The Science Behind Herbs and Mental Health

Food is medicine: not just for the body, but also for the brain.

For generations, herbs have been used to treat and manage symptoms of illness and mental ailments. Herbal medicine is thought to have started over 60,000 years ago, though the first written examples of practices are about 5,000 years old. The Sumerians are considered the first to record their use of herbal medicine, documenting how they used plants such as laurel, caraway, and thyme to treat common ailments. 

As modern science has emerged over the past two hundred years, we have been able to discover the root (pun intended!) of why herbs work as medicine, examining the chemical makeup of the specific compounds that make them potent. And as the science around mental health has continued to emerge, we have begun to understand why they can help our brains just as much as our bodies.

Interested in learning more about the science behind your favorite herbal remedies? We break it down plant-by-plant below. 

Chamomile

Chamomile tea is a bedtime staple, known anecdotally to be soothing for both body and mind. Turns out that there’s the science to back it up as well. 

Chamomile contains several compounds that contribute to its potency as a sedative and sleep aid. One of them is apigenin, an antioxidant that can help relax muscles and promote sleep. In a clinical study, chamomile was also shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression when taken as a supplement. 

Lavender

More than just a pretty smell, lavender has been shown to have mental health benefits for both humans and animals. A recent study showed that in almost any form, lavender could help reduce feelings of anxiety. When diffused, it was also shown to improve mental clarity and cognition. 

While continued research on lavender is still needed to understand just why it’s such an effective herbal remedy, there are several chemical compounds thought to contribute to its benefits. One of the major components of lavender is linalool, an alcohol that works as a sedative by attaching itself to certain neural pathways.

Saffron

The world’s most expensive spice is pricey for a reason: not only is it rare and hard to harvest, but it also has been shown to be a potent natural antidepressant. 

A recent study looked at behavior of individuals experiencing anxiety and depression, both taking saffron supplements and not. Those who took the saffron supplements experienced lower levels of depression symptoms. In another study, women who inhaled a saffron aroma for 20 minutes a day were seen to have lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their bloodstream. 

Licorice 

No, we’re not talking about your favorite pack of Twizzlers. But licorice, the herb, has been shown to have a variety of mental health benefits. 

Licorice contains adaptogens, expectorants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and antidepressant properties that make it excellent in the treatment of mental health. Used in Chinese medicine for centuries, licorice can stimulate and support adrenal function, which is heavily impacted by stress, as well as heal the stomach lining and restore balance in digestion. This is only gaining importance as more research is conducted around the brain-gut connection. 

What are your go-to herbs for treating mental health? 

Herb Garden Kit