Q & A: Natural Anxiety Relief

Professional herbalists offer supplement herbs and aromatherapy to help relieve anxiety attacks.

| May/June 2001

  • Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association.
  • Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Boulder, Colorado, where he practices integrative medicine.

I often experience a feeling I can only describe as anxiousness—nausea, occasional heart palpitations, and a general uneasy feeling. What herbal remedies or supplements could help me?--A. M. (via e-mail)

Rountree responds: Before you start experimenting with supplements, I recommend that you have a thorough medical evaluation including blood testing. You might have a condition that could be corrected, such as a thyroid disorder, a magnesium deficiency, or food allergies. If it does turn out that your primary problem is anxiety, then kava (Piper methysticum) is probably the most effective remedy available. I recommend an extract containing a minimum of 30 percent kavalactones in a dose of 100 to 200 mg every six to eight hours as needed. I have found it to be fast-acting, safe, and nonaddictive even when taken for weeks at a time. For the associated symptoms you’ve described, try taking motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), which is calming to both the heart and the nervous system. Take 2 g of the dried leaves one to three times daily. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), like motherwort, is an excellent heart tonic that simultaneously soothes the nerves. It’s available in capsules as a standardized extract containing 20 percent procyanidins; take 250 to 500 mg several times daily.

Finally, as a long-term strategy, I would recommend reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum). Although it takes a while to work, reishi is terrific for alleviating the effects of chronic stress on the cardiovascular and nervous systems. The mushroom is inedible without processing, so look for a hot-water extract that guarantees a minimum of 10 percent polysaccharides and 4 percent triterpenes. To achieve the best effect, start with a dose of 1,200 mg twice daily, decreasing to half this dose in one to two months for up to four months at a time.

Keville responds: Anxiety is a complaint that many people experience but few talk about. It is usually referred to as a panic attack. You may be surprised to learn it is classified as a type of depression due to imbalances in brain chemistry. As a result, many of the same herbs are used to treat both problems, such as St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) and wild oat (Avena sativa). Studies show success in easing anxiety using herbs that bring the whole body, as well as the mind, into balance, such as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), ligustrum (Ligustrum spp.), and kava.

How about trying aromatherapy? Scent is thought to affect brain chemistry and influence emotions. It’s used to treat anxiety by association. A particular scent is sniffed while relaxing during biofeedback therapy or counseling. The patient then associates that scent with positive, relaxing emotions. The next time he or she smells the fragrance, the association is strong enough to bring back peaceful feelings. While anxiety isn’t completely cured by fragrance, it can be greatly reduced.

Here’s a simple home program you can try. Smell a fragrance you love while getting a massage or doing something that makes you calm and happy. Because anxious feelings have a habit of striking while you’re out in the world, carry your scents with you so they’re handy when you need them. You can put a few drops of an essential oil on a small piece of cloth or add it to 1/2 teaspoon of table salt to create your own “smelling salts.” Use any scent you like, but essential oils most often used to alleviate depression and anxiety are lavender, rose, and neroli. Other anti-anxiety scents to consider are geranium, sandalwood, several species of chamomile, and plain old peppermint. Feel free to combine several oils. 

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