In these uncertain times, it’s no wonder that people are stressed, depressed, and anxious. Between supply chain issues and crazy high prices on pretty much everything, we all have great reason for concern. Many do use psychiatric medicines, and for good reason. But what happens when one either can’t find or can’t afford one’s meds? Are there alternatives? Read on!
Firstly, however, the disclaimer. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV. None of what I’m saying in this article should be construed as medical advice. Always check with your doctor before changing meds, and if you’re in major distress, go directly to the nearest ER.
Alternative ways to support mental wellness
That all being said, there are a number of ways to keep our mental health balanced. Daisy wrote a great article discussing nutrition for mental health back in 2013. She discusses the negative effects of psychiatric drugs and processed foods, and how to adjust one’s diet for better health. Processed foods are little more than sugar and carbs after all, and that’s not a diet conducive to any kind of good health, physical or mental. She also mentions a few herbal alternatives, and in this article, I’m going to expand on that knowledge.
If you’re interested in reading about the neurobiology of anxiety disorders, go here. If you’re interested in how exercise can help keep your spirits up, go here.
Herbs to support mental wellness
Herbal mental health alternatives come in three basic classes:
- Nervines, which sooth nerves
- Anxiolytics, which calm anxiety
- Sedatives, which promote sleep
A great resource is Cat Ellis’s book Prepper’s Natural Medicine, which discusses both individual herbs and conditions they may be used for in some detail. She gives information on both American and Chinese skullcap, California poppy, cramp bark, grindelia, lavender, lemon balm, motherwort, mullein, oats, St John’s wort, and valerian as useful in the mental wellness support category.
She also discusses how the individual herbs are used. For example, lavender can be ingested as a tisane, inhaled via steam or as an essential oil, or used topically as an essential oil. St John’s wort, a personal favorite, is usually ingested as a tincture or powdered in capsules.
This is all great information, most necessary for the proper and safe use of these herbs. Improper use can lead to unfortunate side effects, just as pharmaceuticals do. I once found out about salicylate poisoning the hard way, by taking too much acetaminophen. A local herbalist told me about her lessons in foraging the wrong mushroom. It can happen with herbs as well, and caution is a good thing. Information is also a good thing, and Cat’s book is loaded with it.
What the studies say
But do these herbs work? Studies have been done on many of them, most notably St John’s wort. This meta-study from NIH concluded:
“SJW monotherapy for mild and moderate depression is superior to placebo in improving depression symptoms and not significantly different from antidepressant medication. However, evidence of heterogeneity and a lack of research on severe depression reduce the quality of the evidence. Adverse events reported in RCTs were comparable to placebo and fewer compared with antidepressants. However, assessments were limited due to poor reporting of adverse events and studies were not designed to assess rare events. Consequently, the findings should be interpreted with caution.”
This study, also from NIH, also suggests caution. It additionally points out how this herb interacts with a number of medicines, including birth control pills, anticoagulants, and pain medicines. Mayo Clinic gives some information about side effects and interactions here. They do note that SJW is regularly prescribed in Europe for depression.
What about lavender? According to this study on PubMed, lavender showed significant effects in reducing anxiety. This article from Natural Medicine Journal supports the conclusion. Lavender can be used in a number of ways, as noted above. It has analgesic and anti-microbial properties as well. One uses the flowers, and lavender pillows for sleep enhancement can be found in several places. Or make your own!
Other studies show herbal efficacy as well:
- cramp bark for PMS and menstrual cramps
- lemon balm for anxiety and depression
- valerian for insomnia and anxiety
So there are studies supporting herbal alternatives in some cases. Regrettably, I was unable to find European studies.
Growing your own herbal medicine
So we have the book and have done some additional research to gain the knowledge. Where do we get the herb? Herbal apothecaries are popping up all over, especially online.
I grow both St. John’s wort and lemon balm in my hydroponics units in winter and my yard in summer. I also have lavender growing in my yard. Like St John’s wort, lavender is a perennial, so once established, it comes back every year. Valerian, cramp bark, motherwort, skullcap, and most types of mullein are also perennial. This will depend upon grow zone of course so some research is required to choose what can be grown in your situation.
While St John’s wort is hardy in my zone, I’ve had a terrible time getting it to establish in my garden! Sometimes, for all of the research we do and the care we take in choosing our garden plants, they die anyway. It happens. SJW seems quite happy in my hydroponics unit however, making it rather a cut-and-come-again plant. I’ve got some sitting in alcohol as of this writing for tincture. Since the material has to sit for a number of weeks, I simply cut every few days to add fresh plant material up to about the third week. Also add flowers if you get them, and dried if you have it.
I’ve had difficulty drying some herbs, however. They get moldy in the bag and I’m not sure if I’m not drying them enough or if they’re reabsorbing moisture from the air. This is something to consider.
Do you use herbs for mental wellness?
The more options we have, the better off we’ll be. Consider adding more herbs to your toolbox for mental wellness, obviously with the approval of your physician. Don’t stop taking any medication without your doctor’s help, and always check for potential interactions before taking herbal remedies with pharmaceutical medications.
Would you like to learn more about useful herbs and how to make them? You’ll learn those skills in Cat’s course Herbal Skills Intensive. This is a great course that teaches about 30 different commonly used herbs with recipes, printables, and more to take you from herbal novice to a confident herbal medicine maker in eight weeks!
Are you supporting your mental wellness with herbal medicine? Do you make your own herbal medicines? What herbs have grown well for you? Please share your experiences in the comments below!
About Amy Allen
Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.
I grow Rosemary for its aromatic qualities in cooking. Mint is good for an uplifting tea. Basil, marshmallow, sage, also all medicinal herbs as well as seasoning. I dry them and keep on hand for future use. I only grow the herbs that we like, so as not to waste. I’m trying to save my stevia plant it did not do well during our 2 nights of below freezing weather (should have brought it inside). But these all make great teas.
Good info and book recommendation. We have had the best success with all herbs in pot growing, specifically half whiskey barrels. You can use plastic fakes as well as the wooden ones. Watch how close to each other and who you put next to each other as some of them are rather aggressive. Easy to harvest seed too if you like. If they are not great in your weather zone you can dolly them in during the winter and give them a grow light.
I grow lemon balm, but thought it was only good as a mosquito repellent! I didn’t realize it was good for anxiety and depression- thanks!
You’re welcome! Glad I could help.
all herbs dried in paper bags mold.
been growing herbs esp. lavender since 1973 commercially..ie nursery plants
been more interested in medicinal herbs….but beware of interaction with rx
prescriptions ie blood thinners blood pressure, diabetes
.marshmallow root Very good, also fennel tea for tummy troubles
i have master gardener certification in both washington and oregon states
Oh yes! Drug interactions abound, especially with St Johns wort. Always good to be careful! It might not be easy to get in to see the doctor for awhile.
Drying in paper bags totally depends on your climate. I’ve gardened on both the Gulf Coast and the High Plains. Couldn’t dry diddly-squat on the Gulf; I’ve been drying herbs in paper bags for a decade on the Plains and I’ve never had them go moldy. And I dry a LOT. Not just normal herbs but things like celery too, but then our humidity is often below 20%.
I’m in zone 5B and dried mine in a dehydrator. They were nice and crumbly when I put them in a plastic bag and they still molded. SJW, lemon balm, comfrey, mints-no dice. Therefore I’ve been making tinctures and salves. Those make poor teas though.
not sure how you’d get salicylate poisoning from acetaminophen. you might get it from too much aspirin, or maybe you got a different kind of toxicity from the acetaminophen. just FYI, and thank you for your work