Life Extension Magazine August 2007
Quick Relief from Anxiety and Stress Without Tranquilizer Drugs
By Tiesha D. Johnson, RN, BSN
Daily stress and anxiety not only wreaks havoc with our sense of well-being, but also shortens our lives by contributing to heart disease, diabetes, and cognitive impairment.1-3
Drug companies offer medications to treat the symptoms of anxiety, but fears of addiction and side effects cause most health conscious people to avoid them.4,5
Fortunately, alternatives are available in the form of natural botanical extracts—one of which was shown to be as effective as a leading prescription medication.
Prescribed as a medicinal herb since ancient Greek times, lemon balm has long been known to relieve anxiety, promote sleep, and sooth agitation. Since this botanical extract cannot be patented, its beneficial effects have been completely ignored by pharmaceutical interests.
Animal studies of lemon balm have produced impressive results with regard to stress reduction. In one study, researchers gave low doses of a lemon balm extract to mice. They observed a decrease in anxiety-related behaviors when the animals were placed in an unfamiliar environment.6 In the same study, higher doses of the lemon balm extract produced analgesic (pain-relieving) effects. Most dramatically, lemon balm extracts induced sleep in mice that had been given tiny (non-sleep-inducing) doses of traditional sedative medications.
A very recent study of herbs used in traditional Lebanese medicine as sedatives demonstrated that lemon balm extracts had the ability to bind to receptors that trigger relaxation and reduce anxiety in the brain.7
Human Studies Confirm Lemon Balm’s Benefits
A large amount of published data has emerged on the benefits of lemon balm for alleviating anxiety and mood disorders in humans. In the past five years alone, the powerful relaxing effects of lemon balm extracts have been documented by scientists around the world. These studies confirm what herbal practitioners have long known—that lemon balm in combination with other herbal agents is effective in addressing conditions related to stress and anxiety.8,9
In 2004, a study documented the effectiveness of a lozenge containing lemon balm along with several other herbal preparations known to reduce anxiety. In a placebo-controlled, double-blind trial, 16 volunteers used the active lozenge or a placebo twice, two hours apart. Brain wave tracings were recorded both before and at various time intervals after the use of the lozenges. When the subjects used the active lozenges, they demonstrated marked increases in the alpha wave activities that are associated with relaxation. Interestingly, there were also increases in the brain wave activity associated with attention, suggesting that the combined herbal preparation helped subjects cope with psychological and emotional stress—without loss of cognitive function.10
In another 2004 study, lemon balm was examined for its effect on laboratory-induced stress in humans.11 In this case, 18 healthy volunteers took a single dose of lemon balm extract (300 mg or 600 mg) or a placebo. Their mood was assessed before the dose and one hour after, via a standardized stress-simulation test. Subjects’ cognitive performance was also measured. The higher (600 mg) dose ameliorated the stress induced by the test, and produced significantly improved self-ratings of calmness and alertness. Even the lower (300 mg) dose produced a significant increase in the speed at which the subjects could do math problems, without any reduction in accuracy.
Clinical Study Shows Effects against Anxiety, Insomnia
A recent clinical trial highlighted the powerful stress-relieving benefits of lemon balm. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 20 volunteers suffering from anxiety and sleep disturbances received 300 mg of a specialized lemon balm extract twice daily (in the morning and evening). After 15 days of treatment, the participants who received lemon balm reported a 49% reduction in their state of anxiety, a 72% reduction in anxiety-associated symptoms, and a 39% decrease in insomnia. In contrast, individuals receiving placebo did not experience significant changes in anxiety or insomnia. These important findings show that lemon balm helps modulate the effects of stress on the body and mind to improve quality of life. Impressively, the benefits are clearly evident approximately two weeks after beginning treatment. While the individuals using lemon balm experienced less difficulty sleeping, it is important to note that the lemon balm extract did not produce unwanted daytime drowsiness. This suggests that lemon balm helped restore sleep by offsetting the effects of stress and anxiety.12
Enhancing Attention and Cognition
An elegant and dramatic study published in 2002 demonstrated just how effective lemon balm can be in modulating both attention and cognitive performance.13 Single doses of lemon balm extract at 300, 600, and 900 mg, or matching placebo, were given to 20 healthy volunteers at one-week intervals, and their cognitive performance was assessed using standardized tests. The results were compelling—the subjects all showed sustained improvement in their accuracy of attention after the 600 mg dose, as well as reductions in memory problems. Subjects also rated their calmness as higher, even shortly after the lowest dose of lemon balm.
The same researchers soon published another study demonstrating further benefits of lemon balm extracts.14 In this study, 20 healthy volunteers took single doses of lemon balm (600, 1000, and 1600 mg) or placebo at one-week intervals. Cognitive performance was measured before and at one, three, and six hours following the dose. Subjects experienced markedly improved memory and increased calmness at every time-interval
following the highest dose; lower doses produced less dramatic improvements. Further, the scientists used a laboratory model to show that lemon balm binds with cholinergic receptors in human brain tissue of the occipital cortex. Since activity at these receptors is altered in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, lemon balm extract could offer benefits for individuals experiencing memory loss related to these conditions.
There’s now exciting data to support lemon balm as a cognition-enhancing agent in age-related cognitive decline.9,15,16 Since people suffering from cognitive decline frequently have significant agitation, stress, and anxiety, these benefits may offer hope for those who suffer agitation and anxiety related to progressive dementia.
Recommended by European botanical scientists
Lemon balm has a long history of additional uses, which include alleviating conditions such as gas and bloating, vomiting, earache, headache, toothache, and sleeplessness. In fact, lemon balm’s unique properties have led to its being recommended by the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy for tension, restlessness, and irritability.16,17
The Calming and Neuroprotective Effects of Theanine
Another powerful stress reliever is green-tea-derived theanine. When swallowed, theanine is readily absorbed and easily crosses the “blood-brain barrier,” allowing it to quickly reach brain cells.18-20 Like some other components of tea, theanine has tremendous potential as a cellular protectant.21 Studies in animals and humans demonstrate theanine’s ability to help promote relaxation, boost cognitive function, and support brain health.21,22
Numerous studies in animals have shown the diverse and beneficial effects that theanine produces in the nervous system. In one study where rats were supplemented with theanine, the animals experienced increased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.20 Boosting serotonin is the mechanism by which many of the leading antidepressant pharmaceuticals work on the brain. Thus, theanine worked in a similar fashion as an antidepressant medication. Other research has highlighted further calming properties of theanine. In another study, theanine decreased the release of excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitters, while increasing the release of inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitters.19 The result was a more relaxed state of being.
Even more promising, theanine’s effects go beyond promoting relaxation to protecting the delicate nervous system against numerous potential dangers. When researchers injected mice with theanine three hours after a surgically-induced stroke, the size of the damaged area of brain was significantly decreased, as compared with untreated animals. Furthermore, vital brain functions such as blood flow were preserved in the theanine-treated animals.22 This led the scientists to propose that theanine may be useful in stroke prevention. In another study, theanine helped reduce brain cell death due to stroke in gerbils.23
In findings with special relevance for Alzheimer’s disease, scientists found that theanine helped protect brain cells against toxicity caused by glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter.24,25 Glutamate toxicity has been linked with the nervous system damage that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that theanine could help protect against this devastating neurological disease.26
Human Studies Confirm Theanine’s Efficacy
Building on these exciting animal studies, scientists have conducted a number of well-executed and scientifically sound human trials of theanine. These studies have focused chiefly on theanine’s effects on stress, anxiety, and cognitive function.