Some “natural” medicines can do more harm than good.
Healthcare professionals know that the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders are behavioural therapy, medication or a combination of the two.
However, seeing a therapist or opening up to your GP can be a difficult hurdle for many people to overcome.
No thanks to media sensationalism, antidepressants for anxiety have a bad rap in the public consciousness. Along with high costs, a fear of side effects and the stigma of “being medicated”, many people who could benefit from conventional treatment turn instead to dubious herbal products.
With a US survey revealing that more than 30% of patients treated in primary care for anxiety use alternative medicines as part of their treatment, we have to be ready and able give advice and answer questions when asked.
So, are herbal medicines for anxiety effective or even safe?
Common misconceptions about herbal medicines
People without a medical background often equate herbal medicines with concepts like “natural”, “healthy” and “safe”.
As you can easily source these products without a prescription from supermarkets, health food shops or, at worst, online, people rarely stop to get advice from a healthcare professional. This means that they don’t consider potential side effects or interactions with other medicines they might be taking.
Here we’ll review some of the most popular herbal remedies marketed for anxiety, bearing in mind that none of these here been shown in clinical trials to be clearly effective or safe.
A Cochrane review found that kava had a small positive effect for symptoms of anxiety, however, one person in Australia died from liver failure after taking a kava product and it is banned or heavily restricted in most western countries.
Valerian has been used to aid sleep and treat anxiety for hundreds of years, yet the very small number of trials published show no efficacy at all (source). At present, researchers don’t have enough information to say whether valerian is a safe and effective treatment for anxiety.
Passionflower is usually marketed with other “calming” herbs in combination products. Again, research on safety and efficacy is insufficient to come to any conclusions (source).
You’ve probably tried chamomile tea, but chamomile as a medicine could be dangerous. It interacts with anticoagulants and has been known to cause allergic reactions.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort is a prescription-controlled medicine in many western countries. We have no evidence that it improves anxiety disorders and it interacts with a whole host of other drugs to a dangerous degree – including SSRI antidepressants, a common conventional treatment for anxiety (source).