Herbs for Calm and Focus

Ease feelings of stress and anxiety and create clarity with common culinary spices that support mental health and well-being.

Oftentimes, interacting with the world around us can send us into a tailspin as our nervous system reacts and responds to all the input. It’s a rare person who doesn’t feel they need a bit of help managing a busy life and routine stress, and staying above-water when things get difficult. These days, most of us need all the help we can get! Spices are invaluable tools to help bring ourselves back into balance.

Illustration of person surrounded by herbs and spices.
Illustration © Andie Hanna

Spices may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to achieving clarity and focus, but you might be surprised to learn how these flavorful additions to food can impact mental health and well-being. More and more, we are coming to recognize that certain mental health conditions are intimately connected with systemic inflammation — this is one way spices might fit into the picture. Additionally, there are a number of spices, such as rosemary, that have direct and acknowledged cognitive and neuroprotective effects.

Based on contemporary medical literature and a long history of healing traditions, intentionally using spices on a regular basis in your food can have significant effects on overall mental health, wellness, and disease prevention. This doesn’t mean the use of spices can replace or supersede medications, but using nourishing, food-based spices that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may play a significant role in an overall path to wellness. The addition of spices to household meals can be invaluable for families with patterns of depression or anxiety.

One interesting mechanism we are continuing to learn about is the connection between the gut and the brain, often referred to as the gut-brain axis. Most people know that our brains can affect our guts. We know that when we are scared or upset it can create negative reactions in our stomach and gastrointestinal tract. We know that chronic stress can change bowel function and even result in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, not everyone is aware of how the health of our gut and gastrointestinal tract can impact our mental health. Inflammatory bowel conditions, or even acute episodes of gut imbalance, can have a profound effect on mental health and well-being. Using spices and herbs to calm and soothe digestion is a useful way of addressing mental health and well-being when the gut seems to be involved.

Photo of lavender, dried basil, and rosemary on a white tray.
Photo © Michael Piazza


Lavandula angustifolia

There have been numerous studies in support of lavender extract having a positive effect on calming the nervous system. One study examined use of Lavandula angustifolia essential oil by women with demanding full-time jobs and the subjects reported improvements in sleep and quality of life. Moreover, subjects who used an essential oil blend of lavender, clary sage, and sweet marjoram had a significantly greater improvement in both measurable outcomes, suggesting a synergistic effect. Research on essential oil doesn’t directly point to dietary application, but given the compelling evidence in aromatherapy, adding a small amount of lavender to your spice blends or desserts may have some benefit.


Rosmarinus officinalis

To support memory and overall cognitive function, adding rosemary to your diet is an excellent step. Its strong flavor, especially when fresh, is versatile, and an average cooking dose of even a half-teaspoon has notable medicinal benefits. Studies have shown that just a low dose of rosemary supports memory function. In one study, older adults (with a mean age of 75 years) received four different doses of Rosmarinus officinalis. The lowest dose (750 mg), a dose comparable to normal culinary consumption, significantly improved memory speed, while the highest dose (6,000 mg) impaired memory speed. Rosemary’s essential oil also can be beneficial. It has been shown in one study to significantly enhance memory performance and alertness compared to lavender essential oil or placebo.


Ocimum sanctum

Holy basil is an adaptogen — a medicinal plant that supports the body’s resilience against the impacts of stress. Adaptogens are some of the most widely used medicinal plants today, given our busy lifestyles and the levels of stress so many people experience. In one study examining the use of holy basil in treating patients with generalized anxiety disorder, patients were administered 500 mg of Ocimum sanctum extract twice daily. By the end of the trial the patients’ anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms had been significantly reduced. A 500 mg dose of holy basil extract, in this case, is about the same as you’d get in a typical food preparation, like eating a few leaves on a pizza or a tablespoon of pesto. In another study looking at the effects of holy basil on cognitive health, healthy adult participants were administered 300 mg capsules of holy basil leaf extract for 30 days. A number of cognitive improvements were noted, including fewer errors made while completing tasks and a reduction in the effects of cortisol stress levels. It’s exciting to realize that one of the best adaptogens is so easy and delicious to add to our food on a daily basis.

Excerpted and adapted from Spice Apothecary © Bevin Clare.

Bevin Clare

About the Author

Bevin Clare is the author of Spice Apothecary. She is a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist, a professor of clinical herbalism at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, and the president of the American Herbalists Guild. She has studied herbal medicine around the world and travels globally to teach about herbal medicine and nutrition. Clare finds spices to be central to the food and medicine practices of her family, with whom she lives in Maryland. Find her online at http://www.bevinclare.com.

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