Herbal Medicine for Anxiety and Depression: New Evidence
Dr. Eric Viegas, ND
Depression is estimated to affect 5.4% of Canadians aged 15+ (1). 1 in 8 adults will meet the criteria for a mood disorder in their lifetime (1). Women have higher rates of depression than men.
Anxiety can also be present with a diagnosis of depression, further impacting a person’s quality of life.
People living with depression experience a lack of pleasure in activities that once brought them joy, sleep issues, fatigue, guilt and feelings of worthlessness, memory and concentration issues, and thoughts of suicide.
Depression and anxiety also contribute to a high burden of stress in people with cancer.
In a survey of 3370 cancer survivors, 20% identified with moderate to severe levels of depression, and 40% were living with moderate to severe anxiety lasting 6 years after diagnosis (2).
Due to the large number of adverse effects, and interactions with chemotherapeutics, conventional antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are not favourable for cancer people (3). It’s no surprise then that this population seems to favour herbal remedies for anxiety and depression.
A recent systematic review summarized the evidence from 100 single herb clinical trials for depression and anxiety from 1996-2016 (4).
Here are the top herbal remedies for anxiety and depression as identified by this study:
A fragrant and relaxing plant to grow in your garden, lavender is also used in perfumes and aromatherapy products. Lavender extracts, taken orally, show a stronger anti-anxiety effect than placebo and are comparable in effect to prescription drugs (eg. paroxetine, lorazepam) in human trials. Lavender also has fewer adverse effects than these drugs.
A tea made from lavender buds may improve the effect of citalopram; a commonly prescribed antidepressant medication.
Used by Native Americans as a remedy to improve sleep and anxiety, passionflower tea may improve sleep quality. When used with clonidine, passionflower extract was also shown to improve mental-emotional well-being for people undergoing opioid withdrawal.
Compared to the anti-anxiety medications oxazepam and sertraline, passionflower extract was not more effective in reducing severity of symptoms, but it had much fewer adverse effects.
A commonly used spice in South Asia and the Middle East.
Saffron was found to be most beneficial for people that identified with mild to moderate anxiety. Some studies also showed that saffron was superior to standard antidepressant drugs (fluoxetine and imipramine).
Women who have a flare-up of anxiety and/or depression premenstrually also benefited from saffron extract.
Commonly found in most herbal preparations for menopausal symptoms, black cohosh may have a positive effect on hot flashes.
One study using a patented extract called Remifemin® was shown to be as effective as low dose topical estrogen in reducing hot flashes, anxiety, and depression without the adverse effects of hormone therapy.
Popular in sleep teas, chamomile is an effective anti-anxiety herb for people dealing with mild to moderate anxiety.
Chamomile was also shown to be effective in the long-term (the study looked at 38 weeks of treatment) but had no effect on relapse rates.
Another herbal remedy for hormonal issues, chaste tree/vitex is often taken for premenstrual and fertility issues.
Chaste tree, when compared to the antidepressant fluoxetine, was shown to be more effective in reducing physical symptoms associated with depression in postmenopausal women.
Always check with your doctor before starting any nutritional supplement, herb, or medication.
- Pearson, Caryn, Teresa Janz and Jennifer Ali. 2013. “Mental and substance use disorders in Canada” Health at a Glance. September. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X.
- Inhestern, L., Beierlein, V., Bultmann, J. C., Moller, B., Romer, G., Koch, U., & Bergelt, C. (2017). Anxiety and depression in working‐age cancer survivors: A register‐based study. BMC Cancer, 17(1), 347.
- Fajemiroye, J. O., da Silva, D. M., de Oliveira, D. R., & Costa, E. A. (2016). Treatment of anxiety and depression: Medicinal plants in retrospect. Fundamental & Clinical Pharmacology, 30(3), 198–215.
- Yeung, K., et al. Herbal medicine for depression and anxiety: a systematic review with assessment of potential psycho-oncologic relevance (2018). Phytotherapy Research, 1-27.