Herbs for Depression and Anxiety
Written and researched by Maria Burke
One thing's for sure, the wheel of life keeps turning! For most people, our modern lives just seem to get busier and busier, and at times the best of us can feel a little overwhelmed. Anxiety and depression are very common conditions amongst people today; in Australia alone, it's estimated that each year around one million adults experience depression, and over two million experience anxiety. At some stage most of us will experience one or both of these conditions to varying degrees. The good news is there are many approaches that can assist in dealing with them.
We hear so much about drugs, both natural and chemical, to treat anxiety and depression, but do we really understand what we're treating?
This article will briefly outline:
- What is anxiety?
- What is depression?
- Herbs that can help alleviate symptoms
- Foods that can help
- Other activities that may help manage these conditions
Please not this article is not a substitute for medical advice! If you're experiencing acute or persistent anxiety or depression, please seek advice from a healthcare professional.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety can be defined by feelings of uneasiness and apprehension. These range from a mild case of “butterflies in the stomach” to severe cases of fear and panic. Symptoms include a racing heart, tightening of the chest, hot and cold flushes, obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour. Some people experience panic attacks. Heavy or long-term use of substances like alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines or sedatives (such as benzodiazepines) can cause people to develop anxiety. Phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder are dis-eases related to anxiety disorder.
What is Depression?
Depression is an emotional condition characterised by feelings of hopelessness and /or inadequacy. The disorder can be classified as neurotic (mild psychiatric) or psychotic (psychiatric symptoms, may include hallucinations and/or delusions). A person can feel irritable, overwhelmed and indecisive for a prolonged period of time. This can manifest physically as being sick and run down, exhausted, problems sleeping or a loss or change of appetite.
Some of the major causes are:
- Great loss
- inability to mourn or grieve
- Repressed anger/ aggression Amino acid, nutrient deficiencies which cause chemical imbalance
- Substance induced depression
By no means does anyone have to experience any of the above causes to have a depressive episode. Sometimes people just feel down without facing any particular challenges. In these circumstances, it can be really helpful to look at your own life and try to identify the things that are contributing to how you feel. Are there lifestyle choices that you could change to allow you to feel better?
Herbs that can help:
Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
Highly esteemed by many herbalists as “nerve food”, Scullcap has the ability to relax nervous tension in the body while simultaneously renewing and reviving the central nervous system. It helps ease hysterical states and lift depression. Suggested use: 1-2 tsp of herb per cup of boiling water, steeped for 10-15 mins, 3 times per day. Tincture – 2- 4ml 3 times per day. Scullcap makes for a relaxing smoke also.
This herb is often prescribed by medical and natural health practitioners as a non-addictive alternative to Valium, which is the concentrated synthetic version of the plant. All parts of this plant, especially the root, contain chemicals that sedate and quieten the central nervous system. Suggested use: Best taken as a tincture or root extract. 1/2 to 1 tsp per day. Only to be taken for 2-3 weeks at a time, then break for several weeks. 95% of people experience a deep and restful sleep with this herb, 5% experience the opposite effect.
St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
This herb has become very popular as an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety herb in recent years. In Germany it out sells Prozac 5 to 1! It works by optimising the levels of certain neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin. This results in a more balanced emotional state. Suggested use: 1/2 to 1 tsp of herb per cup of boiling water, 3 times a day. Same usage for tincture. Not to be used with anti-depressants, blood thinners and birth control pills.
Rhodiola has been identified in clinical analysis as an adaptogen that increases the body's resistance to a wide range of stress factors. Rose root enhances the transport of serotonin precursors into the brain and studies have shown that use of this herb can increase brain serotonin by up to 30%! Rhodiola stimulates the release of these good neurotransmitters (dopamine and norepinephrine), down-regulates the enzymes that break them down and also increases the blood-brain permeability for these molecules. The result is mood enhancement and stress reduction.
As the latin name suggests, this herb has an ancient reputation as an aphrodisiac herb because it increases desire by relaxing the nerves and calming stressful thoughts. Damiana is a gentle and uplifting mood enhancer. It's a wonderful friend in tough times. It's also a kidney tonic and urinary antiseptic. Can be smoked to relieve nervous tension.
A strong sedating herb (powdered.) It calms and sedates the nervous system to encourage deep sleep and healthy sleeping patterns. Very useful for insomnia, pain, hysteria, stress, anxiety, hypertension, and restless leg syndrome. Mulungu has a long traditional use in Brazil as a natural sedative, used to calm the nerves and promote sleep. As it relaxes the nervous system, it is beneficial for mental disturbances such as depression, anxiety, stress, hysteria and panic.
Known as the “king of nervine tonics”, nettle is rich in vitamins, minerals and plant proteins. Serotonin also occurs in Nettle.
Although technically not a herb, it is worth mentioning here. L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and a key ingredient in the production of serotonin in the brain. The lack of it is associated with depression. The body cannot produce Tryptophan, therefore it must be taken as part of a balanced diet.
Foods that can help:
Let your food be your medicine! Calming foods to eat during the day include:
- Mashed potato
- Brown rice
- Steamed vegetables
- Calcium is a natural adaptogenic and immune supporter and magnesium protects the nervous system.
- There are high levels of them in:
- Chia seeds
- Dark leafy greens
- Most nuts
- Beware of foods that elevate anxiety levels:
- Alcohol Refined and processed foods
- Preserved meats
- Other activities that may help manage these conditions
- There are lots of things that you can do to improve your overall wellbeing and mental state. These few suggestions are powerful instruments in alleviating symptoms.
- Exercise Psycho-therapy or “Talk therapy”
- Using essential oils eg. Lavender, Vetiver.
- Sunshine Walking
Meds or no Meds ?
Standard anti-depressant drug therapy today prescribes;
- SSRI's – Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
- SNRI's – Serotonin- norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
Both of these medications treat depression by affecting neurotransmitters in our brains. When perscribed both can take up to 6 – 8 weeks to take effect. Many people suffer side-effects and withdrawal symptoms. In some cases it is possible to treat anxiety and depression without using pharmaceuticals, but in other cases it's not. You should never go “cold turkey” off your meds, and if you want to wean off medications it's important that you speak to a qualified practitioner so they can help you to make gradual changes while closely monitoring your progress.
- Lesley Tierra (2003), Healing with the Herbs of Life.
- Isabel Shipard (2007), How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life.
- Wendy Snow Fogg – mistymeadows.org