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More and more people in today’s world are struggling with stress and anxiety, especially in the wake of major public health scares like COVID-19.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States, with over 40 million adult Americans suffering from anxiety’s debilitating effect on their lives.
While there are many anti-anxiety prescription drugs on the market (oxazepam, lorazepam, paroxetine, midazolam, and chlordiazepoxide are just a few examples), these pharmaceutical products are often accompanied by unpleasant side effects or may result in chemical dependency.
For this reason and others — such as cost — many consumers prefer to seek out alternative, natural treatments for their anxiety. But finding the right product for you can be a confusing and frustrating process.
To make your search easier, here are 10 herbal remedies and dietary supplements proven by scientists to help with anxiety (however, always consult a doctor before taking any herbal remedy or dietary supplement):
Omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that are essential for building and maintaining a healthy body. Foods like oily fish are rich in these vital nutrients, hence omega-3 supplements are commonly derived from fish, such as cod liver oil.
Besides helping to support the healthy development of the eyes, heart, bones, and joints, omega-3 has been shown to have mental health benefits too.
In 2011, a randomized controlled trial sponsored by the US Department of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that medical students facing stressful exams who received daily omega-3 supplements experienced a 20 percent reduction in the symptoms of anxiety compared to those taking a placebo.
Withania somnifera, more commonly known as ashwagandha, is a small shrub whose roots have been widely used as a medicinal herb in Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) for centuries. Over recent years, a growing body of evidence for its healing properties has emerged from clinical trials.
In 2012, an article published in the peer-reviewed Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine claimed that test subjects suffering from chronic stress experienced a “significant” reduction in anxiety after 60 days of taking a 300mg dose of ashwagandha root extract twice daily. The authors concluded that the herb could “safely and effectively” be used to improve an individual’s resistance to stress.
These findings were echoed in a more recent (2019) study, in which it was also found that participants receiving ashwagandha root extract enjoyed a better quality of sleep than those on the placebo.
Chamomile is the common name for several daisy-like plants cultivated for their flowers, which have long been dried and brewed in hot water to make the popular bedtime beverage, chamomile tea. Known and loved by generations of herbal tea-drinkers for its calming effect, chamomile is now increasingly acknowledged by scientists as an effective treatment for anxiety.
During a 5-year (2010-2015) study of the long-term effects of chamomile therapy for moderate to severe generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) at the University of Pennsylvania, subjects in the treatment group received 500mg capsules of chamomile extract 3 times daily, while the control group members were given placebos. The study found that after just 8 weeks, chamomile produced a significant and “clinically meaningful” reduction in GAD symptoms.
Passionflower or Passiflora is a flowering vine native to the Americas, easily recognizable by its distinctive corona, which is typically purple, yellow, and white. Aside from its celebrated ornamental value, however, passionflower is coming to be known as a natural alternative to anti-anxiety medications.
According to the results of a clinical trial published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics in 2001, Passiflora extract was just as effective as the anxiolytic drug oxazepam in treating generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but had the additional benefit of not causing the impairment of job performance observed in patients taking oxazepam.
In a more recent study, the results of which were published in 2017, the anxiety-reducing effects of Passiflora incarnata (purple passionflower) were found to be similar to those of midazolam in patients undergoing a tooth extraction procedure, but without the adverse side effect of memory loss.
There are many varieties of skullcap — a flowering plant of the mint family, named for its helmet-shaped flowers — but American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), used as a mild sedative in traditional herbal medicine for more than 200 years, is showing the most promise as a treatment for anxiety in clinical trials.
In 2003, the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine published the findings of a double-blind, placebo-controlled investigation into the efficacy of American skullcap in healthy volunteers, which “demonstrated noteworthy anxiolytic effects.”
Researchers at the University of Westminster in the UK have also noted — in a 2010 article for the British Journal of Wellbeing — that ongoing clinical and in vitro research is providing “encouraging support” for American skullcap as a “safe, well-tolerated and effective alternative” to pharmaceutical anxiolytics.
Lavender is a flower well-known for its distinctive purple hue and pleasant fragrance, for which it is widely used in cooking and cosmetics. The essential oil distilled from the flower, lavender oil, is a popular choice for aromatherapists, as it has been believed since ancient times to have soothing properties. Modern scientific research has largely validated this belief.
The results of two randomized controlled trials, published in 2010 and 2014 respectively, indicate that Silexan — a lavender oil preparation manufactured for oral use — is at least as effective as lorazepam (a benzodiazepine) and paroxetine (an SSRI), both drugs used to treat generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Other studies indicate that ambient odors of lavender reduce anxiety and improve mood in dental waiting rooms (Physiology & Behavior, 2005), and that lavender herbal tea has a similar calming effect in elderly patients (Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 2020).
Black horehound is a nettle-like perennial herb native to the Mediterranean and Central Asia, but can also be found growing throughout Europe and North America. Sometimes known as “Stinking Roger,” it is noted for its pungent odor. Despite its unpleasant smell, black horehound has been cultivated for medicinal use since at least the 13th century.
The European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP) — an umbrella organization comprising national herbal medicine councils and phytotherapy societies across Europe that compiles scientific data on herbal remedies for submission to the European Medicines Agency — reports that an open clinical study of black horehound “demonstrated a responder rate of 65% after 60 days of treatment in patients with general anxiety disorder,” further confirming the anxiolytic effects of the herb observed during earlier in vivo experiments with rodents.
Saffron is a crimson-colored spice derived from the saffron crocus flower, probably originating in Persia (Iran), which today produces 90 percent of the world’s saffron. Mainly used as a seasoning, saffron has begun to be studied for its mental health benefits.
A 2011 study learned that the scent of saffron significantly reduced levels of cortisol (the stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands) in women, suggesting the spice’s possible application as a treatment for premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Saffron supplements were also found in 2016 to have a positive impact on Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) scores among adult patients with anxiety after 12 weeks of use.
Pharmactive Biotech Products, a Spanish company, claims that its patented saffron-derived supplement, Affron, is “backed by 8 human clinical studies” that showed improved mood in healthy consumers with anxiety. The results of these studies have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals, including Complementary Therapies in Medicine (2017) and the Journal of Affective Disorders (2018).
Echinacea, a genus of the daisy family, is more commonly known as a traditional cold and flu medicine, but new evidence suggests that it can also be used to relieve the symptoms of anxiety.
A 2010 research paper in Phytotherapy Research, a peer-reviewed journal, presented evidence from three laboratory tests of anxiety that demonstrated “for the first time” echinacea’s “considerable anxiolytic potential” compared with chlordiazepoxide, a benzodiazepine.
Results from a later clinical trial, published in 2019, also found that echinacea root extract has “significant beneficial effects on anxiety in humans.”
The sweet-scented flowering herb valerian, native to Europe and Asia, derives its name from the Latin word “valere,” which means to be strong or healthy. Although most commonly sold as a natural sleeping aid, it is also thought to alleviate stress, and was widely used to treat British soldiers for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, or “shell shock”) during both world wars.
Thanks to a recent 4-week electroencephalographic (EEG) study by Korean researchers, in which patients suffering from psychological stress were administered a 100mg dose of valerian root extract three times daily, valerian is known to have a positive, anxiolytic impact on brain activity.
The European Union’s Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products, which notes that clinical studies support the use of dry ethanol extracts from valerian “for relief of mild nervous tension,” has approved valerian as a remedy for mild anxiety.
Herbal and other natural medicines have been safely used by humans to help cope with stress and anxiety for many centuries, but it’s always advisable to consult your medical doctor before taking any of the remedies or supplements listed above, especially if these may interact with medicines you are already taking, or you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a pre-existing medical condition.
Furthermore, you should only ever buy herbal remedies and dietary supplements from manufacturers known to be compliant with regulations enforced by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the national regulatory agency in your country, and which contain only ingredients generally recognized as safe for human consumption.
Always buy from trusted sellers, and always read the label. Diagnosing and treating yourself is very difficult, which is why you should see a doctor if you are experiencing physical or mental symptoms. Always consult your doctor before taking any remedies or supplements.