Herbs For Anxiety, Stress, and Panic Attacks (Adaptogens & Beyond)


From occasional circumstantial anxiety — like the stomach butterflies you get before an important event, performance triggered nerves, or going-to-the-dentist jitters — to full-blown generalized anxiety disorders (GAD) with panic attacks and debilitating phobias, there are many different types of anxiety. And, thankfully, there are many different types of herbs and plant medicine that can help with anxiety. 

But before we get to the solutions, it’s important to recognize that anxiety is real. With a multitude of guises, it can present itself in your life as insomnia, depressions, fatigue, addiction self-medication, job or relationship paralysis, and more. In many cases, it can be fleeting; natural even, to feel anxious before, say, your wedding, or the birth of your child, or in the midst of a major life change. However, chronic anxiety is not meant to be a daily part of the human experience and can lead to stress which leads to cortisol dysregulation that can eventually impact not just your emotional well-being but your physical health as well.

If you have anxiety, you know it’s no joke to feel that something is constantly holding you back – or that the sky is going to fall in on you at any second. You know how much it can impact enjoying your life.

These points become particularly daunting when we consider the fact that anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric illnesses in the United States, with approximately 30% of the population experiencing anxiety symptoms in their lifetime. Even more daunting for the ladies, in particular, is that anxiety disorders are twice as common in women as in men.

The most prevailing “antidote?” Pharmaceuticals.

But here’s the thing: anti-anxiety medications, which include the all-too-commonly prescribed and highly addictive benzodiazepines (drugs like Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium) and other medications, come with a multitude of side effects — including short and long-term potentially permanent impacts on cognitive function. While muting out anxious symptoms may help in the moment, it doesn’t stop them from coming back, and doesn’t address the root causes of why you feel the way you do.  

Herbs For Anxiety: My Take As An Herbalist & Doctor

Okay, so what are my alternatives then? When treating anxiety in my clinical practice, I always work with my patients to find their unique set of root causes. To learn to find your root causes and address anxiety in a nourishing way, you can read my article about this right here .

While you’re getting a handle on those root causes, or if you just want to take something that’s going to help ASAP — supportive remedies can you get by and feel more inner peace, day-to-day.

My go-to for over 35 years of practicing as an herbalist, and even still now as a medical doctor who can prescribe medications, is herbal medicine. In addition to providing us with important ‘phytochemicals’ that work on resetting pathways within our nervous system, many botanical alternatives work as well as pharmaceuticals and rarely cause side effects — unlike their pharmaceutical counterparts. And for you earth-conscious ladies out there like myself, I love that botanicals provide a medicine that doesn’t put the undue stress on the planet (we all know what stress can lead to in our own bodies, imagine how it scales to Mother Earth) that pharmaceuticals are causing in natural environments.

So, now you’re probably thinking… “Okay, Dr. Aviva, this all sounds great, but where do I start?”

I’m so glad you asked…

 7 Herbs for Anxiety—Natural Alternatives To Anxiety Meds

As an herbalist who also loves science, it always delights me when what so recently was fringe – using plants as medicines – gets recognized for its value. It also thrills me when science validates what women have known for millennia – that plants heal. And for the herbs below, there’s not only strong history of traditional use – but also solid science.

Lavender

The beautiful, fragrant lavender is also one of our most effective herbs for anxiety — both chronic anxiety and acute situations. Taken on a regular basis about an hour before sleep, the European lavender extract product Lavela has demonstrated efficacy favorable to that of benzodiazapines in reducing anxiety, with none of the side effects or addictive potential.

It has become a mainstay in my medical practice. I have recommended it to family members, and friends, and even used it myself in preparation for my medical boards — which stress me out to the nth! The dose of lavender oil, as you find in the above product, is 80 mg/day.

Lavender is also gently relaxing taken in tea. I usually combine ½ tsp of each of the following: lavender blossoms, chamomile blossoms, and lemon balm leaf, and steep in a tea-pot or herbal tea infuser for 20 minutes in 1 cup of boiling water. The dose is 1 cup. Tincture dose is 1-2 mL in ¼ cup of water, up to 4 times/day.

Lavender oil can also be used as aromatherapy in a diffuser, on your pillow before sleep, in a bath, or a few drops applied topically to reduce acute anxiety symptoms. You might want to carry a small bottle of the oil with you in your bag. This is safe to use externally only in pregnancy, though it may be used internally while breastfeeding. Concerns about the estrogenic effects of lavender oil have been exaggerated as I wrote about here in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, since it does have mildly estrogenic actions, if you do have a history of estrogen receptor positive cancer, stick with gentle teas now and then, or skip this herb and choose from the other options below.

Turmeric / Curcumin

One of my favorite herbs for digestion and inflammation – turmeric – has now been found in several studies to be beneficial in treating both depression and anxiety.

Turmeric is a root, technically (properly called a rhizome), that when fresh doesn’t look too dissimilar to its cousin, ginger root. That is, until you cut it open and you see the bright yellow inside! Like ginger, turmeric contains ‘phytochemicals’ that reverse inflammation.

Curcumin, which is one of the principal active ingredients derived from the spice turmeric, has particularly powerful anti-inflammatory effects and these have been found to be helpful in reducing anxiety specifically associated with a chronically activated stress response.

The powdered herb is a healthful addition to smoothies and other foods, and is healing for the digestive system. For the anti-anxiety effects, you’ll want to take curcumin extract. The dose will vary according to the product, but is typically 80 to 500 mg day. I recommend taking it in the form of Meriva or Theracumin, which have been properly enhanced for best absorption, and following the dosing recommendation on the product you choose. Turmeric can be safely used as a seasoning spice while pregnant; both turmeric and curcumin can be used safely in breastfeeding, but not during pregnancy. Avoid if you have iron deficiency anemia.

Reishi Mushroom

Reishi is in a class of herbs called adaptogens, that help us to adapt to the stresses and demands of modern life without getting stuck in chronic “survival mode.” They gently and effectively regulate the body’s stress response via their tonic actions on the adrenal glands. This medicinal mushroom is particularly calming and relaxing and is one of the best herbs for anxiety (and specifically one of the best adaptogens for anxiety), as well as anxiety that prevents you from sleeping, for which it can be taken just before bed. This is safe to use while breastfeeding. The dose is 3 to 9 g dried mushroom in capsules or tablets daily or 2 to 4 mL tincture in water 2 to 3x/day. Or you can make my reishi hot cocoa for some special anxiety reducing comfort.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha, also an adaptogen, can significantly reduce the symptoms of anxiety, and has been shown to improve cortisol levels by resetting adrenal-associated stress, overall reducing your predisposition to anxiety. You can add a teaspoon or two of the powder to smoothies or other foods, it can be taken in capsules, 500-1000 mg twice daily, or in tincture form, 2-4 mL, twice daily. It can be taken before bed to help with sleep, including when worry is keeping you awake.

Chamomile

Chamomile is an herb for anxiety that’s traditionally associated with anti-stress properties — Peter Rabbit’s mom even gave him some chamomile tea before bed after a hard day on Farmer McGregor’s farm, when he almost became rabbit stew. Phew — talk about anxiety! Seriously, though, chamomile is approved in European countries in which herbal medicine use is the norm, and it was shown in a 2012 study to be very effective at relieving anxiety and daily stress and improving mood. Chamomile tea is safe during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

You may also choose my favorite route: making a delicious cup of chamomile and lemon balm herbal tea, and adding the extracts of St. John’s wort and motherwort for an evening or anytime soother. Lemon balm is used classically to promote relaxation and improve outlook; motherwort, a bitter tasting herb, is my personal favorite go-to for anxious moments or when I’m feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Motherwort is safe while breastfeeding only.

Lemon Balm

Traditionally called “the gladdening herb,” lemon balm has been used in western Europe in herbalism for hundreds of years — to brighten the spirit. It increases a sense of calm and decreases anxiety. While this scientific evidence isn’t as remarkable as with some of the other botanicals in this article, it’s still a really nice herb to include with chamomile and lavender tea.

One caveat is that some studies show lemon balm may reduce processing speed and alertness due to very mild sedation, so, for that reason it might be something you want to use in the evenings or on days off rather than say, before an exam or major presentation! The full dose is 300 milligrams up to four times a day. Maybe leave that for weekends. The tea above – under lavender – is a lovely evening wind-down beverage to soothe the nerves.

Vital (a.k.a. Chasteberry)

If your special brand of anxiety happens to be the kind that rears its head just before your period, as part of PMS or as a stand alone symptom, Vitex (also called Chasteberry or Chaste tree) might be just the ticket to help you breeze through your cycles anxiety-free. Vitex has been shown in studies to attenuate symptoms of depression and anxiety that occur during PMS and to reduce PMS symptoms in general. Another herb for anxiety I love to combine with Vitex, which also helps with PMS, is motherwort. The dose of Vitex in capsules is 180 mg twice daily, or in tincture, 3-5 mL daily.

Kava kava and BONUS: Herbal Recipe For Anxiety  

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is an excellent “emergency remedy” for a panic attack, and is great for use when there is stage fright, test anxiety, or fear of flying. Three to five drops is often a sufficient dose of kava, though you can go up to even 30 drops at a time (the stuff practically knocks me off my feet so I recommend trying a low dose the first time and adjusting up until you find the dose for you — and give it 30 minutes before you take more at any given time because it doesn’t always ‘hit’ right away). While it is overwhelmingly safe for occasional use (a few times a month, for example) and even daily use at very low doses, for higher doses, taken regularly, I recommend working with a licensed practitioner, because there is a remote risk of it affecting the liver (do not use if you have liver disease!).

Kava kava can be taken alone in capsules or herbal tincture. Herbal tinctures, liquid extracts of the herb, are a super easy way to take herbs. These potent liquid extracts allow you to take a tiny concentrated dose dissolved in water (or your favorite green juice). However, most herbal tinctures are made by alcohol extraction — so not an option for everyone.

I love the following blend I call ‘Herbal Stress Rescue.’ To prepare it, purchase one of each of the following extracts from a reputable company. You can mix these herbs for anxiety together in a larger glass bottle with a dropper and take 20-60 drops of the blend (the kava kava is diluted in the blend, that’s why you can take a higher dose)  

Tinctures of:

  • Ashwagandha
  • Lemon balm
  • Chamomile
  • Lavender
  • Kava kava

If you’re not comfortable including the kava kava because it’s too strong for you — that’s okay — swap it out for Motherwort tincture.

These extracts, and other herbs mentioned in this article, can be purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs, Herb Pharm, Gaia Herbs, Herbs Etc, and many other wonderful herbalist-owned companies, including those you can find in the Replenish Online Formulary.

If you don’t want to purchase all of the above, pick two of your favorites + kava kava. Or look for a product at any of the above companies that contains similar ingredients. You can also find many of these herbs in capsule and pill form in a variety of combinations.

This ‘Herbal Stress Rescue’ can be taken before an exam, a flight, a speaking engagement, or before family holiday dinner! Basically, whenever some stress rescue is needed! It can be taken up to 3 times/day during turbulent times for up to a week at a time.

Have you tried integrating any of the above herbs for anxiety into your life? I’d love to hear about your experience! Comment below and let me know…

Can’t get enough of herbal medicine? I can’t either. If you’re craving more information just like this that dares to dive deeper into root causes and a whole-woman approach to health, make sure you’re signed up to get more women’s wisdom and healing remedies in your inbox and stay tuned for information on free special events and more options for learning with me! Join my mailing list and get your free download, Detox Your Medicine Cabinet! 

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Patricia Woodward

Hi Aviva, Loving your articles. I’m so into this. I have been taking Ashwaghanda but only 400mg once a day. I also take valerian but I find it quite strong. It makes me a bit depressed. My husband, who is not a depressive, found this too. Also tried lemon balm tea and slept like a baby. I drink Pukka Night Time which is a mixture of lavender, lime and oat flower. It knocks me out. I have CSR which seems to be linked to stress so foundvyour article very helpful. Will try the others you suggest.

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Hadassah

Vitex literally saved me (and my marriage) from PMDD, without having to take the antidepressants my Obgyn recommended getting. Simply miraculous, and with no side effects. Curcumin can cause inflammation in those of us with autoimmune disease who are TH2 dominant. I took it for pain and it made it much worse. Lemon balm supports the TH1 response.

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christy

Just purchased a number of these and holy basil, hoping it works I really need it. I do know that Lavender Oil is wonderful! Thank you Dr. Aviva

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