Fortunately I 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.
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.
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.
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.