Herbs For Happiness

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Written by James Dixon

Our nutritionalist James Dixon examines 8 herbs for happiness as he seeks to find the best adaptogenic ingredients for mental wellbeing and stress relief.

Modern life is stressful; it is anxiety inducing. Depression is widespread. I don’t think that these are too controversial a set of statements – there is a wealth of data backing them up.

There are many causes – fatigue, overstimulation, modern economics, social media, poor diet, and so on – and there are many cures – unplugging from social media, taking time for yourself, watching what you eat, maintaining an active lifestyle, and so on.

Today, I want to talk to you about a very specific form of cure – or, rather, one element of what should be a broader, more holistic approach to keeping your stress levels down and your happiness levels high. I am, of course, talking about adaptogens, a set of herbs with some quite profound, proven health benefits – some might describe them as herbs for happiness.

Adaptogens in a nutshell

Adaptogens are having a bit of time in the spotlight as modern science explores and often confirms their benefits – benefits long touted in more traditional forms of medicine, like Ayurvedic treatment, an ancient healing practice originating from the Indian subcontinent.

The supplement market is paying attention. Indeed, it is driving this newfound push towards adaptogens. Their healing properties have been recruited into many high-quality supplements across a diverse range of areas, whilst anyone with WI-FI access is suddenly able to access them.

Despite their pedigree and the mysticism with which many practitioners might like to cloak them, there is nothing too mysterious about adaptogens.

They are quite simple and straightforward, actually.

In short, they are botanicals – plants, roots, herbs – that aid the body in better resisting and adapting to stressors. They contribute to overall homeostasis maintenance – they keep you balanced, in equilibrium. All of which leads to keeping you ‘happy’.

This means a greater resilience to stress. I can’t overstate how important this is. Stress is one of the leading causes of mental health concerns, it is a contributing factor to most chronic diseases and health problems, and yet is perfectly manageable using a few simple lifestyle hacks.

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    How adaptogens work

    Adaptogenic botanicals work primarily by acting on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is a complex system of glands, receptors, and hormones (such as cortisol) which plays a key role in regulating your stress levels and response, longer term anxiety levels, and your longer term homeostasis.

    For instance, if you have too much cortisol (the stress hormone), adaptogens can help to lower your cortisol levels. Alternatively, if you don’t have enough estrogen or testosterone, for instance, they can help to raise your levels.

    They can both mitigate stress levels, diminishing them overall, whilst also giving you more energy. This is in stark contrast to stimulants like caffeine, which give you that energy kick whilst also raising stress and anxiety levels.

    They have been linked with lower fatigue levels, increased and improved happiness and wellbeing, the ability to fight depression, and even neuroprotective and nootropic properties.

    There are plenty of adaptogenic botanicals out there. However, a few really shine through in the modern supplement market and you will find many combined to potent effect in some of the leading nootropic supplements.

    Our top 8 adaptogenic herbs for mental wellbeing

    Let’s take a look at some of the best herbs for mental wellbeing – otherwise referred to as herbs for happiness:

    Tulis, or Holy Basil

    I love holy basil, a herb worlds apart (literally) from the basil you’d find on your typical margarita pizza. It’s a potent adaptogenic herb originating in the Indian subcontinent with a long history of use in Ayurvedic practices, where it is drunk as a tea and is known as the elixir of life. 

    Modern clinical research has linked holy basil with a significant decline in psychological stress, citing its ability to work as a nootropic, benefiting overall cognition, whilst also mitigating the effects of anxiety and depression. In fact, one study looked at participants taking holy basil extract for six weeks. It found that they experienced an average reduction in symptoms of stress and anxiety of nearly forty percent. They also found their quality of sleep improving and signs of sexual dysfunction dropping.

    Holy basil will also help to keep you safe and healthy in the long run. It is potentially promising for its ability to mitigate the effects of cellular stress, for instance of the kind you may experience from pesticides or pollution. It is a potent antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, keeping you safe from cellular oxidative damage and damaging free radicals. This kind of oxidative damage can impair the nervous system and has been tentatively connected to depression and anxiety.     

    St John’s Wort

    Hypericum perforatum, or St John’s Wort, is a wild herb with a centuries’ long history of use. It enjoys quite widespread use. As such, it’s also one of the best studied herbs on this list – there is a lot of data available on it.

    In Europe, St John’s Wort is often prescribed as part of a treatment plan for depression. US markets see it regularly used as a supplement to the same effect. Reviews have found it able to outperform common prescription antidepressant drugs, though some of the research has been a little more mixed and nuanced.

    In general, though, it’s safe to say that you should experience a great mood lift accompanied by greatly diminished stress levels when taking it.

    You should however be wary of mixing this herb with some mainstream antidepressants as doing so can potentially lead to dangerously high serotonin levels. It’s also known for adversely interacting with a range of other medicines, so do practice caution and speak to your doctor before taking it.

    Ginseng

    Ginseng root

    Asian ginseng, also known as Korean ginseng, or Panax ginseng, is an adaptogenic root that also gives you great anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, thus keeping stress and anxiety levels down, your mood elevated, and your longer-term health safeguarded.

    Asian ginseng is abundant in ginsenosides, its primary active component. These have been linked with a reduction in fatigue, elevated mood, and boosted brain function, making it a great nootropic ingredient. In fact, you will often find Asian ginseng in some of the leading nootropics’ formulas, including one of our favorites Hunter Focus.

    It has been shown to aid those suffering with chronic fatigue quite profoundly. Study participants suffering with chronic fatigue have displayed greatly improved scores on standardized tests of mental fatigue – tests which include questions related to things like memory, clear thinking, overall energy levels, motivation, and mood.

    Chamomile

    Chamomile is my personal supplement of choice for sleep – drink it as a tea for calm relaxation and a hint of sleepiness. This sleepiness comes in large part from chamomile’s role as a (very) mild sedative. This is due to several compounds found in dried chamomile flowers, key amongst them several terpenoids and quercetin, a flavonoid.

    These compounds bring about a great therapeutic effect, leading to increased calm and decreased stress and anxiety. As we have seen, stress and anxiety are often leading causes of, or at least contributing factors to, low mood. Diminishing them and their effects can be incredibly beneficial to raising your mood and promoting long-lasting happiness.

    You needn’t just have it in tea (though I do recommend it – it’s quite lovely). You can also use chamomile in essential oils or consume it when contained in common supplements. Supplementing like this has been shown to reduce levels of fatigue, tension, anger, anxiety, and irritability, whilst also alleviating symptoms of depression.

    Ashwagandha

    ashwagandha plant

    Ashwagandha is one of my all-time favorite supplement ingredients. I always make sure I’m taking it, often as part of a broader testosterone supporting supplement (a good shout for any man over the age of thirty).

    Ashwagandha’s use stretches back over six millennia – it has seen widespread use in Ayurvedic traditions in India, where its adaptogenic properties have made it a great treatment for anxiety and stress. Those suffering with chronic stress have seen their symptoms diminish greatly after supplementing with 600 mg of ashwagandha daily for just two months. This was accompanied by lower blood cortisol levels alongside lower scores on common assessment scales for stress and anxiety.

    It, too, is thought to aid in modulating the HPA axis.

    Rhodiola rosea

    You will also often see the herb rhodiola rosea in common, high-quality nootropics. Again, it has a long history in traditional medicine forms, where its roots have been used to fight stress, anxiety, and fatigue, whilst also bolstering mood and diminishing the effects of depression.

    It is best taken long term – short term doses have been found ineffective, especially for fatigue prevention. Low doses taken over longer time periods have been found most useful. One study showed that 400 mg of rhodiola rosea taken for three months was enough to significantly improve participants’ symptoms of fatigue, including exhaustion, anxiety, heightened stress levels, and poor focus.

    Clinical trials have also found rhodiola rosea to offer nearly the same mood enhancing properties as the common antidepressant sertraline.

    It also leads to greatly reduced ill effects, whilst also being better tolerated across the board. It may therefore be perfect for those suffering with low- to moderate- depression, though you should of course consult your healthcare provider before beginning any new treatment or supplement regime.

    Mucuna pruriens

    Also quite poetically known as magic velvet bean, mucuna pruriens is particularly rich in certain flavonoids and polyphenols. These are potent antioxidants that help to reduce damage from free radicals and oxidative stress. As we have seen, this should help to support long term health and wellbeing, including long term mood support.

    It goes a little further than this, though.

    Mucuna pruriens seeds contain the amino acid L-dopa, an anti-inflammatory compound which serves as a precursor to dopamine, a key neurotransmitter for maintaining a good mood.

    Dopamine plays a key role in emotion regulation, motivation, and pleasure. This is thought to be amongst the most potent L-dopa source available from any natural ingredient. Mucuna pruriens also contains serotonin and 5-HTP (serotonin’s precursor).

    All told, this should lead to mucuna pruriens being a potent ally in your search for a better mood.

    Lemon Balm

    Finally, we have melissa officinalis, more commonly known as lemon balm. It’s not related to lemons, however. In fact, it is part of the mint family. Its use stretches all the way back to the Middle Ages, when it was a common ingredient in aiding sleep, reducing anxiety, and easing digestive discomfort.

    There aren’t many clinical data available for lemon balm. Or, rather, there isn’t much work looking into lemon balm in isolation. It’s generally used paired with additional calming herbs (hops, valerian, or chamomile, for instance), which leads to stress and anxiety reduction and balanced mood promotion. Its benefits in conjunction with these additional ingredients are well documented.

    However, there is one minor study showing the effects of lemon balm extract on its own on healthy adults. Doses of 600 mg were found to improve mood and promote calmness and alertness.

    Taking herbs for happiness

    There is no substitute for clean living and a healthy lifestyle. If you want to bring your stress levels down and bolster your mood, you should think holistically.

    Try to eat well, sleep plenty, surround yourself with people, and stay active. Don’t take on too much. Find something that inspires you, either for work or as a hobby. And supplement correctly.

    Any of the above herbs would do well to make it into that supplement regime.

    James writer image

    This article was written by: James Dixon – SOMA Analytics PT, Nutritionalist & Published Author

    James Dixon is one of the key players in the SOMA Analytics’ team. He is a personal trainer and is educated to Masters level. He is a published author and is a keen advocate of high quality nootropic supplements. James enjoys helping others to reach their peak both physically and mentally and believes that expressing his knowledge through his writing is an effective way to positively impact the wellbeing of others on a larger scale.