Temper Tamers
Five herbs to cool a hot head

By Maryann Hammers

Ever have one of those days when absolutely nothing goes right? The alarm doesn't go off, and in your haste to make it to work on time, you spill coffee on your new jacket. During your commute, some clown cuts you off and you miss your exit. You're late to your morning meeting, but just in time to hear that your pet project has been turned over to someone else.

If you were 3 years old, you'd throw a tantrum. Instead you bite your tongue, but your anger is brewing inside.

Uncontrolled rage not only creates chaos and conflict, it's also bad for your health. Many researchers have found that anger can cause headaches, stomachaches, and breathing difficulty. Fury boosts blood pressure and pulse rate, and it increases risk for heart attacks, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tracked 12,453 men and women from 1990 to 1998 and found that those who scored highest on either an anger or fatigue test were 42 percent more likely to have a heart attack or die of sudden cardiac death than those who scored lowest (Lancet, 2000, vol. 355, no. 9215).

In another study, researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that young men with anger-prone personalities have triple the risk of developing heart disease and heart attacks, even when there is no family history of heart disease (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2002, vol. 162, no. 8).

The best way to deal with your anger is to confront it in a controlled, composed, constructive way, rather than suppress it. As you attempt this, herbs can help.

Take Five
Anger and frustration are nothing new, and herbs have long been used to help people attain inner peace. Here are some simple, safe remedies to try next time the anger bug gets the best of you.

Oat straw (Avena sativa). Oat straw, the grass of the same oats that are in your morning bowl of oatmeal, contains anxiety-busting, mood-balancing nutrients, including vitamin B, chromium, and magnesium. Oat straw encourages a meditative state, says Susun Weed, director of the Wise Woman Center in the Catskills, near Woodstock, New York, and author of five books on herbal medicine, including New Menopausal Years, The Wise Woman Way: Alternative Approaches for Women 30-90 (Ash Tree Publishing, 2002). "When things are aggravating, and we feel powerless and frustrated, oat straw strengthens our nervous system," Weed says. "And it's as safe as oatmeal."

To prepare an oat-straw infusion, add about 1 quart of boiling water to about a cup (1 ounce by weight) of dried oat straw. Cover tightly and let the mixture steep for at least four hours, or overnight. Strain the liquid, and serve warm with honey, or over ice. "Drink a quart once or twice a week to nourish your nerves," Weed advises.

Motherwort ( Leonurus cardiaca). Motherwort, a common flowering plant and member of the mint family, has been used as a mild sedative for hundreds of years. "It's perfect for when you feel upset, weepy, or worried—and it's a tremendous ally for women dealing with PMS," says Weed. "It calms you without affecting your intellectual functions."

Weed says it's best taken as a tincture (a highly concentrated herbal extract). "Take 10 to 20 drops at the moment before you are about to burst. Within seconds, you'll feel like you are sitting in your mother's lap," she says. For a quick fix, carry a bottle of motherwort extract in your glove compartment, purse, or pocket. Do not take motherwort if you are pregnant.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Lemon balm, a lemon-scented member of the mint family, has been used throughout history to sedate mildly and to soothe feelings of anxiety and agitation. "It's an easy remedy for when you feel frustrated, powerless, and upset," Weed says.

To prepare, pour boiling water over the dried or fresh herb and let it steep. Add a generous spoonful of honey to sweeten the tea before drinking. "According to Chinese lore, the honey, with its sweetness, helps you 'regain your sweetness,'" says Weed.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Rage and frustration can tie your stomach in knots. Steven Ottariano, RPh, a Manchester, New Hampshire-based clinical herbal pharmacist and author of Medicinal Herbal Therapy: A Pharmacist's Viewpoint (Nicolin Fields Publishing, 1999), suggests drinking chamomile tea to relax your digestive system. "It's calming and soothing," he says, "and especially nice in winter."

A member of the daisy family, chamomile contains apigenin, an oil that has a relaxing effect, and bisabolol, which quiets the gastrointestinal tract. Those allergic to ragweed or other plants, however, may react poorly to chamomile. If you are taking central-nervous-system depressants, such as antihistamines, keep in mind that the herb has a mild tranquilizing quality.

Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). "When you're under stress and angry, your adrenals are working a thousand miles an hour," Ottariano says. "Ginseng smoothes out those highs and lows and calms down the nervous system." The herb helps the body adapt to stress and has been used for thousands of years to treat depression and decrease mood swings.

Ginseng is available in teas, capsules, tablets, and tinctures. In addition to American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), your natural products store may carry Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and a distant cousin known as Siberian (Russian) ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), though a new federal law stipulates that any product that claims to be ginseng and is not derived from genus Panax be removed from store shelves. "Panax and Siberian provide the same type of response, but the Asian variety is more expensive," Ottariano says. That's because a Panax ginseng crop can take up to seven years to grow to a root size ready to harvest, whereas Siberian ginseng can be harvested within one year.

Be cautious when taking ginseng. It can raise blood pressure, so if you have hypertension, check with a health care professional before taking the herb.

Path To Peace
Now that you've quelled your anger—perhaps with the help of herbs—you can constructively deal with what made you mad in the first place. The process may take time, but once you're free of destructive anger, you can lead a happy, peaceful, and fruitful life.

Maryann Hammers, former editor in chief of Spa magazine, writes about health and fitness. She lives in Westlake Village, California.