Herbs for Health: Combat Stress with Herbs

Combating Stress: Herbs Can Help

| December/January 1997

  • Valerian
  • Passionflower
  • Lemon balm
  • Chamomile
    Photography by Steven Foster

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.

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