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Hey guys - how ya doing? Like for real. Because if you happen to be a human being in 2021, my guesses are that shit is kinda hard for you right now... in what seems like a very drawn out and endless way.
I'm not even going to outline WHY you might be stressed. In my 7+ years of clinical practice as a herbalist, stress and mental health issues are the most common issues that I see (alongside digestive issues, but that's a blog for another day).
And even if you didn't make an appointment specifically because of stress, it inevitably plays a role in your health issues.
So if that was the case pre-Covid, just imagine what it looks like now! That's right - pretty much everyone who walks into my Zoom consult is struggling with stress, overwhelm, or mental health issues.
And honestly, when it comes to *the state of all things* , herbs will not provide complete relief. A real holistic approach is so important when it comes to stress and our mental health.
I'm talking deep breathing, nourishing food (whatever that looks like to you in the moment), joyful movement, counselling, and connection and support. And when so many of our foundational support systems are not available to us, then we really need to give ourselves a lot of grace to realize that it is not our fault if we are feeling pretty crappy.
However - herbs can play an amazing role in providing support for our mental health.
In North America, I've often heard herbs referred to as "allies", which I think is such a nice framework. Supports who are by your side. They can't fight the fight for you, but they can shore you up when you need them.
*A disclaimer* - If you are dealing with a serious health concern (mental health or otherwise), or if you are on medication for depression or anxiety (or any serious medication), please work with a practitioner rather than self-prescribing herbs. If you are unsure if your health condition is serious, check with a practitioner. Extra support is never a bad idea and your safety is the most important concern.
How do herbs work for stress and mental health issues?
We class different herbs into categories based on their actions in the body. Some of the classes of herbs that support mental health include:
Adaptogens - herbs that help the body adapt to stress, whether that stress be mental, emotional, or physical (ie: recovering from an illness).
Anxiolytics - herbs that help to alleviate anxiety
Nervines - herbs that support the function of the nervous system, helping us to relax
Sedatives - herbs that calm the nervous system and decrease nervous tension. Herbal sedatives may also help to alleviate pain and support sleep. Note that herbal sedatives are not the same as pharmaceutical sedatives. They are not the kind of substance that will "knock you out" for sleep, and nor do they tend to be habit-forming. Always chat to your practitioner if you have any questions about these!
My fave herbs for stress, overwhelm, and mental health
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Withania somnifera - photo cred Wikipedia
One of the more *trendy* herbs these days, Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb (the traditional system of medicine in India) that has been used for literally thousands of years. It is my favourite adaptogen as it is not stimulating, and also has anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties.
I use Ashwagandha long-term for prevention, or to help with recovery from a stressful event. It is relatively safe, though it is a nightshade plant, so caution if you have an intolerance to nightshades. (Also, it is worth checking out this article to see if nightshades are really a problem for you).
How to take it - We use the root of Ashwagandha, and you can buy this powdered to mix it into a smoothie or hot chocolate. It has a pretty...ummm earthy taste - in fact the word Ashwagandha has been translated to mean "smells like horse", so, there is that.
I usually use Ashwagandha tincture in a blend with other herbs for people. Tinctures (which are herbs extracted in alcohol and water) are concentrated so you only need a small dose to get a big effect.
What to expect - a gradual calming effect. I find the best way to describe the effect is a grounding energy. Like I said it is not stimulating, but over time it provides a deeply nourishing effect which supports your resilience to stress. It's a beauty and one that most of us could probably benefit from.
The research - Because of it's broad spectrum of action, Ashwagandha has been studied for many different issues, including immune function, cognition, arthritis, and blood sugar and cholesterol.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
The herb that Peter Rabbit's mum gave him after his stressful encounter with Mr McGregor, this pretty little daisy is well-known for it's calming properties and is often used with children.
Chamomile is a mild sedative and has been used for centuries for sleep and anxiety. It is also one of the best-known herbs for digestive upsets, and is often used to help with tummy troubles in everyone from infants to the elderly. This herb is considered very safe, though if you have an allergy to plants from the daisy family then this might not be the one for you.
In clinic, I often use this herb for folks with issues like nervous diarrhea, or IBS when there is a stress component (hot tip - there is pretty much always a stress component). As we learn more about the gut-brain connection, it is so amazing to see that nature already knew that this was a thing, and has conveniently packaged up a support for us in one flower.
How to take it - Chamomile flowers dried (or fresh if you've got them) make a beautiful tea. Simply steep in just-boiled water for 5-10 min (leave them too long and they get bitter). 3 cups a day for ongoing, drip-fed stress support, or after dinner to help you both digest your meal and ease into sleep.
Chamomile can also be used in tincture form if you prefer to shoot your herbs like tequila rather than sip them throughout the day.
What to expect - While most herbs (Chamomile included) work best over time, I do find Chamomile works well acutely as well. It provides a gentle calming effect, easing anxiety and helping with sleep quality.
Lemonbalm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemonbalm belongs to the mint family and can get carried away in the garden!
Lemonbalm is a beautiful anxiolytic herb that also happens to taste like a lemony dream.
It is another herb that works on both stress and digestion. It has been used to support sleep during times of high stress.
I find Lemonbalm slightly more uplifting than Chamomile, so I tend to use it during the day rather than at night, though research has shown it can help with sleep too (see "The research" below). Lemonbalm is a good alternative to Chamomile if you have a daisy allergy, as it is part of the mint family.
How to take it - Again, so lovely as a tea, but can also be used in tincture form to get a more concentrated dose.
What to expect - Uplifting but not in a stimulating way, Lemonbalm calms the mind and the belly.
The research - What could be more stressful than going through coronary bypass surgery? This study showed that Lemonbalm helped folks in that situation with sleep.
Here is some research on it's use in anxiety, along with a proposed mechanism.
The Big Guns
I often shy away from discussing the more potent/powerful plants, especially on my blog where nuance and conversation are hard to portray. But I don't want you walking away thinking that herbs are not a real, powerful option for folks with mental health issues, because they are.
The following herbs are best used after consultation with a naturopath or herbalist, especially if you are on ANY medication.
Kava (Piper methysticum)
Kava in Fiji. The root is used medicinally and in ceremony.
Kava is a plant with cultural and medicinal significance in the Pacific Islands. It has been used traditionally in both ceremony and to promote a calming effect.
Kava is used to help reduce anxiety, and has excellent research for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It works as a mild sedative and has some pain-relieving actions (though it is not the same as using pharmaceutical pain relievers!).
Controversy over the safety of Kava in the early 2000s led to some countries stopping the sale of kava. Numerous theories exist over why this plant which has been safely used for thousands of years was suddenly causing liver damage. The most common conclusion is that with the increased demand for Kava in the West, people without experience with growing, harvesting, and extracting Kava were doing these things improperly. This lead to incorrect species and/or improper extraction methods being used, which caused health issues with those who took it.
This highlights an important conversation in herbal medicine - just because something is natural does not mean it is safe, and because of the complex nature of plants, it is super important to get your herbs from a VERY trusted source.
How to take it - I tend to use Kava in tincture, mostly because it tastes terrible and makes your mouth feel numb and tingly. Traditionally Kava root is ground up and mixed with water.
What to expect - Bad taste and tingly mouth aside, Kava can work quite quickly to help calm anxiety. To get the full anti-anxiety effect, most research recommends taking it for a minimum of 4 weeks.
The research -
St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St John's Wort grows like a weed in many parts of the world.
Traditionally used in Greece and Europe, St John's Wort is probably the most well-known herb for depression.
It is another amazing plant with a checkered past, many people will know that St John's Wort (SJW) is not to be taken with medications.
However, it's danger has been totally overblown. Can it interact with medications? Totally. SJW has been shown to induce a certain enzyme in the liver which lots of pharmaceutical drugs are also detoxified through. The sum of this is that concurrent use of certain meds with SJW can make the meds move through the detoxification process more quickly, making them usable in the body for a shorter time.
This can be a dangerous effect if someone is on life-saving medications such as those used in recipients of organ transplants, or meds which have a "narrow therapeutic window" such as Warfarin. So while I totally recommend that you work with a practitioner if you want to take SJW, it is not dangerous, as such, on its own.
And in fact, it can be unbelievably helpful. SJW has been researched for mild, moderate, and major depression, and the results are excellent. In numerous large reviews (see down below), it has been shown to be as effective as many pharmaceutical antidepressants, but with fewer side effects. I would argue that it should be first-line treatment for depression (again, under the care of a healthcare practitioner).
How to take it - Tea for a lower dose, tincture or a standardized capsule/tablet for a higher dose (again, in consultation with your practitioner). Similarly to Kava, some of the concerns around SJW had to do with the way it has been processed, so not all SJW products are alike.
What to expect - No real acute effects, SJW seems to take around three to four weeks for real benefit to be seen. This is very similar to the length of time that pharmaceutical antidepressants take for full effect.
In higher doses, some folks do get a bit of photosensitivity. According to an overview of 16 post-marketing surveillance studies, mild gastrointestinal symptoms and sensitivity to light were the most commonly reported side-effects.
The research - There are over 2000 studies on SJW. Here are some of the biggest reviews.
For depression (mild-moderate)
For major depression - 2008
Why it might be a good option for first line treatment (economically more viable, and same effect)
Ok my loves, that is enough from me! I hope that you found this useful and informative. If you have any questions, please feel free to sing out.
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Herbal medicine has been super complicit in the structures of white supremacy and cultural appropriation. Many of these herbs belong to cultures which are not my own. I am just starting to untangle the ways in which I can decolonize my herbal practice, and am open to feedback on this topic. I am super grateful to those who I am currently learning from to help me make the way that I work better and more inclusive.
If you have questions, comments, or feedback, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org