IN THE KITCHEN WITH LESLEY: Five Herbal Teas for Killing Your Anxiety

People are always like, "Hey Lesley, how are you so effortlessly chill all the time?" and I'm all, "TEA, MAN!" Actually that is a total lie: no one ever asks me that.

Mar 14, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

I am a tea nerd, if one can be such a thing. I love tea with a fervent passion most people restrict to coffee or really good top-shelf alcohol. I’m not alone; there are loads of tea fiends out there who sample teas with all the careful rumination of a sommelier tasting a vintage bottle of Sauternes. I’m not one of those, but I do enjoy my tea.
 
My expertise lies less in the traditional arenas of black and oolong teas and more in the realm of herbals. I couldn’t tell you why I find a hot cup so restorative, but more on that later. Today we’re talking herbal teas for anxiety, and I’m sharing with you some of my favorites.
 
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Note: I am not a doctor, nor am I even an herbalist of any repute. Do not assume that herbs are always innocuous, because not only can they occasionally have side effects of their own, they can also interact with other drugs you may be taking, as well as with other herbs. Always have a chat with your doctor prior to getting mad busy up in the herbal-remedy world. 
 
And I can’t assert this bit strongly enough: if you are pregnant, NEVER use any herbal supplement, even teas, without touching base with your OB/GYN or midwife first: Some herbs can do things like cause uterine contractions, which you really don’t want if you’re trying to grow something in there.
 
Having gotten all that out of the way, let’s get on with the tea, shall we?
 
Buying Your Herbs
 
Odds are good your local supermarket has something in the tea aisle called Anti-AnxieTEA or Sleepy Sleepy Bear Head or Mellow The Fuck Out, Lady! or something equally clever. You may have bought them before. 
 
Most of these teas are blends, and they taste pretty good, and they do work insofar as drinking a thoughtfully-prepared cup of tea helps anyone, no matter what the tea is. However, the actual herbs you’re getting in these preparations are often not the greatest sampling.
 
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Bagged blends are generally filled with a lot of crushed-up herbs, and crushed-up herbs mean you’re getting a fair amount of non-useful dregs taking up space in your tea -- stuff like sticks and stems and pulverized herb-dust that really doesn’t have much in the way of medicinal value. No, you want your herbs to be whole if possible, or cut and sifted to get the bulky-but-unhelpful bits out.
 
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Bulk herbs can be found at your local crunchy hippie market, or in some Whole Foods stores. I used to get mine at Bread & Circus, a greatly missed Massachusetts natural food grocery chain, although they were eventually gobbled up by Whole Foods’ expensive empire. 
 
Starwest Botanicals is a bulk-herb Internet superstore, and now one of my preferred places for buying my stuff. If you can’t find it here, it’s probably unsafe for human consumption. They make their own tea blends as well, which I haven’t tried -- I like to produce my own concoctions -- but if you’re disinclined to play mad scientist with bulk herbs, the tea blends here are going to be excellent given the overall quality of their products.
 
The down side to Starwest Botanicals is that their site doesn’t give you a huge amount of information about what various herbs are for; they’re great if you already know what you want to buy, but less useful if you want to simply explore your options. If you have a local store that sells bulk herbs -- ideally not a Whole Foods -- go on in and ask questions. The person working there is probably an expert. Unlike me.
 
Five Plants to Chill You Out
 
Many of these herbs fall under a class called nervines, which is basically any medicine that operates to calm your ish down. Some are sedative, others are not. I’m personally recommending five herbs (EVEN THOUGH I AM NOT A DOCTOR), and we’ll take each one in turn.
 
Chamomile is ostensibly the best known nervine herb; the variety used in teas since time immemorial is German chamomile, and is employed to soothe both anxiety and digestive upset, which can sometimes happen together. 
 
Some researchers think that chamomile may also act as an anti-imflammatory and restrict the production of leukotrienes and histamines, so it may also be helpful to people with allergies. Animal studies have shown that chamomile reduces muscle spasms, which probably explains why it’s been used by premenstrual women for thousands of years.
 
Only one clinical trial studying the effectiveness of chamomile on anxiety exists, but it did find that the herb was helpful to people with mild to moderate generalized anxiety disorder. 
 
The best part, though, is that chamomile actually tastes pretty good, something which cannot be said of all medicinal herbs, and it is generally regarded as safe. Folks with allergies to ragweed or related plants should avoid it, however, as they are likely to be allergic to chamomile, too.
 
Passionflower is another nervine herb, and has been garnering attention in recent years as a natural remedy for anxiety. I think it was mentioned on Dr. Oz’s show? I don’t know, I sort of loathe TV doctors. 
 
This one’s got more science behind it: One study found that passionflower extract helps patients awaiting surgery to feel more relaxed, and another short-term trial that compared passionflower with a prescription benzodiazepine (a class of hardcore anti-anxiety meds, for those not in the know) found that the humble flower worked just as well as the dependence-causing nightmare-withdrawal-inducing drug. 
 
So the good news is passionflower extract probably works, like chamomile, for mild to moderate anxiety! The problem here is that the extract tastes, well, gross. Admittedly, you don’t need to drink gallons of the stuff -- usually 30 drops in a bit of water will do -- but still. Tea is always better. You want to use the leaves, roughly a teaspoon per cup. If you have a flower handy you can use that too, but ordinarily passionflower is sold in leaf form.
 
While passionflower is generally considered to be safe, it is not an herb you want to overuse as it does function on the central nervous system. Feel free to have a cup or two of weak tea as needed, but don’t do so for more than a week at a time.
 
Valerian root is most often taken in capsules, but you can use the root to make a tea as well. Valerian was used by the ancient Greeks and continues to find a place in traditional Chinese medicine even today. It is most often used to promote a good night’s sleep, making it a good choice to help alleviate anxiety that may be keeping you up at night.
 
Most of the modern clinical trials of valerian have been done by German scientists, who’ve had some mixed results, with some studies showing the herb worked at least as well as a prescription benzodiazepine, and others demonstrating no real improvement over placebo. It’s been argued that valerian works best over a period of weeks, and is less useful as a single-dose aid for anxiety-induced insomnia. In some cases it’s been used as a transition medication to get people off those horrible benzos, and is generally considered safe for regular use.
 
The unfortunate truth, however, is that valerian smells kind of horrible. This is why most folks take it in capsule form. I don’t mind it too much myself -- it’s sort of musky and earthy, is all -- and just blend it with peppermint to give it a better flavor. You want to make your tea with hot, not boiling water, as boiling water can reduce the efficacy.
 
If you have cats, be warned, because they may react to valerian as they do catnip (the two herbs have similar chemical makeups). 
 
Also, a small number of individuals have the opposite experience with valerian: It acts as a stimulant. I used to be one of these rare folks -- taking valerian seriously made me feel like I’d swallowed a handful of ephedrine -- but in recent years the herb seems to be working as it should. The only way to find out is to try. 
 
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Lemon balm is a member of the mint family and is associated with the relief of all sorts of nervous problems, from depression to stomach upset to headaches. Several recent clinical studies have shown that lemon balm, either alone or combined with valerian or chamomile, was effective against anxiety and nervous tension.
 
Lemon balm, having properties both antibacterial and antiviral, is also a popular natural remedy for herpes simplex. Yes, even herpes on your nether regions. HERBS, WHAT CAN’T THEY DO?
 
While lemon balm is generally considered safe, recent research has suggested it may have an effect on thyroid production, so if you’re taking medication for thyroid-related ailments, talk to your doctor first. Being a member of the mint family, the leaves make for a tasty tea.
 
Finally, Lavender is well known as an aromatherapy treatment, but you can also make it into a tea. Like most of the herbs above, it is believed to assist in combating anxiety, but also in managing headaches, muscle spasms, and depression.
 
Making lavender tea can be a tricky business; for whatever reason, lavender steeped just a hair too long tastes like... well, like soap. You can use leaves and flowers, and it’s a good idea to periodically taste the result a bit as it steeps to know when it’s done. It’s also fine to combine lavender with any of the above (lemon balm makes a good companion) to help with the taste.
 
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Steeping Tips
 
One of the primary drawbacks of bagged teas, aside from their contents being of a lesser quality, is that the bag prohibits its contents from circulating. If I’m making a whole pot of tea, I add the loose herbs to the pot and then pour the result through a fine-mesh tea strainer. For a single mug, I am strongly partial a fine mesh strainer/steeper basket -- you really just want something with room enough for the herbs to swim around.
 
With most leaf and flower herbs (and even many root and bark herbs) you want water that is hot but not boiling; boiling water can remove the oils that give these plants their oomph. I generally bring the kettle to a boil then let it sit for a minute or two. 
 
Pour the water over the herbs, and immediately cover the cup or pot to let it steep. This is important, as should you let the herbs steep uncovered, a lot of your medicinal value will evaporate with the steam rising from your tea-vessel. So cover that puppy up, and leave it covered until the steeping’s done.
 
Most herbs need to steep longer than your average black or green tea: seven to nine minutes is a good rough target, but experiment and see what tastes best to you. Herbs are hardier under pressure than your average black tea, and both passionflower and chamomile can be steeped for 30 minutes or more without a sacrifice in taste, resulting in a stronger infusion.
 
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Keep your herbs in airtight containers, away from moisture, light, and heat. I keep mine in glass jars (BECAUSE THEY’RE PRETTY) in a cupboard, but really they ought to be in some kind of opaque container. Often when you buy your herbs, they’ll be packaged in some kind of foil-lined zip-sealed pouch, and that’s fine for storage too.
 
Also, if you’re really itching for natural anxiety cures, the first step is to cut out caffeine. Nobody wants to hear that their beloved coffee may be contributing to their anxiety issues, but it can be a huge factor. There are caffeine-free options for tea and coffee lovers that may appeal: rooibos tea, a drink made from a shrub native to South Africa and very popular there, has an earthy quality that makes it a good replacement.
 
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Finally, when your tea is ready, don’t just shotgun it down like some foul-tasting medicine. Put your hands around the warm cup, smell its herb-y goodness, and sip it slowly. Do nothing else for just a few minutes while you drink your tea. 
 
The consumption of a thoughtfully prepared cup of tea is a moment of self-care regardless of what’s in the cup, and taking even a tiny bit of time to self-soothe and comfort is as useful in a battle against anxiety as any remedy or medicine. Surely we can all spare a few moments a day for that.