Daily pressures at work and home can sometimes quickly reach a boiling point, and too much stress can wreak havoc on your immune system and lead to headaches, digestion problems, stomachaches, insomnia, depression and other problems. But don’t fret! Eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, meditating and having a good social support network can help take the edge off, and these following plants and supplements may help too. Just make sure to check with your doctor before starting any supplement that might negatively interact with other medications.
This age-old sedative is used in beer production, and the perennial twining vine can reduce nervous tension. Hops appears “to have a sedative effect paired with anxiety reduction” in rodents, “and at least one human study has found that even nonalcoholic beer has a sedative effect in humans, thought to be due to the inclusion of hops,” says Kurtis Frank, B.A.Sc. in Applied Human Dietetics. Just avoid it if you’re pregnant or nursing, and be aware that taking hops with alcohol or with other sedatives can cause a greater level of drowsiness than you may be looking for.
Read more: 18 Healthy Beers
2. Lemon Balm
Not only is lemon balm delicious, it’s also great for calming frayed nerves and lifting one’s spirits. Lemon balm, which is in the mint family, can be easily grown in your garden. There is one catch, though: It might reduce your attention and even make you lethargic. “While not overly potent, [the plant] should not be taken at times when focus and attention is required,” says Kurtis Frank, B.A.Sc. in Applied Human Dietetics.
You may have used lavender essential oil for headaches or just for its soothing scent. So it’s not surprising that it can help with stress. “Lavender is a surprisingly potent calming agent in one particular instance, generalized anxiety disorder, where numerous studies have arisen showing oral administration of lavender can help reduce symptoms in these subjects and improve their state of calm,” says Kurtis Frank, B.A.Sc. in Applied Human Dietetics. And while lavender can help you sleep better, it won’t make you tired if you take it during the day. Another bonus: If you’re on hormonal birth control, you can still use it because it’s been found not to have negative interactions. Use the essential oil for its scent, or lavender-filled pillows and eye packs for instant calm. Just be careful mixing lavender with other sedatives, which could make you a little too sleepy.
4. Folic Acid
“Folic acid supplementation is associated with improved mood,” says Melissa Baker, M.H.Sc.(c), RD. And because it’s required very early in pregnancy -- so early that once women find out that they’re pregnant it’s too late -- Baker recommends that any woman of child-bearing age take 400 micrograms of folic acid as a matter of course. Low levels of folic acid have been linked to depression, so it’s possible that the supplement could help lift one’s spirit. Foods high in folate include dark-green veggies, lentils, peas and dried beans.
L-theanine is a relaxing and anxiety-relieving amino acid found in green tea leaves. “It seems to have a minor calming effect that may not be perceivable alone, but shines when taken with caffeine. It is well-known to work synergistically with caffeine in improving attention and curbing the jitters one may feel,” says Kurtis Frank. Check with a doctor before taking L-theanine if you’re on medication for high blood pressure, cancer or high cholesterol, or to find out about possible interactions with sedatives or stimulants.
Read more: The 12 Most Overrated Supplements
“If you’re an athlete or undergoing prolonged stress, that can reduce the levels of magnesium in your body,” says Melissa Baker, M.H.Sc.(c), RD. “A magnesium deficiency is associated with agitation and anxiety as well as reduced serotonin levels,” adds Baker. Minor deficiencies of this dietary mineral are possible with poor nutrition. The mineral is naturally found in beans, legumes and dairy products, or it can be taken in supplement form. Antibiotics, muscle relaxants, water pills and high blood pressure medications can interact negatively with magnesium, so check with your doctor first if you’re on these medications.
Research on this beautiful vining plant has been mixed, but passionflower has traditionally been used as a sedative, to relieve anxiety and tension and to alleviate sleepless nights. It's typically consumed as a supplement or as a tea. “Passionflower is one of the major herbs, alongside valerian, that are used for the treatment of insomnia and sleep disorders. Similar to valerian, the evidence base is all over the place and bounces between seeming effective and not having any more effect than a placebo. It is uncertain why this difference occurs and under what instances passionflower would reliably work,” says Kurtis Frank. The long-term effects are also unknown. It’s contraindicated during pregnancy and should not be mixed with other sedative or anti-anxiety medications.
Read more: The 10 Best Supplements
8. Vitamin D
“Vitamin D has been associated with improved mood and may help fight depression,” says Melissa Baker, M.H.Sc.(c), RD. This fat-soluble vitamin, along with phosphorus and calcium, is used to build bones. It’s difficult to find vitamin D in foods, though some foods are fortified with it, and your body is able to produce it when your skin is exposed to the sun. Consider getting tested for a vitamin D deficiency, especially during the winter months, and check with a doctor before supplementing with it if you are on medications.
Known as one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurveda, ashwagandha literally means “the smell of a horse” in Sanskrit, perhaps because of its horse-like scent or due to the traditional belief that the plant will impart the strength and vigor of a stallion. Ashwagandha is known as an adaptogen, which helps you adapt to stressors. Although there is limited research on this claim, it is thought to help improve sleep quality. Avoid ashwagandha if you’re pregnant or are taking immunosuppressants, sedatives or thyroid hormone medication.
Chamomile is one of the most popular calming teas. “It does not have sedative properties inherently, but it may provide a state of calm in anxious subjects,” says Kurtis Frank, B.A.Sc. in Applied Human Dietetics, although more research needs to be done. It may also have modest benefits with mild to moderate generalized anxiety disorder. Anyone who has an allergy to ragweed or other plants in the sunflower family may be allergic to it as well. Chamomile may also have interactions with birth-control pills, warfarin, tamoxifen and some immunosuppressants and sedatives.
What Do YOU Think?
There are a plethora of herbs, nutrients and supplements to research when looking for something soothing. What have you taken to help you relax? Leave your favorites in the comments.
Yael Grauer is a freelance health and fitness writer and the managing editor of the Performance Menu: Journal of Health and Athletic Excellence.