Stress is an intangible but ever-present component of modern daily life. A little stress is good, it gets us up and moving to finish a task, but too much stress can be debilitating, for the physical, emotional and spiritual body. In this article, we look at five herbs that can help the body to cope with stress… just a little bit better.
So what is stress?
When I ask most people about stress, they will begin by divulging the causes of stress in their lives: money, family, work and so on. But if we simplify stress, we could say that there are physical stresses and emotional stresses. Physical stress could be staying up all night or running a marathon. Our body reacts to these physical ‘stressors’ by launching a primitive survival mechanism that involves shutting down all non-vital bodily functions (such as digestion) and producing stress hormones, which are tiny chemical messengers in the body. These stress hormones enable us to get through the stressful task, they help us to stay alert and for a short period of time help us to achieve what we need to accomplish the task. This response is commonly called a fight or flight response and was once essential for the survival of man.
Most people these days however tend to experience emotional stress. While there may be many physical stressors in their life (shuttling kids to school, juggling work and late nights), much of the stress that I see in the clinic today is caused by emotional stress and a perception of stress. Emotional stress activates the same hormones and mechanisms in the body as physical stress and ongoing physical or emotional stress is known to contribute to myriad long term health issues.
How can herbs help with stress?
Although lifestyle management and changing your perception of stress are the main tools for managing stress, Mother Nature has provided us with some great herbs for keeping the body in balance. Herbs that help with stress management are generally classified by herbalists as adaptogen herbs. These types of herbs often help to nourish the endocrine system or hormone-regulating system, especially the adrenal glands, which are the glands that produce stress hormones. Often these adaptogen herbs are also whole body tonics, restoring normal physiological functions to the whole body.
Five herbs to help with stress
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)* is possibly one of the best-known herbs for helping to restore normal function to the adrenal glands. Quite unlike the black chewy licorice that you buy from the supermarket, licorice (or liquorice) is the root of a plant in the pea family. The natural sweetness of licorice makes it a perfect addition to herbal teas, with the added benefit of also helping with the digestive tract and satisfying sweet cravings.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) root has been used for generations in its native Russia and Scandinavia for endurance, stamina, as a tonic and as a remedy for altitude sickness. The delicate rose-like fragrance of Rhodiola makes it a nice addition to herbal teas for improving work productivity and resistance to stress.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root is an Ayurvedic herb that is used traditionally as a rejuvenative and tonic for the whole body. Modern usage of ashwagandha is for debilitation or nervous exhaustion, especially after a period of stress. Although traditionally used as a powdered herb, ashwagandha root also makes a nice tea with rhodiola and other nutritive herbs.
Gynostemma (Gynostemma pentaphylum) is another adaptogen herb with a long history of use in traditional cultures. Known in some parts of southern China as the immortality herb, Gynostemma is ideal for relieving fatigue, increasing endurance and also for regulating blood sugars. The natural sweetness of this herb make it easy to use as a daily tea, the whole leaf can also be added to foods.
Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) or Tulsi is revered in Ayurvedic medicine for immune conditions, but modern applications of this ancient herb emphasise the benefit of resistance to stress. Used for general debility and recovery after infection, Holy Basil makes a delicious tea that is refreshing and uplifting.
Using herbal teas instead of stimulants such as coffee or sugar can help to reduce stress response and over time, practices such as meditation, regular exercise and healthy food choices can help to keep stress from impacting your overall wellbeing.
* Licorice is contraindicated during pregnancy, those with hypertension, hypokalemia or cirrhosis of the liver – consult your Herbalist before using.