We often think of anxiety and nervousness as a modern ailment, something that has developed in response to our ever more complex world, but it’s not a new phenomenon. The reasons for worrying may have altered but the condition is still as valid today as it was for our Bronze Age ancestors.
While our doctors, scientists, therapists, and wellbeing experts may suggest new drug regimes or long-term behaviour management, our forefathers could forage and create treatments for all their ails. Whether it was fear over a rival tribe attacking or sleepless nights worrying over sick children, ancient herbal remedies have soothed frayed nerves for centuries.
St. John’s Wort – Hypericum perforatum
This species, found in palaeobotanical samples dating back to the Bronze Age in northern Europe, has bright yellow, star-shaped flowers. It can be found in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Eastern Asia. Most commonly called St. John’s Wort, it’s also known by many other names, from the delightful ‘Amber Touch-and-Heal’ to ‘Demon Chaser.’
Its primary use was in the alleviation of symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, or sleep problems, with a reported efficacy similar to that of some prescription drugs (American College of Physicians). According to the American Society of Internal Medicine, some scientists suggest that it is highly effective against mild depression (Apaydin, 2016).
The plant is thought to work by regulating the neurotransmitters in our brains, such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine. This means fewer spikes and dips of those chemicals, allowing us to use them more efficiently. The result is that we are more balanced in our emotional responses, relieving our anxious states.
Although few studies have been conducted on the long-term effects of taking St. John’s Wort for depression, and fewer still for serious forms of the condition, it has a similar success rate as prescribed drugs (NCCIH, 2012).
The good news is that this ancient herb can be bought in tablet form from most high street chemists. The bad news is that it can seriously interfere with lots of other types of medication, and should never be taken if pregnant or breast feeding since it can mess about with hormone levels. If you are considering this alternative therapy, please consult your doctor first.
There is also a risk of taking the wrong dosage which can lead to unpleasant side effects, such as vivid dreams, upset tummy, dry mouth, irritability, dizziness, skin rash or headaches. Despite this long list of potential issues, they are usually associated with high doses and even then, are comparable to the side effects of prescription medicines taken for depression.
Valerian – Valeriana officinales
This is another one of those ancient plants, native to Northern Europe and used to treat anxiety, muscle tension and insomnia. There are different varieties of valerian, some with tiny white flowers, others with red, but most make you nicely drowsy, so never operate heavy machinery after taking the herb.
The science behind this one is contentious, since no definitive study has provided proof of its sedative properties, but centuries of users can’t all be wrong. Its therapeutic uses were described by Hippocrates, Galen prescribed it for insomnia in the second century, and the British were still using it to calm them during the air raids of WWII.
It’s thought that the active ingredients of valerian root may result from a combination of chemicals rather than one specific compound. Two groups of constituents have been cited as the source of its sedative effects; the first being chemicals found within its volatile oil, Valerianic Acid (Hendricks, 1985), and the second being iridoid compounds or Valepotriates.
As with St. John’s Wort, researchers believe that these compounds interact and regulate neurotransmitters to aid a tranquil and more restful state. Despite scant scientific evidence in support of this plant, valerian has also been used for abdominal spasms, epilepsy, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The key to using valerian is dosage. That being said, it is easier to pay attention to how much you are taking if you buy prepared products in tablet form. It also ensures that some of the potentially harmful cytotoxic components are kept to a minimum and a standardised dose can be maintained. Take too much, and it could result in stomach upset, headaches, an irregular heartbeat and a general feeling of unease.
With fewer studies on the efficacy of valerian root, little is known about how it interacts with other neurotransmitter medication or with alcohol. To be on the safe side, always consult your doctor prior to its use.
Chamomile – Matricaria chamomilla
There are strong indicators that this plant was spread around the world as the Romans marched against their foes. Other palaeobotanists speculate that it might be a native species to Britain (Preston, 2003).
The dried flowers of chamomile contain 36 flavonoids (Mann, 1986) and 28 terpenoids (McKay, 2006), which contribute to its medicinal properties. These daisy-like flowers make a gently scented tea, well-known to soothe and de-stress the consumer.
Used for hundreds of years for hayfever, inflammation, muscle spasms, menstrual disorders, insomnia, ulcers, wounds, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatic pain, and haemorrhoids, it’s easy to see why the Romans valued it so highly as to take it with them on long campaigns.
In a double-blind scientific trial, Jun J Mao and colleagues (2016) concluded that long-term usage of chamomile extract was ‘safe and significantly reduced moderate to severe GAD [generalised anxiety disorder] symptoms, but did not significantly reduce rate of relapse.’ They also stated that few adverse reactions occurred within their trial groups.
Lavender – Lavandula officinales
Similar studies have also raised the mood stabilising benefits of lavender. H. Woelk and colleagues (2009), claimed their research confirmed that a preparation of oral lavender oil, Silexan, was as potent and as effective as the drug Lorazepam for treating generalised anxiety disorder.
This common and well-known plant, native to Mediterranean countries, has been a staple medicine, a food flavouring, a perfume, and a mythical plague protector (fleas hate lavender) for centuries. It was prescribed by the Greek surgeon, Dioscorides, whose medical journal, the De Materia Medica, became the reference material for 1500 years. Romans used Lavender as a bedbug and lice deterrent, gardeners used it to repel pests and attract pollinators, and healers swabbed wounds with the oils since it is a powerful antiseptic and antibacterial agent.
Lemon Balm – Melissa officinales
Another ancient plant, native to Europe and Central Asia, is Lemon Balm. Records dating back over 2000 years to the Historia Plantarum (300BC) stated uses for the plant, although there is no categorical evidence to support its native status in Britain.
This perennial plant can be harvested twice in a season, before flowering, for its highly aromatic leaves. As a member of the mint family, the delicate lemony smell will impart its flavour to drinks or in cooking as desired. In fact, it’s delicious simply chewed raw as you walk about your herb garden.
According to P.N. Ravindran and colleagues (2012), more than 100 chemicals have been identified in this tasty herb, the main ones being citral, citronellal, linalool, geraniol, and B-caryophyllene oxide. These compounds combined give the plant its characteristic scent. Other phytochemicals, which may provide antioxidant properties, include phenolic acids, terpenes, rosmarinic acid and caffeic acids.
Another scientist (Khare, 2007), postulates that lemon balm has antidepressant, antispasmodic, antihistaminic, and antiviral properties, and can therefore be used in cases of anxiety, neurosis, headaches and also hyperthyroidism.
When taken for anxiety, there is evidence to suggest that it acts on the neurotransmitters and receptors within the nervous system (Wake, 2000) producing a calming effect.
We must preserve all that nature has to offer.
Only now, after thousands of years of herbal medicines and recipes being passed down through the generations, are we beginning to prove what our ancestors knew all along. For every ailment, there is a plant, animal or microbe to give us a cure. We simply need to protect our habitats and stop endangering species before we can test them for potential medicinal benefits.
Why concoct synthetic drugs which often result in terrible side effects or harming us further in the long term, when we can sift through natures bounty for a natural remedy instead? It’s time we spent more research grants investigating the oldest truths in history.
Stay healthy and safe everyone.