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As the stress of daily life has grown over the past few years, so has people’s interest in supporting healthy moods naturally.
Instead of going directly to pharmaceutical mood-enhancers, many of us prefer to go a natural route, searching for plants and herbs that boost mood.
Research in recent years has pinpointed several adaptogenic herbs that can help us feel happier, less stressed, and more excited about our lives.
In this article, learn more about the top ten happiness herbs for mood enhancement and the clinical research behind each one.
You may have heard the word “adaptogen” thrown around but have not been entirely sure what the term entails.
Although adaptogens have become increasingly trendy in recent years, most have been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine—one of the oldest traditional healing practices that originated in India.
Recently, many holistic practitioners and health enthusiasts have renewed global interest in the healing properties of these ancient herbs and plants, making them more accessible to the average person.
So, what exactly are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are plants, herbs, or roots that help the body resist and adapt to stressors and maintain overall homeostasis or balance.
This allows you to build resilience to stress over time, which can benefit your health in the long term.
Adaptogenic herbs primarily act on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complicated system of glands, receptors, and hormones vital to maintaining homeostasis and regulating the stress response.
Adaptogens are a unique set of plants in that they can both reduce stress and promote energy simultaneously—unlike caffeine, which boosts energy and motivation but also increases stress in the body.
This duality comes from adaptogens’ action on the HPA axis—if we have too much of a hormone (like cortisol, our primary stress hormone), the adaptogen can help to lower it.
Conversely, if we don’t have enough of a hormone (like estrogen), the adaptogen will help us raise it.
In addition to mitigating stress, adaptogens have also been touted as mood-boosting herbs for happiness, as they provide anti-fatigue, anti-depressive, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), neuroprotective, and nootropic activity.
Let’s take a closer look at the top ten adaptogenic herbs that boost mood.
A quick disclaimer: before trying new herbs or supplements for depression or mood disorders, talk to your doctor about potential medication interactions and safety concerns.
While these herbs can help boost mood and have anti-depressive qualities, they are not a cure for depression or any mood disorder.
This is not the same type of basil you’d make pesto with or garnish on top of a pizza—holy basil is an adaptogenic herb native to India with stress-relieving properties.
Also known as tulsi, holy basil is referred to as the “Elixir of Life” in Ayurvedic practices and is commonly consumed in herbal tea form.
Studies showed that holy basil is linked to reductions in psychological stress, as it benefits cognition and exhibits anti-depressant and anxiety-fighting action.
Another study found that people who consumed holy basil extract (Ocimum tenuiflorum) for six weeks experienced a 39% reduction in overall stress symptoms and improved sleep quality and sexual function.
In addition to reducing emotional stress, holy basil has also shown promise for fighting cellular or bodily stress, like from pesticides, pollution, or heavy metal exposure.
Holy basil has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which allow the herb to scavenge for harmful free radicals and reduce cellular oxidative damage from these external toxins.
Although you may not instinctively connect cellular stress to mood, recent research has indicated that oxidative damage in the brain impairs the nervous system and is linked to depression and anxiety disorders.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a wild plant that has been used for centuries for mental health conditions—it’s even prescribed for depression in Europe.
In the United States, St. John’s wort is used as a dietary supplement to support mood.
Because of its widespread use, a lot of research has been done on St. John’s wort.
In a review from the Cochrane Library—considered the gold standard of systematic research reviews—St. John’s wort outperformed or performed comparably to prescription antidepressant medications.
However, research outcomes regarding St. John’s wort are often mixed, and it’s imperative to know that combining this herb with certain antidepressants can cause a life-threatening increase in serotonin.
St John’s wort also interacts with several other medications, so definitely speak with your health care provider first.
Chamomile is a well-known nighttime tea for supporting calmness and sleepiness—but it’s also good for anxiety because it acts as a mild sedative.
The dried flowers of the chamomile plant contain several beneficial compounds, including terpenoids and the flavonoid quercetin, that contribute to its therapeutic activity.
Although most commonly consumed as a tea, chamomile can also be utilized in essential oil, extract, or supplemental form—like Onnit’s New Mood, a supplement designed to fight daily stress and support a healthy mood.
In research with women, encapsulated chamomile supplements improved several aspects of menstrual-related mood disorders, including reductions in anger, irritability, anxiety, tension, fatigue, and depressed mood.
The women taking chamomile also had increased interest in work and social activities with improved energy.
Ashwagandha, also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng, is a plant in the nightshade family whose therapeutic use dates back 6,000 years to Ayurvedic practices in India.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is most studied for its adaptogenic effects on reducing stress and anxiety.
In a study of adults with a history of chronic stress, those who supplemented with 600mg of ashwagandha for 60 days had significantly reduced scores on stress and anxiety assessment scales, as well as lower blood cortisol levels.
Researchers suggest that ashwagandha’s stress-relieving effects are likely due to its modulating effect on the HPA axis.
Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng or Korean ginseng, is an adaptogenic root with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that contribute to its mood-boosting effects.
The primary active components in Asian ginseng are ginsenosides, which are thought to fight fatigue, boost mood, and improve brain function.
In people with chronic fatigue, ginseng has been shown to significantly improve scores on tests of mental fatigue, which included questions about energy, thinking clearly, memory, and feeling tired or unmotivated.
Rhodiola—also known as rosenroot or by its scientific name Rhodiola rosea—is an herb whose roots have been used in traditional healing for centuries for its anti-stress, fatigue-fighting, and antidepressive qualities.
Research has found that the greatest anti-fatigue benefits occur when people take low doses over extended periods—it won’t work acutely with just one dose.
In a study of people with self-reported high stress, supplementing with 400mg of Rhodiola for 12 weeks significantly improved their symptoms of burnout, stress, anxiety, and lack of concentration.
A randomized clinical trial also looked at the mood-altering effects of Rhodiola compared to sertraline, a common antidepressant.
Rhodiola was found to produce slightly less antidepressant effects than sertraline—1.4 times the odds of improvement compared to 1.9 times the odds of improvement with sertraline—but it also resulted in significantly fewer adverse events with better tolerance.
This suggests that Rhodiola may be a more favorable option in people with mild depression—but don’t switch from your antidepressant to Rhodiola without speaking with a doctor first.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is not actually related to lemons—it’s part of the mint family and has reported use dating back to the Middle Ages to promote sleep, reduce anxiety, and help indigestion.
Few studies have examined lemon balm on its own and it’s often combined with other calming herbs, like chamomile, hops, and valerian, to lower anxiety and promote good mood—like in the supplement New Mood by Onnit.
However, we do have one small study looking at the effects of two doses of lemon balm extract in healthy adults.
Taking 600mg of lemon balm extract on two separate days led to increased mood and significantly improved calmness and alertness following laboratory stress tests, while 300mg was not found to have a beneficial effect.
Sometimes referred to as the “magic velvet bean,” Mucuna pruriens is a tropical legume whose beans contain polyphenols and flavonoids that act as antioxidants to fight free radicals and oxidative damage.
Mucuna seeds also consist of up to 5% of the anti-inflammatory amino acid L-dopa—a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine—which is thought to be the highest amount of this amino acid found in any food.
As dopamine is involved with motivation, pleasure, and emotions, researchers have pinpointed Mucuna as an herbal supplement to help with mood.
Another feel-good neurotransmitter—serotonin—and its direct precursor, 5-HTP, are found in the magic velvet bean, which also contributes to Mucuna being an herb for mood enhancement.
Although most well-known for providing Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean dishes with a signature red-gold color, saffron’s nickname as the “sunshine spice” may be due to both its pigment and its ability to support happiness and good moods.
Saffron (Crocus sativus) has been found to improve symptoms of mild depression, increasing brain dopamine levels and providing anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects.
In a review of five randomized controlled trials, saffron was significantly more effective than placebos at treating symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression—and just as effective as some anti-depressive medications.
Good sleep is also a component of feeling happy, as we all know we don’t feel our best after a terrible night’s sleep.
A clinical trial looked at how saffron extract affected sleep quality, finding that adults who supplemented with 15.5mg of saffron per day for six weeks had increased time in bed with improved sleep quality, duration, and latency—the time it takes to fall asleep.
Last but not least, maca is a mood-boosting tuberous root traditionally used in Peruvian culture to enhance fertility, libido, and energy.
Maca has stimulatory effects, which is why it’s thought to improve mood.
In a study with older women, those who were supplemented with 3,500mg of powdered maca for six weeks had significantly reduced psychological symptom scores, including anxiety and depression.
Similarly, a trial studying maca in men found that the adaptogenic root improved their libido and reduced markers of depressive and anxious symptoms.
Although all ten of these adaptogenic herbs and roots are beneficial for mood, a few have proved best—or most-researched—for reducing stress:
Although both boost mood, endorphins differ from the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Endorphins are naturally produced pain-relieving chemicals that can improve mood and self-esteem—most people recognize that endorphins are produced after exercise.
While we don’t have research specifically looking at herbs that increase endorphins, the ones most likely to do so include:
Several of these adaptogenic herbs have been well-studied for their role in fighting depressive symptoms.
The best herbs for helping with mild to moderate depression are:
Keep in mind that you must speak with a doctor before starting herbs for depression.
All ten of the herbs and plants on this list are natural options for boosting your mood.
In addition to these adaptogens, some healthy ways to boost mood naturally include:
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