Herbal medicines can treat anxiety and depression

In this article I want to go through natural ways to treat anxiety and depression. The first thing to get clear is understanding the causes of anxiety and depression, although we may think it is because certain events happen to us or even genetics, the truth is when we attach, we suffer. This is what the Buddha outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path, as he understood the causes of suffering he also understood the way to its cessation. This is what modern science is now confirming with many clinical studies on mindfulness (Hofmann et al., 2010). However, mindfulness isn’t for everybody so tools like cognitive behavioral therapy can be used (Butler et al., 2006). Additionally, herbal medicine and diet changes may prove very useful as I will now discuss.

Herbal medicines for depression and anxiety

Herbs can be very helpful for certain people and I have come to believe they are overly ignored in our society. I think depression and anxiety should be seldom dealt with pharmaceutical drugs, herbal medicines offer a gentler, healthier, and effective solution. Take St. John’s wort, we know this works for depression because it has been very well studied, and a recent meta-analysis concluded it was effective for mild to moderate depression (Ng et al., 2017). So why aren’t we using it in the NHS as they use in their primary health system in Germany? The answer is cultural stigma; we are conditioned to believe in pharmaceutical drugs over herbal medicines and our research system is highly dependent on pharmaceutical companies which are not interested in funding natural healing methods. Having worked with pharmaceutical companies quite a lot myself, I think they have their place and so do their drugs, especially in very serious cases of diseases. However, they are far over used in my view. There are natural and effective ways to treat depression and anxiety. Many of the herbs used to treat depression in herbalism, called the nervines, also have a anti-anxiety effect as well. Let’s now turn to examine some of these medicines in more detail.


St John’s wort is effective for mild to moderate depression, but St. John’s wort was not thought of as an anti-depressant traditionally (Castleman, 2001). It was used internally to treat neuropathic pain and anxiety. It’s use goes as far back as the ancient Greeks as a treatment for Sciatica. St. John’s wort is best in a fresh tincture form with a deep red colour to it. St. John’s wort does have a few contraindications, such as with SSRIs and also it generally decreases the effectiveness of pharmaceutical drugs taken at the same time. I would like to point out, while the commonly used medicinal herbs can have side effects and contra indications, the truth is they are generally far less dangerous than chemical drugs.

A more traditional Western herb for depression is motherwort. 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper wrote, ‘There is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart … and make me a merry cheery soul’ (Castleman, 2001). Lemon balm is another herb used traditionally for depression, and the 11th century Arab physician, Avicenna, wrote, ‘Balm causeth the mind and heart to become merry’. David Hoffman in his book, ‘Holistic Herbal’, states that lemon balm is ‘an excellent carminative herb….(with) anti-depressive properties’ (Hoffman, 1988). David Winston recommends a combination of St. John’s wort and lemon balm for SAD because of their uplifting properties (Winston, 2007). Lemon balm is another herb best in a fresh tincture to increase its medicinal potency.


A nervine herb that is held is very high regard in Western herbalism is American skullcap which is an old Native American remedy and it is a relaxing tonic for nerves in fresh (not dried) tincture. One study found a significant anxiety reducing effect versus placebo in a double blinded trial (Wolfson and Hoffmann, 2003). Milky oats is another effective nervine and nutritive tonic medicine for the nerves, which David Winston has called, ‘the greatest nervous system trophorestorative’ (Winston, 2007). This is a good option if stress and anxiety are your problems. The idea of these tonic herbs, quite different to pharmaceutical drugs, is to restore the nervous system into balance.


Finally a good herb to consider including in a formula for anxiety, this time from traditional Indian medicine, is tulsi. Tulsi has been found to reduce stress in a large double blind placebo controlled study (Saxena et al., 2011) and has a rich history of traditional use in India. Tulsi is a rasayana herb in Ayurveda, otherwise known as a rejuvenator, and is thought to nourish a person towards health and long life (Winston, 2007). Since plants are more like food and they are so diverse, the idea of special tonic healing herbs makes intuitive sense to me.


Finally, diet is very important as it is for managing pretty much any health problem. There is increasing evidence the gut microbiome is related to mental health (Foster et al., 2013). So if the diet is made cleaner, i.e. by removing processed foods and refined sugars, reducing or eliminating grains and dairy, and eating more vegetables and fruits this will help.

Formulation notes

Anti-depressive pair

Fresh St. John’s wort tincture (1 part) (warming, drying)
Fresh lemon balm tincture (1 part) (cooling, drying)

This formula is more specifically for depression, but may be helpful for anxiety.

Dose: 10-60 drops, 2-3 times daily
Notes: This formula is contra indicated with SSRIs. St. John’s wort may decrease the effectiveness of pharmaceutical drugs.

Nervine tonic triplet formula

Fresh St. John’s wort tincture (1 part) (warming, drying)
Fresh skullcap tincture (1 part) (cooling, drying)
Fresh milky oats tincture (1 part) (warming, moistening)

This formula is for balancing the nervous system which includes treatment of anxiety and insomnia, but also may be useful for nerve pain and depression. The milky oats balances it’s energetic properties as it has a moistening effect to avoid long term constitutional drying out in pre-disposed individuals, e.g. dry skin.

Dose: 15-60 drops 2-3 times daily
Notes: This formula is contra indicated with SSRIs. St. John’s wort may decrease the effectiveness of pharmaceutical drugs. If on sedative medication be highly cautious regarding dose.


We need to research more into medicinal plants for depression and anxiety, however, in the current lack of knowledge I think we can rely on traditional knowledge from strong traditions which often proves correct. After all more than 80% of the total population in the developing world dependent on herbs and up to 50% the approved drugs during the last 30 years are from from natural products (Veeresham et al., 2012). I believe natural ways to treat depression and anxiety are the way forward in the majority cases, so if you are suffering from these problems I think there is cause for optimism.


Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “The Noble Eightfold Path–The Way to the End of Suffering.” The Wheel Publication (1984).

Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 78.2 (2010): 169.

Butler, Andrew C., et al. “The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses.” Clinical psychology review 26.1 (2006): 17-31.

Ng, Qin Xiang, Nandini Venkatanarayanan, and Collin Yih Xian Ho. “Clinical use of Hypericum perforatum (St John’s wort) in depression: A meta-analysis.” Journal of Affective Disorders 210 (2017): 211-221.

Castleman, Michael. “The new healing herbs.” Bantam Book, New York (2001): 465-471.

Hoffman, David. Holistic herbal. Element Books, 1988.

Saxena, Ram Chandra, et al. “Efficacy of an extract of ocimum tenuiflorum (OciBest) in the management of general stress: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012 (2011).

Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2007.

Veeresham, Ciddi. “Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs.” Journal of advanced pharmaceutical technology & research 3.4 (2012): 200.

Wolfson, P., and D. L. Hoffmann. “An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers.” Alternative therapies in health and medicine 9.2 (2003): 74.

Brock, C., Whitehouse, J., Tewfik, I., & Towell, T. (2014). American Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): A Randomised, Double‐Blind Placebo‐Controlled Crossover Study of its Effects on Mood in Healthy Volunteers. Phytotherapy Research, 28(5), 692-698.

Foster, Jane A., and Karen-Anne McVey Neufeld. “Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression.” Trends in neurosciences 36.5 (2013): 305-312.

Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2007.