Phytotherapy (herbal medicine) is a specialisation in which medicinal plants are used in various forms for health purposes. This area of study is most definitely the oldest in the entire field of medicine as man has been using plants and herbs to obtain health benefits for many thousands of years. Herbs and natural remedies still constitute the only methods of treatment adopted by people still living in very primitive conditions in the few tribal communities remaining in the world and in any case by people who do not have access to synthetic medicine.

Amongst all natural forms of treatment, herbal medicine is that which comes closest to conventional modern medicine as it acts on the basis of active elements that have a well-defined and specific effect on the organism. However, it is also different from conventional medicine as, unlike the latter, it maintains that the effect of herbal and plant extracts must be attributed to the plant as a total sum of elements rather than to the sole action of a purified and isolated active ingredient.

The extraction of active elements from plants can be achieved in various ways, the most widely-known being the method of infusion, which produces nothing other than an old-fashioned ‘herbal tea’. The plant is brought into contact with boiling water, and the active elements thus extracted are much more easily assimilated by the organism. The Chinese would traditionally prefer the method of decoction, whereby a plant comes into contact with water that continues to boil for a period of time.

Nature offers us a great quantity of natural remedies for the treatment of anxiety and stress. The most widespread and best known are valerian, passion flower, hawthorn and St. John’s wort (hypericum perforatum). Other plants used in the formulation of natural remedies against anxiety and stress include camomile, lemon balm (melissa officinalis) and lime. The real effectiveness of these remedies has not been scientifically proven but this does not mean they have no effect at all. They can be an excellent alternatives to pharmacological therapies in less serious cases or can be used together with the latter, also when required to gradually replace synthetic medicines and in view of the much less frequent occurrence of side effects.

In particular, it would appear that hawthorn is effective in dissipating states of anxiety thanks to the bland sedative effect on the nervous system and heart rate. It is believed that the plant is capable of reducing sensations of anxiety and vertigo and that it is a useful remedy for insomnia.

St. John’s Wort has an anti-depressive and sedative action thanks to the inhibition of certain neurotransmitters in the central nervous system and an increase in the nocturnal secretion of melatonin, which regulates the circadian rhythm (sleep/waking cycle).

Passion flower is attributed with the property of depressing the autonomous nervous system (peristalsis, heartbeat, etc) and an anxiolytic (i.e., sedative) effect similar to that produced by the benzodiazepines (BZDs). It is thus particularly useful in the treatment of forms of anxiety already sedated by psychotropic medication.

Finally, valerian is attributed with sedative properties affecting the central nervous system, hypnogenic properties favouring the onset of sleep and a spasmolytic (muscle relaxant) effect. These activities can be attributed to the reinforcement of particular nervous transmission mechanisms through an increased availability of the neurotransmitter gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA), which has a depressing effect on the central nervous system. However, some studies have indicated that the mechanism might be rather more complex, involving other neuronal systems.

There are numerous herbal supplements on the market that contain a blend of these natural substances and which are very useful for treating states of anxiety and light to moderate levels of insomnia.

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