California Poppy Extract May Be the Mood-Booster You Need

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Liz deSousa

In a time when many of us are searching for ways to relax without hitting the (home) bar, there is no shortage of herbal supplements, beverages, and drink mixes claiming to relieve anxiety, deepen sleep, and improve mood available. One of these, California poppy extract, is not new to market but has seen a rise in usage in assorted products in the past year. Previously sold predominantly as a liquid extract to promote sleep, this herb is now sold in juice shots, capsules, teas, and powder forms, too. Is there merit to the claims that poppy extract can help your emotional state and overall wellness? After trying the So Good So You sleep shots and experiencing a surprising level of bliss, I wanted to find out. 

California Poppy Extract Is Not Related to Opium

When a person hears “poppy” and “relaxation” together in the same sentence, it’s not a huge leap to wonder if California poppy extract is similar to, or a close relative of, the opium poppy plant. It isn’t, so you can rest assured that we are definitely not recommending you brew up a cup of addictive drugs. The two plants are distant cousins, and the California version contains no opioids. 

The History of California Poppy Usage

In surprise news to no one, this plant is yet another entry in the enormous catalogue of natural medicines of traditional cultures. As the state flower of California since 1890, it’s a native wildflower to the West Coast and has historically been used by tribal nations within California as both food and medicine. Says the Sierra Club of poppy extract’s historic usage in traditional medicine by Native Americans, “Indigenous peoples used the California poppy to treat various illnesses such as toothaches, headaches, sores, to kill lice and as a sedative for babies." They also note that, a bit more recently but still prior to its mainstream usage, “In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and friends fall asleep in a field of poppies, a reference to their real-life sedative properties that Native Americans knew and used as medicine.” 

It’s common for a native medicinal to take time to work its way into mainstream culture. Acupuncture, Ayurvedic plants such as turmeric and ginger, and yoga are just a few examples of traditional tools that have been adopted by Westerners in recent years. As a wildflower that is easily cultivated, California poppy extract is a natural fit in this ever growing space. It’s inexpensive and readily available, and like most other supplements are not regulated as a drug. 

The Anxiolytic Effects

The technical term for something that relieves anxiety, natural sources of anxiolytics have skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade as more people look for alternatives to pharmaceuticals for a problem that affects nearly 20% of the American population. Similar to inositol, California poppy extract holds up to study as a supplement that can calm and reduce anxiety.  One study that looked at its effects on mice in situations of duress notes that California poppy extract “appeared to also have an anxiolytic action since it produced an increase of the number of steps climbed by mice in the staircase test (anticonflict effect) and that of the time spent by animals in the lit box when they were confronted with the light/dark choice situation.” It also mentions the safety of the plant, stating, “Before evaluation of the behavioural effects, it was verified that our aqueous extract did not induce any toxic effect when administered.” When used for anxiety, the dosage is a fraction of that used for sleep. 

The Analgesic Properties

The word for an ingredient or drug that inhibits pain, analgesics range in strength from over the counter aspirin to more serious prescription medications. California poppy extract, used in native cultures for troubles like toothaches and headaches, has been proven to be a viable alternative to some chemical analgesics. In the book “Botanical Medicine For Women’s Health,” authors Aviva Romm, Mary L. Hardy, and Simon Mills mention, “In vitro and animal studies have demonstrated spasmolytic effects on smooth muscle.A combination formula containing California poppy (80%) and Corydalis (20%) extracts demonstrated in vitro ability to interact with opiate receptors, suggesting an analgesic activity.”  

It Assists With Opium Addiction Treatment

Due to its ability to bind with opiate receptors, the flower has been studied for its ability to assist with opium addiction treatment. Patients addicted to prescription narcotics such as Oxycodone have been able to successfully get past their addiction through the usage of California poppy tincture. Additionally, in one study those patients experienced a reduction in the pain that they were using the opiate drugs to alleviate, and were able to also get off of other medications that were less successful in combating their opiate addictions, such as low dose Naltrexone. 

It Promotes Sleep

Neurotransmitter GABA plays an important role in people’s ability to sleep by slowing down our nervous systems and calming our brains and bodies. California poppy extract acts as a sleep aid through its interaction with GABA receptors, and is particularly useful for people dealing with chronic pain who experience insomnia as a result of it. Unlike more serious medications for sleep, when studied “the herb had no antihistaminic effects which have been associated with sedative effects of some drugs.” The dosage for poppy extract for sleep is higher than for other sought after affects like reducing anxiety or depression. 

The Antidepressant Effect

Because it contains chemicals that impact our bodies serotonin levels and production abilities, California poppy extract may be useful in an antidepressant capacity. One study found that two of the alkaloids in the plant, protopine and allocryptopine, “block human serotonin and noradrenaline transporters (hSERT and NERT) and possess antidepressant-like effects on animal models.” 

The Interactions and Cautions

As should be clear based on all the empirical data, California poppy extract has strong potential to treat a variety of conditions. Because of that potential, though, one needs to exercise serious caution if they are already using other means of dealing with those issues. Due to its similar behavior as antidepressant medications, you’ll want to avoid this flower if you take MAO or SSRI inhibitors. The same goes for anxiety and sleep medications; if you use pharmaceuticals to manage either one, California poppy extract should be avoided. This natural tool is best suited for people who aren’t currently utilizing Western medicine for depression, anxiety, or severe pain. 

In terms of usage for younger ones, California poppy extract has historically been given to children as young as babies without issue for problems like teething or insomnia. Of course, it’s always best to consult with your practitioner before trying anything new for you or for your child, and to discuss treatment courses with them. 

The Bottom Line

The warm and fuzzy effects of that “sleep” juice shot weren’t an aberration or placebo effect; California poppy extract has remarkable properties for improving sleep, reducing anxiety, lifting moods, and lowering pain. If you’d like to try it--which you should only do if you don’t use pharmaceuticals for those issues--it’s available in numerous ways, and easy to find online. Alone as an extract or tea it has a bitter taste, which is useful for digestion but not ideal for many people’s palates, so you may enjoy it more if you dilute it in water or mix it with more palatable liquids. 

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