Mood Enhancers: Part 4
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In this portion of the series we will examine herbal remedies that work to balance brain chemistry, serving to treat both anxiety and depression.
Herbal Mood Enhancers
Many of the substances we have previously examined that raise dopamine, can also raise serotonin, and those that raise serotonin can also affect dopamine levels. As we discussed earlier, the brain requires both types of neurotransmitters at different times, so many of these substances work to normalize brain functions. However for the sake of simplicity we have focused on their dominant effects, where most of the science resides.
Nevertheless, there are a variety of herbs that have proven helpful for balancing brain chemistry, serving to aid in treating both anxiety and depression. Which really shows the magic of herbs, that they can bring balance back to a system which has become unbalanced. Here I will briefly touch on the major herbs used to balance brain chemistry, in most cases simply providing a snippet or two from clinical studies on the subject.
When purchasing these herbs just follow the dosage instructions on the label. Herbs may be taken as teas (weakest form, but fine if you consume around three cups per day), tinctures (most expensive way), capsules of raw herb (often require many caps), or my preferred, standardized or concentrated herbs in capsules (best value, scientifically valid, and least amount of capsules required).
Conventional standardized herbs will usually not be from organic material, and will be produced using chemical solvents. Not ideal, but in the risk-versus-benefit ratio, still well worth using. Better, and more expensive, are the concentrated versions (usually 5:1) which tend to use organic herbs, and no chemical solvents (usually just food grade alcohol). Nonetheless, all forms have value. Now to the herbs.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
“WS root and leaf extracts exhibited noteworthy anti-stress and anti-anxiety activity in animal and human studies. WS also improved symptoms of depression and insomnia.” (Source)
Ashwagandha is a primary ingredient in our AdrenalStart product.
Oat Straw (Avena Sativa)
Avena sativa is an extract of flowering green oats which, when correctly harvested and processed, is an excellent dopamine elevator. Since it also can elevate levels of testosterone in men, it is often used as an aphrodisiac. The old saying, “sow your wild oats” indicates that the aphrodisiac properties of flowering wild oats were well known in the past. (Note: if you are buying the herb and it looks like oat straw it will have very little activity. One should see the green beginnings of oat grains in the mix for it to be of medical value.)
“Dopamine levels decline as we age past 45 years. When this happens, people no longer “feel” as young as they used to. This sometimes manifests as clinical depression. In a search for a safe method to block the insidious MAO-B enzyme (which breaks down dopamine in the body), scientists have identified a bioactive extract of wild green oat that not only inhibits MAO-B and the resulting breakdown of dopamine, but enhances dopaminergic neurotransmission that normally declines with aging. In human studies, the effects of wild green oat extract resulted in increased focus and concentration, processing speed, executive function, and working memory as well as other parameters of enhanced dopaminergic transmission.” (Source)
“Not only can this herb effectively treat anxiety, it is also used to treat migraines, shingles, fatigue, and even epilepsy. This herb can be especially helpful in calming the nerves of those who are detoxing from drug or alcohol addiction, and can even help curb nicotine cravings.” (Source)
“These results confirm the acute cognitive effects of Avena sativa extracts and are the first to demonstrate that chronic supplementation can benefit cognitive function and modulate the physiological response to a stressor.” (Source)
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
“Thus, the OS extract shows antianxiety and antidepressant properties at the same dose and can be a potential therapeutic agent against mixed anxiety and depressive syndrome.” (Source)
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
“Current evidence suggests that lemon balm may be effective in improving anxiety and depressive symptoms, particularly in the acute setting.” (Source)
“Since the calming effect of Melissa officinalis (MO) has been known, this study aimed to determine the effects of MO supplementation on depression, anxiety, stress, and sleep disturbances in patients with chronic stable angina (CSA). The results showed that 8-week supplementation with 3 g MO can decrease depression, anxiety, stress, and sleep disorder in patients with CSA.” (Source)
“Several recent studies have identified an underlying role of Panax ginseng in the prevention and treatment of depression.” (Source)
“White and red varieties of ginseng (20 and 50 mg/kg) showed positive results when tested against several paradigms of experimental anxiety.” (Source)
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
“Studies have been conducted that show that passion flower can treat menopausal symptoms such as vasomotor signs (hot flashes and night sweats), insomnia, depression, anger, headaches, and may be a great alternative to conventional hormone therapy.” (Source)
One study compared St. John’s wort (H. perforatum) and passion flower to see how they would work on symptoms of menopause: “Both herbs equally resulted in a decrease in the menopause symptoms scores.”
“With regard to the effects of Hypericum Perforatum and Passion Flower on treating menopause precocious symptoms (vasomotor signs, insomnia, depression, anger, headache, etc.), these two herbs can be used as an alternative treatment for individuals who cannot, whatsoever, use hormone therapy.” (Source)
“Early studies suggest it might help relieve insomnia and anxiety. It appears to boost the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain.” (Source )
“In outpatient surgery, administration of oral Passiflora incarnata as a premedication reduces anxiety without inducing sedation.” (Source)
“Relative to the controls, the experimental group demonstrated a significant reduction in self-reported anxiety, stress, anger, confusion and depression at 14 days and a significant improvement in total mood.” (Source)
Rhodiola is also a component of our AdrenalStart product.
Saffron (Crocus sativus)
In the West, up until recently, saffron, the dried stigmas of the crocus plant, has been thought of simply as a spice. However, in many countries (e.g. Iran, China, India), it has also been used for centuries as a medicine, and aphrodisiac (for both men and women), much of which has been confirmed by science. Research shows that it may also help improve mood, memory, and learning ability. (Source)
“In particular, a number of clinical trials demonstrated that saffron and its active constituents possess antidepressant properties similar to those of current antidepressant medications such as fluoxetine, imipramine and citalopram, but with fewer reported side effects.” (Source)
“Saffron appears to have a significant impact in the treatment of anxiety and depression disorder.” (Source)
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum)
St. John’s Wort has been used traditionally to treat both anxiety and depression, but unfortunately I could find no clinical evidence for its use in treating anxiety.
One study, published in 2019, found that St John’s wort produced a positive shift in emotional responses towards negative signals. “The study found that after seven days of taking St John’s wort, participants remembered positive words better, had reduced attention to fearful faces and reduced recognition of disgusted facial expressions.”
(Source) This is as close to an effect on anxiety as I could find.
Nonetheless, “for patients with mild-to-moderate depression, St John’s wort has comparable efficacy and safety when compared to SSRIs”. (Source)
And, if we look back to traditional use, we find this from the German Commission E (a committee composed of 24 scientific experts set up in 1978 to evaluate the safety and efficacy of herbal medicines).
“Internal use: to address burnout, stress, anxiety, depressive moods, nervous tension; Topical use: St. John’s Wort oil accelerates healing for injuries from sharp and blunt contact, and first-degree burns, as well as for the after-treatment of myalgia (muscle and nerve pain).” (Source)
There are, of course, many more herbs that could be discussed, which treat both anxiety and/or depression. I have chosen those most popular in usage, and those with solid science to back up their claims, as we are limited by space (having already turned a two part blog into a 5 part newsletter, there is not a lot of room left for further expansion on this topic without writing a book).
Some of the herbs discussed may not be used in conjunction with pharmaceutical mood drugs, though some are fine to use. To determine if a herb is suitable to take with any given medication simply read the cautions on the bottle (or do more research if you are buying raw herb). The warnings on supplements in Canada are as extreme as they can make them (in order to make natural substances look akin to a drug). Therefore, if there is the slightest hint (or even an extrapolation) of a herb interacting with a medicine, it will be found as a warning on the label.
Many antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are dangerous to quit cold turkey.
Therefore, if you wish to stop taking a pharmaceutical mood enhancer, it is best that you seek out a professional, either a doctor with some understanding of natural medicine, or a naturopath (many of which are licensed to prescribe drugs and can help to wean a person off medication).
Next time I will briefly examine dietary factors affecting mood disorders.