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Natural Anxiety Soothers
Does the following story sound familiar, similiar or one that you have experienced. The other day I heard from a friend of mine with a new baby -- her second in three years. She sounded harried... hardly a surprise. She described her life as an endless round of attending to her two children, caretaking her husband, housekeeping and managing her career. She's not sleeping well and frequently feels jittery and anxious. Not being one to turn automatically to pharmaceuticals, she called to ask if I knew of any natural remedies for stress and anxiety.
Fortunately they knew the best expert to call about botanical and natural medications: Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council. He had a number of suggestions for products that are soothing, relaxing and helpful in overcoming anxiety symptoms. Some have even been found to help improve sleep.
TO HELP YOU RELAX
Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. A 1999 study measured the brain activity of volunteers after a single 200 mg dose of theanine. Researchers reported that the supplement helped generate alpha brain waves, which are usually considered to be associated with relaxation. Theanine (also known as L-theanine) is available in natural food stores.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is among the most important neurotransmitters in the brain, involved in relaxation and inhibition. In fact many of the pharmaceutical drugs used for treating anxiety, including Valium, act by enhancing the effects of GABA. Some research suggests that as a supplement, GABA works better when combined with other ingredients like theanine. If you can find the two together in a supplement, it makes sense to take them that way.
Lemon balm (a plant, Melissa officinalis, in the mint family) is another mild sedative. One study of 24 healthy volunteers published in Phytotherapy Research in 2006, found that a single dose of 600 mg of a product combining valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and lemon balm reduced reported anxiety.
Kava is from a plant called Piper methysticum. Though there has been controversy associated with its use, kava has a long history as an herbal medicine to relieve anxiety, stress and insomnia. A 2006 review of randomized clinical trials on herbal remedies that relieve anxiety published in Phytomedicine found evidence "beyond reasonable doubt" for kava's effectiveness in the treatment of anxiety. "It relaxes skeletal muscles without causing drowsiness, so you can become physically relaxed but remain mentally sharp within just 15 minutes of taking a product containing kava," Blumenthal said. Recommended kava products are 70% standardized extract, sold in 100 mg doses, thus containing 70 mg of kavalactones (it will say so on the label).
Blumenthal cautions against taking kava with alcohol or with drugs that have an adverse effect on the liver (e.g. acetaminophen, or Tylenol). Also, kava has been associated with some liver problems. It is not considered safe for breastfeeding women, pregnant women or people with a history of liver disease.
Lavender is associated with relaxation, often used as aromatherapy in spas and as an ingredient in supposedly soothing lotions and teas. Just breathing the aroma of natural lavender oil -- in a spray or infuser, or as a massage oil -- has a mild relaxing effect, Blumenthal told me.
NATURAL SLEEP AIDS
While the above products can help ease tensions during the day, sometimes you need some additional help at night. According to Blumenthal, these sleep inducers may work as well as the popular pharmaceutical drugs, but without their adverse side effects:
Valerian is "a natural sleep aid and daytime sedative," Blumenthal said, adding that contrary to the popular myth, it is not related to the pharmaceutical drug Valium. Small doses of valerian can be used for calming during the day and higher doses as a sleep aid about a half hour before bedtime. Valerian can be taken in combination with lemon balm or other mildly sedative herbs (e.g. chamomile, hops, etc.), which makes it an even more powerful sleep aid.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) can also be helpful, according to Blumenthal. Yes, this is the same ingredient used in making beer -- it is a gentle sedative that promotes relaxation and is available in pills, as well as in tincture and bulk flower form in health food stores. It can be taken together with valerian, Blumenthal noted.
HELP YOUR DOCTOR HELP YOU
As a general precaution, do not take any of these products while pregnant or breastfeeding. While all are available at health food stores and online, it is important to take them only under the supervision of a trained practitioner. If anxiety and/or insomnia are more than an occasional problem, you may need to take a broader look at your life and make some changes -- whether it's delegating responsibilities at home to family members or professionals, or shifting job obligations or saying "no" to some committees. Anxiety is a message that something's not right. Natural or pharmaceutical, nothing will solve such problems except solving the problem itself. You can't take care of everyone if you don't take care of yourself.
Mark Blumenthal is the founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council and the editor of the publication HerbalGram,
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