5 traditional remedies for stress relief

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published June 12, 2020

Key Takeaways

These are stressful times. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, things were stressful. There are many ways to de-stress, but here’s one you might not have thought of: adaptogens. Adaptogens are defined as herbs that help people cope with stress and adapt to physiologic changes due to stress. The optimal adaptogen reduces stress-induced damage, is safe and effective even if taken in excess, lacks withdrawal symptoms, and does not impact body functions more than needed. 

The following five herbs are adaptogens supported by research.


To maintain somatic equilibrium, the root ginseng—long a staple of traditional medicines with uses dating back at least 2,000 years—regulates the immune response and moderates hormonal changes due to stress. It mitigates the prevalence of anxiety and depression, as well as stress secondary to other forms of pathophysiology, such as diabetes, atopy, and rheumatoid arthritis.

According to the authors of a systematic review published in the Journal of Ginseng Research (talk about granular publications), “Recent findings have revealed that ginseng is involved in adjusting the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and controlling hormones, thus producing beneficial effects on the heart and brain, and in cases of bone diseases, as well as alleviating erectile dysfunction.”  

Nevertheless, the exact mechanisms by which ginseng helps with stress remains to be elucidated, per the authors.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “In traditional Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng was used as a tonic that was believed to replenish energy. Today, Asian ginseng is used as a dietary supplement to improve general well-being, physical stamina, and concentration; stimulate immune function; slow the aging process; and relieve various health problems such as respiratory disorders, cardiovascular disorders, depression, anxiety, erectile dysfunction, and menopausal hot flashes.”


Pronouncing the word Ashwagandha may be a cause for stress, but this Ayurvedic herb, also known as Indian Ginseng or Winter Cherry, is actually a stress reliever. Intriguingly, the word translates to “smell of horse” because first, well, it smells like a horse, and second, because users once believed that ingesting the herb will impart the strength and virility of a horse.

This herb is purported to work on various organ systems, including the immune system, the neurological system, the endocrine system, and the reproductive system, as well as metabolism. 

In a prospective, randomized, double-blind study, researchers randomized 64 participants to receive either 300 mg of high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha extract or placebo for 60 days. They also gave participants stress-assessment questionnaires and measured their serum cortisol levels.

The group given Ashwagandha extract exhibited reduced stress scores at day 60 vs. the control group (P<0.0001). Serum cortisol levels were also lower (P=0.0006) in those receiving treatment. Adverse effects were mild in both groups.

The researchers concluded that “a high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”

The US National Library of Medicine affirms the use of Ashwagandha, noting that 300 mg twice daily after food for 60 days may improve the symptoms of stress.

Rhodiola rosea 

The perennial flowering plant Rhodiola rosea grows in Arctic regions and makes for pretty groundcover. In addition to festooning gardens, this adaptogen has anxiety-reducing properties, research shows.

According to the authors of a review article published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, Rhodiola rosea extract (RRE) fulfils important requirements. It is the main adaptogen approved by the HMPC/EMA [Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products/European Medical Association] for the indication ‘stress’ and influences the release of stress hormones while boosting energy metabolism as revealed in animal literature. RRE offers comprehensive treatment of stress symptoms and can prevent chronic stress and stress-related complications.”

Lemon balm

Lemon balm is a lemon-scented perennial herb that has been used in medicine for more than 2,000 years. In fact, pioneering 16th century physician Paracelsus suggested that lemon balm could completely reinvigorate the body and should be used for all nervous system disorders.

Results from two double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover studies published in the journal Nutrients indicated that a standardized preparation of lemon balm administered in the form of beverage and in yogurt resulted in improved self-ratings of mood and cognitive performance in a small sample of healthy young adults. 

Although the mechanisms of action for lemon balm remain to be elucidated, and likely involve various neurotransmitters, the authors did take a stab at a hypothesis: “Given the anxiolytic properties of the lemon balm extract, the GABA-ergic system is one candidate target for its effects. Certainly recent research in this area points to GABA-ergic modulation by lemon balm—possibly via inhibition of the enzyme GABA transaminase (GABA-T). GABA-T is a common target for anxiolytic drugs and it has recently been found that rosmarinic acid from lemon balm has potent anti-GABA-T activity.”

Direct receptor binding assays would be necessary to draw any firm conclusions, the researchers added. “However this mechanism is supported by the pilot study showing that rosmarinic acid, one of the actives within the preparation used in the current study, peaks at around 30 min post-ingestion,” they wrote.


Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is another medicinal herb used in Ayurvedic medicine. It is native to India and is widely used as an herbal tea. Tulsi is believed to treat a wide range of common health conditions, including bronchitis, rheumatism, asthma, epilepsy, hiccups, cough, skin conditions, parasitic infections, neuralgia, headache, wounds, inflammation, and more, according to the authors of a systematic review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 

Researchers have also studied its effects on various forms of stress, including physical, toxic, metabolic, and psychological stress. 

Regarding the latter, “The psychotherapeutic properties of tulsi have been explored in various animal experiments that reveal that tulsi has anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties, with effects comparable to diazepam and antidepressants drugs,” wrote the authors of a review article about the healing herb. “Similarly, in human studies, tulsi has been observed to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, with a 6-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study reporting that tulsi significantly improves general stress scores, sexual and sleep problems and symptoms such as forgetfulness and exhaustion.”

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