It’s no secret that stress can be detrimental to your health but most of us really don’t know what to do about it! Since it’s not as simple as a push of a button to stop or reduce stress, what are we to do?
I was recently visiting a dermatologist with my husband to get to the bottom of his allergic reactions. And we were shocked to hear what the dermatologist linked the cause to, you guessed it: Stress!
After inquiring as to what can be done about it, the specialist recommended that he ‘[not] stress’ (easier said than done doc!).
Unfortunately, for most of us earthlings, the achievement of a state of zen is a life-long pursuit and the modern day lifestyle of busy schedules certainly does not help. Our minds are so occupied with endless thoughts and worries that even the very thought of stressing less is STRESSFUL!
Why does stress occur?
Let’s quickly breakdown what stress really is and how we can address besides just “wishing for it to go away”. The typical stress-response we experience is mediated through the hormone Cortisol. This is the same amazing hormone that helps wake you up every morning but it also contributes to a number of health problems including immune dysfunction, memory impairment, chronic fatigue, and central obesity when left unchecked. These latter effects are insidious and appear slowly over time completely under our radar.
To ensure that this hormone is in balance, there are a number of pro-active measures you can take. Lifestyle factors such as sleep, exercise, diet and relaxation practices are very effective. Nevertheless, when your stress is beyond what healthy habits can manage, other means of support may be required.
Amazingly, certain herbs understood by medical herbalists as adaptogens, have the ability to improve our bodies’ response to stressful events. The best way to understand adaptogens is to understand the process of studying them.
Researchers have developed what’s called a “stress test” in animal models where the animals’ ability to endure through one of these tests, with or without adaptogens is analyzed. Stress tests are a little tricky to perform on humans as there are myriad confounders that cannot be controlled for. In animal models, however, there is a clear observable and significant difference in the length of time the animals endure the stressful event before giving up when given adaptogenic herbs (1,2,3).
Think of these herbs as a sail that help propel you through the ups and downs of life.
Here are 5 adaptogens with centuries of traditional use as well as scientific evidence attesting to their adaptogenic nature to help you reduce Stress:
Ashwagandha – Great for those feeling ‘wired’ as a result of stress
With mounting stress, there’s usually an initial increase in energy and focus, however as stress continues and the body isn’t allowed to rest, it begins to suffer from anxiety, inability to focus and generalized weakness and even sleeplessness. This picture calls for the single most important herb in Ayurvedic Medicine -the chief medicine of India dating back thousands of years- Ashwagandha. Not only does it help improve memory and learning, sleep and fatigue, it helps keep the immune system in balance as stress often drives the immune system off keel.
Siberian Ginseng – Hailing from Siberia & great for physical stress
This is the herb of choice for those of us under physical stress –imagine a postal worker walking all day in the dead of winter or a construction worker in the heat of summer! Siberian Ginseng helps the body adapt to various kinds of stress and specifically stressors including heat, cold, exertion or sleep deprivation that cause a physical depletion. As well, Siberian Ginseng is extremely helpful in energy production as it allows the body to utilize fatty acids while improving the use of oxygen in working muscles helping to maintain activity for longer periods of time –i.e. physical resilience.
Rhodiola – Great for brain fog as a result of mental exertion
Also a native to Siberia, Rhodiola has similar indications as Siberian Ginseng in providing protection from mental and physical stress, toxins, and cold. Rhodiola however, has a much greater efficacy when it comes to mental strains. This adaptogen enables one to maintain focus and accuracy when performing mentally demanding tasks under stress while reducing burnout in those with fatigue; great for students during exam season or shift workers who require tip-top mental acuity despite fatigue.
Holy Basil – Great for stress resulting in low moods
With anti-stress effects similar to anti-depressants, this herb is best suited to those who feel a sense of despair and gloom when faced with challenges. As an adaptogenic herb, it also helps bring balance to the processes in the body most affected by stress aiding in digestion, lowering stress-related high blood pressure, regulating blood sugar, and strengthening immune functioning.
Licorice – Great for stress leading to fatigue & exhaustion
Chinese medicine has used Licorice as a remedy for strength and long life for thousands of years. Naturally many times sweeter than sugar, its medicinal constituents have the ability to strengthen bodies weakened from chronic unrelenting stress. Although caution should be taken with licorice as it can raise blood pressure, this effect is rarely seen as a result of the medicinal use of licorice as it is a great harmonizer bringing balance to a weakened body; large consumption of licorice root candy, however, has contributed to high blood pressure in those with a propensity for it.
Adaptogenic herbs are natures wonderful strength-building elixirs. Stress being a natural part of daily life is not in and of itself detrimental. But whether our body has the means to deal with these stressors is what may prove injurious. Moreover, since “not stressing” isn’t an option -as the switch that turns ‘stress’ ON is outside most people’s control- nature, in its ultimate wisdom has provided for those high-stress times. Adaptogens ensure our body has what it needs to get through stress with ease and in total health. Thus, continue in your practice of mindful living and use one (or a combination) of these herbs to give your coping strategies a boost.