5 lesser-known herbs to combat stress and reduce anxiety
Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica) belongs to the poppy family and is cousin to the infamous opium poppy, but far less powerful. It's mildly sedative, analgesic (relieves pain) and anxiolytic (reduces anxiety), and is chiefly used for anxiety, insomnia and neuropathy problems. It is suitable for adults and children, helping to reduce anxiety during the day and promote sleep at night. Both the leaves and flowers of the plant are used in teas and tinctures.
The bright orange flowers look magnificent when planted en masse. They flower from late spring all through summer, growing well even in poor soils, so long as drainage is good. In fact, you don't really need to prepare your soil at all for planting. Just sow seeds directly and they should come away easily enough. Plants self-sow freely in ideal conditions. The best time to harvest the herb for making teas and tinctures is when in flower.
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Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), sometimes called Indian ginseng, is one of the best herbs for combating stress. It's used as both a tonic and a calmative. It helps strengthen the body's response to stress, and enhances our ability to cope with anxiety and fight fatigue. It helps the body to 'adapt' to situations, maintaining a 'normalising' influence on the body. While the leaves and fruit do have therapeutic properties, it's the root that is most commonly used in Western herbal remedies. The dried root is used in teas (via decoction) and tinctures.
Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub that grows 30cm-60cm high. It's frost tender but in cooler climates you can grow it in containers and move the containers under shelter over winter. Ashwagandha likes full sun to part shade and fairly dry conditions. Although it is a perennial, in India plants are grown as annuals as the fresh root is harvested after a year's growth. The root is then dried in the sun.
Vervain (Verbena officinalis) has a calming effect on the nervous system. It also has a positive effect on mood. For this reason, it's commonly used to treat stress and anxiety, and conditions caused by stress such as pain, muscular tension, insomnia, depression and headaches. It is also used as a restorative for nervous exhaustion and fatigue, especially after bouts of emotional stress. Vervain is an antispasmodic, which means it helps to ease muscular spasms, cramps and convulsions. It benefits women who have premenstrual or menopausal anxiety, or issues related to hormonal fluctuations.
Vervain can be taken as a tea, or by tincture, but should not be used while pregnant or breastfeeding. Vervain infusions can inhibit iron absorption and stimulate the uterus.
Vervain is a hardy, herbaceous perennial that grows to 1.2m high. Plant in well-drained soil in full sun. It will actually grow on fairly poor soil and needs no maintenance once established. Bees love its lilac-blue flowers. Harvest the aerial (above-ground) parts just before the flowers open.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is a great herb for people who easily snap over minor issues. It suits uptight, angry people, including teenagers. Skullcap acts on the nerves, so is used as a nervine relaxant and restorative, helping to alleviate anxiety and stress, and reviving those with nervous exhaustion. It is often taken to relieve muscle tension or nervous tics, and it is excellent for sleep. Skullcap is frequently used with passionflower as an overall herbal mind-body sedative, and helps people who have too much energy and who have not managed to completely exhaust themselves before they hit the hay at night.
Skullcap can be taken as an infusion of dried plant parts (tea), though bear in mind it's not particularly pleasant. Many people prefer to take it in tincture form where it can be taken quickly – though this is also not so pleasant tasting.
This hardy, herbaceous perennial, also known as mad dog skullcap, produces attractive blue-purple flowers that grow on upright stems that reach 30cm-60cm. Plants prefer moist, fertile soil. In hot, dry areas, grow in shade. All parts of the plant are used and harvested late in flowering.
Derived from the root of Piper methysticum, kava, or kava kava, mostly acts as a relaxant, and is often used as a remedy for sleep. However, the plant received bad press and, in some countries, outright bans when it began to be overused and then was linked to some liver disorders. New Zealand allows it, thanks in part to the Kiwi herbalists who lobbied against its ban. A submission to the medicines classification committee stated that a number of reviews of kava's toxicity to the liver by prominent herbal experts found that the risk was at best very low, and there was little convincing evidence of a causative link.
Like anything, it's about sensible use. Used responsibly, kava is extremely beneficial for combating sleep and anxiety issues. It can be taken as a root decoction, or the powdered root can be taken in capsule form. You can buy empty vegetable capsules from retail or online health stores and fill your own. Check with your doctor first before using kava. Avoid while pregnant.
As a tropical plant, kava is happiest between 20˚C and 25˚C. In its natural habitat, it grows under jungle canopy, so it likes partial shade in moist, free-draining soil, and some humidity.
- NZ Gardener