Calming and Adaptogen Herbs

Beautiful California Golden Poppies, California’s state flower (Eschscholzia californica), on a sunny spring day.

I wanted to compile a list of herbs, medicinal mushrooms and amino acids that I have personal experience with using for improving wellbeing. I have seen noticeable benefits from everything listed here. Websites cited for further reading.

  • Ashwaghanda – an adaptogen favored for its’ ability to help the body adapt to stress, provide stamina, and combat anxiety. I notice definite improvement in my ability to remain non-reactive during my very busy Monday through Friday, as well as sleep throughout the night! This pubmed article discusses an overview of the functions of the herb.
  • Gotu Kola – an adaptogen highly favored in India. Thought to open the ‘crown chakra,’ therefore increasing the flow of life force energy available to the body. Assists in regulating sleep cycles, decreasing stress, and promoting a positive outlook.
  • Holy Basil – yet another favored Indian herb, called “tulsi” in Ayruvedic medicine, this is a highly potent adaptogen for all levels of the body – physical, mental and emotional. “There is mounting evidence that tulsi can address physical, chemical, metabolic and psychological stress through a unique combination of pharmacological actions. Tulsi has been found to protect organs and tissues against chemical stress from industrial pollutants and heavy metals, and physical stress from prolonged physical exertion, ischemia, physical restraint and exposure to cold and excessive noise. Tulsi has also been shown to counter metabolic stress through normalization of blood glucose, blood pressure and lipid levels, and psychological stress through positive effects on memory and cognitive function and through its anxiolytic and anti-depressant properties.” – Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine
  • Lemon balm – contains the active compound “rosmarinic acid” – an enzyme which effectively increases GABA (gamma amino-butyric acid) in the brain. GABA is one of the inhibitory neurotransmitters, used by the brain to prevent over-excitement and attain balance. It is responsible for ensuring that we are not overly stressed and plays a role in sleep cycles. Increasing stimulation of GABA receptors will produce a sedative or calming effect and explains why Lemon Balm works well as an anti-anxiety herb. The difference between Lemon Balm being an effective anti-anxiety herb and a sleep aid is dosage. It combines extremely well with the herb Valerian, with several studies showing that these two herbs combined can induce a deep and restful night’s sleep.
  • Kava – another anxiolytic herb that acts on the GABA receptors to promote feelings of relaxation, decreased pain, and increased sociability. Pacific Islander cultures use kava much like Western societies use alcohol – to relax and socialize, with way less side effects the next day! This herb has been documented as having potential liver toxicity, so be mindful of use.
  • Kratom – an herb that works very similar to opioids on the brain, decreasing pain without the extremely addictive properties of pharmaceutical opioids. Kratom is still potentially addictive, but proven to be much safer than partially synthetic opioids such as oxycodone or hydrocodone. Also a great choice for chronic pain patients who can no longer access adequate pain control, or individuals who are in recovery from opiate dependence. May also decrease acute opiate withdrawal symptoms.
  • Mulungu – a less common Amazonian herb used from the bark of the tree. Works similar to benzodiazapines as it has anxiolytic (anxiety relieving) properties, and used for relaxation as well as a very effective sleep aid. I use it when experiencing heightened stress or overcaffeination, and want to fall asleep quickly.
  • Valerian – A pungent herb used for thousands of years to promote sleep and relaxation. This is a commonly available herb that can be found at your local drugstore. This site gives great background and evidence for its’ use as a sleep and calming aid. This is another herb I always have in my arsenal for nights when a little extra sleep support is needed – it reliably assists with falling and staying asleep.
  • California poppy – Not just California’s pretty state flower; this herb is a powerful sleep and calming aid. Used by indigenous California tribes for numerous purposes, this herb is another great option for natural anxiety, depression, nerve pain, and insomnia relief. It is not just a nerve tonic, but also restorative for the body, as it promotes cellular health and does not tax the body as kava can with prolonged use. If you are lucky to live in California, this herb is very easy to find and harvest (responsibly.) Just be sure to harvest the stems after the petals fall from the stem!
  • American Skullcap – another favored calming, antioxidant and nerve restoring herb working on the GABA receptors. If you tend to reach for alcohol, cannabis, or other calming aids, you may benefit from the listed herbs that work on these receptors, as low GABA can cause anxiety, irritability, and nerve/muscle tension. Skullcap is proving beneficial for a number of ailments including insomnia, anxiety, as well as protection against Alzheimer’s disease as this article suggests.
Herbal medicine leaves of Centella asiatica known as gotu kola