Herbal Medicine for Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety have become a normal part of our existence as we try to keep up with work, family life and the fast pace of everything happening around us. Recent research on children shows that anxiety disorders increased from 5.4% in the year 2003 up to 8.4% in 2012 (Bitsko 2018). In all, anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem (Bandelow 2020).
Due to the side effects of current medical treatments, interest has increased in alternatives. There is preliminary evidence that a number of herbal medicines could play a role in helping to treat anxiety problems including:
- Passion flower
- Gotu Kola
Passion flower has a long history of use for treating anxiety. More recently, studies have confirmed its historical use. A recent review concluded that high quality evidence supports the use of passion flower for treating anxiety (Sarris 2018). Most human trials focused on treating situational anxiety, although a study also showed benefit in generalized anxiety disorder (Akhondzadeh 2001).
Some studies even found the effects of passion flower comparable to benzodiazepine medication (Dantas 2017). Benzodiazepines are well known for troublesome side effects including memory problems and addiction, while passion flower appears quite safe (Mirrodi 2013). In fact, passion flower has some early evidence that it may improve cognitive functioning (Kim 2019).
Ashwagandha has long been revered in Ayurvedic medicine from India. It’s generally seen as a tonic for debilitated individuals. Recent research is fleshing out mental health benefits and clinical trials appear to indicate positive effects on stress and anxiety.
A review from 2014 included five human clinical trials that support the use of ashwagandha for anxiety (Pratte 2014). In all of the studies, anxiety improved although one study didn’t reach clinical significance. A more recent study also investigated ashwagandha for individuals under high stress and found significant benefits (Salve 2019).
Rhodiola is an arctic plant used in traditional medicine for improving stamina and mental emotional well-being. A study on patients comparing rhodiola to no treatment for mild anxiety showed significant improvement in stress, anxiety, anger, confusion and depression (Cropley 2015). A small pilot study using rhodiola for generalized anxiety disorder found enough benefits to recommend a full clinical trial (Bystritsky 2008).
Like passion flower, animal studies suggest that rhodiola improves learning and cognitive function (Ma 2018). The benefits likely come from antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components, improved blood flow and other improvements in brain functioning with its use.
An herb found in Asia, gotu kola has been revered for its benefits for brain health. Recent studies are beginning to support the potential of gotu kola. Animal studies show neuroprotective and potential neuroregenerative effects from the herb (Lokanathan 2016).
In humans, a study using gotu kola for generalized anxiety disorder also showed benefits. An extract of the herb appeared to help with anxiety, stress and depressive symptoms (Jana 2010). An earlier study on the startle response in humans also appeared to indicate reductions in anxiety responses with gotu kola (Bradwejn 2000).
It’s worth noting that there are case reports of liver damage with the use of gotu kola. However, I am doubtful that gotu kola was the actual cause. There were three cases of liver toxicity in Argentina associated with a product that contained gotu kola for weight loss (Jorge 3005). Weight loss products are some of the most commonly adulterated products with synthetic and other pharmaceutical additives that can cause liver damage (FDA 2020). I think it is likely there was a chemical adulterant that caused the liver problems.
One other liver toxicity case was reported in a teenager with gotu kola, however she was also on a medication that is well known to cause liver toxicity (Dantuluri 2011). Gotu kola has a long history of safe use as an herb and a salad green in Asia (Mathur 1999). Without further confirmed reports of liver toxicity, I think gotu kola is most likely safe for general use.
With the hectic pace of life, it’s worth looking for additional tools that may help decrease anxiety and improve our response to stress. While some of the evidence is preliminary, herbal medicine may have a number of options to help people better deal with stress and anxiety.