1. Brew some chamomile. When Peter Rabbit ate himself sick in Mr. McGregor’s garden, then got chased out at the wrong end of a hoe, his mother gave him chamomile tea. She was a wise herbalist. The two medicinal species of chamomile (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobile) contain apigenin, which binds to the same cellular receptors as pharmaceutical tranquilizers and has similar effects, but without sedation, morning-after grogginess, or risk of addiction.
Japanese researchers exposed experimentally stressed laboratory animals to chamomile oil. Compared with unexposed animals, the ones that inhaled the vapor showed lower stress hormone levels. Meanwhile, the bisabolol in chamomile relaxes the digestive tract, which relieves a common stress symptom, indigestion.
To make chamomile tea, use two to three heaping teaspoons of flowers per cup of boiling water. Steep ten minutes. Or add a handful of chamomile flowers to a hot bath and inhale their calming aroma.
2. Pop a kava capsule. The latest herbal stress reliever is kava, the age-old social intoxicant of the South Pacific. In the large doses used in places like Fiji, kava has the effect of a couple of beers. But in lower doses, it’s a nonintoxicating stress reducer. Kava (Piper methysticum) contains kavalactones that have a mild tranquilizing effect similar to Valium, but without its side effects.
Kava may cause some numbing of the mouth. This is harmless. Do not mix kava with alcohol or other sedative or psychoactive medications because kava adds to their sedative effect. And don’t use kava if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you have any condition that impairs coordination such as Parkinson’s disease.
The recommended dose is 100 mg three times a day of a standardized extract containing 60 to 75 mg of kavalactones per capsule.
3. Have some hops. The herb famous for adding bitterness to beer is also a stress-relieving tranquilizer in small doses and a sedative in larger ones. Folktales abound about hops pickers falling asleep on the job. This should come as no surprise because hops (Humulus lupulus) is botanically related to marijuana but is not psychoactive. The research, all animal studies, shows that hops’ effects range from calming to sedating, depending on the dose.
Experiment for yourself, starting with one-half teaspoon per cup of boiling water, steeped for ten minutes. Take before bedtime to help ease isomnia.
4. Soothe yourself with passionflower. This herb’s name comes not from sexual passion but from the Passion of the Crucifixion. Native peoples from the Andes to the Gulf Coast used passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) to soothe their nerves. Eventually, it was adopted into American herbalism.
Oddly, passionflower contains both tranquilizing compounds and stimulants, but researchers consider its net effect to be tranquilizing. In Europe, passionflower is an ingredient in many tranquilizing and sedative preparations. It’s non-narcotic and nonaddictive.
For a pleasant-tasting tea, use one teaspoon of dried leaves per cup of boiling water, steeped ten minutes.
5. Steep some skullcap. This North American herb has enjoyed a strong folk reputation as a mild tranquilizer for 200 years, but scientific research has never confirmed this benefit. Still, many herbalists believe skullcap (Scutellaria spp.) can help relieve minor stress. If you’d like to try it, steep one to two teaspoons per cup of boiling water for ten minutes.
6. Relax with catnip. Famed for its intoxicating effect on most (but not all) cats, catnip also enjoys a long folk reputation as a calming herb. Scientists are skeptical, but many herbalists recommend catnip (Nepeta cataria) for stress and anxiety. If you’d like to try it, steep one to two teaspoons per cup of boiling water for ten minutes.
7. Strengthen your psyche with St.-John’s-wort. This herb has rocketed to fame because it’s a powerful antidepressant. Anxiety is a symptom of both stress and depression, so people who feel anxious because of underlying depression may benefit from St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum). However, if you believe you’re depressed, you should be under a physician’s care. St.-John’s-wort should not be used by those taking other antidepressants. The dose used in most of the research has been a 300 mg extract (containing 0.3 percent hypericin, one of the active constituents) three times a day. It usually takes four to six weeks to experience mood-elevating, anxiety-relieving effects.
8. Use your nose. Aromatherapy employs the aromatic oils found in plants to boost health. It is notably effective for stress relief. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, researchers measured the anxiety levels of people about to have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which requires lying still inside a cramped, noisy, cigar-shaped machine that often triggers claustrophobia. The researchers gave some of them whiffs of heliotropin, a vanilla-like fragrance aromatherapists consider relaxing. Those who inhaled the oil showed 63 percent less anxiety.
To relieve stress, Kathi Keville and Mindy Green, co-authors of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (The Crossing, 1995), recommend oils of anise, basil, bay, chamomile, eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, rose, and thyme, among others. Aromatherapy oils can be added to baths or massage lotions, but here’s a quick, easy way to use them just about anywhere: Place a few pieces of rock salt in a small vial. Add a few drops of oil. The rock salt absorbs the oil and prevents spilling. Cap the vial. Uncap it and inhale deeply whenever you feel the need.
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