5 Mind-Altering Plants That Can Boost Your Mood On Even The Roughest Days

Photo by Luca Di Lotti

If you've ever wanted to change your mental state to make colors more vibrant or boring situations a little more interesting, or you simply want to gain a new perspective—you're not alone. Herbalists have been concocting teas, salves, and tonics (that are perfectly legal, by the way) for thousands of years. That's why we've rounded up a sampling of mind-altering plants that you can take as tea, eat, or burn as incense to change your current mental state, all from the book Your Brain on Plants: Improve the Way You Think and Feel With Safe—and Proven—Medicinal Plants and Herbs.

All that said, we urge you to consult the book for dangers, contraindications (like pregnancy and certain existing medical conditions), interactions with your current medical regimen, and any other precautions when using plants as medicine, and be sure to talk to your doctor before taking anything new. Plants and herbs are real medicine and can interact with your body and your Western medicine.

1. Citrus fruits

Photo: @Foxys_forest_manufacture

With positive effects of citrus fruits on the brain already well-established, the discovery that some citrus species contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a potent mind-altering chemical, raises interesting questions about the feel-good effects of oranges and lemons. Neroli (bergamot flowers) and lemon are used in aromatherapy to reduce anxiety and insomnia. Many people remark on their uplifting effects, and some say the citrus oils induce highs (but not hallucinations).

The ancient Greeks believed that lemon leaves under the pillow induced sweet dreams, and the Spanish assign many medicinal uses to lemon. The large Indian fruit Citrus medica is given in Buddhist offerings. Grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi) originated in Barbados, where it was originally known as "forbidden fruit."

How to use it: Fresh fruit, juice, or tea made with sliced fruit (especially good with fresh ginger and turmeric, which may make the DMT more effective), marmalades, and use of the essential oils such as citrus spray, which must be diluted on the skin. There are no rules on the maximum dose of fruit and juices, only on the maximum amount of certain essential oils for skin or massage, as some are phototoxic, which means they can increase your skin's sensitivity to sunlight: bergamot (0.4 percent), lemon (2 percent), lime (0.7 percent), and grapefruit (4 percent).

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2. Frankincense

B. serrata is the most examined species, and massage with the essential oil (with bergamot and lavender) can reduce anxiety and depression. Frankincense shows some clinical cognitive-enhancing effects in rats. It's considered a safer anti-inflammatory than corticosteroids in clinical trials for osteoarthritis.

Frankincense is derived from the Old French franc encens, which means high-quality incense. It has been exported for thousands of years for use in Christian, Jewish, and other religious and spiritual gatherings—3,000-year-old frankincense was found in Tutankhamun's tomb, and the Catholic Church today is a major consumer. In ayurvedic medicine, it's called sallaki, and among its uses, those relating to the nervous system include stimulant, analgesic, and as a remedy for emotional, psychological problems, and nervous disorders.

How to take it: Capsules of resin or resin extract are commonly used by herbalists to treat their clients. Fresh or dried resin can be consumed and dried, burned, and inhaled as incense (using charcoal to help it burn). Frankincense essential oil is used in aromatherapy as well.

3. Mugwort

Photo: @SilviaJansen

Mugwort is famous for its presence in ancient Celtic rituals, and the very few records of Druid culture indicate ceremonial use. Also called wild wormwood or witches herb, in ancient Celtic rituals A. vulgaris was used to enhance spiritual states of mind, and in Saxon times it was one of the nine sacred herbs that were believed to protect against infection. Roman soldiers used to stuff their sandals with mugwort to help them march longer, implying more potent high effects. In China, mugwort has been valued for millennia and is the ingredient used in the alternative therapy moxibustion (where stimulation with heat from a stick of mugwort is used at acupuncture points).

It's said to promote vivid and pleasant dreams and also lucid dreams where you sleep but stay aware and change your dreams to suit yourself. Volunteers in our physic garden report that after weeding the mugwort bed they feel "spaced out" and relaxed. Mugwort moxibustion that uses acupuncture points has been studied and may be beneficial in hypertension.

How to use it: Tea, fresh (3 to 5 grams) or dried (2 to 3 grams) per 240 mL water 3 times daily (it can be bitter). A tincture is also commonly used. It can also be added to stir-fries.

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4. Wormwood

Wormwood is a plant more famous for its role in absinthe, the mind-altering "green fairy" liqueur popular with 19th-century artists, than for its ability to remove intestinal worms, which gives it its common name.

The legend of its mythical name is that, when water and absinthe mix, the green fairy (said to be lucidity of thought) is set free—dilution with water produces a whitish tinge. A symbol of sin in the Bible, wormwood was said to grow in the tracks of the serpent that crawled from the Garden of Eden. The ancient Egyptians considered it an aphrodisiac, and it's used in plant medicine today to uplift, as a restorative tonic for mental debility, and to calm nervous dispositions. The essential oil is widely used as a flavoring ingredient in liqueurs such as Pernod. Hallucinations experienced by absinthe drinkers, who notably included Van Gogh, were more probably due to the alcohol than the plant, which by itself is not now considered hallucinogenic. Effects vary from mildly sedative to inducing vivid, especially lucid, dreaming (it's in the same genus as mugwort).

Studies have focused on its controlled clinical efficacy on the gut (Crohn's) and in pain relief in arthritis.

How to use it: Leaves, fresh (4 to 6 g) or dried (2 to 3 g) per 240 mL water 3 times daily can be used to make a bitter-tasting tea. Also taken as a tincture or as absinthe liqueur (which traditionally also contains lemon balm and hyssop)—it's well worth making your own liqueur if you grow the plant.

5. Catnip

Photo: @OllgaP

This plant is loved by cats for its pleasure-inducing effects and also by some humans, who use it as a mild and safe uplift balm. It was once used by those too poor to afford tea from China, who insisted it gave as much pleasure and was much more wholesome. It's used in traditional medicine in Europe and Asia as a relaxant, to reduce nightmares, and for migraine pain. Mildly mind-altering, catnip brings a sense of well-being known as the mellows. Some people say they experience a mild buzz and occasional hallucination, described by some as similar to a shamanic state of mind.

Iranian catnip (N. menthoides) has been shown to relieve anxiety, depression, and memory impairment in controlled clinical trials.

How to use it: Tea of leaves and flowers, fresh (2 to 4 grams) or dried (1 to 2 grams) per 240 mL water three times daily are delicious. Leaf and flower also make a fine alcoholic spirit, can be burnt as a soothing and relaxing incense, and the essential oil inhaled over steam or in a room diffuser.

Excerpted from Your Brain on Plants: Improve the Way You Think and Feel With Safe—and Proven—Medicinal Plants and Herbs © Nicolette Perry and Elaine Perry, 2018. Reprinted by the permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. theexperimentpublishing.com

Want more brain-boosting goodness? Here's the recipe for the morning tonic this neurologist drinks every morning.

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