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December 4, 2018
Stress – the plague of the modern world. With so many demands on our time these days, from working to raising children, caring for parents and elders, and keeping up with the deluge of global information from countless media sources, coupled with our detachment from natural circadian rhythms thanks to electricity (it’s early morning, dark outside, and my children are sleeping while I write this so I know firsthand what I’m talking about!), it’s no wonder that stress is such a common word in our collective vocabulary.
Stress, in its most basic form, is an external influence that causes a reaction within us, be that physical, mental, or emotional, so that we can maintain equilibrium. Stress is generally considered to be a negative state but it can also be positive! Planning a wedding or a surprise birthday party for a loved one involves an element of stress that is often exciting rather than debilitating. Exercise puts stress on our muscles, joints, and cardiovascular system so that we become stronger, more flexible, and have greater endurance. Most people are familiar with the concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but there is also the lesser known Post-Traumatic growth in which a major stress (war, terrorism, incarceration) is the catalyst for positive change.
If we can accept that stress will always be there – sometimes mild, sometimes catastrophic, sometimes negative, sometimes positive, sometimes real, sometimes perceived, sometimes voluntary, and sometimes external – the strategy for physical and mental health then becomes to support our ability to respond to the stress on our system so that we are more powerful and resilient before the next event. The stress of physical activity becomes positive when we allow our bodies time to recover before repeating the exercise, while poor training can lead to injury instead of strength. Likewise, the goal is to help our selves to benefit from mental and emotional stress rather than be knocked down by it.
An Adaptogenic Herb
The class of herbs that can support our ability to grow stronger in the face of stress are the adaptogens, so called because they help us to adapt! A shining star that stands out in this category is red reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum – the “derma lucidum” part refers to its shiny skin). Reishi has health benefits that are wide-reaching in effect beyond supporting our stress response. It is antimicrobial against viruses, bacteria, and other fungi such as candida1. It is anti-inflammatory and supports the immune system as well as promoting heart, liver, and kidney health1. But the focus of Reishi for this discussion is its ability to enhance our ability to handle the curve balls of life.
Stress is perceived by the nervous system and the signal is transmitted to the command center of the brain (the hypothalamus), which in turn relays the message to the adrenal glands stimulating the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline). Targets for modulating the stress response, therefore, include the nervous system as well as the HPA or Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis.
Reishi covers all the bases. It is a nerve tonic to ease the alarm signal reaching the brain. In particular, reishi can alleviate insomnia2, particularly when the trouble sleeping comes from an active mind that won’t turn off. The same mental agitation that interferes with sleep at night triggers anxiety during waking hours, making reishi helpful around the clock.
Reishi also appears to work on the HPA by improving the function of the adrenal glands themselves. This makes reishi an excellent herb choice for calming the mind, easing anxiety, promoting sleep, grounding and centering us, and fostering greater resilience to stress over time.2
But is it Safe?
This marvelous mushroom is considered to be quite safe. Because reishi can improve blood sugar levels and lower high blood pressure there are possible drug interactions with diabetic and/or antihypertensive medications. There may be a dose-dependent effect of reishi on platelets with lower doses (1.5g/d) having no effect on platelets, while higher doses (3g/d) may affect platelets and clotting3. It is always advisable to discuss your medications and supplements with a knowledgeable health care provider.
Obviously, a known mushroom allergy would make reishi a poor choice, and there is some evidence of Reishi spores causing skin sensitivity or respiratory allergy3.
Reishi is not an edible mushroom (it feels like a mushroom carving made from glossy wood!) and must be processed to extract the medicinal actives within. Tinctures and capsules are both common delivery methods, and the appropriate dosage will depend on the method of production, the strength of the final product, and the needs of the individual. [The renowned herbalist David Winston recommends mycelial extracts of 500-1000mg taken 1-3 times per day]2.
One of the trickiest elements to treating someone who is either under a lot of stress to the point that they are suffering from anxiety or sleep issues, or someone who has endured prolonged stress and is now struggling with fatigue or “burn out” is that adding a pill or supplement regime to their already full plate may exacerbate the problem! Reishi mushroom powder is now showing up in beverages such as reishi coffee, and reishi tea, and hot chocolate (like this Botanica Reishi Hot Chocolate) so that people can get in a dose or two without changing much in their existing routine.
So whether you are feeling beaten down by life circumstances and need help climbing out of the gutter, or you’re heading into an exciting new stage of your life and want to be in top form to embrace every opportunity to the fullest, or you’re somewhere in the middle and just want to feel calmer and less stressed overall red reishi mushroom is an excellent choice! Not only can it help you to thrive rather than to merely survive but it can also enhance many aspects of your physical and mental health at the same time.