How to use this site
When working with this website it can be challenging to know where to start. Mental health concerns are often pretty complex and there tend to be a lot of factors going on. (See here for more on this.) This is an educational site and not a site that should replace getting professional and peer supports in the community.
However, for many people with more moderate symptoms such as anxiety, depression and sleep issues, many people are looking to holistic ways of trying to cope. This often includes scouring the internet for techniques to help bring calm and balance as well as looking for natural supplements that can improve mood and wellbeing. My goal in creating this site was to help people do a few things:
1- Learn for free about the mood improving abilities of herbs.
2- Learn how to make herbal preparations in one’s own home in a way that is simple and easy.
3- Learn to make herbal preparations that are cheap. Often times people won’t work with herbs because it is too expensive. I try and offer ways of making preparations that won’t break the bank account and often as cheap as 10 dollars a month.
4- Help people to feel empowered. When working with herbs and making our own preparations, we have more control over the type of effect we are needing, the method of administration (tea, tincture, aromatherapy, etc) and the dosage.
5- Help people feel reconnected. By working with herbs and making preparations we are connecting to a vast lineage of our ancestors who have been doing this for hundreds of generations. For many people throughout the world that lineage has never been broken and herbalism is still the prime way of helping people struggling with health problems. By working with plants for healing we are also reconnecting to the healing power of the Earth.
Herbal Philosophy for Mental Health
There are a variety of ways of working with plants to help us to heal emotionally. For many folks its easiest to reach for plants that have a good strong effect that changes our mood right away. Plants like cannabis, coffee and kratom are enormously popular because of this. And while there is a strong place for those plants, I want to encourage folks to consider working a wide range of plants for mental health.
I emphasize working with herbs in a variety of ways- through what I call five senses herbalism. Plants can impact us positively when we smell them via aromatherapy, when we take a walk in the woods, use infused herbal massage oils or take them in as teas, tinctures and syrups. I also encourage folks to work with herbs that are relatively gentle with few contraindications as a way to heal slowly over time. There is a strong emphasis on wanting to heal problems right away and underlying issues are often neglected. When we are working with herbs for mental health, it is usually important to go slow and take the long approach. There are a lot of herbal approaches that are gentle, and when paired with reducing stress, improving diet and exercise and addressing any previous trauma- can be powerfully effective in bringing healing.
To add to this, there can be increasing barriers to healing if one is experiencing oppression as a person of color or as an LBGTQ individual. There can be financial, cultural and language barriers that makes it very difficult to navigate the modern mental health system. Just saying eat better, exercise and take these herbs is often not the right answer, For more on these issues- please take a look at this article on decolonizing the mental health system.
Herbal Tastes and Properties
When working with herbs its also important to understand that they often have multiple effects. When you look at a profile of each herb you will notice a couple subheadings. The taste/energetics describe the “temperature” of the plant and how it tastes when it is taken. An herb is either warming, neutral or cooling. Herbs like ginger and cayenne pepper both taste hot and also warm up the body and stimulate blood flow. Herbs that are cooling have a “downward effect” of grounding, relaxing, soothing and at times increasing elimination. Meadowsweet and linden are examples of cooling herbs that can induce a sweat. Oregon grape and dandelion are cooling herbs that stimulate digestion and elimination.
Herbs all have particular tastes as well- bitter, sour, sweet, pungent and salty. These also have a variety of different effects on our body that are outlined in this piece on the taste of herbs here. We may need more bitter herbs that improve digestion, absorption and elimination. Or we may need more sweet nourishing herbs that are building and strengthening such as codonopsis and american ginseng.
Herbal properties are the various multiple ways that herbs work in the body. You can read about what these properties mean here. So beyond thinking about relaxing or stimulating the body, or trying to nourish or improve libido, it is important to address areas of the body that may need greater strengthening and healing. For example, you may want to pick tonic herbs that haver a special affinity for improving the lungs. This may draw you to herbs like Devil’s club and astragalus. Or you may want relaxant herbs that have a strong ability to heal and cool inflammation in the stomach. This may draw you to herbs like chamomile and certain mints. You may be in need of bitter herbs such as dandelion and burdock that are both nourishing but can help improve the liver, digestion and elimination.
Mental health intersects with physical health and cannot be easily compartmentalized. That means when we work with herbs to heal emotional complaints, we are also often addressing issues such as digestive problems, poor blood flow, nutritional deficits, arthritis, dryness, chronic bronchitis, etc. Working on these multiple facets can get quite complex and if health problems persist it is key to ally with trained herbalists and other professionals.
Gentle Tonic Approach
When I use the term tonic I mean working with plants that are gentle, often filled with nutrients,
strengthening in a non-specific way, or working with aromatherapy, massage oils, scented baths, flower essences, ecotherapy and nature walks as simple ways of helping that are usually good for anyone with mental health concerns. Herbal approaches in this way are safe with minimal potential for side effect and not contraindicated with psychiatric medications.
Working with plants in this way may appear subtle but can be surprisingly powerful and gently helping a person to shift and transform. Take a look at some of the recipes from the nutritional tonic section and adaptogenic tonic section.
Gentle Symptomatic Relief
Along with general approaches to helping people with mental health concerns, one can also add gentle symptomatic herbal approaches that are specific to the individual. So instead of just picking a nice aromatic scent for a group of people, an aromatherapist would design a blend of scents specific for a person’s need. Herbal teas can be offered that include gentle herbs in formulas that are specific to a person’s need, but that include herbs that are generally safe to use by most people with few contraindications and side effects. An example would be making a nice cup of linden, oat straw and rose petal leaf tea for someone who appears wired, anxious, overly heated and tense. The tea would help gently ease, calm and cool a person without being excessively sedative or potent in effect.
The difference between a general tonic approach and gentle symptomatic relief is that remedies in the first case can be offered universally and in the second case remain gentle but are being offered for specific effects for an individual such as pain or anxiety relief.
Moderate Symptomatic relief
With moderate symptomatic relief we are now working with herbs that are more potent, often taken in stronger concentrations or in tincture form. There is a desire for a stronger immediate reaction. When taken intermittently, or in low doses, this is a very useful way of working with plants. This is the most common way that we take herbs- in the form of our morning stimulant of tea or coffee. There are numerous tinctures that are more potent anxiety relievers, sedatives, analgesics and stimulants that are available to us. Some examples include jamaican dogwood, kava, valerian. saint john’s wort, kola nut and devil’s claw.
All moderate symptomatic relief herbs can become strong symptomatic relief when taken in larger doses. In this category, there is more potential for side effects and contraindications with other herbs. One needs to be more careful and watch out for side effects, contraindications and dosage levels.
Strong Symptomatic Relief
There is one more category of plant that I would place somewhere between moderate and very strong- and those are plants that are generally taken in whole form that can be quite effective symptomatic relief but have a greater potential for abuse and side effects. That includes herbs such as cannabis, kratom, kanna and poppy. Right now, we are in a revolution when it comes to using plants for mental health. Tens of millions of people are reaching for cannabis and kratom to help with their symptoms and as a way to avoid more potent pharmaceutical drugs.
Plants like these are truly lifesavers but one must also acknowledge the potential for these plants to cause issues with a number of people. Kratom is addictive and taken in large doses over a period of time it can cause serious withdrawals in those who try to wean off. Cannabis with high amounts of THC can cause anxiety, paranoia and even psychosis in some users. It can also lead to habituation and withdrawal issues. So while they are wonderful, and often greatly helpful as a step down from much more potent drugs, there are issues to watch out for.
Take a look here for information and recipes about cannabis and kratom.
So when working with herbs, my suggestion as an herbalist is to emphasize the gentler herbs when possible and to use the stronger herbs less frequently. It is also key to see that herbs have multiple functions. Some herbs act as both relaxants as well as helping to heal the gut (mints, chamomile). Others strengthen our resiliency to improve our adaptability to stress and reduce the load on our adrenals (aswaghanda, reishi). Others function as nutrient rich tonics that can help those who are weighed down by fatigue and anxiety due to a poor diet (nettles, oat straw). This is where it is often really useful to work with a professional directly who can best blend herbs to really design blends that are specific to one’s health.
To understand more about mental health herbs, its important to understand the different categories of mental health herbs. Some are stimulating, some are nourishing, some are relaxing, and some relieve pain. Take a look at the next section to look at some of these unique mental health herbal categories.