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Herbs are frequently divided into four main categories: relaxants/sedatives, restoratives, stimulants and anti-depressants. Some herbs may be easily grouped into more than one category because of their broad effectiveness. The following herbs are successfully used in treating various forms of depression. Relaxant/Sedative Herbs
Within the herbal kingdom there are many nervous system relaxants/ sedatives primarily used for their anti-anxiety effect, including: Valerian, kava kava, hops, passion flower, chamomile, and Linden blossom. It is believed that herbs, which contain volatile oils, can directly affect the limbic system of the brain and induce a more relaxed state.

Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)
Native to the South Pacific islands, kava has been used in ceremonial beverages for centuries. The active principles in the root are a number of lactones known as kava pyrones. Through its relaxing effect on the central nervous system kava is beneficial in reducing anxiety, tension and restlessness. Kava kava is not generally used to treat clinical depression but to mitigate common stress related anxieties.

Kava is excellent for helping to relax because there is no loss of mental clarity. It is also helpful in dealing with insomnia as it promotes restful sleep. What is most remarkable about Kava, however, is that it not only does not produce toxic side effects, there are no symptoms of withdrawal, such as found with drugs like benzodiazepine.

For example, several years ago, Elizabeth, a thirty-eight year old female, came into my office complaining of anxiety and difficulty calming her mind, and also reported bouts of insomnia. She was a successfully Hollywood talent agent and would often keep late hours. "I'm not crazy, like I don't feel I need psycho meds, I just need to be toned down a notch." After a week of 37.5 mg of kava in the morning and 75 mg. at night, Elizabeth phoned and said she was considerably more relaxed and her sleep was normal. She continued this dosage of kava for three more weeks, and then decreased it until she was only using it once in a while when she felt she needed it.

As for the chemistry of kava, we know that psychotropic drugs effect brain chemistry. The drug, Benzodiazepine, for example, increases the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA in the limbic system, producing a sense of calmness. The amygdala, a small organ the size of a large pea in temporal lobe of the brain, regulates sensations of anxiety, and is also a site for benzodiazepenes. In 1991 a study was done that identified amygdala as the preferential site for kavalactones, the active ingredient in kava. It is recommended to avoid using kava with alcohol, antidepressants or other drugs, which can affect the central nervous system. In Germany, kava extracts are approved for use with nervous anxiety, stress and unrest, but not to be used in cases of pregnancy or while a mother is lactating.

Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis)
With a long history of use in European traditional medicine, valerian root is a strong calmative that exerts a mild sedative effect on the central nervous system. The active ingredients of valerian, valepotriates, and its sedative properties were discovered in 1966, and quickly became the subject of a large amount of scientific research in Germany.

Valerian root is most helpful for insomnia, restlessness, and anxiety. It helps one to fall asleep faster and provides a deeper, more restful sleep. In Germany, valerian root is approved as an over-the-counter medicine for "states of excitation" and insomnia due to nervousness.2 A scientific team representing the European community has reviewed the research on valerian and concluded that it is a safe nighttime sleep aid. These scientists also found that there are no major adverse reactions associated with its use, and unlike barbiturates and other conventional drugs used for insomnia, valerian does not have an adverse reaction with alcohol, and is not addictive like some conventional benzodiazepine medications. 3

Approximately one-third of the adult population suffers with some kind of sleep disorder. I have found valerian to be very useful for helping to gently regulate sleep. In fact, I have a very personal story about valerian. When I first met my husband, I noticed that he had a bottle of Xanax and Valium in his bathroom. I asked him what he did with these and he said, "What do you think?" I explained to him that if he was thinking about being my husband, I didn't think it was acceptable for him to be taking Valium at bedtime. "Are you serious?" he responded. "Yes," I answered. Well, to make a long argument and story short, it has been ten years and my husband sleeps regularly with the occasional help from a valerian herbal combination, and on the rare evening when he is very stressed he may add a kava combination as well. What he most likes about not using Xanax and Valium is the fact that he wakes up feeling fresh instead of drugged or confused.

Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata)
Passion flower has a long tradition of use for its mildly sedative properties. This herb has been approved in Germany as an over-the-counter drug for states of nervous unrest.4 Passion flower is very often combined with other calmatives, including chamomile, skullcap, and valerian. These calmatives are even more effective when they are combined with calcium and magnesium. Research also shows that passion flower extract has antispasmodic and hypotensive properties.5

(Scutellaria lateriflora)

Skullcap is a calmative that has traditionally been used to relieve tension headaches, anxiety, insomnia and premenstrual tension. Skullcap's effectiveness is enhanced when combined with such herbs as valerian, chamomile, passion flower and/or vervain. The herb also has a tonifying effect on the liver, helps regulate cholesterol, and has been shown to increase the high-density lipoproteins (HDL) or good cholesterol.

(Matricaria recutita)

Chamomile is an important sedative herb and nerve tonic. In Europe, it is widely used as a digestive aid in the treatment of heartburn, nausea and flatulence; as a mild sedative helpful with insomnia; and as an anti-inflammatory. Chamomile is licensed in Germany as an over-the-counter drug for gastrointestinal spasms and inflammatory diseases of the gastrointestinal tract often associated with nervous disorders.

(Humulus lupulus)

Hops, with both calming and sleep-inducing properties, is used in Europe for nervous tension, restlessness and excitability, as well as sleep disturbances. This helpful herb has also been licensed in Germany for sleep disorders and states of unrest and anxiety. However, unlike other sedatives, hops does not lead to dependence or withdrawal symptoms, and there are no reports of adverse side effects.6

Linden Blossom
(Tilia europea)

Linden blossom has been used for centuries by Europeans in the treatment of nervous tension. It is also believed to reduce hardening of the arteries. Linden blossom is commonly prescribed throughout Europe for patients with anxiety and cardiovascular history.

Anti-Depressant Herbs
St. John's wort is the best known of the anti-depressant herbs, although many Chinese, Ayurvedic and Native American herbal combination remedies can also sustain anti-depressant effects. These combination remedies, however, are best prescribed by a health professional who is knowledgeable of herbal medicine.

St. John's Wort
(Hypericum perforatum)

St. John's wort is an effective nervine tonic with an anti-depressive action that has been used by Europeans as an anti-anxiety remedy for centuries. It actually has a 2,400 year history of safe and effective use, and, in fact, Hippocrates himself used St. John's wort. In Germany, more than fifty percent of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders are treated with hypericum. This herb also has anti-viral properties, and is commonly used for PMS, menstrual cramps, as well as menopausal stress that triggers irritability, anxiety and depression.

St. John's wort has traditionally been taken internally to treat neuralgia, anxiety, tension, and depression. Indeed, convincing research has demonstrated that St. John's wort is an effective remedy for mild to moderate depression. The therapeutic effectiveness has been shown to be often similar to that of the SSRI anti-depressant drugs Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil, however, St. John's wort, has far fewer side effects and is available over-the-counter for a fraction of the cost of prescription anti-depressants.

Depression is believed to stem from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Depressed levels of the three neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine leads to what we know as depression. Conventional, allopathic medicine has solutions for low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine but dopamine deficiency is still not clearly resolved. Recent research has implied that hypericum acts somewhat like a combination of serotonin, norephinephrine, and dopamine. Currently there are psychiatrists who are actually using St. John's wort conjunctively with serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft and weaning their patients off of the prescription drug. The prescription drug that hypericum should not be mixed with is any MAO inhibitor. This could possible result in elevated blood pressure, increased anxiety, muscle tension, fever and mental confusion. If you are wanting to try St. John's wort, please do not stop or alter any currently prescribed medication without consulting with your physician.

It should be noted that St. John's wort must normally be taken for two to ten weeks for the herb to take hold and help to regulate and balance mood. I have seen it work as quickly as three days, but like conventional mood regulators it is best to give it some time to be effective.