Many herbs and natural substances are marketed as stress relievers, but such products are unlikely to be the answer to life’s stresses, experts say.
There is little evidence that any of these products work well over the long term, said Thomas Lenz, associate professor of pharmacy practice at Creighton University in Nebraska. And some products may cause unwanted effects, especially if used with other medicines.
âJust because they’re herbal doesn’t mean they’re safe,â Lenz said.
Lenz recently reviewed the scientific literature to determine which, if any, herbal supplements could be recommended to treat stress. Among the myriad of products, he found one that stood out: lemon balm appears to be both safe and reasonably effective in reducing stress in the short term.
This does not mean that other herbal supplements are unnecessary. In conjunction with other therapies, certain supplements may be helpful, said Dr. Ashwin Mehta, assistant professor and medical director of integrative medicine at the Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami.
But supplements shouldn’t be the first thing patients and doctors turn to when trying to manage stress and anxiety, Mehta said, because they don’t address the underlying cause of the condition. stress, he said.
And just like with drugs, consumers should be careful and let their health care provider know if they are taking a supplement, Lenz said.
Some common herbal supplements for stress include:
Lemon balm: Several small studies have shown that this supplement, which is part of the mint family, can improve mood and induce feelings of calm, Lenz said. One study found that 1,600 milligrams of dried lemon balm was associated with increased calm for up to six hours, he said. Lemon balm also appears to be relatively safe.
Kava: This herbal supplement is derived from the root of the kava plant, native to the South Pacific. Several studies have concluded that kava greatly reduces anxiety. However, the supplement has also been implicated in cases of liver failure, Lenz said, so it cannot be recommended, Lenz said.
Valerian root: This herb has been used to treat anxiety and sleep disturbances. One study found that the combination of valerian root and St. John’s Wort was more effective than the drug diazepam in reducing anxiety in patients treated for two weeks. However, other studies have shown no effect of this herb on anxiety, so there isn’t enough evidence to say it works, Lenz said. Low doses of this herb are considered safe when taken for less than a month, Lenz said. However, high doses can cause changes in heart rate and blurred vision, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Passion flower: Studies have shown that passionflower reduces anxiety in mice, but only one study has been done in humans, according to Lenz. This randomized, placebo-controlled study was performed in 2001 in patients with generalized anxiety disorder and found that 45 drops of liquid passionflower per day were as effective in treating the disorder as the drug oxazepam. Still, more research into its safety and effectiveness is needed, Lenz wrote in his study.
St. John’s Wort: In a study of 40 patients with social anxiety disorder, taking St. John’s Wort for two weeks appeared to slightly improve anxiety symptoms; However, the difference between the study groups may be due to chance, and the study itself was poorly designed, according to Lenz.
Many herbal supplements are sedatives and should not be taken with other sedatives or alcohol, Lenz said.
Best treatment for stress
The best way to deal with long-term stress is to identify the root causes of it and see if your lifestyle can be changed to reduce it, Mehta said.
People can also try meditation, yoga, controlled breathing, tai chi, or exercise to deal with stress, he said.
âYou can’t biopsy stressâ¦ stress exists in the realm of the mind,â Mehta said. “Therefore, the tools we need to use to deal with excessive stress must also be mindfulness-based modalities.”
If you are planning to start using herbal supplements for stress relief, be aware that they can vary widely in quality and content. For this reason, you should consult an integrative medicine practitioner or other expert familiar with these products before taking them, Mehta said.
Lenz’s review was published in the November / December issue of the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
Pass it on: Some herbal supplements can reduce stress and anxiety over short periods of time, but they’re not a long-term solution.