Can Plants Help Relieve Stress and Anxiety?

Almost everyone experiences stress and spells of anxiety.  Stress can come from any event or thought (a ”stressor”) that makes you feel tense, frustrated, or angry.  Anxiety is stress that continues after the stressor is gone and can be a feeling of fear, unease, and worry. The source of these symptoms is not always known.  The source can be specific and personal, like family, employment or financial worries, or more general like news about the economy, terrorism or weather events.

Stress and anxiety can become a serious issue if they begin interfering with your daily life. The American Psychological Association reports that 40 percent of all adults say they lie awake at night because of stress. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States, or 18% of the population. Only about one-third of sufferers receive treatment but the cost in the US is still almost one-third of the country’s $148 billion total mental health bill, according a study reported in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

There are many ways to manage stress and anxiety, including lifestyle changes like eating a balanced, healthy diet; getting enough sleep and regular exercise; meditating and deep breathing; recognizing the factors that trigger your stress.
These techniques can be used along with medical treatments for anxiety, including psychotherapy and drugs like Valium and antidepressants.

But our gardens can also offer effective treatment for stress and anxiety.  For thousands of years we have prevented and treated everyday ailments with plants anyone can grow. But our power has gradually been surrendered to profit-driven health-care.  Is now the time for each of us with gardens to begin growing our own ‘health revolution’?

The most credible, peer-reviewed laboratory research today continues to prove that the plants people have been using as medicine for generations are very effective cures for common maladies and support robust health. The pharmaceutical industry devotes its resources to synthesizing, engineering, and patenting the components of these plants, so that you can be dependent on its products and your health can be mined as a steady source of revenue. Meanwhile, the science shows that medicinal plants work best in their natural state, minimally processed and with all of their essential oils, vitamins, minerals, and other compounds intact and acting in concert.

We know healthy diets start with whole foods and organically grown vegetables and fruit.  Is this also true for specific medical conditions, including stress and anxiety?  This has been our experience, and the research backs it up.

Here are the top 5 plants we grow and use in our garden when life’s challenges seem to overwhelm.

1. Chamomile

Chamomile is an annual flowering plant that grows 20-30 inches high.  Chamomile tea made from the dried flowers always helps to calm jitters at our house. It seems some compounds in chamomile bind to the same brain receptors as drugs like Valium, calming them. In a 2009 clinical study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania concluded the first controlled clinical trial of chamomile extract for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The results suggest chamomile may benefit patients with mild to moderate GAD.

2. Valerian

Valerian is a tall perennial herb and has been used as a remedy for insomnia since ancient Greece and Rome. Medicine is made mostly from the root but a milder treatment for insomnia can be made from the leaves. There is some scientific evidence that valerian works for sleep disorders and the German government has approved it as a treatment for sleep problems.

Valerian is also used for conditions connected to anxiety and psychological stress. Research suggests that taking 600 mg of valerian for 7 days reduces blood pressure, heart rate and feelings of pressure when under stress. One study found that taking a combination product containing valerian and lemon balm might lower anxiety caused by stress taken at low doses.

3. Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is an aromatic herb of the mint family that grows about 2 feet tall. It spreads vegetatively and by seed. Lemon balm has been used since the Middle Ages to reduce stress and anxiety, and help with sleep. Some research suggests that taking a lemon balm extract can increase calmness and awareness in adults during a stress test. Other research suggests that larger lemon balm doses reduce anxious behavior in children, but not lower doses.

4. Lavender

Lavender is a Mediterranean fragrant perennial herb that grows 12-18 inches tall and grows best in full sun and well-drained soil.  Here in Vermont lavender needs to be protected from winter winds and mulched heavily.

It is effective at reducing irritability and anxiety, and promoting relaxation and a sense of calm. While lavender can be consumed in a tea, it may work best as an essential oil that is breathed in with a diffuser. Research shows the scent of lavender lowers heart rate and blood pressure, putting you in a relaxed state. In one German study a specially formulated lavender pill (not available in the U.S.) was shown to reduce anxiety symptoms in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as effectively as lorazepam (brand name: Ativan), an anti-anxiety medication in the same class as Valium.

5. St. John’s Wort

St. John’s Wort is a small, east to grow shrub with bright yellow blossoms that last from midsummer until fall. It is easy to grow and reaches 2-3 feet tall. In the second and subsequent years of growth wait for blossoms to appear and then harvest about a third of the plant including the flowers, and hang to dry or dehydrate.

St. John’s Wort has been used medicinally since Hippocrates time for the treatment of mental disorders. According to a recent study it is more effective than Prozac, in treating major depressive disorders. St. John’s Wort is most often taken as a capsule or tablet. It also is combined with valerian root when insomnia is an accompanying symptom.

PLUS Cannabis

Medicinal cannabis is legal in only 23 states now and available only from licensed dispensaries for medical cardholders. These patients are also allowed to grow their own marijuana, but only indoors in most of the states. Medicinal cannabis is proving useful for dealing with stress and anxiety, and new research points to its effect on the brain as the explanation for its benefits.

As reported in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, a team of experts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), University of Calgary and The Rockefeller University summarized the current body of research on cannabis and anxiety:

“Cannabis and its derivatives have profound effects on a wide variety of behavioral and neural functions, ranging from feeding and metabolism to pain and cognition. However, epidemiological studies have indicated that the most common self-reported reason for using cannabis is rooted in its ability to reduce feelings of stress, tension, and anxiety.”

While marijuana has long been regarded as an effective stress reliever, recent research has focused on the neurological activity responsible for this effect.  Scientists now know that marijuana acts on a system in the brain called the endocannabinoid system. The authors of the report also note evidence that suggests anxiety disorders could be caused by abnormalities of this biological system.

“The discovery of the ECB (endocannabinoid) system raised the possibility that ECBs (endocannabinoids) could be important modulators of anxiety, and might contribute to individual differences in anxious temperament and risk for anxiety disorders.”

Among its various functions, the endocannabinoid system is believed to naturally regulate anxiety and stress levels. It does this through the release of chemicals that belong to the same class of chemicals found in marijuana: (endo)cannabinoids.

This study helps to explain why “(s)ignificant numbers of people may be self-medicating with cannabis in an attempt to reduce excessive anxiety.”

Clearly, more research is needed on plant-based medicines to relieve stress and anxiety, especially involving the whole plant. However, it is not likely the pharmaceutical industry would lead this research and share its results, as whole plant medicines cannot be patented.

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