Evidence-Based Herbs For Anxiety & Depression

Evidence-Based Herbs For Anxiety & Depression

There is now a growing body of evidence which has found medicinal herbs such as Lavender, Saffron, Rhodiola Rosea, Kava and St. Johns Wort to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Mental health disorders such as anxiety, stress and depression are at an all time high and we are seeing a steady increase in the demand and popularity of alternative and evidence-based natural methods to treat these common health problems.

Pharmaceutical psychotropic medications are often not well tolerated, especially in the long-term and can come with serious side effects such as addiction in the case of benzodiazepine drugs, potentially permanent impotence in the case of the SSRI’s, increased cardiovascular disease risk as seen with the tricyclic anti-depressants and so on.

Gentle and mild medicinal herbs such as lavender, saffron, kava, chamomile, rhodiola rosea, st. john’s wort, passionflower, skullcap, oat straw and ashwagandha are some of my favorite herbs for supporting emotional well-being and they tend to have less serious side effects.

Let’s take a look at five medicinal herbs with the strongest scientific evidence for treating generalized anxiety disorder and major depression.

Lavender Essential Oil For Anxiety

Lavender Anxiety Study

Lavender essential oil is a popular traditional remedy for promoting sleep, relaxation and reducing anxiety.

Several animal and human investigations suggest anxiolytic, mood stabilizer, sedative, analgesic, anticonvulsive and neuroprotective properties for lavender.

Multiple studies have found a significant decrease in generalized anxiety symptoms with oral lavender oil supplements. Aromatherapy also appears to be effective.

One study even found that lavender had comparable anti-anxiety effect to the pharmaceutical benzodiazpine medication Lorazepam.

“This study indicates that lavender effectively ameliorates generalized anxiety comparable to 0.5 mg/daily lorazepam.” [1]

Saffron Has Comparable Anti-Depressant Activity To Pharmaceutical Anti-Depressants(Prozac & Citalopram)

Saffron Depression

Saffron has become a plant of great interest in recent years due to the growing body of research on it’s potent anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties.

The dried stigmas(thread-like parts of the flower) are used to make the saffron spice and it takes around 75,000 saffron blossoms to produce a single pound of saffron spice. It is for this reason and the tiresome labour that goes into producing saffron why it is considered the world’s most expensive spice.

Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) has demonstrated antidepressant effects in clinical studies and extensive anxiolytic effects in experimental animal models.

What is even more exciting from the research is that saffron appears to possess comparable anti-depressant activity to a number of pharmaceutical anti-depressant medications such as fluoxetine(prozac), citalopram and imipramine, but with fewer side effects.

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. [2]

A meta-analysis from 2013 of published randomized controlled trials examining the effects of saffron supplementation on symptoms of depression among participants with MDD stated:

Findings from clinical trials conducted to date indicate that saffron supplementation can improve symptoms of depression in adults with MDD. [3]

A systematic review from 2015 of randomized controlled trials examining the effectiveness of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) on psychological and behavioral outcomes also concluded:

Findings from initial clinical trials suggest that saffron may improve the symptoms and the effects of depression, premenstrual syndrome, sexual dysfunction and infertility, and excessive snacking behaviors. Larger multi-site clinical trials are needed to extend these preliminary findings. [4]

A double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial published in 2016 assessed the effects of Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) in the treatment of anxiety and depression.

The study concluded:

Saffron appears to have a significant impact in the treatment of anxiety and depression disorder. Side effects were rare. [5]

Another double-blind, controlled clinical trial published in 2017 compared Saffron to the popular anti-depressant Citalopram.

The study concluded:

The present study indicates saffron as a potential efficacious and tolerable treatment for major depressive disorder with anxious distress. [6]

Rhodiola Rosea – The Adaptogen With Anti-Depressant, Anti-Fatigue & Anti-Stress Properties

Rhodiola Rosea Adaptogen Herb Stress

Rhodiola rosea (R. rosea), also known as roseroot or golden root, belongs to the family Crassulaceae and is a popular “adaptogen” herb with a long traditional medicinal history.

Traditionally herbalists recommend Rhodiola Rosea for promoting endurance, increasing longevity, and to promote resistance to high altitude sickness, fatigue, depression and other health conditions.

Rhodiola Rosea offers something different from the other traditional nervine and mood support herbs because of its unique adaptogenic properties.

Adaptogens increase the bodies resistance to stress and have a normalizing effect on the body overall, helping to maintain optimal homeostasis.

Adaptogens also modulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which is often dysregulated and dysfunctional due to excessive over-activity in most psychological disorders from anxiety to depression.

Adaptogens are also good choices of herbs for balancing endocrine stress hormones such as cortisol, which again is another very important component of supporting emotional wellbeing and preventing the development of stress-related disorders.

A randomized placebo-controlled trial published in 2016 compared Rhodiola Rosea to the SSRI anti-depressant sertraline also known as Zoloft.

The study concluded:

Although R. rosea produced less antidepressant effect versus sertraline, it also resulted in significantly fewer adverse events and was better tolerated. These findings suggest that R. rosea, although less effective than sertraline, may possess a more favorable risk to benefit ratio for individuals with mild to moderate depression. [7]

Kava – Nature’s Most Potent Anti-Anxiety Herb

Kava Anti Anxiety Herbs

Kava (Piper methysticum) is a South Pacific psychotropic plant that research has found to possess significant anxiolytic activity.

This effect is achieved from modulation of GABA activity via alteration of lipid membrane structure and sodium channel function, monoamine oxidase B inhibition, and noradrenaline and dopamine re-uptake inhibition.

A comprehensive review of kava, in respect to efficacy, psychopharmacology, and safety, and to provide clinical recommendations for use in psychiatry to treat generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) concluded:

The current weight of evidence supports the use of kava in treatment of anxiety with a significant result occurring in four out of six studies reviewed (mean Cohen’s d = 1.1). [8]

A systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2003 on kava extract for treating anxiety concluded:

Compared with placebo, kava extract appears to be an effective symptomatic treatment option for anxiety.

The data available from the reviewed studies suggest that kava is relatively safe for short-term treatment (1 to 24 weeks), although more information is required. Further rigorous investigations, particularly into the long-term safety profile of kava are warranted. [9]

St. Johns Wort – The Popular Herbal Remedy For Mild-Moderate Depression

St Johns Wort Depression Research

St. John’s Wort(Hypericum perforatum L) is probably the most common and popular herbal remedy when it comes to alternatively treating depression.

St. John’s Wort has a good evidence-base when it comes to the treatment of mild to moderate depression.

With regard to the antidepressant effects of St John’s wort, hyperforin, rather than hypericin as originally thought, has emerged as one of the major constituents responsible for antidepressant activity. [10]

A systematic review published in 2016 evaluated thirty studies on St. John’s wort (SJW) for the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder concluding:

SJW monotherapy for mild and moderate depression is superior to placebo in improving depression symptoms and not significantly different from antidepressant medication.

However, evidence of heterogeneity and a lack of research on severe depression reduce the quality of the evidence. Adverse events reported in RCTs were comparable to placebo and fewer compared with antidepressants. However, assessments were limited due to poor reporting of adverse events and studies were not designed to assess rare events. Consequently, the findings should be interpreted with caution. [11]

Always consult a qualified healthcare professional before taking any herb or dietary supplement.


[1] Lavender and the Nervous System


[2] Saffron in the treatment of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders: Current evidence and potential mechanisms of action.


[3] Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials.


[4] A systematic review of randomized controlled trials examining the effectiveness of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) on psychological and behavioral outcomes.


[5] A double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial of Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) in the treatment of anxiety and depression.


[6] Crocus sativus L. versus Citalopram in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Anxious Distress: A Double-Blind, Controlled Clinical Trial.


[7] Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial


[8] Kava: A Comprehensive Review of Efficacy, Safety, and Psychopharmacology


[9] Kava extract for treating anxiety.


[10] St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum L.): a review of its chemistry, pharmacology and clinical properties.


[11] A systematic review of St. John’s wort for major depressive disorder


The information in this article has not been evaluated by the FDA and should not be used to diagnose, cure or treat any disease, implied or otherwise.

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