With one in four of us experiencing a mental health problem at some point in our lives, it’s important to know about herbs for mental health. The patients I see struggling most often have anxiety, depression, or a combination of the two and whilst there’s often an obvious trigger, I often see corresponding patterns of physical symptoms as well.
Many people don’t realise that mental health is intrinsically linked to physical health. You may have noticed yourself that if you’ve been unwell for a while, it can have an impact upon your mood. Likewise, if you’re feeling depressed, over a period of time that can result in muscle fatigue, loss of appetite and other physical symptoms. The main key to all this is in the gut. Because your brain is quite isolated, it relies on the gut to gather information from the rest of the body, and send it upwards via the vagus nerve. You even have a ‘gut brain’ which co-ordinates all the information going between the gut and the brain. This also explains why we talk about ‘gut feelings’, ‘feeling gutted’ or having a ‘kick in the guts’, as well as that butterfly feeling you get when you’re nervous.
Serotonin is a chemical used by our nervous system in regulating our body clock, and making us feel happy, alert and awake. Often during bouts of depression, our serotonin levels drop, but 90% is actually made in the gut provided that your gut microbiome is healthy. That means you need a good balance of probiotic bacteria, so eating probiotic foods every day, and possibly taking a supplement is important. One study showed that supplementing Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a specific strain of probiotic bacteria helps increase another nerve chemical called GABA, which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety(1)
What can herbal medicine do for mental health?
Medical Herbalists have a wide range of herbs available to help patients with mental health issues, and often patients are already on some form of medication by the time they come to us. As always, I get to know each new patient by asking a number of questions, and piecing together how they’ve become unwell not just mentally, but physically, emotionally and even spiritually as well. Often I find that with chronic depression, there’s some misalignment between how that person wants to be living their life, and their reality at the time. That’s why I also offer coaching to help them achieve what they want and get a complete resolution.
Nervines are one group of herbs we use, and perhaps the most well known is St John’s Wort. Even it’s latin name alludes to its ability to calm anxiety, and I’ve certainly found it very effective at helping to lift depression. One recent analysis of several studies found it to be at least as effective as a commonly prescribed form of antidepressant too (2). Oats are another nervine which is very strengthening and sustaining (think burly Scottish clansmen and coal miners, both of whom are keen Oat eaters!). You can easily incorporate them into your diet in the form of porridge, and oat cakes are useful too. Lemon balm is probably my favourite herb, and has a specific effect on the gut-brain axis. It calms anxiety and lifts depression depending on what’s needed, and taken as a tea it has an instant effect which is now backed by scientific studies.
Adaptogens are also useful in helping to sustain a person through a period of stress. They work throughout the whole body, but all support the adrenal glands in making an appropriate amount of stress hormones for the situation. Like the nervines, we use whichever adaptogens are best suited to the person at the time. So for example, if someone’s become unwell through working (and/or partying) too hard, we might use Eleuthrococcus.
In any case, optimum health will increase your resilience and make you less prone to mental health problems. That means eating foods which nourish your mental health, including a good balance of essential fatty acids, and those rich in B vitamins. Enjoying regular exercise is also key, and daily meditation practice is known to help both with anxiety and depression.
Are You Struggling With Your Mental Health?
If you notice yourself feeling unwell, do what Chris did and make an appointment with me straightaway. The sooner we can start reversing the process with herbs, moral support and some simple diet & lifestyle changes, the better. Get in touch now to make your first appointment.