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As an herbalist, I want to introduce you to some herbs that might help you deal with the fear and anxiety associated with social distancing.

Most likely, you are practicing social distancing right now. This is hard. Social isolation, especially in the elderly has been studied and found to produce an escalation of mental illness as does fear of the Covid-19 virus itself. Social isolation is associated with loneliness and has been found to increase the risk for premature mortality (1). This is especially true in older adults. You can read about various ways to help deal with loneliness that might include phone calls, emails, texts, Zoom meetings, etc. I am not qualified to address much of these issues, but as an herbalist I can talk about some herbs for anxiety that might help you deal with the anxiety associated with social distancing. Sometimes just working with herbs can help relieve anxiety and help me feel more balanced. I hope they help you too.

Herbs that can help

Herbs that fall into the category called nervines are ones that help support the nervous system. They can help with nervous tension, promote sleep, decrease restlessness and sometimes muscle tension. Nervines can also help to calm a worried mind and help you focus. Any of these herbs can be used in a tea, a tincture (alcohol extract), or in a bath. Some of these herbs we distill on our farm too and can be found here.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm is my go to herb. We grow a lot of it on the farm so it is plentiful in my household. Lemon balm has a long history of use for anxiety, depression and to reduce stress. It is considered a nervine herb meaning that it helps to calm the nerves and support the nervous system in general.

Studies have found it can help with mild depression, poor sleep quality, cognitive function, even cardiovascular function and impaired immunity.  Because it has some sedative effects it’s good to use before bed. We use it in dream pillows. I like that lemon balm can both be slightly sedative and increase alertness, so it can help put you in a relaxed state without being sluggish. Great for working from home.

Being part of the mint family, it is an easy herb to grow at home. It has a very light lemon scent to it and well as subtle lemon flavor. It makes a delicious tea, alone, or mixed with other herbs. I like it with green tea. Green tea is another good herb for anxiety.

Compounds found in lemon balm include triterpenoids, phenolic acids (rosmarinic acid) and flavonoids. Some molecules it has been shown to modulate in the nervous system include Acetylcholinesterase inhibition, stimulation of acetylcholine and GABAA receptors and inhibition of matrix metallo proteinase-2. You may have heard me talk about the inhibition of matrix metallo proteinases in skin, but they are also important in the nervous system. You can read a review of the medical literature on lemon balm here (2). 

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, Lavandula x intermedia)

There are many types of lavender, but in the United States the two most commonly grown species are L. angustifolia and L x intermedia. L. x intermedia is a hybrid between  L. latifolia and L. angustifolia. Because it is half angustifolia, the two species share many similarities and chemical constituents. The main difference is that L. x intermedia has a higher camphor level making it good for congested lungs. L. angustifolia has a higher amount of linalool and linalyl acetate making it more effective as relaxation. We grow both types on our farm and I distill them for the hydrosol primarily.

Much of the research on lavender has been done on the essential oil which is produced by distillation. Using the essential oil is fine, particularly, putting a drop on your pillow case can help with anxiety and help promote sleep. Spraying the hydrosol on your pillow or directly on your face can also bring reprieve. But drinking lavender as a tea can also be beneficial, particularly when inhaling the tea. Lavender is also good to use topically in a massage oil or lotion.

Lavender has been widely studied in the medical literature as a mood stabilizer, to promote sleep and to help with depression and general quality of life. Lavender has been shown to decrease pain, enhance cognition, improve sleep quality, reduce anxiety, and improve restlessness. 

In laboratory studies lavender oil is shown to modulate GABA receptors. This may be part of the process of how lavender inhibits the nervous system to produce a calming effect (3). 

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

When you think of hops you probably think of beer, and rightly so. Hops is the main bittering component of beer, but you may not have known how beneficial hops is for stress and anxiety. It has a long tradition of medicinal use in Europe and is part of the Family Cannabaceae, the same family that includes Cannabis. The German Commission E has approved hops for anxiety and restlessness and to promote sleep. We grow hops on our farm and use them both for skin care and in dream pillows.

One study that included 36 volunteers found that mild depression, anxiety and stress all improved significantly over control over a 4-week period (4). Laboratory studies have shown that the alpha-bitter acids or humulones from hops can have sedative and antidepressant effects. The beta-acids or lupulones exhibit antidepressant activity, possibly by modulating GABA receptors.

Other Herbs

Additional herbs that could be beneficial include valerian, tulsi, mint,  St. John’s wort and chamomile. Let me know in the comments if you have tried any of these herbs for anxiety.

References:

  1. Amy Novotney. May 2019, vol 50. No. 5. The risks of social isolation. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation
  2. Shakeri A1, Sahebkar A2, Javadi B3. Melissa officinalis L. – A review of its traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology. J Ethnopharmacol. 2016 Jul 21;188:204-28. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2016.05.010. Epub 2016 May 7.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27167460
  3. Koulivand PH, Khaleghi Ghadiri M, Gorji A. Lavender and the nervous system. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:681304. doi:10.1155/2013/681304 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612440/
  4. 4. Kyrou I, Christou A, Panagiotakos D, Stefanaki C, Skenderi K, Katsana K, Tsigos C.  Effects of a hops (Humulus lupulus L.) dry extract supplement on self-reported depression, anxiety and stress levels in apparently healthy young adults: a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover pilot study  Hormones (Athens). 2017 Apr;16(2):171-180. doi: 10.14310/horm.2002.1738.  http://www.hormones.gr/8688/article/effects-of-a-hops-%3Cem%3Ehumulus-lupulus%E2%80%A6.html