Herbs for Treatment of Emotional and Mental States

By Gayle Eversole, DHom, PhD, RN (CP)

Over the past decade much has put attention on the use of herbs in the treatment of mental and emotional difficulties. Probably the most well known herb now, because of all of this commotion, is Saint John’s Wort.

As a longtime medical herbalist, I look over all that goes on and hope that more understanding is developed about the effective use of herbs.

Numerous studies are funded, then it seems that the researchers find no beneficial use in herbal products. There are many reasons for this outcome.

  • Most studies using Saint John’s Wort were limited to the use of standardized remedies. This is a potential problem because the effective use of herbs, proven over thousands of years, shows that healing occurs with properly prepared remedies – whole herb remedies. One study completed in 2002, reported in the Pharmer’s Almanac (Herb Pharm), showed that the bioflavonoid compounds in Saint John’s Wort (SJW) are required for effectiveness. Standardized SJW compounds eliminate the bioflavonoid compounds. This finding supports the importance of using whole herb remedies.


  • Teas and other water based extraction methods, or the newer extraction processes with grain alcohol, with or without water, are the most effective methods to administer herbs. Often the parts of herbs used may not be the specific part known to have medicinal impact. Trends in the herbal marketplace lead to many products made by manufacturers with little or no knowledge of herbal compounding and preparation.


  • Politics and pharmaceutical interests also have a major impact on the quality and availability of effective herbal products, and costs. One example of this is a series of products made by a well-known drug company. Looking more for profit than the understanding of “herbs as healers”, this line (vitamins mixed with herbs) is promoted as the only products to use for results. This same company was cited in a recent claim of price fixing in the vitamin market. Their products were also found to be at least 50 percent more expensive than products made by herbal companies.


  • The “Herbs and Foods” argument (i.e. some claim herbs are not foods) is often pointed to in efforts to make the case for more control and less access. To counter this position, look at the chart below with several herbs used for mental health, and some of the nutrients they contain –


Herb Nutrients
Hops B complex, magnesium, zinc,
copper, iodine, manganese, iron, sodium,
Oat straw Silicon, calcium, phosphorus,
vitamins A, B1, B2, E
Scullcap Calcium, potassium, magnesium,
iron, zinc, vitamins C, E,
Valerian Magnesium, potassium, copper,
Wood Betony Magnesium, manganese,


Most people are familiar with SJW and valerian. These herbs are classified as a nervine-sedative because of the primary way in which they work on the brain and nervous system.

James Duke, PhD, talks about SJW describing its “star shaped yellow flowers…beautiful enough to make anyone with the blues feel happier.” SJW has been shown to be helpful for anxiety, depression, sleep, and headache. It can help in hysteria and brain fog. It also has MAO inhibitor qualities [MAO = Monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that functions in the nervous system], and offers great benefit in the treatment of pain, including phantom pain, and as an anti-viral. It can contribute to photosensitivity

Valerian root is often used as a muscle relaxant and to help with sleep. It contains volatile oils and alkaloids that create a calming, sedative effect. It is an excellent muscle relaxant, pain reliever, and helps with nervous tension. It is not recommended for children, but it has been used in compounds for children with severe agitation and “ADHD.” Some may experience a paradoxical effect with valerian, and for those individuals I usually suggest Scullcap.

Scullcap is said to be like quinine as a nerve stimulant without the side effects. Historically it is called the food of the nerves, offering almost immediate relief from all acute and chronic nerve afflictions and debility. Culpeper noted the benefits of this herb in the 1600’s. It is a good herb for children, for people with seizures, Parkinson’s dis-ease, neuralgia, St. Vitus dance, and spinal meningitis.

Passionflower is one of my favorite remedies. I have used it specifically to help people withdraw from prescription anti-depressants and sleeping medication. It is good for children, and in many European countries is the treatment of choice for ADD/ADHD. It is good for agitation and this would lead me to recommend it for elderly persons who are institutionalized, as an alternative to Haldol. It is a good choice for insomnia, children with convulsions, and headache. Passionflower, according to J Clin Pharm Therap 2001 26:363-7, is equally effective as often prescribed anti-anxiety agents, with no side effects.

A rare herb, but one I have used in cases for anxiety related gastric symptoms, is Lady’s Slipper Orchid. I would not suggest common use of Lady’s Slipper because it is almost extinct in the wild. However, it is the safest known nervine in the plant kingdom, and in my mind, the best. It is very slow acting, yet it is healing to al parts of the nervous system. It works mainly on the medulla to regulate breathing, sweating, saliva, and heart function. It contains a high level of all B complex vitamins. This is a good herb for complete nervous exhaustion and chorea (please contact me for resources if you are interested in this herb).

Kava in the right form is an excellent herb, but at this time its use is being questioned, and access is limited.

Examples of herbs selected in place of common prescription medicines –




Common diagnosis





GABA Anxiety Benzodiazepines Valerian, Hops
Norepinephrine Anxiety, sleep disorder,
depression, ADD
Tri-cyclics, Ritalin St. John’s Wort
Serotonin Depression, anxiety SSRIs St. John’s Wort
Beta endorphins Mood, sleep, and pain dis-orders Opiate narcotics SJW, California Poppy, Kava,
Nutmeg, Borage, Lotus oil
Acetylcholine Memory impairment, ADD Ginkgo
Histamine Sleep, appetite, and immune dis-orders Antihistamines, Haldol, Elavil Khella, nettle
Excerpted from an article by
David Overton, PA-C, The Herbalist, 1997.


Other herbs to consider are California Poppy, Hops (good for making a “sleep pillow” to tuck in your pillow case), Feverfew, Chamomile (avoid if you have a ragweed allergy), Catnip, Licorice (use with caution with hypertension), Ginseng, Blue Vervain, Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Skunk Cabbage, Clove, Cyani, Evening Primrose oil, Fennel (a sedative for children), Gentian (eating dis-orders), Ginkgo, Gotu Kola, Lobelia, Rosemary, Suma (mood swings), Wild Lettuce, Wild Cherry (feeds the pituitary and pineal glands).

When combining herbs for emotional treatments, look to herbs for liver and gall bladder function, and to those with hormonal balancing properties. For those unfamiliar with the therapeutic use of herbs, it is best to work with an experienced herbal practitioner. Often you will be able to find a clinical herbalist who, as I often do, will work in conjunction with your physician.