As a clinician, lately I have been experiencing an uptick in people requesting herbal support to calm increased anxiety. While every person’s circumstances are different – I recommend consulting with a professional for acute or severe cases – I offer up the following 10 herbs for anxiety that are generally safe when used at normal therapeutic doses.
1. Skullcap leaves (Scutellaria lateriflora)
Skullcap is one of several ‘nervines’ on this list that calms anxiety and soothes the nervous system. A member of the mint family with a very mild, green taste, scullcap is indicated for the person experiencing agitation, restlessness, or nervous excitability. It is useful in calming nervous spasms or ticks, and may help promote more restful sleep (though I would not consider it a sedative). Make a tea with peppermint, holy basil, and/or lemon balm for a tasty, relaxing cup on a nervous afternoon. For more acute symptoms a tincture of fresh skullcap may be indicated as needed.
2. Lemon balm leaves (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm is another nervine that pairs well with skullcap, and adds a lovely, lemony flavor. It has similar activity as skullcap, and I would add that it would be useful for people whose anxiety is accompanied by overstimulation and racing heart. This is because lemon balm may potentiate thyroid function, making it useful for persons with an over-active thyroid. On the flip side, persons with hypothyroidism should proceed with caution when using lemon balm over time. I wrote about lemon balm in detail for Ask The Herbalists here, so please have a look to learn more about this mint relative.
3. Passionflower leaves (Passiflora incarnata)
Yes! Another nervine that also has some anodyne and anti-spasmodic properties. Passionflower is useful when the anxiety is accompanied or caused by pain. Slightly more sedative than skullcap, it can be especially helpful to promote restful sleep, especially when tension or pain makes it difficult to fall or stay asleep. Because passionflower is very bitter, it may be better administered in a tincture versus a tea. Though it can be added to a tea in small doses along with tastier herbs such as lemon balm, peppermint, or chamomile.
4. Linden flowers and leaves (Tilia ssp.)
Linden, sometimes known as lime tree or simply tilia, is a decidious tree that grows in most temperate climates. This nervine also has a calming and toning effect on the cardiovascular system. It helps to relax peripheral blood vessels, thereby enhancing circulation. I use it for clients who have high blood pressure, are prone to heart palpitations when anxious, or have circulation challenges (e.g., cold hands and feet). Linden leaves have a lovely, slightly sweet taste that can be added to just about any herbal blend for a pleasant tea.
5. Kava root (Piper methysticum)
Activity of kava is a bit stronger than the herbs discussed thus far, and I recommend it for more intense feelings of nervousness. A tropical plant native to the Pacific islands, traditionally the root was pounded and then added to cold water for a relaxing, refreshing drink that tingles the tongue. It is said that tribal leaders would consume kava prior to commencing negotiations.
Therapeutically, kava is classified as a soporific and mild hypnotic. Hoffmann (2001) compares it to benzodiazepines, but without some of the unfavorable side-effects. It is also mildly analgesic and anti-spasmodic. A dose of kava tincture can work wonders in the moment for a person experiencing acute anxiety symptoms (though do seek medical attention if strong anxiety persists and seek guidance of a trained herbalist for proper dosing).
6. Milky oats spikelets (Avena sativa)
No list of Herbs for Anxiety would be complete without milky oats – “a hug in a cup”. Nourishing and nutritive, this slightly sweet, slightly green herb makes for a lovely tea, tincture, or even bath. For my clients who are stressed out and burned out, I like to recommend a tea containing milky oats because the act of slowing down, making the tea, experiencing the aroma, and drinking the warm liquid in itself can be therapeutic. This is one herb that will take time to have a noticeable effect, so use it for long-term nervous system support. Generous doses (2-3 teaspoons for 2-3C boiling water) may be necessary, but oats are a very safe herb and ‘overdosing’ is not generally a concern.
I love milky oats so much I wrote a whole blog post about it, so visit here for more about its properties and various ways of using it.
7. Holy basil leaves (Ocimum sanctum, Ocimum tenuflorum)
A sacred herb of India, holy basil (sometimes called ‘tulsi’) is a relative of good ol’, common culinary basil. Another member of the mint family, holy basil is officially classified as an ‘adaptogen’ (a fancy word for what I call a ‘stress modulator’). It is also a mild anxiolytic which can reduce nervousness when accompanied by stress. Over time, with regular ingestion, holy basil can even out bumps in the road by making it easier for a person to respond to stress. Feedback I get from my clients for whom I have recommended holy basil indicate that they are “less reactive” than they usually expect when faced with a stressful situation. For a lot more information on the virtues of this pungent, zingy herb, check out my latest Ask The Herbalists blog post.
8. Motherwort leaves (Leonurus cardiaca)
I enjoy talking about motherwort because it’s one of those herbs that has multiple, complementary uses. I discussed it extensively in an Ask The Herbalists post here. It makes this list of Herbs for Anxiety because it’s another calming herb. The name ‘motherwort’ suggests that it might be useful for women; indeed, it is used to tame nervous tension that may be caused by hormonal fluctuations. Similarly, ‘cardiaca’ in the botanical name implies an affinity to the heart. Here again, motherwort shines in alleviating nervousness accompanied by heart palpitations and increased blood pressure. Pair it with linden, described above, for a double dose of cardiovascular support. Beware that motherwort is very bitter, so be prepared to add honey to your tea.
9. German chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita)
Another nervine, chamomile has an affinity for the digestive system. Its anti-spasmodic action can calm the whole body after a stressful day. In particular, chamomile calms the stomach and promotes proper digestive function through its slightly bitter properties. It relieves indigestion, stomach spasms, and nausea. Chamomile is anti-inflammatory and soothing internally, topically, and aromatically. Brew up some chamomile tea bags and place on tired eyes (after cooling them!) for a sensory treat while you drink your tea.
A person whose anxiety wreaks havoc on digestion and elimination should choose chamomile.
10. California poppy flowers and leaves (Eschscholzia californica)
Last but hardly least is California poppy. It is a relative of the opium poppy, but it is NOT an opiate. Still, it shares some of the relaxing properties of its more potent cousin – anodyne, hypnotic, sedative – albeit with lesser strength. California poppy is indicated for persons (or children) with excitability or restlessness, especially when combined with aches and pains that prevent or interrupt sleep. Pleasant-tasting, it makes a lovely tea and would take the bite off the somewhat bitter passionflower for a pain-relieving, sleep-encouraging brew.
These are just some of many Herbs for Anxiety that can calm and relieve associated symptoms. Look for teas containing combinations of these herbs in the grocery store, or for more, concentrated formats try a tincture blend from your local health food store. I recently discovered a ‘rescue’ spray tincture called: “Herbs on the Go: Anxious Moment” that I really like from Herb Pharm.
Finally, if you have persistent anxiety or stress that you just can’t shake, I have extensive experience in working with these conditions and I would be happy to help you. Contact me for more information!
Hoffmann, D. (2001). Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine