If you read part one of this series, you know that any sensible approach to working with anxiety will include tuning in to the messages that the feeling is trying to give you, nourishing yourself with whole foods, and making lifestyle choices that are supportive of a healthy nervous system. All of these things are vital, but it’s also true that sometimes we need acute support to help ease anxiety in-the-moment. There are many wonderful herbs that can help us to do that. The key is to choose the right one(s) for your circumstances and to use “rescue” herbs consciously while implementing the strategies from earlier in the series even when you’re not in a state of acute anxiety.
It isn’t just choosing the right herb(s) that is important, the way an herb is prepared also has an effect on its therapeutic value. Today we’ll focus on just two of the many herbal preparations, teas and tinctures. I like both for use with people suffering from anxiety and each has its particular strengths and drawbacks.
Teas are made by extracting herbs in hot water, an excellent solvent that can extract a large proportion of the active compounds of a plant. A tea will also release the aromatic qualities of an herb, but in order to retain the essential oils (which evaporate quickly!) you have to brew the tea with a cover on. Medicinal teas must be brewed for at least 20 minutes and may taste much stronger than teas that you’re used to drinking for culinary enjoyment. Potential drawbacks? Teas take some time to make and require you to drink a fair amount of liquid in order to get a therapeutic dose. On the plus side, the ritual of making and drinking tea can be comforting unto itself, and sends a deep message to your heart that you are doing something kind for yourself.
Tinctures are made by extracting herbs in alcohol. Tinctures are convenient (no preparation required—just put the proper dose in a little water and drink it down), and they can be easier to take than teas if the herb in question is a little (or a lot!) funky tasting. The downsides of tinctures include the fact that they are not useful for people who avoid alcohol completely, do not release aromatics like teas do, and do not capture the nourishing components (vitamins and minerals) of the plant very well. Advantages to tinctures include convenience, shelf-stability, simplicity of use, portability, and the fact that they can be very fast-acting.
Herbs to Consider
Soothing aromatics: Lavender, Chamomile, and Catnip
These herbs are wonderful in teas, either alone or in combination with each other. Traditional Medicinals makes a lovely organic Lavender and Chamomile blend that’s great to have on-hand for times when you’re feeling in need of soothing.
Lavender combined with peppermint is a particularly nice choice if you’re experiencing a headache and upset stomach along with nervousness. Chamomile also has properties that are very helpful for digestion. Catnip is rich in minerals and helpful for sleep disturbances. It is also a diaphoretic, meaning that it can help to induce sweating to reduce a fever. It can be a nice choice if anxiety and sleeplessness co-exists with a cold or flu. (It’s also pleasant-tasting and very nice on its own or served with a little honey.)
Deeply calming nervines: Kava kava, Skullcap, and Passionflower
Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is tremendously effective for anxiety and has received a fair amount of attention by scientific researchers for its beneficial effects. It also contains PA alkaloids, compounds that can be toxic to the liver if taken in excess over a long period of time. To be on the safe side, do not use kava on a regular basis for a long period of time, do not take kava at the same time as alcohol, acetominophen (Tylenol—which is very toxic to the liver) or prescription medications, or if you have a known liver condition.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)—Skullcap is a very cooling herb that seems particularly well suited for people who tend to over think their problems and get into cycles of worry and obsessive thinking. It’s also specific for helping ease the cravings for an addictive substance. I like to use it in tincture form and find that when used in an adequate dose, it is immediately effective in restoring a sense of calm and helping me to break the cycle of worrying.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)—-Its namesake is not the passion of romantic or sexual love, but the passion of Christ, as this flower has such a complex and striking appearance that its numerous parts were considered to reflect elements of the Crucifixion story. A native of the southern US, this plant also has a long history of use in Cherokee medicine. It’s wonderful for anxiety coupled with exhaustion, as in the case of adrenal fatigue or nervous exhaustion.
A Parasympathomimetic: Lobelia
Lobelia ( Lobelia inflata ) — Lobelia is a tremendous plant that is able to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes it a powerful relaxant. It helps to relax spasms of smooth muscle and is used for relief of athsma attacks. In a large enough dose, it can be an emetic (induce vomiting) hence its nickname “pukeweed.” Yep. Pukeweed. Don’t let that turn you off from this tremendous healer, though. Used in smaller doses and particularly if you use a tincture of the fresh plant rather than the dried, Lobelia won’t cause you to feel sick to your stomach. I tend to use a dose of 1-10 drops of tincture in a small sip of water to encourage relaxation and help my parasympathetic nervous system kick into gear.
Last but not least: Adaptogens
Another class of herbs worth considering are the adaptogens. Adaptogens sound too-good-to-be-true: they are a specific class of botanicals that meet the following criteria:
- They have no known toxicity
- They are amphoteric, or balancing, in their action. This means that they stimulate and increase a function that is too low and inhibit or decrease a function that is too high. They normalize an imbalance regardless of whether it is an excess or a deficiency.
- They are general in their action and do not target one specfic body system
- They increase the body’s resilience and ability to cope with stressors (including physical exercise, mental/emotional stress, and illness.)
Some adaptogenic herbs that are particularly useful for people with anxiety are Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) (I like this in tea form and Organic India makes some very nice blends), Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) which is a particularly good choice if there are heart palpitations or cardiac issues concurrent with anxiety, Ashwaghanda (Withania somnifera)which is great for people with anxiety and concurrent auto-immune issues, and Schisandra berries (Schisandra chinensis) which I prefer in tincture form and use frequently when under a great deal of stress from work or social demands. Stay tuned for future posts all about adaptogens—this is a tremendous group of botanicals that deserve a lot of our attention.