Note: Anxiety and depression are often severe problems that require a qualified expert, such as a psychiatrist, to treat. Herbal medicines are not and cannot be substitutes for proper medical care. If you are under the care of a mental health professional, always check with them prior to using any natural medicines or herbs.
Love is our primary positive emotion, and anxiety, depression and anger are our primary negative emotions. To understand the distinction between them, it helps to recall the two branches of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic system is the fight-or-flight system, and it kicks in during emergency situations. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations, muscle tension, constriction of the throat, cold hands, and rapid shifting of thoughts and emotions (Thomas, 1977). This nervous defense system correlates closely with either functional anger (fight) or fear (flight).
When these physical manifestations appear in response to real danger or a bona fide emergency, we classify them as the fight-or flight response, an intelligent short-term response. However, in cases of long-term anxiety, fear is excessive or amplified in relation to the actual situation. The anxiety response often results from fear of future events rather than the current reality. The same is true of prolonged or easily triggered anger. Anxiety is usually a Vata imbalance, and anger is a Pitta imbalance.
While useful in the short term, the following herbs are not substitutes for underlying causes of anxiety or anger, which can range from hypoglycemia to family problems and job dissatisfaction. Since both anger and anxiety stem from sympathetic nervous system activity, the same herbs can be used for both. However, in anxiety states, it is often necessary to add warming and nourishing herbs, and with anger states it is often helpful to add some cooling herbs.
• Calming nervine tonics such as milky oat seed tincture, ashwaghanda root, scullcap tincture, and valerian root can often (but not always) manage simple anxiety states.
• Kava root has proven useful for treating anxiety (Volz HP, Kieser M, 1997).
• Scute root and bupleurum root can be added to reduce internal heat and restriction (more for anger), and white atractylodes can be added to warm digestion and increase nourishment (more for the poor digestion associated with anxiety).
Good nutrition, exercise and study are all essential for relaxation. As a T’ai Qi teacher I know that learning to relax deeply takes some time and effort. Therefore I think of herbs as immediate and short-term solutions, while the lifestyle methods are essential for long-term solutions.
Note: Stimulating herbs like St. John’s wort and ginseng root should not be used for anxiety unless combined with calming herbs.
The symptoms of clinical depression include loss of interest in or pleasure from normal activities, a desire to sleep all the time, recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness and guilt. Depression is more Kaphaja (caused by Kapha) in nature. Before using herbs to treat depression, it is important to look at the whole physiology to rule out physical causes like hormone imbalances and dietary problems. Following are suggested herbal treatments for depression.
• St. John’s wort has been shown to inhibit the breakdown of several neurotransmitters including serotonin. This action makes it a useful treatment for depression (Suzuki 1984).
• Ginkgo leaf also acts on serotonin, and has been shown to relieve depression in the elderly (Haase J et al. 1996).
• Bacopa, gotu kola and white peony root can increase cognitive function.
• Siberian eleuthero root bark can improve mood and general physical energy.
• The combination of shilajatu and ashwaghanda root can be useful for depression (Schliebs 1997).
• I often find that depression relates to dampness and/or mucus accumulation. Look for a greasy coating on the tongue, and a slippery pulse. In these cases I use herbs such as pinellia tuber, acorus and tangerine peel. When there is added Qi deficiency, I add ginseng root.
• Muira puama or Eucommia bark can be particularly useful in cases where there is lack of interest in sex.
• Don’t forget the benefits of cocoa bean or chocolate as mild mood-altering herbs.
• Valerian and kava roots are sedating, and should not be used in depressive states unless combined with stimulating herbs.