Tonic Herbs for Stress and Anxiety
Written by Ricky Bratz
Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor (except where noted)
The types of stress we experience these days are very different from the stress that our ancestors lived with throughout history. Perhaps our stress responses aren’t being triggered by fending off a wild animal to survive, but we have a slew of modern-day stressors to process: trauma around school shootings, worry of impending climate catastrophe, violence in our homes or neighborhoods, life demands, deadlines, our health status, or caring for kids or aging parents, to name a few examples. These events can set in motion that same stress response system in the body that was historically activated by that hungry predator.
Our race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, socioeconomic status, and the intersections of all these various identities can thicken the stress stew. Folks with marginalized identities navigate daily microaggressions (subtle, indirect, or unintentional discriminations) and systems of oppression that increase stress levels and impact health outcomes.
Sprinkle these statistics on top of all that: 65% of adults have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, which can include abuse, neglect, divorce, and alcoholism. Recognize that most adult humans are carrying around residual and possibly unprocessed trauma (also called toxic stress) that activates the body’s stress response and leads to decreased health outcomes. The picture can start to feel a bit ominous.
How Does Stress Work?
The body has a normal and natural stress response, which stems from the sympathetic nervous system—also commonly referred to as “fight-or-flight response.” This stress response is literally a survival instinct, honed by hundreds of thousands of years of humans living a nomadic life with frequent overt dangers.
When the fight-or-flight response is initiated, a cocktail of stress hormones—including epinephrine (adrenaline)—pours into the bloodstream. Our physiology adapts to support either fleeing the scene or getting ready to fight whatever the “threat” coming at us may be. Of course, there are still some situations where this adaptive response to an acute threat is useful in modern life: natural disasters, emergency situations, or times when your life is in danger. But for our purposes here, we are more concerned with ongoing events that cause and contribute to stress.
Stress that is ongoing is referred to as chronic stress. It turns out that the pressures of daily life in combination with adverse childhood experiences, racism, isolation, and other modern ailments keep many of us in a heightened state of cyclical chronic stress. This means our sympathetic nervous systems (fight-or-flight responses) may be continually activated. (Are you feeling stressed out just reading this? Take a deep breath!)
Long-term Impacts of Stress & Anxiety
In an acutely stressful situation, the cascade of hormones and physiological reactions in the body make complete sense: they enable us to respond quickly and effectively during moments of danger or emergency. During the activation of the fight-or-flight response, the brain sends messages to the sympathetic nervous system through the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands then release adrenaline into the bloodstream, signaling the body to do the following:
- Limit digestive function
- Increase heart rate, which pushes blood to the muscles
- Dilate bronchial airways, in order to take in more oxygen
- Sharpen senses (sight, smell, sound, etc.)
- Increase glucose in the bloodstream for increased energy
All of this prepares us to react quickly, with as much strength and speed as we can muster. As this initial surge of adrenaline subsides, our HPA axis (our central stress response system, comprised of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal trifecta) is activated, which keeps pumping cortisol into the bloodstream, helping the body to stay revved up and on high alert. Typically, after an immediate threat has passed, cortisol and adrenaline levels will drop, allowing the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) part of the nervous system to take over. However, when continually activated, the HPA axis maintains high cortisol levels in the body, resulting in a chronic state of hypervigilance.
Chronic stress wears the body down. It impacts the nervous system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, immune system—all our major working parts! Stress doesn’t just impact the physical body either. Mentally, stress can manifest as inner self-talk that is harsh, negative, and circular. Emotionally, it can lead to exhaustion, frustration, anger, and an inability to manage emotions in general.
Here’s where plants can help us. While herbs won’t eliminate the causes of stress in our lives, many plant allies can support, soothe, and balance our physical and emotional bodies as we experience chronic stress and anxiety.
What Is a Tonic Herb?
Because so many of us experience chronic stress, we also require chronic (aka tonic) support. Tonic herbs are remedies that can be taken safely over a long period of time. In fact, they’re most effective when used regularly on a daily basis. These botanicals work steadily to rejuvenate, balance, and nourish our bodies.
Many tonic herbs are also adaptogens, which specifically balance and mitigate the effects of stress. Traditionally, these herbs have been used as longevity and vitality tonics. In this day and age, most of us will benefit from such profound support!
Herbs for Chronic Stress
Holy Basil, or Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Parts used: Leaves and flowers
Preparations: Tea, tincture, pesto, medicated ghee, infused oil, infused vinegar
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is a rasayanic (rejuvenative) tonic in Ayurvedic medicine—the traditional system of healing in India—that has been used for more than 3,000 years. A sacred and holy herb, the aboveground parts have been used as a tonic for the upper respiratory tract and lungs, as well as the digestive system. Tulsi is an important plant for spiritual and emotional growth, as it’s known to balance the mind and is used as a meditative aid. As an adaptogen, it helps the body regulate stress. As an immune-modulator, anti-depressant, antioxidant, and nervine, it can support overworked and overstressed folks, especially those who get sick frequently or experience anxiety and/or depression related to stress.1 Not recommended during pregnancy.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa)
Parts used: Unripe seeds
Preparations: Fresh tincture with alcohol or vinegar
Milky oats come from the same plant as oatmeal—but we harvest the seeds before they ripen, during a stage in which they exude a white milky latex. The harvesting window is narrow, but the rewards are vast! One of the unique traits of this plant is that it is a trophorestorative (an herb that restores nourishment) for the nervous system, making it an important resource for adrenal exhaustion and chronic fatigue.2 It’s also helpful for anxiety and depression associated with insomnia or overwhelm, and for anxiety arising from depression.3 This medicine is best taken as a tincture made from the fresh milky seed heads.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Parts used: Roots
Preparations: Tea (decoction), tincture, infused ghee, powder, capsules
The traditional use of this rasayanic (rejuvenative) herb in Ayurvedic medicine is for rebuilding strength after a long illness—especially for children and elders. It’s highly useful for issues presenting as deficiency (low-weight, under-functioning, hypo- conditions). The scientific name somnifera references its use as a sleep aid and its common name roughly translates as “strength of a horse,” both of which infer the plant’s traditional and contemporary uses.
As an adaptogen, ashwagandha helps the body moderate stress. As a nervine, it supports the body in regulating anxiety. It is also immunomodulating, being especially helpful for those who experience low energy and frequent illness stemming from overwork. It also helps reduce levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). It’s helpful for those who have difficulty sleeping, concentrating, or who have memory problems. Not recommended for use in pregnancy and for those with allergies to the nightshade family.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Parts used: Leaves
Preparations: Tea, tincture, vinegar, pesto, cooked greens, juice, broth, powder, capsules, and finishing salts
Stinging nettle leaves pack a mighty nutritive punch. High in vitamins A, C, D, and K, chlorophyll, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium, this plant makes for an important ally when we’re feeling depleted during times of high stress, or are in recovery from overwork and overwhelm.4 It has a hypotensive effect and helps the body release toxins through its alterative (detox and cleansing) and diuretic actions. It makes a delicious tea as well as tincture, and is an excellent food herb that can be mixed into soups, sautés, and pestos. Make sure to harvest fresh plants with gloves to protect your hands and arms from the stinging hairs. Cooking or blending the leaves will deactivate the sting, as will drying the leaves for tea.
Herbs for Anxiety
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
Parts used: Leaves and flowers
Preparations: Tea, tincture, and massage oil
Think of skullcap when anxiety is accompanied by overwhelm. This is an excellent plant friend to have around if you hold tension in the body, grind your teeth, and experience body pains related to anxiety and stress. This is a great herb to work with if you do any body-based stress relief practice, including yoga or somatic experiencing. Not only is skullcap helpful in a tonic formula for general anxiety, it’s also helpful for easing acute anxiety and panic attacks.5 Harvest the aboveground parts in flower and dry for teas, or use fresh or dried to prepare a tincture.
Linden (Tilia spp.)
Parts used: Bracts and flowers
Preparations: Tea, bath
The sweet scent of linden flowers is divine and gently soothes the nervous system. Linden has been used to help people experiencing anxiety, depression, insomnia, and digestive issues related to stress. As an antispasmodic, it helps relieve body tension and relax muscles.6 Linden also has an affinity for the heart and helps with emotional uplift. Use fresh flowers (if you can get around all the bees who love their nectar!) or dry them for teas and tinctures.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
Parts used: Flowers
Preparations: Tea, tincture, bath
Chamomile is a well-known aromatic herb with a powerful ability to calm the spirit and the stomach! It’s useful for upset bellies and to support digestion after meals. It likewise calms the nervous system,7 relieves headaches, soothes menstrual cramps, and aids sleep.8 Caution to those allergic to plants in the aster family.
Herbs for Emotional Stress
Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)
Parts used: Flowers and bark
Preparations: Tea, tincture, cordial, syrup, honey, glycerite
Referred to as the “Tree of Happiness” in Chinese medicine, the bark and flowers of this weedy tree are traditionally used as a sedative, and to calm and uplift the spirit.9 The bark is known for its ability to stabilize emotions, while the flowers have a more uplifting, antidepressant effect. Mimosa is a wonderful remedy for those addressing anxiety, depression, grief, PTSD, insomnia, and other emotional disturbances. The flower essence is also an incredible dose of happiness. Not to be used in pregnancy.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Parts used: Leaves and flowering tops
Preparations: Tea, tincture, vinegar, essential oil
Uplifting. Light. Playful. Sometimes these are things we need to invite in when heaviness stays too long, the overwhelm feels too big, and the darkness seems to envelop. Lemon balm reminds me of children laughing. A gentle tonic for “gladdening” the heart and uplifting the mood,10 it helps us tap back into our playful and lighthearted selves. Harvest the aboveground parts in flower or whenever it’s needed. Not for tonic use in those experiencing hypothyroid or hypotension.
Rose (Rosa spp.)
Parts used: Flowers and flower buds
Preparations: Tea, tincture, oil, honey, syrup, elixir, vinegar, flower essence, hydrosol
A heart-softening, opening, and supporting herb, the magic and beauty of rose can soothe the heart back to balance. Rose helps to release grief and transmute negative vibrations into love and compassion. Rose petals contain high amounts of antioxidants, help regulate the moon (menstrual) cycle, and move blood and stimulate the circulatory system.11
Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
Parts used: Flowers
Preparations: Tea, tincture, infused oil, essential oil, sachet
A classic relaxing and soothing herb, lavender is often overlooked because it’s so popular. It’s one of our most well-known herbs for aiding relaxation, promoting deep sleep, and stabilizing mood. Lavender is particularly uplifting and beneficial for anxiety and depression.12 Excellent for first aid and wound healing,13 headaches, and digestive upset. Wonderful to eat, drink, smell, and behold!
Whether you choose a single herb from the lists above or create a tincture or tea formula from the ones that call to you most, these tonic herbs will be of great benefit in helping you slow down, relax, and recover from external and internal overwhelm.
Practices for Reducing Stress
While herbs are incredible allies for balancing stress, they are ideally just the cherry on top of a well-rounded lifestyle cake, so to speak. Making healthy changes to our daily lifestyles should be at the heart of any holistic stress therapy.
A slew of factors impacts our ability to manage and process stress, including diet, sleep, exercise, and friendship. If you’d like to enhance your herbal medicine practice with lifestyle adjustments, try the simple suggestions below to begin creating a personal plan for balancing stress in your life.
- Eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals
- Get your heart rate up daily
- Try grounding and centering meditations (try an app like Insight Timer or Calm)
- Journaling/drawing your thoughts, feelings, dreams, and reflections
- Gratitude practice: write or say three things you are grateful for each day
- Do at least one activity per day that brings you joy and increases wellbeing (take a walk, call a friend, make a cup of tea, get out in the garden, etc.)
May you be held and supported by the plants!
- Brantley, J. Calming Your Anxious Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Anxiety. New Harbinger Publications; 2007.
- Winston, D. and Maimes, S. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press; 2007.
- Personal Materia Medica Notes. Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. Plant Immersion Program; 2009.
RICKY BRATZ (she/her) is a plant nerd, queer dog mom, survivor, and earth person. She feels energized and resourced by her relationship with plants and flowers. Her practice, Cazimi Healing is based in North Carolina where she offers virtual and in-person consults, workshops, and an online apothecary. Ricky’s approach to working with clients is a combination of intuition, science, and training in Western Clinical Herbalism. Her work is further informed by folk traditions from her Sicilian/SWANA/Eastern European ancestral heritage, Southern Appalachian folk medicine, and Greco-Arabic Unani. She also brings her training as a Transformational Presence Coach and Energy Healer to client sessions.
Ricky is a 2009 graduate of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine with Juliet Blankespoor, a 2010 graduate of One World Healing Arts Institute with Mimi Hernandez and holds a BA from Goddard College in Health Arts & Sciences. Ricky is committed to offering accessible healthcare for all, especially queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people, people of color, and low-income folks. Follow her on Instagram @cazimihealing_nc to stay connected!
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.