A HEALING PLANT GUIDE for Mental Health
Mental health is something we’re all dealing with. Slowly but surely, the world is starting to de-stigmatize mental health, and most everyone is catching on to the importance of prioritizing it. Since the pandemic hit, we’ve all suffered some form of mental health shifts, whether it be depression, anxiety, grief, PTSD, or other disorders as we navigate massive changes in our daily lives.
TOP 5 MOST COMMON
MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERSAs we begin to explore the five most common mental health disorders in the US, it’s important we pause to emphasize how critical a healthy mind is to the functioning of a healthy body, spirit, and heart. The often emphasized “mind-body connection” in traditional medicine all over the world isn’t just a catchy phrase. Too often, our physical health is prioritized and seen as the more valuable of the equation. Today’s reminder is to make time to care for your mind.
Below are the five most common mental health disorders. Next, we’ll discuss related symptoms, and explore the herbs that have been used historically to treat these conditions and more.
What are anxiety disorders? What are commonly known as “anxiety” disorders are actually a group of more specific conditions such as: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks and social anxiety disorders. When we identify more specific conditions and their symptoms, it becomes more clear how widespread anxiety is in the general population. Finding plant allies to support us and our loved ones in our struggles with anxiety provides additional resources not often discussed in the media, in typical doctor visits, or in most of the available information about anxiety.
Who’s most impacted? According to Davis Behavioral Health, approximately 40 million adults, ages 18 and above, are impacted annually by anxiety disorders, making it the most common category of mental health disorders in the United States. From January to September 2020, there was a 93 percent increase in the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression, compared with the same number of people who took an “anxiety screen” in 2019.
What are the most common symptoms? While each of the specific anxiety disorders above has its own symptoms, the overarching feelings people with these disorders experience are “distressing and frequent fear and apprehension” (Davis Behavioral Health). The difference between those with anxiety disorders and those having a normal stress response is often the conditions under which the feelings are being experienced. For instance, jumping out of a plane or speaking in front of a crowd (normal response to stress) versus non-stressful events like choosing an outfit for an ordinary day. Likewise, for those suffering from acute anxiety issues, this distress is often not just temporary in nature; it can last for days, weeks, or months.
What is dementia? Like anxiety, people typically use “dementia” as an umbrella term, when in reality it encompasses mental conditions ranging from Parkinson’s disease and frontotemporal dementia to Huntington’s disease and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (Davis Behavioral Health). However, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80 percent of all dementia disorders.
Who’s most impacted? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s is over 6 million, with 72 percent of the affected population aged 75 or older. 11 percent of people aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s dementia, while roughly two-thirds of the people suffering from Alzheimer’s in the US are women. Older Black Americans are almost twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, with older Latinx American adults being 1-1.5 times more likely to have a form of dementia as older whites. By the year 2050, the number of Americans 65 and over with Alzheimer’s dementia is expected to grow by more than double (to nearly 13 million).
What are the most common symptoms? In simple terms, dementia-related disorders are defined by a decline in cognitive abilities, many of which impair daily life by severely deteriorating independent functions. These include, but are not limited to: memory and thinking skills, which get destroyed, preventing affected individuals from doing simple tasks.
What are eating disorders? According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders are “illnesses in which people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.” People who suffer from these mental health disorders become preoccupied, sometimes even obsessed, with bodyweight/shape and their relationship to food. Perhaps the most commonly known eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia nervosa, but these complex mental disorders also include body dysmorphic disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and binge eating, pica, and rumination disorders.
Who’s most impacted? According to the nonprofit ANAD, nine percent of the worldwide population and accordingly, nine percent of the US population (28.8 million Americans) will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Only second to opioid overdose, eating disorders are among the deadliest of all mental illnesses, resulting in over 10,000 deaths in the US annually. More than a quarter of people who suffer from eating disorders attempt suicide, and up to 74 percent of the risk for eating disorders comes from genetic heritability.
“For people with historical trauma, the transmission of their trauma to their children is unintentional but stems from their own pain which has not been dealt with. Unwanted behaviors, such as eating disorders or addictions, may have their roots in intergenerational trauma, which creates a vicious cycle of unprocessed grief and shame leading to unwanted behaviors, which only cause more pain, guilt, and shame,” explains Dr. Carolyn C. Ross.
What are the most common symptoms? In addition to the extreme restricting of food intake, people who suffer from eating disorders may also go on food binges, purge after meals or whenever they feel they have eaten too much/gained weight, or be prone to over-exercising.
What are mood disorders? Nearly everyone suffers from occasional mood swings. But what makes a mood disorder different from a mood shift or negative mood is that people with this mental health condition experience more persistent, severe symptoms and disruptions to their daily activities. In addition to major depression, which is perhaps the most commonly known mood disorder, dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder), bipolar and substance-induced mood disorder are some of the other mental health issues in this category.
Who’s most impacted? According to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders, approximately 9.5 percent of adults in the United States, ages 18 and above, suffer from depressive illnesses (major depression, bipolar disorder, or dysthymia) annually. In other words, 1 in every 10 adults suffers from one form of mood disorder or another, and yet women are nearly twice as likely than men to experience major depression. The average age for the onset of major depression is around the mid-20s, but this disorder can develop at any age.
What are the most common symptoms? Mood disorders affect a person’s emotional state, characterized by long stretches of extreme feelings (sadness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, excessive guilt, etc.), very low energy, anxiousness, or persistent sensation of “emptiness”.
What are psychotic disorders? Categorized by the inability to differentiate between what is real and what is not, psychotic disorders relate to problems with how a person processes and engages with reality. “Scientists believe that certain viruses, problems with how specific brain circuits work, extreme stress or trauma and some forms of drug abuse may play a role in the development of psychotic disorders” (Davis Behavioral Health). Schizophrenia, a chronic brain disorder, reportedly only affects less than one percent of the US population, but is just one of the mental health disorders that causes great harm to both individuals and the people in their lives. Schizoaffective and brief psychotic disorder, delusional disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder are other commonly known conditions in this category.
Who’s most impacted? According to The Recovery Village treatment network, approximately three percent of the US population experiences at least one psychotic episode in their lifetime. Annually, an estimated 100,000 teenagers and young adults will have their first psychotic episode, whereas up to 0.64 percent of people in the US today suffer from a psychotic disorder.
What are the most common symptoms? Psychotic disorders are some of the most varied mental conditions, and this category cannot easily be summarized by symptoms that are simultaneously part of more than one disorder. However, according to the US National Library of Medicine: “two of the main symptoms are delusions and hallucinations.” As with many mental health disorders, a loss of interest in activities or personal hygiene and cold, detached mannerisms, including the inability to express emotions, are also common symptoms of psychosis.
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A NOTE ABOUT SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, FEELINGS + BEHAVIORS
IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS IN AN EMERGENCY, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.
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PLANT REMEDIES FOR
What herbs can be used to treat the most common mental health disorders?
Now that we know a little more about these common mental health disorders, what groups of people are most impacted by them, and some of the symptoms that typically come along with each one, let’s take a look at the plant remedies and other botanical resources from cultures around the world to support mental health throughout history.
FOR ANXIETY DISORDERS
KAVA KAVA (Piper methysicum)Kava is best-known and studied as an herb that addresses acute stress responses, nervous and social anxiety, and insomnia. Herbalist Jim McDonald says kava is most effective when one is overwhelmed and muscular tension is present (McDonald, n.d.). Kava helps us to let down social barriers. It can help when one has social anxiety or stage fright. Some feel kava is a relaxing herb, while others feel it acts as more of a hypnotic and sedative. While herbalists may differ in their opinions of how to categorize kava, many do agree that its effects are dose-dependent. Studies have shown that the appropriate use of kava causes no negative cognitive effects or physiological dependency (Gendle, Stroman, & Mullin, 2011; Singh, 1992), making it an effective option for a variety of anxiety-related imbalances.
PASSIONFLOWER (Passiflora incarnata)
The young leaves and flowers are credited with analgesic, anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, antitussive, aphrodisiac, and anti-asthmatic effects. Dr. Jill Stansbury recommends Pasiflora in formulas for insomnia, anxiety, drug dependence, and acute withdrawal. And it can also be included in formulas for convulsions, neuralgias, neuroprotection, and neuropathic conditions. It is known to increase GABA neurotransmitter activity, blocking feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear in your brain, and in their place, creates a calming effect for your overall nervous system. Researchers in nine different clinical trials on passionflower demonstrated that “the anti-anxiety effects of passionflower are comparable to prescription medications.” With mild to zero side effects, passionflower is used globally as a gentle sedative that can help calm hyperactivity in children, or used in higher doses as a hypnotic sedative.
GOTU KOLA (Centella asiatica)
Memory and nerve function enhancing Gotu Kola is an Ayurvedic herb that has been used by Indians as a revered memory and brain tonic for at least 2,500 years. Sanskrit texts claim Gotu Kola juice will improve intellect and memory in just one week, while continued use can allegedly boost photographic memory and a longer life span. Scientific studies support its ability to decrease anxiety in the elderly, and this calm-energy adaptogen helps relieve stress and anxiety without causing drowsiness.
GINGKO (Ginkgo biloba)
Gingko tops the best-selling charts of all plant medicines for improving memory, and it has a particular affinity for serving the elderly and slowing/stopping the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. While Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has relied on ginkgo seeds for thousands of years, the use of ginkgo leaves for memory is a newer invention by European Phyto pharmacologists. Its extract is used almost exclusively for improving memory, cognition, and brain function, though it’s also a general antioxidant.
FOR EATING DISORDERS
ASHWAGANDHA (Withania somnifera)
In 2019, we discussed Ashwaganda's Top 9 Healing Benefits Backed by Science on our blog, so you know we’re big fans of this anti-stress, anti-anxiety, and anti-depression root! Specifically used to calm the nerves, a 2016 clinical trial confirmed: “Ashwagandha root reduces psychological and physiological markers of stress, improves mental well-being, and reduces serum cortisol level and food cravings and improves eating behaviors.” Researchers of the study also observed “a statistically significant reduction in body weight and body mass index”, making it a helpful resource for body-weight management for those experiencing chronic stress. Other studies show how ashwagandha can reduce anxiety, depression, mood swings, and hormonal imbalance, while also increasing muscle growth and decreasing severe anxious food cravings.
RHODIOLA (Rhodiola rosea)
Also called golden root, Rhodiola is considered one of the most important adaptogens when it comes to mental health due to its strong effects against depressive moods, and mood disorders overall. Rhodiola can help to treat fatigue, both mental and physical, improve energy, stamina, and gently stimulates energy in cases of depression and lethargy in association with depression. Rhodiola can greatly improve in recovery from trauma, both physical and psychological.
FOR MOOD DISORDERS
In the central nervous system, serotonin modulates mood, behavior, appetite, and sleep. In the gut, serotonin is involved in the regulation of gastrointestinal mobility. The following herbs have been shown to promote serotonergic neurotransmission, by a variety of mechanisms. It is important to note that herbs never work by one single mechanism of action, many of these found on the list, for example, help promote dopamine, affect monoamine oxidase (MAO) enzymes, and display a number of mechanisms that contribute to mind-mood altering effects.
ALBIZZIA (Albizia julibrissin)
The Eternal Happiness Tree, otherwise known as Albizia, mimosa, or Persian silk tree, has both flowers and bark that are among the most valuable of all the Chinese botanicals for relieving anxiety, stress, and depression. This “herbal Prozac”—as it is known among some Chinese herbalists and acupuncturists today—is recommended by Chinese healers for anyone suffering from grief or sadness as the result of a severe loss or trauma. A calming sedative, the bark of the Albizia is thought to “anchor” the spirit, while its flowers “lighten it” (Michael Tierra). Its other traditional medicinal applications include the treatment of insomnia, lack of enthusiasm, amnesia, melancholy, and confusion.
JOHN’S WORT (Hypericum perforatum)
Hypericum is among the most well-researched herbs for treating mood disorders and will be well known to most readers. St Johns Wort can be used for both anxiety and depression, and research shows the plant to increase levels of dopamine, GABA, serotonin, noradrenaline in the neural synapses, improving mood by many mechanisms simultaneously. St John’s may modulate stress-induced emotional distress is also an MAO inhibitor, from where the drug-herb interaction concerns arise. St John’s favors dopaminergic transmission, vs other neuro-transmissions, resulting in mood-enhancing effects. *If you are currently on anti-depressants, or anxiolytics, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider prior to ingesting or self-diagnosing.
MUCUNA (Mucuna pruriens)
One of nature’s most important antidepressant foods, this plant medicine is one of the only naturally occurring—not to mention most concentrated—sources of L-Dopa (dopamine). L-Dopa, a naturally occurring amino acid, transforms into dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter that ignites feelings of joy and bliss! Also known as velvet bean, Mucuna is used by Indigenous peoples to assist in recovery from depression.
LEMON BALM (Melissa officinialis)
The aerial parts of this low-growing herbaceous plant have been traditionally used for general mood disorders, insomnia, a nervous stomach, migraines, infections, symptoms of hyperthyroidism, gastric conditions, bronchial complaints, and hypertension. Melissa is used as a nerve tonic, recommended especially for cases of nervous debility and depression, particularly indicated for nervous problems that have arisen from long-standing worry-stress.
BLUE WATER LILY (Nymphaea caerulea, N. ampla)
& LOTUS FAMILY (Nelumbo nucifera)
Both Nelumbo and Nymphaea are types of water lilies, also known as lotuses, and both are useful in formulas for addiction, depression, insomnia, and anxiety. The Nymphaea family of flowers, often referred to as ‘lotus’, are actually water lilies and both share deep similarities in their medicinal function, although as you read below, Nymphaea has an added twist to the chemical story.
Both contain aporphine alkaloids nuciferine, nupharine, nupharadine, and others, which are known to cross the blood-brain barrier. Nuciferine in particular blocks dopamine receptors, and can induce sedation, and even catalepsy with higher purified doses. It is also reported to potentiate morphine’s analgesia and thereby help with opiate withdrawal. Nelumbo, the true lotus, because of the dopamine blockade, may be useful in formulas for mania, agitation, and schizophrenia, as well as for hypermotor disorders. Also may improve depression, via serotoninergic effects more powerful than those of Hypericum.
Blue Lotus, and the Nymphaea family, are depicted on tombs as a symbol of the continual renewal of life. A medicine present in Ayurveda, TCM, Egyptian medicine, and beyond, it has often appeared in formulas for anti-aging, rejuvenation, depression, and menstrual irregularities. Nymphaea contains a small amount of apomorphine. In contrast to nuciferine, apomorphine is a dopamine agonist rather than antagonist and has been used as a sedative-hypnotic since the late 1800s to treat insomnia, depression, and schizophrenia. Synthetic apomorphine continues to be explored for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and to improve motor function. (Excerpts from Herbs for Psychiatric Conditions by Dr. Jill Stansbury).
Various plant parts have been smoked to treat stress and promote relaxation.
PSILOCYBIN (Psilocybe cubensis)
Psilocybe is a genus of mushrooms typically grown in fertile meadows and cow pastures that may thrive on manure. Psilocybin, a tryptamine-derived compound from Psilocybe, has powerful hallucinogenic effects due to promotion of serotonergic signals and serotonin receptor agonism. We are including it in this write-up due to the abundance of growing evidence that ingestion may reduce depression, anxiety and be beneficial as part of end-of-life care. The use of microdosing may help to alter neural wiring in a manner that permanently improves mood in chronic depressive states. Clinical trials show that a single dose (0.3mg/kg) of psilocybin had lasting effects in improving the mental outlook of cancer patients with anxiety and depression. (Dr. Jill Stansbury)
DEVIL’S PEPPER (Rauvolfia vomitoria)
Rauvolfia vomitoria is a shrub or tree that is widespread in countries in tropical Africa like Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, and Angola, as well as China, Bangladesh, the Himalayas, and Puerto Rico. Used across continents in traditional medicine practices, this plant is thought to be endangered in countries like Ghana due to overharvesting. A root remedy now used in the pharmaceutical industry—specifically for reserpine, deserpidine, ajmalicine, and ajmaline—African herbalists use a root decoction, root macerate, or powdered root diluted in water as a calming sedative for the psychotic or mentally ill.
SAFFRON FLOWER (Crocus sativus)
With a flavor so divine, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Persian cultures have traditionally used saffron as a calming, healing, and anti-inflammatory medicine, thereby proliferating the myth of the spice as responsible for making people happy. In ancient Rome, it was used as a hangover cure, due to its ability to sedate the user. Modern studies show that saffron contains crocin and safranal, which have demonstrated its ‘antidepressant’ effect. Crocin has been shown to inhibit the reuptake of both dopamine and norepinephrine, while safranal inhibits the reuptake of serotonin (Dr. Jill Stansbury). While there was already concrete evidence that saffron boosts serotonin production, more recent research in Iran showed that saffron was “almost as effective as Prozac”. Furthermore, in a 2021 clinical trial, researchers found “saffron extract appears to reduce depressive mood” and suggested, “this natural extract may be particularly relevant for increasing resilience against the development of stress-related psychiatric disorders.”
FEELING ANXIOUS, DEPRESSED
Here are six ways to help return to your parasympathetic nervous system state:
1. MOVE YOUR BODY — Get the serotonin and endorphins going, protect existing brain cells and promote new, healthier brain cells, all while enjoying any type of movement that feels good and authentic to you. Walk, swim, dance, practice yoga … just shuffle the cells!
2. BREATHE DEEPLY — Don’t speak “brain” fluently? Deep breathing lowers stress by sending a message to your brain. That message is “calm down and relax.” The brain then transmits that message to the body, and you’d be amazed how quickly this game of telephone from breath to brain to body can lower your heart rate and soothe your nerves.
3. GET A MASSAGE (or give yourself one!) — Take a moment to learn the powers of lymphatic release, check out our 8 easy steps to perform lymph drainage self-massage. Never underestimate the healing power of touch. If you’re feeling called to allow someone else to do the touch therapy, make an appointment today or ask a trusted loved one to give you a massage.
4. CREATE BOUNDARIES — Ever heard of “compassion fatigue” or felt yourself approaching the wall of just not caring anymore? Creating boundaries can help build our self-esteem, get clarity about who we are, what we want and what we believe, and shift the focus back onto our own well-being. For starters, try saying “no” without giving an explanation. This can be as simple as turning down a social invitation. You don’t need an excuse!
5. PRACTICE MEDITATION —Not sure where to start? Check out our Guided Meditation with Bobinsana, the sacred heart opener, or download a free meditation app. Like deep breathing, meditation can help you return to homeostasis by focusing on the present.
6. COLD THERAPY — A cold plunge or a cold shower can help improve your blood circulation by cooling down your body temperature, especially if you’re suffering from anxiety (which spikes blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol). Believe it or not, cold showers also boost endorphins, your brain’s “feel-good hormones”, which ease symptoms of both anxiety and depression. It only takes a few minutes under the shower with cooler water flowing, and then you can finish with lukewarm water!
BONUS: Read more about 5 Herbs to Help Rewire Anxiety and Depression on the blog here and check out this clinical herbalist’s guide to supercharging your mind with herbs and foods.
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DISCLAIMER: This content is not intended to encourage self-diagnosis, and is purely informational in nature. We are not suggesting any of these herbs be used in place of medicine or as medicinal alternatives. We do suggest you work with your chosen herbalist, healer and/or physician to best integrate these and other herbal remedies into your monthly routines. Please use plant medicines carefully and intentionally. Discuss any questions or doubts directly with a healthcare practitioner.
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