Is there an effective herbal treatment for anxiety?

Answers from Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D.

Several herbal remedies have been studied as a treatment for anxiety, but more research is needed to understand the risks and benefits. Here's what we know — and don't know:

  • Kava. Kava appeared to be a promising treatment for anxiety, but reports of serious liver damage — even with short-term use — caused several European countries to pull it off the market. The Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings but not banned sales in the United States. Avoid using kava until more rigorous safety studies are done, especially if you have liver problems or take medications that affect your liver.
  • Passionflower. A few small clinical trials suggest that passionflower might help with anxiety. In many commercial products, passionflower is combined with other herbs, making it difficult to distinguish the unique qualities of each herb. Passionflower is generally considered safe when taken as directed, but some studies found it can cause drowsiness, dizziness and confusion.
  • Valerian. In some studies, people who used valerian reported less anxiety and stress. In other studies, people reported no benefit. Valerian is generally considered safe at recommended doses, but since long-term safety trials are lacking, don't take it for more than a few weeks at a time. It can cause some side effects such as headaches and drowsiness.
  • Chamomile. Limited data shows that short-term use of chamomile is generally considered safe and can be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety. Use of chamomile can cause allergic reactions in some people who are sensitive to the family of plants that includes chamomile. Other members of this family are ragweed, marigolds, daisies and chrysanthemums.
  • Lavender. Some evidence suggests that oral lavender or aromatherapy with lavender can reduce anxiety; however, evidence is preliminary and limited. Oral lavender can cause constipation and headache. It also can increase appetite and the sedative effect of other medications and supplements and can cause low blood pressure.
  • Lemon balm. Preliminary research shows lemon balm can reduce some symptoms of anxiety, such as nervousness and excitability. Lemon balm is generally well-tolerated and considered safe for short-term use, but can cause nausea and abdominal pain.

If you're considering taking any herbal supplement as a treatment for anxiety, talk to your doctor first, especially if you take other medications. The interaction of some herbal supplements and certain medications can cause serious side effects.

If your anxiety is interfering with daily activities, talk with your doctor. More serious forms of anxiety generally need medical treatment or psychological counseling (psychotherapy) for symptoms to improve.

April 10, 2015 See more Expert Answers