albizia flowers

Flowers of the Albizia julibrissen tree. Albizia flowers and bark have substantial antidepressant properties, on their own or in combination with CBD.

CBD is great!  But it isn’t the end-all, be-all.  For pain, sleep, and anxiety, there are other herbs and nutrients that combine well with it, and help it work.

In a quarter-century of natural medicine/retail, I’ve seen plenty of trends come and go.  But nothing like CBD.  With CBD – first, it really works! – and it’s not just the health food faddists, the weight loss hopefuls, and the longevity fanatics looking for it.  We’re seeing people who’ve never set foot in a health food store, let alone the vitamin section of a health food store, lining up for sleep, pain relief, and an end to anxiety.  And that’s great.  It’s always great when people connect with something that can improve their lives.

But as an old-school herbalist type, there’s a part of me that wants to say “yes, but…!”

Yes, but what about all the other herbs, the rest of the Materia Medica?  What about the richness and diversity of traditional medicine?  No matter how good CBD is, it’s not the end-all, be-all.

And what about the art and science of herbal formulation?  After all, the great herbal traditions rarely used single herbs.  They understood that formulas worked better and went deeper.  So, for example, a single herb may address anxiety.  But an herbal formula may address anxiety, along with secondary and contributing conditions such as blood pressure, fatigue, muscle tension, and indigestion.  You see what I mean.

Formulation is a complicated, nuanced topic.  This won’t be an article on formulation.  But it will suggest some herbs and nutrients that combine well with CBD.

SLEEP:

CBD is not a sedative: it does not make you drowsy or “force” you to sleep.  Instead it relaxes you.  So, I like to combine it with herbs that are either stronger, more direct sedatives, or nutrients that work in other complementary ways.     

Melatonin is a substance produced by the pineal gland, at the base of the brain, when light stops hitting our eyes.  It’s how the body synchronizes external rhythms of day and night with internal cycles of wake and sleep.  In other words, melatonin tells the body when it’s time to sleep.

Melatonin supplements are well-researched in sleep disorders, in both children and adults.  In my experience they’re inconsistent, i.e. they don’t work for everyone.  Maybe 6 out of 10 people…?  But when they do work, they’re about the cheapest thing at the health food store (10 cents a pill), and they not only help us get to sleep, but make sleep more restful physiologically.  This translates to immune benefits, and even (in theory) longevity.  A standard dose is 1-5 mg 30 minutes before bed.  I like the lower doses to start with.

Ashwagandha is an herb we used to call “Indian Ginseng” – at least before it became illegal to call anything “ginseng” that isn’t actually ginseng.  I know, I know, you’re thinking: “ginseng is for energy… why would this be relevant to sleep?”  Ginseng isn’t “for energy” as much as it’s for reducing the effects of stress.  And no other ginseng-class herb is better at tamping down high-energy, nervous stress than Ashwagandha.

I like to add ashwagandha to a sleep or stress protocol when there’s what I call “stress lag,” i.e. your stressful day is behind you, but you’re still high strung into the evening.  Or your stressful week is behind you, but you’re still exhausted into the weekend.  Since Ashwagandha does not make you sleepy, it’s usually good to take an hour or more before bed, to begin the process of relaxation.

Sedatives: Finally, sometimes CBD can be bolstered by a more direct knock-out.  Here, I look to herbs like Valerian, Woody Betony, and Wild Lettuce.  I find the “Serious Relaxer” blend from the Wish Garden company especially useful.

PAIN

Natural medicine has a plenty to offer for pain, but nothing that quite matches CBD.  That’s because CBD works directly on pain, vs. most other options that work indirectly by addressing the root causes of pain[1].  Those causes can include inflammation, nerve excitation, and spasm.  The problem is, not all pain is caused by one of these things.  Migraines, for example[2].  Or when you throw out your back.

Having said that, most pain we deal with is traceable to some identifiable root cause, so it makes sense to address that cause alongside the pain itself.

Turmeric and Boswellia are my two favorite anti-inflammatory herbs.  Either one is fine on its own – they both are well-researched and effective – but they’re even better together, since they work in parallel and complementary pathways to each other[3].  They both work quickly – within an hour or two.  So, like CBD, you can take more or less as needed.  As a third option, I’m hearing from more and more people that the herb Devil’s Claw can sometimes be fantastic.  I don’t have much experience with this one personally…

Fish oil omega-3s are also good solutions to inflammation over time.  A standard dose is 3,000 mg of omega-3s a day[4], usually for four or more weeks.

For pain due to injury, I’m a big fan of arnica.  Arnica is an herb which helps the body resolve physical trauma.  It doesn’t kill pain, and it’s not even an anti-inflammatory in the traditional sense.  What it appears to do is recruit the body’s immune system repair crews to a damaged area, so you speed up clearing out debris and repairing damage – and addressing what the Chinese might call blood stagnation.  So, when you’ve got a swollen ankle that won’t unswell – arnica.  You can use it both internally and topically.

For creaky, arthritic joints, I like to recommend nutrients that help maintain and repair the structural integrity of the eroding joint tissue.  These are supplements with names like glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, and hyaluronic acid.  You generally take these for a few weeks before they start to work, and for a few months before they plateau.  On the plus side, once they start working, you can usually take a few days or even weeks off.   And they tend to slow the rate at which a degenerative joint condition gets worse – and sometimes even improves it.

For pain from cramping, let me recommend two things: the mineral magnesium, and the herb cramp bark.  I like magnesium for leg cramps.  I suggest magnesium glycinate specifically.  It’s a very well-absorbing form, and less likely than other kinds of magnesium to cause digestive upset.  A standard dose is 400-800 mg a day in divided doses.  For menstrual cramps specifically, I like cramp bark.  Some women will use cramp bark tincture internally, and then apply a CBD lotion topically on the lower abdomen.

ANXIETY & MOOD

Anxiety can take many forms.

I mentioned Ashwagandha for sleep.  It’s equally useful here, not as a short-term fix but a long-term solution.  Not to reduce anxiety, but to reduce the physiological response to anxiety from the neck down.

l-Theanine is an amino acid originally isolated from green tea, sort of a naturally occurring counterweight to tea’s caffeine.  It’s pretty well researched, in adults and children, and quite safe.  It isn’t that different than CBD, to be honest.   Still, it’s something else to add.  A standard dose is 200 mg, one to three times a day.  It also exists in gummy form.

GABA is an amino acid that quiets the mind and stills mental chatter.  It’s not anti-anxiety, strictly speaking, but it’s great when your brain keeps on saying “what about this?  What about this?  What about this?  What about this?”  Especially if “this” is the same thing every time.  A standard dose is 500 mg, one to three times a day.

The Grief Relief Formula from David Winston’s Herbalist and Alchemist company is an old favorite.  It fits somewhere in between slow-working antidepressants and fast-working anti-anxiety formulas.  David speaks about it for pangs of grief and loss, and for “stagnant depression” – when the thing that’s making you sad is in the past, but you can’t move past it.  All that is true, but I also use it for high-strung, agitated depression.  It takes a few days to start working.  It lays down a nice baseline of improved mood on a weekly basis, and then you can layer the CBD on top as needed.

[1] Among our direct painkillers, white willow bark is decent, but weak.  Indian Pipe (a.k.a. “Ghost Plant”) is useful for severe pain, as it seems to “disconnect” a person from the sensation.

[2] For more on migraines, see http://debrasnaturalgourmet.com/migraine

[3] Turmeric is primarily a COX inhibitor.  Boswellia is primarily a LOX inhibitor.

[4] That’s not 3,000 mg of fish oil, but 3,000 mg of omega-3s from fish oil.  Sometimes you need 6,000 mg or more of fish oil to get there.  Read the labels carefully!