Your heart is beating fast, your sweating through your palms, your breathing is fast but shallow, your mind is in chaos, you are experiencing anxiety. So what can you do?
There are many safe, drug-free, natural remedies for anxiety, from mind-body techniques to supplements to calming teas. Some start working right away, while others may help lessen anxiety over time.
In this article, I will try to break down some of the natural anxiolytic sources and how they work inside your body.
Chamomile is a very popular plant for insomnia, but it has great promise for anxiety management. Chamomile is a member of the Asteraceae family of plants, and while there are several varieties of chamomile plant, two of them are most frequently used in herbal medicine:
- German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
- Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
German chamomile is the more popular, but Roman chamomile is also widely used in some countries.
The use of chamomile as a medicinal plant dates back to ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece. It was used to help with inflammation, relieve stomach illnesses, and cope with anxiety.
A study done by the University of Michigan found that chamomile was effective in “aiding with relaxation, and also helping with anxiety, depression, and insomnia." Published in the Journal of Phytomedicine, they found that “long-term chamomile use “significantly” reduces moderate-to-severe symptoms of a generalized anxiety disorder.
While we do not know too much about how chamomile treats anxiety, one theory suggests that “a flavonoid compound in chamomile called apigenin causes relaxation. It’s thought that apigenin binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain, which then has a sedative effect."
Fun Fact: It is estimated that around 1 million cups of chamomile tea are drunk across the world every day!
L-theanine (found in Teas & Mushrooms)
Theanine, also known as L-γ-glutamylethylamide and N⁵-ethyl-L-glutamine, is an amino acid analogue of the proteinogenic amino acids L-glutamate and L-glutamine and is found primarily in green and black tea and some mushrooms.
It’s said to help ease anxiety, stress, and reduce insomnia.
Green or black tea is high in l-theanine, an amino acid that might reduce anxiety.
One 2017 study in Japan, found that students who drank green (or matcha) tea experienced consistently lower levels of stress than students in the placebo group.
For instance, Green Tea catechins — antioxidants such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) — account for up to 42% of the dry weight of brewed green tea, and the amino acid L-theanine makes up around 3%. EGCG is thought to make people feel calmer and improve memory and attention when consumed on its own. L-theanine is found to have a similar effect when consumed in combination with caffeine. Up to 5% of the dry weight of green tea is caffeine, which is known to improve mood, alertness, and cognition.
Fun Fact: Freshly brewed green tea can help reduce or eliminate bad breath.
Choline (found in Food)
People with low levels of choline experience greater levels of anxiety.
Choline is an essential nutrient, established by the Institute of Medicine in 1998, that supports vital bodily functions and people’s overall health. Although our liver makes choline, our bodies do not create enough of it, which is why we often need to incorporate choline-rich foods into our diet to get enough of it.
Choline supports numerous vital bodily functions, including:
- Cell maintenance: The body uses choline to produce fats that make up cellular membranes.
- DNA synthesis: Choline, along with other nutrients such as folate and vitamin B-12, can affect gene expression.
- Metabolism: Choline helps metabolize fats.
- Nervous system functioning: The body converts choline into a neurotransmitter that affects the nerves and plays a role in regulating automatic bodily functions, such as breathing and heart rate.
Dietary sources of choline include:
- proteins, such as beef, soybeans, fish, poultry, and eggs
- vegetables, including broccoli, potatoes, and mushrooms
- whole grains, such as quinoa, rice, and whole wheat bread
- nuts and seeds
Fun Fact: People who skip breakfast are more like to experience anxiety.
Hops are the flower of the hop plant (Humulus lupulus) that is a great natural source of anti-anxiety properties. Many of these are attributed to compounds found in the plant's artichoke-shape buds, including the flavonoids xanthohumol and 8-prenylnaringenin and the essential oils humulene and lupuline. It is believed that these compounds have anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, analgesic (pain-relieving), and even anti-cancer properties.
The sedative compound in hops is a volatile oil, so you get it in extracts and tinctures—and as aromatherapy in hops pillows.
In a study on hops as a dry extract, researchers found that hops significantly decreased DASS-21 (Depression Anxiety Stress Scale-21) anxiety, depression, and stress scores from participants using daily supplements with hops dry extracts who reported at least mild depression, anxiety, and stress. They found that all the symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and stress “significantly improved over a 4-week period".
Due to the bitter nature of the hops plant, we often will not see them in teas unless combined with another leave such as chamomile or mint.
Fun Fact: The stem of the hops plant (not the flower) is used to make beer.
Valerian is a flowering plant found in North America, Europe, and Asia. It is known to carry a sedative effect and has been used since the first century (to alleviate bloating and gas, as well as, to stimulate menstruation). Its medicinal properties are extracted from the root of the plant, hence the term 'Valerian Root'.
Unlike the other natural remedies, the valerian root can be highly potent and should be taken with extreme care.
There are over 200 valerian species, the Valeriana Officinalis is the one most often used as medicine and commonly found in Asia and Europe. It has been used to treat anxiety and sleep problems.
Valerian roots contain a number of compounds such as valerenic acid, isovaleric acid, and other antioxidants such as hesperidin and linarin (which have sedative and sleep-enhancing properties). Many of the compounds present in Valerian can inhibit excessive activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that processes fear and strong emotional responses -and in turn physical and psychological responses), by maintaining levels of serotonin (a brain chemical that regulates our mood).
While still largely anecdotal, how the valerian roots works are of significant interest to researchers in recent years. Scientists, in various studies, have found that low GABA levels related to acute and chronic stress are linked to anxiety and low-quality sleep.
Valerian has the ability to interact with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger in our bodies that helps to regulate nerve impulses in our brains and nervous system.
Some research suggests that valerenic acid, the main active component in valerian root extracts, functions in a similar manner to highly-potent pharmaceuticals such as Alprazolam ('Xanax') and Diazepam ('Valium'), binds to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain. It might also increase the amount of GABA in the brain, which is thought to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.
Today, the herb is usually freeze-dried to make a powder that is added to teas and supplements. Valerian is most commonly used for sleep disorders, especially the inability to sleep (insomnia). Valerian is also used orally for anxiety and psychological stress, but once again, there is limited scientific research to support these uses.
People often use valerian in combination with other herbs, including St. John's wort, passionflower, lemon balm, kava, and hops.
Taking valerian root is not without potential side effects such as mild headaches, stomach upsets, abnormal heartbeats, insomnia, and other allergic reactions. It is often recommended not to mix valerian root with other anti-depressants unless advised to do so by your doctor.
Although valerian root is commonly used as a natural remedy to insomnia and anxiety, you shouldn’t take it, unless specified by your doctor, if you are:
- Women who are pregnant or nursing. The risk to the developing baby hasn’t been evaluated, though a 2007 study in rats determined that valerian root most likely doesn’t affect the developing baby.
- Children younger than 3 years of age. The safety of valerian root hasn’t been tested in children under 3.
Fun Fact: Valerian root is known for smelling like sweaty socks.
Lemon balm (Melissa Officinalis) (or bee balm) is a perennial herb from the Mint family. Its leaves carry a mild lemon aroma and are often used as individually and in multi-herb combinations.
The rosmarinic acid in lemon balm has anxiolytic, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties and acts as a modulator of mood and cognitive function, which is used to manage anxiety, stress, and insomnia.
Studies have suggested that rosmarinic acid (which is found in lemon balm) increases the availability of neurotransmitters in the brain known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). However, more definitive studies are required to demonstrate its efficacy in treating anxiety, lemon balm has proved to provide meaningful improvements in mood and cognitive performances across various studies.
It is often found in teas, meat marinades, flavor baked foods, and even jams. As therapeutic use, it is consumed as a tea, supplement or extract, lotion, or aromatherapy.
Fun Fact: Lemon balm is used to treat insomnia, cold sores, high cholesterol, genital herpes, heartburn, and indigestion.
Passionflower (Passiflora Incarnata) has been used for medical purposes and as a method to treat anxiety and insomnia since the 16th century. Often found in the southeastern United States, and Central and South America.
Similar to other natural remedies to manage anxiety, passionflower (which contains GABA) increases the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the chemical in the brain that regulates our mood.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and it blocks neurotransmitters that cause excitement, in turn, promoting the opposite -calm.
Researchers have found conclusive evidence to support that passionflower helps relieve anxiety symptoms with its anxiolytic effects. Some studies have suggested it carries identical effects to antianxiety medication.
The flower, leaves, and stem of the passionflower can be used as herbal supplements. It can be infused with teas, liquid extracts, and tinctures.
It has strong anxiolytic properties and should be used with care, and should not be used as a complementary supplement to other anti-depressants unless specified by your doctor.
Fun Fact: Passionflower is from the same family line as passionfruit.
Lavender (Lavandula Angustifolia) has a variety of therapeutic and curative properties from inducing relaxation to treatment of infections, burns, insect bites, and spasms. Lavender is also commonly used in perfumes, soaps, and recipes.
However, more recently, several studies and investigations suggest lavender has anxiolytic, mood stabilizer, sedative, analgesic, and anticonvulsive and neuroprotective properties.
Lavender can be found around the Mediterranean Sea and southern Europe through northern and eastern Africa and Middle Eastern countries to southwest Asia and southeast India.
The main constituents of lavender are linalool, linalyl acetate, 1,8-cineole B-ocimene, terpinen-4-ol, and camphor, and in some species, lavandulyl acetate.
Lavender has been shown to affect the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system controls bodily processes associated with anxiety, such as heart rate, breathing rhythm, and hormone secretion.
Lavender can help in regulating these bodily processes by restoring a neutral state. This involves lowering the heart rate, adrenaline levels, and slowing the breath.
One of the main benefits of lavender is that it can produce calm without sedation, unlike many of its natural remedy counterparts.
In one German study, a specially formulated lavender pill was shown to reduce anxiety symptoms in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as effectively as lorazepam (Ativan), an anti-anxiety medication in the same class as Valium.
Lavender may have several beneficial effects that help ease anxiety, including:
- improved mood
- lower heart rate
- lower adrenaline levels
- regulated breathing
- improved sleep quality
Lavender has been shown to be a highly effective anxiolytic, especially in conditions of low anxiety. With essential oil, the inhaling of linalool is absorbed into the bloodstream via the lungs that then reaches the signal-sensing protein, gamma-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptor in the nerve cell of the brain.
Fun Fact: Lavender is one of the most popular therapeutic essential oils.
Dark chocolate has been found to reduce stress in highly stressed (and normal individuals), especially females.
Dark chocolate contains various properties that contribute to its anxiolytic nature, such as:
- Cocoa Polyphenols: Polyphenols, which are rich in flavonoids, can positively affect anxiety and enhance calmness;
- Tryptophan: An amino acid that works as a precursor to serotonin, which improves your serotonin levels;
- Theobromine: Can positively elevate our mood;
- Magnesium: Studies have shown that magnesium can have a noticeable impact on anxiety.
When choosing dark chocolate, aim for 70 percent or more. Dark chocolate still contains added sugars and fats, so a small serving of 1 to 3 grams (g) is appropriate.
Fun Fact: The stem of the hops plant (not the flower) is used to make beer.