Stress. All of us have experienced
it. And after 9/11, the threat of global terrorism had been added to the
list of the many stresses of modern life. Although some stress is necessary
for our survival, and life would be extremely boring and probably not worth
living if we never had a challenge, for many people today, stress has taken
over their lives, and has ultimately taken its toll in the form of disease
and early death.
Stress is defined as a state of physical or psychological strain, pressure
and tension. How we humans respond and adapt to stress is key to successfully
dealing with it. Chronic, ongoing, unrelenting stress will eventually
cause collapse and death.
Stress causes stimulation of the primitive center of the brain and the
"fight-or- flight" (term originally coined by clinical researcher
in psychosomatic medicine, Walter B. Cannon) syndrome kicks in. Respiration
and heart rate go up, eyes dilate, tension increases in muscles, the body
is flooded with hormones, salts and sugars to increase strength and endurance,
and blood supply is diverted and increased to the vital organs to prevent
bleeding and bruising of the skin. All of us have heard stories of people
who have performed feats of super-human strength when faced with danger
or a crisis. In primitive man, fight-or-flight meant readiness to either
defend himself against a predatory animal or run away to safety, whichever
he then determined was necessary. Today, there are people who are in this
state from dusk to dawn.
The state of alarm and readiness for real, imagined, or anticipated stress
keeps the switch turned on for fight-or-flight and body functions break
down resulting in a withered thymus gland, diseased adrenals, bleeding
ulcers, etc. High blood pressure, insomnia, nervousness, anxiety and depression
are also associated with stress.
Although stress is accepted as natural 'wear and tear' of life, prolonged
stress or multiple stressors can accelerate its destructive effects. Some
people even become intoxicated by and addicted to their own stress hormones.
They usually participate in thrill seeking behavior or have high stress
professions. They actually do not feel 'normal' unless in a relatively
constant state of stress and excitement. Currently, Alzheimer's disease
research is investigating how stress hormones affect memory.
Sleep, rest and relaxation are necessary for a healthy life. Relaxation
does not necessarily mean play, because play can become competitive and
be taken too seriously. We need to listen to our bodies and acknowledge
if we are not getting enough rest, getting too keyed up, and feeling on
edge or tense.
Herbs are very effective in minimizing the effect of stress in our lives.
Other conscious steps such as quiet relaxation, meditation, aromatherapy,
and deep abdominal breathing can also bring about permanent changes in
how we deal with stress.
The goal in using herbs to alleviate the anxiety and nervousness due
to stress is not only to sedate, but to also help the body adapt to on-going
When treating patients, I usually give combination formulas, depending
on the individual situation.
Here are some of those herbs:
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata):
This plant was named by Spanish explorers who noted its unusual and elaborate
structure. It reminded them of the passion of Jesus Christ; the crown
of thorns, the five wounds, etc. But passionflower is a very effective
hypnotic sedative and relaxing nervine. Its active constituents are alkaloids,
flavonoids, some sterols and sugars, etc. It is an antispasmodic, relaxing
tense muscles, and promotes relaxation of blood vessels as well, so it
has some blood-pressure-lowering effects. It also has been shown to have
anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. It is indicated for restlessness,
agitation, panic attacks, exhaustion, and muscle twitches.
It can be taken in all traditional forms, tea, capsules, tinctures, tablets,
etc. and in combination with other herbs for specific effects. Up to 1,000
mg per day is safe, preferably in divided doses. For example, a 200 mg
tablet or capsule can be taken three times a day, with a sleep-inducing
dose of 2 before bed.
Valerian root: (Valeriana officinalis):
Valerian has a very distinct aroma. Some cats will react to it like catnip.
Also highly sedative, valerian is ideal for heart palpitations and arrhythmias
due to stress, hysteria, restlessness, and has even been shown to be effective
in treating ADD and ADHD. It also relieves mental strain that brings lack
of concentration, headache and stomach cramps, especially those related
Caution: Animal studies have shown that valerian has an augmenting effect
when used in combination with barbiturates or benzodiazepines. Therefore
do not take this herb if you are taking Xanax, Valium, Librium or Klonolpin
for anxiety. However, if you have stopped taking drugs and wish to try
valerian root as a more natural substitute, you may safely do so. Because
of its more sedative effect, it is best not to drive or operate machinery
when taking valerian, but for sleep induction, it is ideal. 10-60 drops
of 1:1 fluid extract up to four times a day is safe, or up to 1,000 mg
in divided doses of capsules or tablets, or drops taken ½ hour
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis):
This herb has a wonderful lemony fragrance, curly green, waxy leaves,and
graces many gardens as an ornamental plant. But Melissa deserves its place
among the potent nervines, and an added benefit in mentioning it is that
it might be growing right in your garden! If you pick a leaf, crush it
with your fingertips and smell it, you have just instantly given yourself
some medicine via the olfactory nerve, which directly connects the sense
of smell with the brain. The main constituents of Melissa are essential
oils, flavones, resin and bitter principles. You can chew the leaves,
put them in your salad, make a tea with fresh or dried leaves, or take
it in the form of tea, tincture, capsules, or tablets.
This herb is becoming more popular as a topical treatment for herpes,
but as a nervine, it has some additional actions. Besides being effective
against nervousness and insomnia, it is especially effective in relieving
indigestion and nervous gastric complaints, chronic bronchial congestion,
headaches, high blood pressure, and seems to have a dual effect against
both anxiety and depression. Of course, if you have been diagnosed with
severe depression, you should be under the care of a doctor and inform
him or her about any herb use. For tea, pour a cup of boiling water over
two to three teaspoons of dried herb, and let steep for 15 minutes. Drink
a cup in the morning and evening or as needed. Tincture dosage is 2-6
ml 3 or 4 times a day. Up to 500 mg of Melissa in the form of capsules
or tablets is safe. There is no toxicity associated with lemon balm.
Kava kava root (Piper methysticum):
This is by far the best anti-anxiety herb. Its chief constituents are
resin and flavones. Kava not only it is a sedative, hypnotic, muscle relaxant,
analgesic and local anesthetic, it actually enhances cognitive ability
and emotional disposition without causing drowsiness. Alcohol should be
avoided if taking Kava, as it can potentiate the sedative and hypnotic
effect of the herb and increase its toxicity. Caution should be taken
with the elderly and those with Parkinson's disease, as kava is a potential
Note: The FDA as of has not yet removed Kava from American suppliers,
after reports of liver toxicity from Europe. If you have active liver
disease, it makes sense to avoid herbs that have potentially toxic effects,
so avoid the use of Kava if you have liver problems, or if there is any
doubt in your mind whether you should take it or not.
Safe dosage of kava is as follows:
1.5-3g a day of dried root, chewed or in tea
3-6 ml per day of 1:2 liquid extract
standardized preparations containing 100-200 mg kava lactones per day
kava tablets (1.2-1.8g, standardized to contain 60 mg kava lactones):
one tablet 2-4 times per day.
Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Siberian ginseng is considered one of the best tonics and adaptogens.
It helps the body adapt to and counteract stress and is indicated for
of lack of stamina, fatigue, poor concentration, tendency for repeated
infections, debility, or during convalescence. The chemistry of Siberian
ginseng is complex, but the active constituents are glycans, saponins,
and the eleutherosides. This species of ginseng does not appear to increase
blood pressure significantly, even with pre-existing hypertension. Safe
dosages are 1-4 g daily, or 2-9 ml per day of a 1:2 extract, tablets,
containing 1.25 g standardized to contain 0.7 mg eleutherocide E can be
taken up to 3 times per day. It is also suggested to pulse the duration
of use. For example, a course of 6 weeks followed by a two-week break.
Some other herbs to consider for anxiety and stress are California poppy,
chamomile, skullcap, catnip, and my old favorite, oats, in the form of
oatmeal and oat straw tea.