Do anti anxiety herbs work?


My clients will often come to therapy asking about anti anxiety herbs. Many insist that they will not take medicine to help with their anxiety or indicate that they want to get off the medicine they are taking.

In the 19th century, herbal medicine was used exclusively in China to treat all mental illness. These herbs have frequently been used for thousands of years by different cultures. If there are effective anti anxiety herbs that can be used with anxiety, why wouldn’t we try them first? Did you know that Aspirin, the most common over the counter medicine is a synthetic version of a compound found in the willow tree (Brucker, 2009)? What makes us think that our pharmaceuticals are any more effective than the anti anxiety herbs that have been used by native peoples for hundreds of years?

In considering anti anxiety herbs it is important to pay attention to what is supported by research. Research can tell us much about an anti anxiety herb, such as its maximum safe dose and interactional and side effects. Although research is important, sometimes the research just hasn't been done.  a lack a research doesn't mean a possible herb doesn't help with anxiety.

Anti anxiety herb Kava


Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) is the most commonly used anti anxiety herb. Ground Kava Root has been used for centuries as an inebriant and in rituals and ceremonies by the Pacific Islanders. Current research supports the use of Kava for generalized anxiety but not for other anxiety disorders (Sarris, 2009).

One study actually demonstrated that Kava is of equal benefit to Opipramol ( Naproxen) and Busperone ( Buspar)!

This is important as the side effects associated with these two drugs are not present with Kava. However, Kava has been associated with liver damage, although there is some question about this research.

If you have liver problems you shouldn’t take Kava and there are no studies verifying its safety beyond 4 months. It is not legally sold over the counter in some countries, but is here in the US (Sarris 2009).

How does the anti anxiety herb Kava work?

Current evidence indicates that the neurobiological influence for anxiety ( the biological underpinnings) primarily involves dysfunction of GABAergic, glutamatergic, serotonergic, and noradrenergic pathways (Sarris,2009).

What are these complicated sounding pathways ?

These pathway consist of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that enables neurons exchange signals and keep the body and brain functioning correctly. Without getting into too much complicated detail, each of the prescription drugs we use to treat anxiety affect the pathways above in some way so that they function more like they would in less anxious people.

The exact mechanisms of how Kava works is not known, however, it appears it works in some way with receptors, proteins, and neurons involved in these pathways. Some studies demonstrate that Kava relaxes muscles, and eases the physical symptoms of anxiety.

It is important as with all herbal and vitamin supplements, to ask your doctor about Kava. There is question as to whether it interacts with other drugs, and it also has been associated with liver damage. Don’t just take this on your own (Sarris,2009).

Anti anxiety herb Lavender


Silexan ( concentrated lavender capsules ) has been studied and shown effective with generalized anxiety disorder. The safety of Silexan was also demonstrated. Since lavender oil showed no sedative effects ( sleepiness)and has no potential for drug abuse, researchers who conducted studies with silexan concluded it appears to be a possible viable alternative to appears to benzodiazepines for amelioration of  generalized anxiety (Woelk 2010).

What are some other anti anxiety herbs?

  • Lemon Balm: (Melissa Officinalîs) Research does suggest it helps with calm and focus and decreases agitation in Alzheimer's patients( Woodward 2010.)
  • Chamomile: Mild sedative effects have been demonstrated by research(Head,2009).
  • Ginseng: Shown to keep blood glucose fluctuation minimized , and there is an association between blood sugar fluctuation and anxiety( Head 2009).
  • Sage:One study suggests sage induced calmness and alertness (Altshul, 2006).
  • Marapuama: Data on rats indicate it counteracts some of the effects brought on by chronic stress.
  • Green Tea: Studies show L-rheanine induces alpha-brainwave activity, which correlates with a perceived state of relaxation( Head, 2009).
  • Valerian :Shown by some studies to reduce stress and induce relaxation ( Head 2009).
  • Thryallis or Rain-of-Gold (Galphimia Glauca):One study suggests this is effective 
  • GADBlue Skullcap(Scutellaria Laterißora) Jujube(Ziziphus Jujube)( Head, 2009).

There is no good evidence that the other herbs can be used to treat anxiety disorders, but reason to believe they may be helpful.

Adaptogenic Herbs

It is suggested that these herbs help to regulate homeostasis and to influence the mechanisms of our stress response via the hypothalamic pituitary axis( HPA). Anxiety Disorders are strongly influenced by stress. Therefore these herbs may be helpful and relevant in the future research for ameliorating anxiety. There is no good human research to support these claims(Provino,2010).

We learn more and more each day about the way these adaptogenic herbs work on our biology to reduce our stress response. These ancient people who conceived of using these herbs appear to have known something. Other possibly helpful herbs include:

  • Withania (Withania somnifera)
  • Korean Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
  • Siberian Ginsing (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
  • Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
  • Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
  • Rhodiola ( Rhodiola rose)Brahmi (Bacopa monniera)
  • Gotu Kola(Centella asiatica)

Provino (2010)  Altshul, S. (2006). 


 Brucker, H. (2009). Healing with TCM. Natural Health, 39(5), 48. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.

Head, K., & Kelly, G. (2009). Nutrients and botanicals for treatment of stress: adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalance, anxiety, and restless sleep. Alternative Medicine Review, 14(2), 114-140. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Piato, A., Detanico, B., Linck, V., Herrmann, A., Nunes, D., & Elisabetsky, E. (2010). Anti-stress effects of the "tonic"Ptychopetalum olacoides (Marapuama) in mice. Phytomedicine, 17(3-4), 248-253. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Provino, R. (2010). The role of adaptogens in stress management. Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism, 22(2), 41-49. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Sarris, J., & Kavanagh, D. (2009). Kava and St. John's Wort: current evidence for use in mood and anxiety disorders. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 15(8), 827-836. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Schreck, J. (2010). Chinese Herbal Remedies for Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia, and Psychosis. Positive Health, (172), 1. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Woelk, H., & Schläfke, S. (2010). A multi-center, double-blind, randomised study of the Lavender oil preparation Silexan in comparison to Lorazepam for generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine, 17(2), 94-99. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Woodard, S. (2010). ANCIENT Remedies Modern CURES. Prevention, 62(2), 102. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.(2007).

Herbs and supplements for anxiety: Kava, inositol may help. Harvard Women's Health Watch, 15(4), 6. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.

Sage Eases Anxiety, Boosts Alertness. Prevention, 58(10), 90. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.

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