Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Apr

6 Tea Ingredients That Can Help You Unwind, Relax and Chill Out

teaA popular product class is the “sleepy time” tea. These are the teas which purport to help you unwind from a rough day, relax in the midst of exterior (or interior) chaos, and chill out in a state of relatively peaceful bliss. Many of us live in a state of constant stress punctuated by bouts of acute but transient ease of mind, when it should be the other way around (constant ease of mind punctuated by bouts of acute but transient stress), and these teas and their ingredients claim to help you correct the imbalance. But supplement manufacturers say a lot of things, not all of them true.

What works? What actually helps you ease troubled thoughts? What’s actually worth your money and the time it takes to brew a cup of hot water?

For those who balk at the idea of supplementing an otherwise solid Primal eating plan, don’t be so hasty in your dismissal. Modern life presents novel stressor after novel stressor after novel stressor. Not all of us spend blissed out lives at the beach, or on a remote mountaintop communing with nature, or floating through life on a cloud of bodhisattva farts. Life is hard and often unpleasant, and we don’t get a lot of downtime these days. Smart use of select herbs and roots with anxiolytic, calming, soothing, relaxing properties can go a long way toward restoring the Primal balance between active engagement with the hectic world and passive downtime. The way I see it is if we’re trying to emulate the physiological, psychological, and spiritual state of human being established as “normal” by natural selection, we may have to take a few extra steps to get there. Humans don’t do very well under chronic stress, so mitigating supraphysiological stress by supraphysiological means (whether through meditation or chamomile or taking a plane to Hawaii) makes sense and is unabashedly Primal.

Ultimately, it’s about feeling better and improving our health, no matter the means. I go with what works, regardless of some kind of ideology, using our human evolutionary heritage as a starting point and utilizing the best of 21st century technology to get real results with the least amount of pain, suffering and sacrifice as possible.

Now, let’s take a look at some of these so-called stress relief tea ingredients:

Kava Kava

What is it?

Kava is a crop grown in the South Pacific. Traditionally, its roots were chewed fresh (with the resultant liquid often spit into communal bowls), pounded to release the moisture, or sun-dried, ground, and steeped in water to make an intoxicating, relaxing mild sedative. Nowadays, the active kavalactones are also extracted and pressed into capsules.

History?

Most Pacific cultures used kava, including those of Hawaii, Polynesia, Tonga, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea (to name a few).

What is it purported to do?

It’s supposed to reduce anxiety, induce calmness, cause sedation without mental impairment, and generally chill a person out.

Does the research back that up?

Yes. A Cochrane review concluded that kava extract is effective against anxiety, while another review found that kava has no significant negative effects on cognition.

Is it safe?

There appears to be some concern toward hepatotoxicity. The tendency of some supplement makers to use the leaves and sticks (which contain toxins) to increase yield may lead to hepatotoxicity, but the root itself appears reasonably safe. Preparation may also matter; traditionally, kava is prepared with water, whereas modern processing often uses alcohol. Water-based kava preparations extract different proportions of active compounds than alcohol-based kava preparations. For instance, water extracts glutathione (a powerful antioxidant that our bodies manufacture) from kava, whereas alcohol does not, and this could have ramifications for toxicity. Like many other psychoactive compounds, though, kava root should not be consumed with alcohol, prescription drugs, or any other substance which stresses the liver. Kava Kava root itself is non habit forming, and does not appear to impair driving ability.

Where to find it?

Amazon.com has several options available (here, here, or here if you prefer extracts), but there are also designated online vendors. Make sure you stick with actual root (dried, ground, whole, or fresh) or supplements that only use the root and not the leaves.

L-Theanine

What is it?

An amino acid found in tea leaves, especially green tea.

History?

It’s technically been around for thousands of years, or as long as people have been harvesting and brewing tea (and even longer, unless you answer in the negative to “If green tea grows in the forest and nobody brews it, does it still impart a healthy dose of L-theanine?”), but it wasn’t until 1949 that L-theanine was isolated and identified by Japanese scientists who proceeded to stick it into a variety of different products.

What is it purported to do?

L-theanine is promoted as a stress-relieving compound that binds to GABA receptors and induces changes in brain waves indicative of relaxation.

Does the research back that up?

Yes, it appears to lower the negative effects of stress, reduce anxiety, and improve relaxation, as a quick look at the literature shows:

Is it safe?

The LD50 of L-theanine is incredibly high and impossible to reach via tea and nearly impossible to reach via supplement (you’d have to take dozens of bottles or drink hundreds of gallons).

Where to find it?

It’s richest in green tea, with matcha appearing to have the highest L-theanine content. Taking L-theanine via capsule is roughly the same as taking it via tea. It’s also present in Primal Calm.

Chamomile

What is it?

A flowering plant similar to the daisy that can be infused in hot water to produce a relaxing, calming tea.

History?

The use of chamomile as a medicinal herb dates back at least to the ancient Egyptians. In medieval Europe, chamomile was a “strewing herb” (herbs which were strewn about the floor of living spaces), a beer-making ingredient, and one of the Nine Sacred Herbs used by Anglo-Saxon god Woden (or Odin in Norse mythology) to “smote the serpent.” In other words, it was pretty dang significant to people throughout history.

What is it purported to do?

Act as a mild sedative and anti-anxiety agent.

Does the research back that up?

Yes, several studies show efficacy:

Is it safe?

It’s pretty safe, with a couple exceptions: pregnant women, for whom chamomile can induce uterine contractions (PDF), potentially leading to early labor; and people with ragweed allergies, for whom chamomile can exhibit cross-reactivity symptoms.

Where to find it?

Chamomile tea, being one of the more common varieties, is easy to find. This is a legit brand, or you could grow your own. Chamomile provides attractive (and useful) ground cover for your garden.

Valerian Root

What is it?

It’s a root, obviously, most often served up as dried powder in capsules, a tea, or a tincture. The plant itself has lovely flowers and leaves that resemble ferns, but it’s the root and rhizome we’re interested in.

History?

Ayurvedic, Chinese, and classical Hellenic medical systems employed valerian as an anti-insomnia and anti-anxiety medicine. More recently, it was prescribed to Edward Norton’s insomniac character in Fight Club (“chew some valerian root”). I can’t remember if it was in the book, too.

What is it purported to do?

It’s said to be a mild but effective sedative, anxiolytic, and sleep aid, akin to the benzodiazepine class of drugs without the side effects.

Does the research back that up?

Kinda. There are a few studies, but the results are mixed:

  • Among patients with generalized anxiety disorder, valerian extract has an anxiolytic effect on the “psychic symptoms of anxiety.”
  • Valerian may be effective against obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Among insomniacs, valerian extract improves the “sleep efficiency,” reducing morning grogginess and improving sleep architecture. Another study, using lower amounts of valerian, did not get the same results.
  • A 2006 meta-analysis was unable to decide whether or not it was effective against anxiety, however. Another review concluded that valerian “might improve sleep quality without producing side effects,” while a more recent one (of just RCTs) found it likely to improve subjective insomnia symptoms.

Overall, the weight of the anecdotal evidence, my own experience with it, and the fact that some, but not all, clinical trials find efficacy, leads me to the tentative conclusion that valerian can be useful against anxiety and maybe insomnia.

Is it safe?

Valerian is safe, well-tolerated, and seems to have fewer side effects than pharmaceutical sedatives and anti-anxiety meds. Pregnant women should avoid it due to a lack of safety studies.

Where to find it?

Any health food store should carry the capsules and the tea, and perhaps even the whole or ground root. Online is always an option, of course. I recommend buying the root direct.

Rhodiola Rosea

What is it?

Also known as rose root or arctic root, rhodiola rosea hails from Siberia originally and pretty much everywhere else that’s cold – the Arctic, the Rockies, Northern Europe, the mountains of central Asia – and possesses a root with interesting characteristics.

History?

Ancient Greeks, Viking raiders, Central Asian horsemen, Chinese emperors – they all prized rhodiola rosea as an anti-fatigue, anti-stress medicinal herb.

What is it purported to do?

Act as a powerful adaptogen, a compound which improves your ability to adapt to physiological stressors without compromising your body’s normal ability to function once removed.

Does the research back that up?

Definitely. Although most of the research comes from Scandinavia and Russia, there are a good number of trials available on Pubmed:

Overall, rhodiola rosea improves your ability to handle stress. If you’re lagging, it’ll bring things up. If you’re freaking out, it’ll bring you closer to baseline.

Is it safe?

It seems to be extremely safe.

Where to find it?

Primal Calm has it, as do plenty of other products. You can even buy it in bulk.

Magnolia Bark

What is it?

Magnolia bark is the lay name for magnolia officinalis, a deciduous tree whose bark is prized in traditional Chinese medicine.

History?

People have been using the bark for its medicinal qualities as far back as 100 AD.

What is it purported to do?

It gets billed as a sedative with strong anti-anxiety and anti-stress effects.

Does the research back that up?

For the most part, yes:

Is it safe?

While there are no long-term safety studies, trials indicate an extreme paucity of negative side effects. As always, exercise caution if you’re pregnant.

Where to find it?

I use it in Primal Calm. Chinese herb stores will have it (if you’ve got a Chinatown in your city, you can probably find it there).

Some teas blend some or all of these (and other) ingredients, so not only are you getting the dozens of bioactive compounds found in this herb, root, or rhizome, you’re getting the hundreds of bioactive compounds found in these other herbs, roots, and rhizomes. Plus, one ingredient might potentiate, inhibit, or otherwise modify the action of another ingredient, so it’s difficult to predict exactly what you’ll be getting out of a blend. Take valerian and lemon balm, which combine to become an effective anti-anxiety blend against acute stress.

With the possible exception of kava kava, though, I wouldn’t worry too much about any interactions – and even with kava, it seems reasonably safe as long as you’re smart and moderate about it while avoiding alcohol and other compounds with a liver load.

That’s it for this week, folks. Next week, I’ll explore some other helpful ingredients in tea. Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I would love some feedback from anyone who has taken Mark’s Primal Calm. Interested in hearing what type of results (if any) were experienced with regards to helping with stress, focus and cortisol issues. =) I went ahead and ordered some but am curious to hear from others who have used it as I wait for it to arrive. Thanks! =)

    Rebecca wrote on April 9th, 2013
  2. After 50 years of study I’ve become an expert in my own anxiety and depression and over the last winter finally managed to kick the worst of it to the curb. Yay, me! Anyway, I’ve used a number of techniques and supplements over the years and here are my favorites:

    Emotional Freeing Technique and Tapas Acupressure Technique: free to learn from the net but best used with professional guidance. My current therapist uses these two techniques and EMDR. We have been extraordinarily successful over the last five months and I am thrilled with how I feel these days. I have used EFT since about 2005 very successfully on my own but adding in the other two techniques plus a gifted therapist made all the difference. I went from despondent and near-suicidal to hopeful and eager to get to work in one session and have only gotten better with every visit since.

    Diet: Everyone here knows how important what you eat can be for mood! I find I need just a little carb with my “paleo” to be happiest and that’s a simple, easy thing to do.

    My favorite supplements are GABA and a combination Theanine/GABA/Relora though I don’t dismiss magnesium, B vitamins and Vitamin C as part of the whole. I take a fair amount of GABA as directed by my doctor (MD, ND and endocrinologist all in one package) and it really, really helps with anxiety. This is great when I don’t have an hour or more to use the physical techniques above.

    I took rather a lot of melatonin over the last few years and ended up having difficulties sleeping without it. Apparently, if you take it for too long your body stops making its own melatonin. I got around this by taking GABA and the Theanine/GABA/Relora with a homeopathic remedy called Calms Forte. I’m sleeping better and better all the time now without melatonin.

    I like Kava Kava a lot but it doesn’t last very long. I’ve heard it’s very useful for pain management. A friend took a lot of it during a long tattoo session and she said it worked very well, better than over the counter pain killers. Valerian is great but after a few days I end up with the most amazing nightmares so I don’t take it any more at all.

    Passionflower and skullcap are both wonderful for me, too, but I get tired of all the tea so I take it in capsules when needed.

    One thing that really helped me, though, was finally getting correctly diagnosed with low thyroid. Getting on Armour Thyroid made a huge difference. Then, I discovered that my adrenal glands were also compromised. I spent a lot of last year in bed resting. As my adrenal glands have healed I find I am far calmer and much better able to deal with stress. Last year a moment of stress would put me in bed for days. Now, not the case, thank heavens! I was able to go for a 2 mile walk last Saturday which was just wonderful. I am so grateful to be feeling well enough to exercise again and I hope to be back on horses again really soon.

    I just have to say I LOVE this site and always find so much neat stuff both in the articles and in the comments. It’s wonderful to find so many thinking, caring people in the world.

    Felicia wrote on April 9th, 2013
  3. I have tried many teas and pretty much go with an organic chamomile now, but what works absolutely the best for me is a HOT Epsom salt bath (the magnesium relaxes muscles). If using marijuana for sleep, you have to know your smoke but be careful, it changes the brain chemistry and you may become dependent on it for sleep. What also has helped me over the years (particularly if I wake around 2:00 AM and can’t get back to sleep) is to drink 3 oz. of Tahitian Noni.

    Beth wrote on April 9th, 2013
  4. Hi,

    Having travelled to Fiji on a couple of occasions I have participated in the Kava ritual many times and if you can handle the taste (kind of like muddy water) then it definitely has calming effects. Tread carefully though as too much will make you numb and hazy. Thanks for the post!

    Sally wrote on April 9th, 2013
  5. I wonder if we can make tea from the bark of the common Southern Magnolia Grandiflora like the one growing in my yard. I’m searching. So far I’ve found a site that included in the botanical details that no part of the plant is poisonous.

    Another site says that the plants are edible and lists medicinal uses of the bark. http://www.iron-clay.com/herbal_remedies/magnolia.html
    “iaphoretic; Hypotensive; Salve; Stimulant; Tonic.

    The bark is diaphoretic, stimulant, tonic. It is used in the treatment of malaria and rheumatism. A decoction has been used as a wash and a bath for prickly heat itching. The decoction has also been used as a wash for sores and as a steam bath for treating dropsy. An alcoholic extract of the plant reduces the blood pressure, produces a slight acceleration in respiration but has no action on the heart.”

    betterways wrote on April 9th, 2013
  6. When I was younger, my mother would always give me Chamomile tea when I was sick so that I would sleep better and recover faster. By far it is one of the most relaxing herbal (not counting drugs in this mix haha!) spices I have ever used.

    Drinking chamomile during the cold season is even better!

    Chest Coach wrote on April 9th, 2013
  7. Isn’t some of the ingredients bodybuilders use hehe :)

    Pierre wrote on April 9th, 2013
  8. using herbs and plants in various ways (medicinal and recreational) is definitely primal…i mean, if you’re going to *cook* your food, you might as well admit that our human ancestors probably figured out a few “good plants” before they figured out fire.

    charlotte wrote on April 9th, 2013
  9. Great stuff as always Mark. Thanks.

    Mark Eichenlaub wrote on April 9th, 2013
  10. I have a question for those of you who drink matcha tea. I think perhaps I’ve bought some which might not be the best quality (even though it’s organic). Mine has a strong somewhat bitter taste, is this normal?

    Ana wrote on April 9th, 2013
    • This post may be old but if you are drinking any green tea you should not add boiling water to the tea as this will make the tea bitter. The water temp should not exceed about 80 degrees. Therefore boil your water and leave the lid of the kettle open for about 5 mins prior to pouring over the tea. This should encourage a sweeter tea rather than burning the leaves and creating a bitter taste. Hope this helps!

      Lisa wrote on December 15th, 2013
  11. I had some Kava when i was in Hawaii. Wouldn’t put it in the same category as Chamomile myself. Found it to be a heavy sedative, made feel grogy and numbed my mouth i was surprised it was legal.

    Sticking to the add glass of wine myself.

    Stuart Ward wrote on April 10th, 2013
  12. LEMON BALM! not only is it amazingly delicious, it can help you get into deeper cycles of sleep. its extremely easy to grow and will do well in most climates.

    I suggest 1-4tbsp dried lemon balm to about 1/2-1 quart of water. boil water, pour over leaves, cover, infuse for 10-15 minutes and drink up before bed.

    its super gentle and effective, and has also been shown to help treat coldsores as it is h igh in lysine and an immune stimulant…….do this, you will thank me :)

    other then that I would suggest milky oats(the herb, not a bowl of em!), skullcap(especially for the weekends!), California poppy tincture, passionflower….

    I have brewed up valerian before, the only thing it effected was my nose, it smells horrible, I think it may be some kind of old herbalists joke on all of up

    A WARNING ON KAVA: high doses in pill form can be harmful to your liver, especially if you already have any issues

    jessica wrote on April 10th, 2013
    • Thanks, Jessica– great to hear about lemon balm! I’m constantly cutting it back in my garden since it’s a bit over-vigorous, but I have been using just a fresh leaf or two as a drink garnish, never thought to make a proper tisane of it. And the deeper sleep is exactly my issue. Now my garden will be neater & my sleep better!

      Paleo-curious wrote on April 10th, 2013
  13. Excellent post Mark. I love the information you give for each tea and the efficacy. I’d have to say my favorite is the Rhodiola Rosea- huge fan!

    Be well ;)

    McKel wrote on April 10th, 2013
  14. I love kava tea. I broke my neck and jaw a fews years ago, and nothing helps me sleep better and deal with the pain than kava. I also have used valerian, in pill form, and it’s a good one as well.

    LC wrote on April 10th, 2013
  15. I use Calms Forte with some success…seem to need double the recommended dosage for bed…but otherwise for just de-stressing a couple work fine. They are also OK for dogs. When ours is really worked up during bad storms it helps her. I would have to go check the label, but it contains at least a couple of these ingredients.

    Also – try making a dream pillow and insert in yours or next to your pillow. Lavender and Hops

    There are a couple sleep and meditation apps that have wonderful 20min sleep wind down exercises before bed. I also use that sleep cycle app in conjunction to monitor how deep I sleep…been trying to take sleep seriously, or as a growth project after Primal Connection

    ReturnFreeRisk wrote on April 10th, 2013
  16. With the pressures that come with modern life, I’ll definitely try some of these.Kava kava seems like a good start,and I believe everything ought to be done in moderation,including meds- natural or artificial.The chilling out part sounds okay…heck it’s medicine,not weed (not that I’m against the latter). And why the hell would someone need to mix their medicine with alcohol,why take it in the first place?Just the recommended dose would do fine,but these are my thoughts.

    Murray wrote on April 10th, 2013
  17. I’m a little disappointed to see you recommended chamomile tea in teabags rather than buying it in bulk (loose-leaf).

    Teabags usually use poor quality herbs, often ground into dust. They turn stale much faster because of the added surface area, and it’s hard to adjust the dosage to your liking. They’re also much more expensive per gram of herb.

    Loose-leaf herbal tea is where it’s at. Teabags are a poor substitute – and they’re certainly not primal!

    Lena Zegher wrote on April 11th, 2013
  18. I have just started with marksdailyapple and Monday (4/15/2013) will be my one week anniversary. So far, I am feeling good and optimistic. I can already feel the impact.

    My plan is to try it for a month (May 08, 2013) and will decide whether to continue. With the first few days so far, something good is happening and thanks to a friend (Joe) at work who introduced me to the wonderful world of Mark Session.

    Meanwhile, I am still doing coffee and looking forward to switching to tea. If anybody knows a good tea that taste good, please let me know.

    Thanks

    Albert wrote on April 11th, 2013
  19. Passion teas is relaxing too. Also potatoes (potassium) Those with low blood pressure should probably be careful with them.

    tom wrote on April 13th, 2013
  20. With the pressures that come with modern life, I’ll definitely try some of these.Kava kava seems like a good start,and I believe everything ought to be done in moderation,including meds- natural or artificial.The chilling out part sounds okay…heck it’s medicine,not weed (not that I’m against the latter). And why the hell would someone need to mix their medicine with alcohol,why take it in the first place?Just the recommended dose would do fine,but these are my thoughts.

    Murray wrote on April 13th, 2013
  21. Valerian root is an excellent muscle relaxer. My chiropractor says it works just fine, as good as prescribed muscle relaxers, and I find that it does, without the side effects. It has never made me drowsy. Yes, it does smell like sweat socks, but if you look around you can find brands that don’t reek as bad as others. I can’t imagine drinking it as tea. (Shudder!)

    I find most kinds of tea are relaxing, whether it’s white, green, black or herbal. Just the ritual of making the tea, and then taking the time to sip it, is relaxing.

    There was no mention of St. John’s Wort, and excellent antidepressant, and it helps control the anxiety that goes along with depression. It’s also good for insomnia. A good overview of this herb, also known as hypericum, is at http://www.hypericum.com/blog. It works for me.

    While on the subject of herbs & such, for anyone who suffers from motion sickness, plain old ginger is the best treatment, without side effects. I use capsules and tea. It’s also great for morning sickness. I wish I knew about it when I suffered with it during all 3 of my pregnancies. (And all the kids I had to ride the school bus with when I was younger would have appreciated it if we’d known about it, seeing that I frequently got violently ill on the school bus.)

    D. wrote on April 16th, 2013
  22. Just a warning for fellow Celiacs– I bought Yogi Kava Stress Relief only to find it includes barley malt. :-(

    Paleo-curious wrote on April 16th, 2013
  23. You know, the zen behind real tea (as any good Japanese or Chinese person will tell you), and a good part of its calming effect is taking the time to brew it properly!

    This means stopping your life for several minutes to measure out the proper leave amount, warm the water to the exact temperature needed (very few teas ACTUALLY want boiled water), savoring the aromas of the tea as it is brewing, and finally, slowly sipping and enjoying the liquid and NOT gulping it down. Done correctly, this can be very relaxing and satisfying. You take a few minutes to forget about your cares and worries and to concentrate on brewing your cup properly. And a properly brewed cup has more medical benefits than an over-boiled, scorched cup that overcooks the leaves and makes you lose a lot of the beneficial compounds anyway.

    Another random fact: For those looking to increase their intake of l-theanine without supplements, look for “shade grown” teas, particularly good examples are the shade grown gyuokuro and matcha (as Mark says, but not why) teas from Japan (as opposed to Japanese Sencha, grown completely in the sun most of the time). The shade growing causes the tea leaves to hoard as much chlorophyll as possible (so as to be able to still produce enough energy despite the shade). This also results in fewer antioxidants in the overall tea (sun-grown teas have more catechins by weight) but FAR more l-theanine which is the relaxing component. The only reason matcha outshines most teas for antioxidants is because you consume the whole leaf instead of just steeping it. If you ate sun grown tea leaves (and you can, the Chinese do it!), you’d likely beat even the illustrious matcha for catechin content.

    PS: Brewing a PROPER cuppa gyuokuro or matcha in the Japanese style is EXTREMELY difficult. Be prepared to ruin your first few cups. :D

    Drumroll wrote on April 16th, 2013
  24. My wife is a vegetarian and everything has to be natural . She has me off coffee and now drinking only green tea. And I’m sure if she reads this article I will have things floating in my tea too

    john wrote on April 18th, 2013
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  27. I know this is an old-ish post, but I thought I should point out – you shouldn’t add kava to HOT tea. I’ve read that water the temperature that tea is steeped at will break down most of kava’s active ingredients. Won’t hurt you, but it’s a huge waste of kava. XD

    If you get the dried shredded kava root instead of capsules, proper preparation is to squeeze it out of the root wrapped in cheesecloth in a bowl of water – no heat required. :)

    Adrian wrote on December 15th, 2013
  28. Lots of comments here.

    Having a nightly tea ritual is also a great way to sync the mind and the body.

    Having your cup of chamomile, or valerian root, or your choice of relaxational herb, and follow that with the same process every night eventually your mind will automatically go into “sleep” mode.

    Joe wrote on October 16th, 2014

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