There are many reasons to avoid drinking alcohol.
Sure, drinking may help you relax, fall asleep, or be more social and friendly—but there are downsides too. You can become dependent on alcohol and increasingly “drink your troubles away.” Alcohol in excess can harm your health—especially your liver.
Alcohol can also harm your looks, prematurely aging you, and provide unnecessary calories. And of course, alcohol’s dangers when you are driving are well-known.
Luckily, there are herbs that can help you relax when you feel you need a drink. The three below are not believed to be habit-forming and are believed safe, although you should read the labels carefully and consult a trained health practitioner if you have questions.
Anyone who likes to drink will not be surprised to learn that hops have tranquilizing properties. After all, hops are a major component in beer making.
Their sedative properties are attributed to alpha acids, similar to those found in non-alcoholic beer. However, don’t expect hops to smell nice—they have a rather unpleasant smell.
Hops work very quickly, within minutes, and some recommend hops for panic attacks or extreme anxiety. Hops also leave your body quickly—said to have a “short half-life”—again, like alcohol.
You can find hops in most health and natural food stores. Capsules of hops powder are not expensive and widely regarded as safe. In fact, hops used to be recommended in family herbals for sleep and nervous conditions.
An old folk medicine recommendation for a good night’s sleep was to put a sachet hops under your pillow.
This yellow powder, which has the pleasant smell and taste of maple syrup, has been called an aphrodisiac and is actually a component in over-the-counter male sex enhancement drugs.
In a test of eight herbs used in Danish folk remedies for anxiety and depression, fenugreek was found to be the most effective.
Fenugreek is not habit forming but also not fast acting. In fact, you need to take it for several days before it takes effect and levels build up in your body.
Fenugreek is widely used as an ingredient in cooking, especially Indian cuisine, and some studies have explored fenugreek’s positive affect on glycemic control, insulin resistance, and diabetes.
Fenugreek is widely regarded as safe but its relaxing properties may also make you sleepy or unable to focus mentally, so use caution when first using it.
The herb skullcap may take a couple hours’ time to work and unlike alcohol or hops, does not produce noticeable relaxation. However, skullcap is widely reported to be an exceptional sleep aid and is sometimes added to multi-ingredient sleep aids.
Studies of botanical treatments for anxiety have confirmed its effectiveness for reducing anxiety. According to one study, skullcap targeted the same receptors of benzodiazepines.
Skullcap is a staple in Chinese medicine, used to treat allergies, infections, inflammation, cancer, and headaches, and may positively affect insulin.
Skullcap is said to not leave people feeling groggy upon waking or to cause them to oversleep as prescription sleep drugs do.
One woman who took it reported she actually woke up earlier than normal, but felt rested after a good night’s sleep. Note however, that skullcap may not be as safe as hops or fenugreek. “Skullcap has been implicated in rare instances of clinically apparent liver injury, according to a government write-up. Check with your health care professional before using.
Martha Rosenberg is author of the award-cited food exposé “Born with a Junk Food Deficiency,” distributed by Random House. A nationally known muckraker, she has lectured at the university and medical school level and appeared on radio and television.