Best herbs for stress and anxiety (SQ-130)
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. From everyday challenges to major stressors, there are plenty of reasons that can make us feel down in dumps.
And with recent events on the world stage, these stressors have taken an altogether new meaning. The pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of our lives. Everything – the way we live, work, shop, travel, and socially interact – is changing. Fear of getting infection, job insecurity, balancing work and family life, and salary cuts, there are lot of stressors that can trigger intense emotions like fear, anxiety, and excessive worrying.
What can stress do to your body?
Short-term stress helps you cope with difficult situations. It can even motivate you to do your best in a demanding situation.
When you sense a threatening situation, it triggers a stress response in the body designed to help you deal with the perceived threat. For example, your body releases stress hormones that prepare you to be more alert and energetic. These hormones initiate biological changes that help you respond to the stressful situation in the most efficient way.
However, prolonged stress and constant firing of stress hormones put your health at a serious risk. Long-term stress messes up with your body and can drastically affect your mood and behaviour.
It can cause a range of physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms such as:
- Low energy levels
- Aches and pains
- Tensed muscles
- Skin problems
- Digestive issues
- Tension headaches and migraines
- Chest pain
- Tightness in the neck
- Anxiety, excessive worry and racing thoughts
- Anger and irritability
- Nervousness and racing heart
- Mood swings
- Trouble sleeping
- Low sex drive
- Loss of appetite or eating more
- Inability to focus
- Getting sick often
These symptoms have a rippling effect on the quality of your life and take a heavy toll on your health, personal relationships, and work performance.
Unchecked stress can even contribute to, or worsen existing health problems such as heart disease, obesity, depression, high blood pressure and auto-immune diseases like thyroid, irritable bowel syndrome and vitiligo.
It can also knock down your immune system. Getting sick often or coming down with frequent bouts of flu and cold could also be the sign that your body has elevated stress levels. Ongoing stress is known to increase your sensitivity to pain and can even aggravate symptoms of fibromyalgia and arthritis.
Are you experiencing stress and anxiety on a daily basis? Do things look out of control? It is time to take action. While you can’t remove all your stress triggers, chances are you can still do a lot to manage your stress levels and anxiety naturally, without resorting to prescription medications, that can have serious side-effects.
Talk therapy, building strong connections and regular exercise are some of the things that can help you stay calm under pressure. Relaxation techniques like mindful mediation and breathing exercises can also help provide relief from stress and anxiety.
Can herbs help in reducing stress and anxiety?
Some of the most popular herbs that are used to reduce the negative effects of stress and anxiety on the body belong to a group called adaptogens.
Adaptogens – also known as ‘Biological Response Modifiers’ – are unique herbs that improve your body’s resistance to stress. These herbs have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and in Ayurveda for centuries, to ease fatigue, boost energy and improve overall well-being.
While each adaptogen may have distinct health benefits, overall these herbs help your body adapt to stress and lessen the damage caused by stress. All adaptogens work in the same way, as they regulate your hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathoadrenal system (SAS). These two systems regulate how your body responds to stress.
However, long term stress over-activates these stress response systems – causing excess secretion of stress hormones, especially cortisol. This can cause adrenal burnout with symptoms such as chronic fatigue, body aches, nausea, insomnia, anxiety, mood swings and depression.
Adaptogens help the body deal with stress and its symptoms by supporting adrenal health and regulating cortisol levels.
Another interesting property of adaptogenic herbs is that they can sense what your body needs and tip the balance in that direction. For example, it can stimulate as well as calm down your nervous system depending on what is required. This kind of intelligence allows adaptogens to restore overall order in the body, an important quality as stress disrupts the internal homeostasis that causes chaos and illness.
A well-balanced body knows how to repair and rejuvenate itself in times of stress.
Overall, adaptogenic herbs help your body adapt to stress and reduce fatigue and exhaustion caused by chronic stress caused by physical, mental, emotional, and even biological stressors.
Top herbs for stress and anxiety
1. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola Rosea is used as a popular dietary supplement for stress and anxiety. It is an adaptogen – a rare class of herbs that improve the body’s resistance to stress. Adaptogenic herbs support your adrenal functions and help your body adapt to physical, mental, and emotional stress.
As an adaptogen and a natural tonic, Rhodiola eases symptoms that are caused by chronic stress such as physical and mental fatigue, burn-out , depression  and low energy levels.
Its root is rich in potent medicinal compounds that have anti-stress and antidepressant properties. Salidroside and rosavin are the two most powerful bioactive compounds present in the roots of Rhodiola.
Preliminary research suggests that rhodiola can be used along with anti-depressants because it reduces side effects especially fatigue. It also improves mental and physical energy.
A study found that while rhodiola may be less effective than sertraline (an anti-depressant drug) in reducing symptoms of depression, it caused less side effects and was better tolerated. 
“Rhodiola rosea contains active chemical compounds that provide relief in stress and ease symptoms such as exhaustion and poor energy levels.”
2. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is one of the most prominent herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. Also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry, this ancient herb has been used for centuries as a tonic or rejuvenator. It literally translates into smell of horses (ashwa means horse and gandha means smell).
As an adaptogen, Ashwagandha helps the body adapt to stress and improve associated symptoms like fatigue, depression, insomnia, and poor energy levels.
Studies show that Ashwagandha can reduce cortisol levels, improve body’s resistance to stress, and benefit people with insomnia and anxiety.   
An investigation revealed that ashwagandha may relieve stress and anxiety due to its effect on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. The study found that ashwagandha supplements significantly lowered anxiety, depression, and stress. It also reduced cortisol levels. 
“Ashwagandha is a popular ayurvedic herb that can reduce levels of stress hormone cortisol. It works as an adaptogen and assists the body to deal with stress. Ashwagandha also provides relief in poor sleep, fatigue and anxiety, often caused by stress.”
3. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chamomile is one of the most popular herbs used for insomnia and anxiety disorders. In fact, many people drink chamomile tea before bedtime as it helps them sleep better.
Chamomile is considered as a mild tranquilizer and its calming or sleep-inducing effect is believed to be due to the presence of apigenin, a flavonoid that binds to certain receptors in the brain and induce sleepiness. Interestingly, benzodiazepines – drugs that are commonly used to treat insomnia, anxiety and depression – also bind to the same brain receptors.
A small clinical trial showed that chamomile extract can substantially improve sleep quality in elderly people . Another small study suggested that chamomile tea can help in reducing depression, fatigue, and sleep issues in new mothers. 
A small study showed that long-term use of chamomile may reduce mild symptoms in patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) . The herb may also be beneficial in people with depression .
However, more large-scale studies are needed to establish its effectiveness in insomnia, anxiety and depression.
“Chamomile works as a mild tranquilizer and induces sleep. Its calming effect is credited to apigenin, a compound that binds to certain brain receptors and helps you sleep better. Chamomile may also help reduce symptoms in patients with general anxiety disorders.”
4. Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian root has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for anxiety, nervousness and insomnia. Its use in promoting sleep and alleviating anxiety dates back to ancient Greece.
In fact, most herbal supplements for stress relief, anxiety and sleep issues contain valerian roots as one of their main ingredients.
Some small-scale and short-term clinical trials suggest that valerian root can be very helpful in improving the quality of sleep, without side effects. It can also help you sleep faster, while improving the duration of sleep.  
Valerian works as a mild sedative and promotes restful sleep. It is believed that this herb has a mode of action similar to benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that are routinely prescribed for treating insomnia, panic attacks and depression.
Valerian root contains valerenic acid, a bio-active compound that increases the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes calmness and relaxation. It also contains antioxidant compounds such as hespridin and linarin that promote sleep.
While the use of benzodiazepines comes with a high risk of dependency and other side effects such as drowsiness, irritability and mental fog, valerian root induces calmness and sedation without such consequences.
Despite some promising studies, there is lack of well-designed, serious clinical trials that can show the benefits of valerian root in anxiety and poor sleep.
“Valerian root is one of the most popular herbal supplements for anxiety and insomnia. While there is a lack of substantial scientific evidence, valerian root has been traditionally used as a sleep aid and an effective herbal remedy for stress and anxiety. Small studies do show benefits in improving sleep quality.”
5. Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)
Jiaogulan, also known as ‘Herb of Immortality’, is an incredibly powerful adaptogen. Traditionally, it has been used by people in Southern China for hundred for years as a tonic that heals body and mind. Research revealed that locals from this region, who had been consuming jiaogulan, lived an exceptionally long and healthy life.
The herb is rich in natural compounds called saponins. These chemicals are responsible for its adaptogenic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
As an adaptogen, jiaogulan makes the body naturally better at coping with stress. Jiaogulan supports healthy immune, endocrine, and nervous systems and by doing so helps the body run like a smooth and well-oiled machinery, that is extremely good at preserving its internal balance and energy. Most importantly, it nourishes adrenal glands and regulates the levels of stress hormones.
In fact, Jiaogulan works in several ways to protect against stress. All kinds of stress, whether it is internal or external, eventually manifest in the same way – causing oxidative damage and inflammation. This accelerates the process of ageing and development of chronic diseases.
Jiaogulan encourages the production of natural antioxidants – Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), Glutathione and Catalase – in the body. These endogenous antioxidants are immensely powerful in reducing the effects of oxidative damage.
This is another way that jiaogulan allows the body to heal and recover from the effects of stress much more efficiently.
Drinking tea made by jiaogulan leaves, or consuming capsules of the powdered leaves, can also help you alleviate fatigue, boost energy and sleep better.
A 2019 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial found that jiaogulan supplements reduced anxiety in healthy adults, when they are stressed. 
“Jiaogulan is one of the most powerful adaptogenic herbs that protect against stress and its negative effects in many ways. The herb not only helps the body to manage stress better, it also boosts energy, promotes sleep and reduces fatigue. It also encourages the body to produce natural antioxidants that fight the oxidative damage caused by stress. "
Please note that herbal supplements may have side effects. Consult with your doctor before taking any of these herbs for anxiety, especially if you have any existing health condition or are already taking any prescription medication.
Although these herbs are safe and non-toxic, they can interact with other medicines and cause adverse reactions, which can sometimes be serious.
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