also may want to consider adding some herbal supplements to your diet, suggests Susan Blum, MD, MPH, chronic disease specialist, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Using the right herbs, particularly adaptogens, can make a significant difference in your daily life, she says. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help support the body as it responds to stressors, particularly by bolstering the adrenal glands. “There’s no avoiding stress but herbs can help your body deal with it more effectively,” she explains. (And you can even grow your own medicinal herbs, making it practical and cost-effective.)
Herbal doesn’t automatically mean safe
The right herbal remedies can be effective. But it’s important to remember that just because something is considered “herbal” or “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe, Dr. Blum cautions. “Supplements are not regulated by the FDA so they may not do what they claim and the purity and quality can vary widely between brands,” she says. Some herbs can even cause serious harm. The key is to exercise caution and talk to your doctor before starting any supplements. That’s especially important if you are on any prescription medications or having a preexisting health condition like diabetes or heart disease, she says. If you experience any signs of an allergic reaction, including hives, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, get immediate medical help.
Panax ginseng, also known as Korean ginseng, is an adaptogen, says Lindsey Toth, a registered dietitian in Chicago, and a supplement expert for Swanson Health Products. “I like to say this herb is ‘namaste all day’ for its power to help you de-stress,” she says. “It also helps the body fight stress by helping to improve your mood and increase your immune function. Plus it supports sexual health which can help reduce stress in a different way.” Ginseng may help regulate the immune response and hormonal changes due to stress, reduce inflammation, and alleviate the anxiety and depression caused by stress, according to research published in the Journal of Ginseng Research. (If you’re looking for more energy, try these herbs that fight fatigue.)
Warnings: Ginseng has been shown to interact with other medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, particularly those for heart disease or high blood pressure, she says.
Ashwagandha is another adaptogen, one that’s been used in India for thousands of years to reduce several types stress, says Lily Kiswani, MD, a functional medicine doctor in Mumbai. “It helps reduce stress on the body by lowering stress hormones and increasing the immune system. But it works on the mental side as well, by reducing depression and anxiety,” she explains. People given 600 mg a day of high-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract for two months showed a significant reduction in scores on stress-assessment scales and had lower levels of cortisol (the “stress” hormone) in their blood, in a small study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. A larger study, published in PLoS One found that people given ashwagandha for eight weeks, as part of a naturopathic intervention, improved in scores of concentration, fatigue, social functioning, vitality, and overall quality of life compared to the control group that received only traditional psychotherapy.
Warnings: Avoid this if you take medication to suppress your immune system or benzodiazepines, she says.
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Chamomile is a plant known for its anti-inflammatory and relaxing properties. It may also help settle a nervous tummy. “It’s particularly helpful for people who suffer GI side effects from stress, like irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and irregular bowel movements,” says Yalda Shokoohinia, PhD, professor of pharmacognosy and phytochemistry at the Ric Scalzo Botanical Research Institute at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. “It can also help improve sleep which in turn reduces stress.” People who took 1500 mg of chamomile a day showed significantly lower levels of anxiety and stress, according to a study published in Phytomedicine.
Warnings: Because of some sedative and sleepiness effects, chamomile isn’t recommended if you’re working with hazardous machines or driving. Use chamomile with caution if you’re taking anticoagulants, and avoid if you are going to have surgery, she says.
Passionflower is an herb shown to boost the levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which works in the brain to promote relaxation, says Mary Ellen Valverde, a licensed dietitian nutritionist in California. “It has been shown to ease anxiety and stress as well as enhance calmness.” People suffering from anxiety who were given passionflower extract for one month reported lower feelings of anxiety and stress and improved sleep, in a small study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy Therapeutics. She adds that dried passionflower can be added to water to make tea or taken as liquid extracts, capsules, or tablets.
Warnings: Because it is a mild sedative you should avoid taking it with other sedatives, she says.
Rhodiola rosea is another herb used to reduce stress and boost cognitition. “It helps the body adapt to stress and has been shown to reduce stress, lower anxiety, fight fatigue, and boost mood,” Valverde says. It is the main adaptogen approved by the Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products for stress and influences the release of stress hormones while boosting energy, according to a review published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice. It helps treat stress symptoms and can prevent chronic stress and stress-related complications, the researchers added.
Warnings: Rhodiola may interact with blood pressure and blood-thinning medications.
Banaba is a species of myrtle tree that grows in the tropics of Southeast Asia. Leaves from the tree have been found to slow the body’s production of cortisol, the stress hormone that causes the “fight or flight” feeling, according to a study published in Life Sciences. “The active ingredient in banaba leaf is corosolic acid, which slows the body from turning inactive cortisol to active cortisol,” says Mikka Knapp, a registered dietitian in Sarasota, Florida, and founder of Bright Body Nutrition. “Dampening cortisol plays a key role in combating feelings of stress and anxiety.”
Warnings: Banaba may decrease blood pressure and blood sugar and should not be taken with those classes of medications.
“Lemon balm has been used for over 2,000 years as a natural stress reducer,” Knapp says. “It increases brain levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter known for producing a feel of calm. This provides a gentle soothing effect and makes managing stress easier.” Young adults given lemon balm showed measurable improvements in mood, stress levels, and cognitive performance, according to a study published in Nutrients.
Warnings: Because lemon balm has sedative effects, use caution before combining it with other sedative drugs or alcohol.
Valerian comes from the root of a flowering plant and has been used for centuries as a natural sleep aid. This is due to its ability to reduce anxiety and insomnia associated with stress, says Dimitar Marinov, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at the Medical University of Varna, Bulgaria. “It appears to work by inhibiting the break down of GABA, producing an effect similar to anxiolytic drugs like Xanax,” he explains. One study, published in Phytomedicine, found that mice given valerian root showed less anxiety while completing a maze.
Warnings: Most people experience very few side effects—the primary one being drowsiness—he says.
Despite the medical-sounding name, 5-HTP comes from the seeds of an African plant, Griffonia simplicifolia. It works as a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, increasing levels of the “feel good” chemical in your brain, says Gabrielle Francis, a naturopathic doctor and herbal alchemist. “It also reduces the stress hormone, cortisol, and actively calms anxiety,” she says. Taking 5-HTP helped prevent panic attacks in people who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, according to a study published in Psychiatry Research. (5-HTP is also one of the herbs recommended by cardiologists for better heart health.)
Warnings: 5-HTP can interfere with other medications that work on neurotransmitters, including antidepressants, and should be taken under a doctor’s care.
Many people consider melatonin to be herbal but it’s not a plant; it’s a hormone. Your body produces it naturally to help control your sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythms. Levels of melatonin increase as bedtime nears which makes you feel sleepy. Much of the research on melatonin supplements is devoted to examining the effects on sleep. But sleep is the body’s way of de-stressing physically and mentally every day. So it makes sense that if your sleep is suffering, your stress will skyrocket and finding away to get back into a good sleep schedule can help combat stress, Knapp says. Getting sunshine during the day is one way to boost melatonin but you can also take synthetically produced melatonin in the form of supplements, she says.
Warnings: High doses are known to interfere with a wide variety of prescription and over the counter medications, including those for diabetes, heart conditions, insomnia, depression, allergies, and others. While interactions are typically mild, it’s wise to talk to your doctor before using.
- Susan Blum, MD, MPH, chronic disease specialist, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
- Lindsey Toth, a registered dietitian in Chicago, and a supplement expert for Swanson Health Products
- Journal of Ginseng Research: “Effects of ginseng on stress-related depression, anxiety, and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis”
- Lily Kiswani, MD, a functional medicine doctor in Mumbai
- Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine: “A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults.”
- PLoS One: “Naturopathic care for anxiety: a randomized controlled trial ISRCTN78958974”
- Yalda Shokoohinia, PharmD, PhD, professor of pharmacognosy and phytochemistry at the Ric Scalzo Botanical Research Institute at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine
- Phytomedicine: “Long-term Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.) treatment for generalized anxiety disorder: A randomized clinical trial”
- Mary Ellen Valverde, a licensed dietitian nutritionist in California
- Journal of Clinical Pharmacy Therapeutics: “Passionflower in the treatment of generalized anxiety: a pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial with oxazepam.”
- International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice: “Stress management and the role of Rhodiola rosea: a review.”
- Life Sciences: “Corosolic acid prevents oxidative stress, inflammation and hypertension in SHR/NDmcr-cp rats, a model of metabolic syndrome”
- Mikka Knapp, a registered dietitian in Sarasota, Florida, and founder of Bright Body Nutrition
- Nutrients: “Anti-Stress Effects of Lemon Balm-Containing Foods”
- Dimitar Marinov, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at the Medical University of Varna, Bulgaria
- Phytomedicine: “Valeriana officinalis root extracts have potent anxiolytic effects in laboratory rats.”
- Gabrielle Francis, a naturopathic doctor and herbal alchemist
- Psychiatry Research: “Acute L-5-hydroxytryptophan administration inhibits carbon dioxide-induced panic in panic disorder patients”