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Mood Altering Herbs - Plants as Spirit Medicine

Mood Altering Herbs - Plants as Spirit Medicine

Plants have a long history of use as spirit medicine. From extreme journeys of the soul, such as Ayuhuasca to commonplace rituals such as a soothing cup of chamomile tea. With the recently increasing popularity of “botanical biohacking”, adaptogens, ancient tonic herbs, nootropics and anxiolytics long used by traditional medicine systems and natural health practitioners are making their way into the lives of increasing numbers of people, as their ability to significantly elevate the spirit becomes more widely known.

It should be noted that one of the reasons we have receptors for most of these mood-altering compounds is that our body has the capacity to produce them endogenously. Cannabinoids are one such example.

It should also be noted that when exposed to a substance in high doses or over a long period of time the neuro-receptors in the body may down regulate. So it is important to cycle certain herbs.

I believe that sometimes these plants can serve as simply a prompt to the body to re-cognize a state of bliss and balance.

All Adaptogenic herbs are also essentially mood regulators.. as by improving our ability to adapt to stress, we maintain healthy neuro-endocrine balance which ensures healthy mood regulation. 

The biochemistry of emotion is complex and multifaceted... and I suspect we only understand the tip of the iceberg in regard to what makes us feel the way we do, and the effects of mood altering substances on our consciousness. That said, here are some of the most important compounds we know of that affect our mental, emotional (and spiritual) states. And subsequently, some of the most effective plants for uplifting the soul.

Dopamine – "the reward molecule"

Responsible for desire and motivation, pleasure and reward. Low levels are linked to addictive behavior, depression, fatigue, mood swings, low sex drive, difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness. Too much can cause aggression, hyper-sexuality and schizophrenia.

Serotonin – "the happy molecule"

Is the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Known for increasing focus, memory, pleasure, and overall mood improvement, it governs emotions, sleep, appetite, memory, learning and perceptions, sexual desire and function, temperature regulation, and some social behaviour.

GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) - "the off switch"

An amino acid that functions as the bodies primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. It reduces neuronal excitability by inhibiting nerve transmission, like an "off" signal for our nervous system. (Glutamate could be likened to the "on switch", and once again, dysregulation can result in mental & emotional imbalances).

Oxytocin - "the bonding molecule"

Released during long hugs and kisses, skin-to-skin contact and after crying, this magic molecule also stimulates contractions during labour. Motherwort is a beautiful oxytocic herb, we call it a "hug in a bottle".

PEA (phenylethylamine) – “the love molecule”

Technically a neuromodulator rather than a neurotransmitter, it is thought to act in unison with dopamine and norepinephrine to promote feelings of attraction, excitement and nervousness and is associated with the initial euphoria of falling in love. PEA acts as an anti-depressant by increasing free-circulating levels of dopamine.

Anandamide (N-arachidonoylethanolamide) – “the bliss molecule”

Also produced endogenously, it binds to cannabinoid receptors. Anandamide is a messenger molecule that plays a role in pain, depression, appetite, memory, mood, and bestows a blissful feeling.

DMT (dimethyltryptamine) – “the spirit molecule”

Little is known about this substance except that it is found throughout nature, (not only in many plants, but also in trace amounts in the human body where its natural function is undetermined). It is a potent psychedelic when taken in high enough doses and many people attribute it to intensely spiritual experiences.

MAOIs (monamine oxidase inhibitors) – work by keeping monoamine feel good neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, DMT and P.E.A) circulating (preventing their removal by the enzyme monoamine oxidase) they make more of these brain chemicals available to effect changes in both cells and circuits that are impacted by depression. [1]

Endorphins - A group of peptide hormones, released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in response to pain or stress, endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. They also create a general feeling of well-being.

The name of these hormones comes from the term "endogenous morphine", they are the bodies natural opiates.

Ginkgo, Chamomile & Kava as well as certain nutrients, have all been shown to boost endorphin levels. As well as exercise, sunlight, acts of kindness, laughter, music, dancing, massage, acupuncture, meditation, sex, spicy food and a good cry.

Adrenalin & Noradrenalin (also called Epinephrine & Norepinephrine) - belonging to a class of compounds known as catecholamines, these are neurotransmitters that also serve as hormones. They govern blood sugar levels, heart rate & contractility.

Adrenalin prepares the body for "fight or flight" (sympathetic) nervous system response.

Too much or too little Noradrenalin can cause depression, anxiety and addiction. A surge of norepinephrine can cause feelings of happiness and euphoria. However, it can also lead to panic attacks, high blood pressure, and hyperactivity. Too little noradrenalin can cause lethargy, fatigue, lack of focus & depression.

Aldosterone - Also governed (in part) by the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, and thus dysregulated by prolonged stress, this mineralocorticoid steroid hormone plays a central role in maintaining healthy blood pressure and fluid balance in the body. It has also been reported to influence mood, appetite and exploratory behavior.

Cortisol - critical for healthy stress response, when levels become chronically elevated it can result in many symptoms including anxiety, depression, adrenal fatigue, suppressed immunity and hormone imbalance. Low levels may also cause physiological disturbance.

Herbs which support the adrenals (eg. Licorice, Ashwagandha, Tulsi, Rhodiola, Schisandra & Eleuthero) will all help regulate stress hormone levels.


And the plants that affect them…


MUCUNA  one of the only naturally occurring (and certainly most concentrated) sources of L-dopa (the precursor to dompamine). Mucuna extract has been shown to increase not only dopamine concentrations, but also other neurotransmitters that affect mood, such as serotonin and norepinephrine too. It also contains DMT.

REISHI – Significantly elevates mood and sense of wellbeing by protecting dopaminergic neuron degeneration (demonstrated in clinical trials).


HE SHOU WU – Research has found that of all herbs, he shou wu is one of the greatest inhibitors of MAO activity. Which in turn allows for a greater amount of dopamine and other feel good neurotransmitters to be available in our system.


RHODIOLA - Induces feelings of relaxation and decreases anxiety by stimulating the release of endorphins and reducing cortisol levels significantly. It also stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin as well as increasing the sensitivity of neurons to these neurotransmitters.

In animal studies, Rhodiola has also been shown to help repair damaged neurons in the hippocampus, a region of the brain considered to be the center for emotion, memory and the autonomic nervous system regulation. [2]

In a 2007 study published in the "Nordic Journal of Psychiatry", it was found to significantly reduce depression in patients with mild to moderate depression. 

Please note some people have idiosyncratic reactions to this herb and find it too stimulating. In this case a lower dosage may be suitable, sometimes a substitute may be needed.


SCHISANDRA - has been found to reduce stress hormone cortisol levels in the body and is effective in controlling changes in serotonin and adrenaline caused by stress. This adaptogenic berry also fights the adrenal fatigue that is linked to high stress levels. 


ASHWAGANDHA - helps protect the body against chronic stress by supporting the adrenals over time. It had also been found to help significantly with insomniaanxiety and depression. [3]


SHATAVARI - Shatavari stimulates and balances the production of happy hormones; endorphins, serotonin and dopamine - meaning it can greatly reduce mood swings, irritablility and menopause induced depression.


GOTU KOLA - Reduces anxiety, possibly through interacting with the relaxation-promoting neurotransmitter GABA, and has been demonstrated to increase levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in rat brains. It also lowers cortisol.

ROSE – Although there a few if any clinical studies on the effects of Rose on mood, it is used traditionally in Ayurveda to soothe hot emotions such as anger and soften the heart.


TULSI - Tulsi has been shown to prevent stress-induced changes in blood levels of cortisol.[4]  It works on both the sympathetic and parasympathetic sides of the autonomic nervous system by first acting as a stimulant and then a relaxant, has been used successfully in the treatment of Generalised Anxiety Disorder[5] and has proven as effective as pharmaceutical antidepressant desipramine.[6]

GINKGO - The active compounds (including kaempferol) in Ginkgo are potent monoamine oxidase inhibitors[7] and so regulate the amount of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain. As we age MAO levels increase causing dopamine levels to fall. Research has shown that inhibition of this enzyme preserves brain function by protecting dopamine.


LIQUORICE - is known to have 8 different anti-depressant compounds (all different MAOIs) Another compound, glycyrrhizin, breaks down cortisol, the stress hormone, enabling the body to deal with stress more efficiently.


PASSIONFLOWER - the alkaloids chrysin and benzoflavone present in this herb have been found to increase GABA (gamma amino-butyric acid) in the brain. GABA is one of the chief inhibitory neurotransmitters, used by the brain to prevent over-excitement and attain balance. It also helps to decrease the activity of depression inducing brain cells.

This list is by no means exhaustive.


As a final note… I believe part of the beauty of the human experience is the range and depth of emotions we are capable of experiencing, and usually there are lessons in them.. so called negative and positive emotions are 2 sides of the same coin and we often find that the presence of one carves out space for a deeper experience of the other. People who have felt deep grief and sorrow often find they ultimately have a greater capacity to experience joy and develop an inherent kindness that comes with a profound understanding of the condition of the human heart.

So we can view herbs as our allies, in balancing our biochemistry and tending to our energetic health, especially in the often stressful world we live in. However it can be dangerous to seek only the pleasant in life.. our emotions provide contrast and richness, and can be useful guides in showing us what needs to be attended to in our inner world. Outdated beliefs, unhealthy ways of relating or to show us where we’re not being true to ourselves. And sometimes acceptance and non-judgemental witnessing is all that is required to dissipate the pain of intense, seemingly negative emotions.

We use these plants to fortify our bodies.. both physically and energetically. To soothe anxiety or lift the fog of depression, to provide assistance in regulating physiological functions or remind our body what a flood of serotonin or dopamine feels like, when it seems to have forgotten. And hopefully, we trigger an internal mechanism whereby balance is more easily found, and we discover (or rediscover) just how good we are designed to feel. 


We have a huge range of professionally formulated nutrient and herb complexes designed to address specific imbalances or support you through challenging times. Please reach out via email or visit us in-store and one of our excellent practitioners will assist you in finding the best combination for you. With love, as always. NP x

SHOP >> mood & mind health here


[1] Sabelli, Hector C.; Borison, Richard L.; Diamond, Bruce I.; Havdala, Henri S.; Narasimhachari, Nedathur (1978). "Phenylethylamine and brain function". Biochemical Pharmacology. 
[2] PubMed “Herbal Medicine for Anxiety, Depression and Insomnia”
Lei Liu, Changhong Liu, Yicun Wang, Pu Wang, Yuxin Li, and  Bingjin Li
[3] Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
“An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)”
Morgan A. Pratte, BS,1,,2 Kaushal B. Nanavati, MD,1 Virginia Young, MLS,3 and  Christopher P. Morley, PhD
[4] PubMed “Effect of Ocimum sanctum Linn on noise induced changes in plasma corticosterone level.”
Sembulingam K, Sembulingam P, Namasivayam A.
[5] PubMed “Controlled programmed trial of Ocimum sanctum leaf on generalized anxiety disorders.”
Bhattacharyya D, Sur TK, Jana U, Debnath PK.
[6] PubMed “Effect of Ocimum sanctum roots extract on swimming performance in mice.”
Maity TK1, Mandal SC, Saha BP, Pal M.
[7] PubMed “Identification of kaempferol as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor and potential Neuroprotectant in extracts of Ginkgo biloba leaves.”
Sloley BD, Urichuk LJ, Morley P, Durkin J, Shan JJ, Pang PK, Coutts RT.