Herbs for Stress

Herbs for Stress:
Part of a Complete
Holistic Medicine Strategy

It’s a great example of the healing power of nature that herbs for stress reduction have grown on this planet as long as humans have experienced stress. It reminds me of the wonderful symmetry of creation, that the substances that we need to stay healthy and even combat disease are usually found in some form in nature. Stress does not have to be associated with disease of course, and some stress is actually helpful for us humans in moving us and motivating us to achievement. An unmet need such as cold in the winter, hunger, or lack of paid work is a stress, but this stress can lead to creativity and problem solving. Our response to stress can in that way be adaptive and healthy, creating the opportunity for growth and self-improvement, and general improvement of the planet. 

But sometimes stress can become overwhelming and lead to fatigue, depression, and a sense of helpless inaction, when the weight feels so heavy we don’t feel we can carry our daily burdens. It’s at those times that holistic medicine solutions such as herbs for stress reduction are most welcome; this may include breathing exercises(more powerful than you think), talk therapy with a psychologist, physical exercise, movement therapies like Qigong (chee-gung) or yoga, and a number of different herbal medications.


There are two general classes of herbs for stress which come to mind. One is called adaptogens, or tonics; this class of herbal medications acts to protect the overall system from the hormonal drain of stress; doctors trained in herbal medicine like to say that adaptogens protect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Herbal medications in this category include ginseng, ashwaganda, astragalus, eleuthero, cordyceps mushroom, and licorice root.

A word of caution about licorice root is in order. There are good scientific data which show that licorice root supports the adrenal glands when they are not keeping up with the demands for cortisol in response to stress, associated with chronic fatigue or long term steroid use which may have suppressed the adrenals. Licorice could play an important role as a temporary supplement to aid in recovery from severe stress and fatigue, but long term use should be under medical supervision. The reason for caution is that taking very high doses for more than a few weeks can lead to salt and water retention and high blood pressure (by modifying the metabolism of adrenal hormones).

The other herbal medications mentioned support the hormonal system from the mid-brain, pituitary and adrenal glands but without the marked effects on cortisol levels and possible side effects of licorice. These would be very useful when there is a need for relief from chronic stress, higher energy levels, and relief from fatigue but without known malfunction of the adrenal glands and their ability to keep up with cortisol demands. I have personally taken all of these in two to three month courses at some time, and I find that they all help to some degree. My observation is that each individual is different, and some trial use with careful self-observation is the best way to determine which will meet your needs. Usually I recommend a 2 month course, then go off the herb to get a sense of how it was helping.


The second class of herbs for stress which I believe are very useful are those which can decrease anxiety and improve sleep. Poor sleep by itself can be very stressful and exhausting. Herbs for better sleep include valerian,chamomile, passion flower, and lemon balm. For daytime anxiety, I have seen great success in usingchamomile tea (a very strong infusion) as an herbal medication four times daily. Hops is a wonderful herbal medicine which helps reduce anxiety and improve sleep.

A reduction in anxiety allows the adrenal glands to move out of “fight or flight” mode into appropriate rest when needed, so the system can restore itself. Think of it this way: if the system is in high anxiety all the time, it’s like a car engine running at maximum RPM’s while sitting still, so the “energy tank” gets empty really quickly while you still don’t get where you need to go. Anything to reduce anxiety, including herbal medications but also breathing exercises, prevents your energy system from draining itself so quickly (this concept is sometimes described asadrenal fatigue ).

And as always, if you plan to use herbs for stress, please check with a doctor who is knowledgeable in this area especially to assure that there are no adverse interactions with prescription medication or other herbs. And I think you will be pleased at how these herbal medications support your system in a time of stress.


To your health and wellness,




Robert Pendergrast, MD 

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