For the last post in this series, I’m focusing on three herbs commonly used for their calming effects on the mind and body. Passionflower, Skullcap, and Lemon balm have all been used as natural remedies for stress, anxiety, and insomnia for centuries and have similar effects, with a few notable strengths and differences. They can be used alone, but together, these herbs have a synergistic effect and are often combined in sleep or anti-stress formulas. Other herbs in these formulas may include valerian, catnip, lavender, or chamomile. (1)
These herbs are easily taken as a tea. The recommended starting dosage of each is about 1 tsp. of dried herb to 8 ounces of water, steeped for 5-15 minutes. Larger doses will produce stronger effects. Tinctures are also a convenient way of using them. Most of these herbs are available as supplements, and can be found in over the counter herbal preparations or teas. Bulk herbs are easily found online, but please make sure you buy quality products from a reputable source.
The effects of these herbs are different than adaptogens or kava kava, and I use them primarily to help with sleep, although that is just personal preference. I usually start with a tea, usually lemon balm or chamomile, and then add my tinctures to it, tweaking to my particular needs. My usual go-to for sleep is one dropper full of each passionflower and skullcap. It helps me fall asleep, and I have a better quality sleep, but I’m not groggy the next morning. I don’t need to do this every day, but it does work when I need it to.
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata, is also known as maypop and grows throughout the southeastern US. The flowers and leaves of this stunning plant contain compounds with anxiolytic, sedative, and mild analgesic effects. It is useful for treating anxiety, restlessness, agitation, sleep disorders, and nervous exhaustion. Studies have shown passionflower to be comparable to oxazepam in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, but without the cognitive impairment linked to oxazepam. (2)
Although passionflower is generally recognized as safe, it can increase the effects of sedatives or MAOIs (a class of anti-depressant), and should be avoided in people taking those medications. Passionflower increases clotting time, so people taking blood thinners might want to avoid it as well. In addition, passionflower should not be used by pregnant women as it is a known uterine stimulant.
American Skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora, is a member of the mint family and noted for its mood-enhancing effects. Skullcap leaves are used as a stress-reducing tonic, or in larger doses, as a remedy for acute anxiety or insomnia. Skullcap is also used for relieving pain associated with muscle tension, including tension headaches. It is helpful for muscle spasms and restless legs. Many people find it to be an effective treatment for migraines.
In addition to teas, tinctures, and tablets, skullcap can be smoked. It is often found in herbal smoking blends, particularly those indicated for relaxation. In large quantities, skullcap can cause headaches, confusion, muscle twitching, and extreme fatigue, but is generally considered safe. Side effects are rare.
American skullcap should not be mistaken for Chinese skullcap, Scutellaria baicalensis. They are different plants, with different actions, and cannot be used interchangeably.
Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is one of my favorite herbs and deserves its own post to cover its many uses. Lemon balm, also called Melissa, is another member of the mint family. The leaves have a wonderful mild lemon fragrance. I grew it over the summer and used it up pretty quickly, so next year I plan to grow (a lot) more. Lemon balm tea is uplifting and delicious (the taste reminds me of Fruit Loops), so that is my preferred way of using it.
In addition to its stress and anxiety relieving properties, lemon balm is also useful for depression, melancholy, and grief. It helps reduce irritability and abdominal cramps, so it is useful for menstrual complaints as well.
There are several studies supporting lemon balm’s ability to calm and relax, but some of these studies also show that these benefits are accompanied by decreased alertness. (3) Other studies contradict these findings, and many users actually report enhanced alertness and cognitive function. (4) I really haven’t noticed any change in alertness or focus with lemon balm.
Lemon balm is generally regarded as safe, but should be used cautiously in those taking other sedative herbs or medications because of additive effects. Lemon balm may also decrease thyroid function, so it should be avoided by those taking thyroid medications. There is also evidence that lemon balm may increase intra-ocular pressure, meaning that those with glaucoma should use caution or avoid it altogether.
Nature is filled with many, many plants offering relief from all sorts of ailments. Prescription drugs are usually prescribed for anxiety (and depression), but there are plants with properties that are proving to be as effective as those drugs without the negative side effects. I’m not saying you should give up your medications, but these natural remedies are worth looking into and I have definitely found them to be beneficial.
Again, please remember to check with your doctor before taking any herbal supplements. None of this information should be taken as medical advise, it is intended for informational purposes only. Always, always do careful research before taking any kind of herb or supplement!
Featured Photo by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash