Your boss ticking you off? Diffuse some lavender in your office. Can't sleep because your in-laws are coming over tomorrow? Chew on some valerian root, or sip on some chamomile tea!
Sometimes we all need a healthy boost to our mental and emotional state of mind. Short-term stress, depression, and insomnia pop up whenever we experience significant changes, good or bad. Herbal remedies, used in conjunction with medical supervision, exercise, and a healthy diet, can smooth over life's rough patches and limit our reliance upon over-the-counter aids or destructive coping methods.
Other herbs for mental health, if taken regularly, can insulate you from the damage stress can cause on your body, and better help your nervous and immune systems prepare for future challenges. Check with your doctor to see if these 12 natural herbs for stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders belong in your garden — and in your wellness plan for your mental and emotional health.
1. Ashwagandha/Indian Ginseng (Withania somnifera)
Somnifera means "sleep-inducing," and this Asian herb is gaining notice among Western scientists for its ability to reduce inflammation, elevate mood, reduce stress, and battle insomnia. Withania somnifera, also called Indian ginseng, shows promise in reducing neurodegenerative diseases and stroke damage. Ashwagandha's roots contain the highest concentration of withanolides, the steroid responsible for its superpowers.
After nearly 8000 years as a primary Ayurvedic herb, Indian ginseng is really catching on in the herbal supplement industry. You can grow your own as a perennial in zones 2 through 9. Once established, it's a drought-hardy, shrub-like plant with alternate leaves and bright red berries.
2. Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
Also called water hyssop or Brahmi, bacopa is a staple in Ayurvedic medicine that's native to Australia and Southeast Asia. It's an aquatic to semi-aquatic plant that makes a beautiful groundcover in marshy soil.
Unless you live in USDA growing zones 8 through 11, grow your bacopa in your freshwater fish tank or create an indoor water garden in a room with plenty of sunlight. Bacopa has smooth, vibrant green ping-pong paddle-shaped leaves and fluted, lavender-tinged white flowers.
Bacopa monnieri is a traditional treatment for stress and anxiety, and it shows promise as a method of improving blood flow to and in the brain. It's easily grown from seed, though you might want to start with cuttings taken from a mature plant for best results.
3. California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Costanoan Native American people used California poppy taproots as sedatives, and some Western native cultures used them to knock out and cheat gambling opponents. Because it was widely used for a multitude of medicinal and culinary purposes, in low doses California poppies are likely safe to use. There are a ton of herbal websites with anecdotal information and advice, and you can learn more about E. californica and other poppies here.
You don't have to live in the Sunshine State to grow California poppies. They do well as full-sun, low-growing perennials in zones 3 through 7, and as annuals elsewhere.
4. English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
L. angustifolia is actually a Mediterranean native, and it's there that it earned its reputation as a medicinal herb. It's the primary (if not only) lavender species used for essential oils, and the hands-down favorite for those who love to use them in potpourris and sachets.
It's a hardy perennial in zones 5 through 8, preferring temperate conditions with moderate summers. Of the major lavender types, this is the one that does best in the U.K. — thence the name. English lavender is best known (and proven) to relieve stress and anxiety and promote restful sleep. It does have its drawbacks, though, as it's believed to cause hormonal imbalances in adolescent males.
5. German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, syn. M. chamomilla, Matricaria recutita)
Everyone knows that chamomile tea with a bit of honey is the perfect way to wind down from a stressful day. According to at least one recent study of German chamomile's calming properties, long-term use safely and significantly reduces the symptoms of moderate-to-severe general anxiety disorder (GAD).
Growing German chamomile from seed is easy in nearly all growing zones, as long as they have well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. These daisy relatives have similar but much smaller flower heads with diminutive white petals and pronounced yellow centers.
6. Holy Basil/Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)
Another badass in Ayurvedic and Siddha medical traditions is holy basil. In fact, it's such a rockstar that whenever we see bottles of holy basil capsules at the supermarket, we think of Ronnie James Dio. Or maybe we just substitute holy basil for the lyrics in "Holy Diver" because we're complete dorks.
An herbal adaptogen, tulsi improves a person's ability to withstand stress. For thousands of years, it's safely treated an enormous number of illnesses and belongs in any home herbalist's garden.
Ocimum sanctum looks very much like "regular" basil. It's native to southern Asia, but can be grown from seeds under the same conditions. If you only have room for one but stress reduction is a priority, you can use holy basil in the kitchen as well as medicinally in teas or powder form.
7. Hops (Humulus lupulus L.)
We'd love to enable your jones for a good IPA, but the alcohol content might contradict hops' proven benefits as an antidepressant. These fast-growing perennial vining plants are also beneficial in combating stress and anxiety.
Hops grow up to 25 feet high on a wire or string, so when you take down those holiday lights in May (yes, we know), you can set up your hop supports. They're great for shading southern-exposed walls, and if you decide to dive into the home-brewing hobby, each vine can produce up to two pounds of hops.
8. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Support local pollinators and your sanity by growing lemon balm in your garden. Sometimes called by its genus name Melissa (which means "honey" in ancient Greek) lemon balm is often used in combination with lavender, valerian root, and chamomile.
Flower heads and leaves make delicious salad accents, but for relaxing the nerves and supporting the body's ability to withstand stress, prepare them as you would any loose leaf tea. Add lemon balm to your favorite aromatherapeutic pillow sachets to help you drift off to sleep.
Lemon balm plants can overwinter in zones 5 to 10, and it grows quickly enough to perform as an annual in colder regions. It needs regular watering, but otherwise is a low-maintenance, easy-to-grow culinary and medicinal herb.
9. Passionflower (Passiflora)
These exotic climbing, fruiting vines are native to tropical South America, Australia, and Southeast Asia. In 1569, Spanish physician and botanist Nicolás Monardes flipped out when he "discovered" it in Peru—not just over its unusual beauty, but for its many medicinal properties. You'll find passionflower products promoted as a treatment for stress, anxiety, ADHD, and sleep disorders.
You won't find much scientific consensus to back up passion flower's anecdotal history, but researchers cover their butts by including the "do not use while operating heavy machinery/may cause drowsiness" caveat in any discussions about the plant's efficacy. So if it may cause drowsiness...well? Climb into that hammock, because it's naptime!
Growing passionflower from seed requires patience, but these perennials are worth the effort. We think there are more effective herbal solutions to stress and anxiety, but it's enough to grow them for their ornamental value alone.
10. Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Studies indicate that extracts from common sage have anxiety-reducing properties, with the added benefit of increasing alertness and cognitive function in higher doses. Scientists point out the obvious by noting that sage is most effective when the source of stress is removed from the setting. That might be where smudging comes in; in Native American tradition, the smoke from bundled sage was believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits.
You can grow your own sage from seed as perennials in zones 5 to 8 (annuals elsewhere) for the freshest, most potent culinary and medicinal herbs. Common sage tolerates poor soil as long as it drains well.
11. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum)
If you ask the average person on the street which herb they associate with mental health, St. John’s Wort is likely the most frequent answer...after "huh?" or "No freaking clue, go away!" We wrote a spotlight on St. John's Wort just over a year ago, referring to a study that determined that the herb increases dopamine and also has the potential to serve as an antiviral medication.
As a garden plant, St. John’s Wort is easy to grow from seed in low-water landscapes. It has perky, attractive yellow flowers and bright green foliage and while it prefers full sun, it will do well in partial shade mimicking open-canopy forests.
12. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian root is one of the first mental wellness-supporting herbal remedies to be embraced by mainstream Western culture. It's best known for helping insomniacs go down for the count. For everyone else, it promotes consistent, healthy sleep patterns. Anxiety relief is a lesser-known anecdotal benefit. Legitimate scientific research supports valerian's calming properties, but prolonged use may cause depression.
You don't have to consume valerian for the chill-out factor. Grow valerian from seed for a showy, graceful addition to your ornamental garden, and make time to hang out and watch the butterflies and bees.
Valerian is a frost-hardy perennial in zones 4 to 7, thriving in consistently damp, lightly-shaded environments.
Get Serious about Caring for Your Mental Health
Be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist before therapeutically using any of these plants, as some medicinal herbs for anxiety may not interact well with prescription or over-the-counter medications. Herbal remedies, while beneficial for mild cases of mental or emotional distress, are no substitute for professional medical care when your symptoms have lasted more than a few weeks. If you suspect you have a chronic chemical imbalance or other illness affecting your mental wellness, ask your physician to refer you to a qualified clinical psychiatrist. Find one through these resources:
- Psychology Today's national directory of psychologists and therapists
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (call anytime, toll-free at 1-800-273-8255)