By Katya Difani, Herbalist and Founder of Herban Wellness and Friend of Simple Intentions
We all experience stress. How we experience, recognize, and address it (or not), is very individual to each of us.
However, there are some common ways that stress can affect the body. One of the most common reasons people come into a shop like mine seeking herbal remedies is for stress. My first question is always, what does that mean to you? How do you experience stress? Because, for most people, when they recognize themselves as “being stressed” it’s due to a sense of feeling overwhelmed, a description of anxiety, trouble quieting their mind, and/or shoulder and neck tension.
Rarely does anyone recognize long-term symptoms of stress, such as fatigue, trouble sleeping, low immune function (frequently getting colds or flus) as “being stressed.” Surely their body does! And the reason is that when we are responding to stressors such as a high work load with impending deadlines, tension in relationships, trying to fulfill many obligations, believing we should be able to “do it all” and say “yes” to everything, etc. it stimulates the “fight or flight response” in our body.
Basically, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland in the brain, which releases hormones that travel through the body and bind the adrenal glands (which sit atop the kidneys), and then signals them to release epinephrine and norepinephrine to respond to the stressor, activating the body into action. Cortisol is also often released in larger than “normal” amounts, as it is the long-term stress hormone (among its many other necessary functions). Anyway, not to get too involved in the physiology, the take-home is that the adrenal gland stimulation is meant to occur, but the theory goes that evolutionarily speaking, we should respond to a short-term stressor, then relax.
If we are continually producing stress hormones, this can cause all sorts of imbalances over time, including fatigue, increased inflammation, and a weakened immune system. Also, our nervous system gets called into high alert in response to these stimulating stress hormones, so it can make it harder for our bodies to relax and “unwind” at the end of the day, exacerbating the problem and leading to many of the common symptoms people associate with being stressed.
How herbs can help.
One of my favorite things about herbal medicine, and why I was drawn to it in the first place, is that there are a plethora of plants (made up of their many plant compounds) that can help support our bodies acutely and preventively. There are herbs that can help our bodies adapt better to stress that were coined as “adaptogens” in the 1970’s by Russian scientists, because of how they can prevent long term effects of stressors on the body, and how they can help our bodies recover from long-term or acute stress after the fact. When taken 2-3 times daily on a consistent basis (as a capsule, tincture, powder, or tea) for a month or more, these herbs such as Eleuthero (aka Siberian ginseng), Schisandra, and Ashwaganda, can help restore that Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis function, and nourish the adrenal glands which have often been depleted because of overuse.
Many people notice increased and sustained energy throughout the day, better ability to fight infection, better sleep, and increased endurance (and much of this has been born out in clinical studies as well).
I like to combine these herbs with “nervines”, which calm and nourish the nervous system. Some of my favorite herbs include Lemon balm, Holy basil (aka Tulsi), and Passionflower for daytime or evening use. Many of the nervines can help with symptoms of being “stressed out” by helping ease feelings of anxiety and tension, as well as helping to promote more restful sleep, with herbs such as Valerian root, Skullcap, and California poppy for a more sedating effect.
Ideally, we would nourish and support our bodies while undergoing periods of stress in our lives. This is an act of self-care that requires awareness. Along with utilizing stress-relieving techniques in daily life, herbal medicines can be another useful tool for managing, preventing, and recovering from the impacts of short-term and long-term stress on our bodies.