Herbs for Health: Combat Stress with Herbs

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Lemon balm
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A supplement to the Herb Companion from the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation.

Twenty-four hours in a day just aren’t enough for many people caught up in hectic schedules of work, home, and family. The anxiety that can build up while trying to accomplish the impossible can affect your physical health. Hypertension, insomnia, and gastrointestinal distress are a few of the disorders that may occur or worsen as a result of stress.

The key to coping is learning to manage stress. Lifestyle considerations are probably the best way to begin. A balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and finding time to relax are all crucial to staying physically and mentally healthy. But sometimes, further help is called for. For centuries, people have turned to herbs. You may wish to consider a few that research has shown to ease some of the manifestations of stress.


Kava-kava (Piper methysticum), or simply kava, is relatively new to the United States, but in Germany kava products are widely used to treat nervous anxiety, stress, and unrest. On islands in the South Pacific, however, this herb has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years for use as a relaxing social and ceremonial beverage. It was ­adopted for medicinal use in Europe in the 1860s.

Active constituents known as kavalactones work by relaxing muscles directly rather than blocking nerve signals as other muscle relaxants do. Kava-root tablets, capsules, tinctures, dried root, and leaf products are available in the United States. In Europe, standardized products contain 70 percent kavalactones. Do not exceed the dosage given on the product label. Also do not use kava while pregnant or nursing, if depressed, or when drinking alcohol, driving or operating machinery.


Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), a vine native to the southeastern United States, has been used to relieve anxiety and insomnia for about 150 years. Animal studies in Europe have shown that it is sedative, allays spasms and anxiety, and lowers blood pressure. Passionflower is used in Europe for nervous tension, especially in sleep disturbances and heart palpitations. Recent research on passionflower indicates that several chemical components–probably flavonoids–act together to cause these effects.

Generally, a tea containing 0.5 to 2.5 g of the dried herb (1/2 teaspoon) is taken three to four times a day. No toxicity has been observed in laboratory animals, and no contraindications, side effects, or drug interactions have been reported.


Used since the seventeenth century as a sleep aid, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is still ­widely used in Europe for this purpose. It has been shown to depress the central nervous system and relieve muscle spasms. Sometimes called “Europe’s herbal sleeping pill”, valerian reduces the time it takes to fall asleep without producing a morning-after hangover as some synthetic sedatives do. Of the more than 120 constituents identified from the root and essential oil, valerenic acid and valerenal, components of the essential oil, are believed to be the primary active ingredients.

The dried root is available in whole, cut-and-sifted, and powdered form for teas, capsules, tablets, tinctures, and extracts. The standard daily dose to reduce excitability is 2 to 3 g (about 1/2 teaspoon) of the root divided into two or three doses, but up to a teaspoonful of the tincture may be taken several times daily to calm acute restlessness. As a sleep aid, valerian should be taken one hour before bedtime.

Lemon balm

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is best known in the ­United States as a pleasant-­tasting, lemon-scented herb whose leaves make a delicious tea, but in Europe it was selected as the medicinal plant of the year in 1988. The essential oil is recognized as sedative, antispasmodic, and antibacterial, and extracts have been shown to inhibit the growth of viruses. In Germany, the leaves and other preparations are used as a mild calmative and to relieve gas.

The recommended daily dose is 1.5 to 4.5 g of the dried herb steeped in a cup of hot water. No adverse effects have been reported.


One of the best herbs to calm the nerves while relieving stress-induced gastrointestinal disorders is German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Used for centuries as a mild sleep aid, chamomile–specifically components of the essential oil–has been shown to relieve spasms, inflammation, and pain, and to be mildly sedative.

A tea made from 2 to 3 g (1/2 to 1 tablespoon) of the dried flowers or 1 to 4 ml (10 to 40 drops) of a tincture taken three times a day is a safe and gentle sleep aid for adults and children alike. Although allergic reactions to chamomile are rare, individuals who are allergic to other members of the aster family, such as ragweed, may also be allergic to chamomile.


Hops, the fruits (strobiles) of Humulus lupulus, are widely grown in the Pacific Northwest for flavoring beer. They have also been traditionally used to soothe the stomach and as a sedative.

Studies evaluating hops as a sedative have had conflicting results. In Germany, hops are prescribed–often in combination with valerian or passionflower–for nervous tension, excitability, restlessness, lack of sleep, and to stimulate the appetite. German health authorities recommend a daily dose of 1/2 g. Use about 1 heaping teaspoon of whole hops to make a tea. Some people like to place a small pillow stuffed with hops where they can inhale the aroma while lying in bed.

No side effects, contraindications, or adverse drug interactions have been reported, ­although some people have experienced an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis from the pollen or the yellow crystals in the strobiles.

Further reading

Foster, S. Herbal Renaissance: Growing, Using and Understanding Herbs in the Modern World. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1993.
_______. Herbs for Your Health. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1996.
Hobbs, C. Stress and Natural Healing. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1997.
Leung, A., and S. Foster. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley, 1996.
Lebot, V. “Kava (Piper methysticum Forst. f.): The Polynesian Dispersal of an Oceanian Plant”. In Islands, Plants and Polynesians: An Introduction to Polynesian Ethnobotany, edited by P. A. Cox and S. A. Banack, 169-220. Portland, Oregon: Dioscorides Press, 1991.
Lebot, V., et al. Kava: The Pacific Drug. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1992.
Tyler, V. E. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.
Weiss, R. F. Herbal Medicine. A. R. Meuss, trans. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield, 1988.

Herbs for Health

“Herbs for Health” is offered bimonthly by the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation as a supplement to ­The Herb Companion. Editor, Steven Foster

American Botanical Council
PO Box 201660 Austin, TX 78720
Herb Research Foundation
1007 Pearl St., Ste. 200 Boulder, CO 80302

“Herbs for Health” is intended as an educational service, not a source of medical advice or a guide for self-medication. Please consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any serious health problems. For further information on any of the topics in “Herbs for Health”, write the
American Botanical Council or the Herb Research Foundation.

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