Stress kills. If you think this sounds extreme, listen up. Stress really does contribute to the chronic diseases that ultimately kill so many Americans, such as heart disease and diabetes. Hormones released during the stress response also interfere with sleep, damage brain areas critical to memory formation and age our cells.
Of course, stress isn’t all bad. Without change, life would be bland and boring as a blank, white wall. The trick is learning how to handle stress.
The stress response is automatic, allowing our bodies to jolt into action to avoid physical harm. Something threatens your physical, emotional, social or financial well-being and—boom—primitive brain areas jump-start the fight-or-flight response. The problem is that our stress responses are designed to help us flee a hungry lion, not manage our psychological reactions to modern problems. The good news is that we can involve higher brain areas, which have the ability to call off the alarm.
Stress Solutions: Natural Stress Relievers
Reassessing the situation in a positive light is your best tool against out-of-control stress. Though it’s easier said than done, you can learn to watch yourself for signs of stress—the clamped jaw, clenched fists, tight neck and shoulders, headache, stomach pain—then calm yourself. Stuck in traffic on your way to an important meeting? Ask yourself whether flooding your body with adrenaline will get you there faster. Is your life in danger? What can you do to soothe yourself?
Ideally, your response is not to take a deep drag on a cigarette, gobble a donut, chug an espresso, yell at fellow commuters or toss back a shot of alcohol (especially since you are driving in this scenario). The sad truth is we often use these maladaptive coping mechanisms, which only amplify the damaging effects of stress. But we can all learn to optimize our skills.
In the traffic scenario, instead of worrying about the uncontrollable (the state of the roads), focus on what you can do. Take a concrete action: In this case, you can call ahead and warn your colleagues that you are unavoidably detained, and give them an update. As you wait, monitor your thoughts for useless negativism. Instead, look on the bright side. (“Traffic may be bad, but I now have time listen to this interesting piece on NPR.”) While you’re at it, relax your jaw and shoulders. You don’t need them to drive.
Breathing Exercises Help
You can also try out ancient anti-stress remedies. To subdue the fight-or-flight response, take slow deep breaths. For millennia, practitioners from around the globe have prescribed breathing exercises. Research confirms that it works. Inhale for a slow count of four, hold for four, exhale for six, repeat. Counting also distracts your mind from worried thoughts.
Meditation Techniques for Stress
Repetition of a mantra or a prayer is another time-honored method. If you don’t have a favorite mantra, try “om” or “All is well.” Say it aloud or silently. Another method is mindfulness meditation, which involves deliberate, focused attention to the present moment. You notice your thoughts, the feelings in your body, and the sights, smells, textures, tastes and sounds in your environment. Numerous studies show that meditation helps people manage stress, improves sleep and keeps the stress hormone cortisol in check.
Yoga for Balance
Yoga, tai chi and qigong combine movement, meditation and breathing exercises; all help reduce psychological distress. Physical exercise is a great outlet for frustration. Regular exercisers report feeling less stressed. Reaching out to friends activates anti-stress hormones. Spending time in nature soothes frayed nerves. Because junk foods and sleep deprivation activate the stress response, it’s important to eat nourishing foods and get enough sleep.
Adapt to Herbs for Stress
Nevertheless, sometimes our positive thoughts and behaviors aren’t enough, especially when big challenges tax our resources—running a marathon, convalescing from illness or injury, meeting a big work deadline. Mental and physical fatigue set in.
In such cases, traditional healers have long relied on adaptogens, medicinal plants that augment resistance to physical, psychological and chemical stress. During taxing times, these herbs counter mental and physical fatigue, as well as the potentially damaging effects of chronic stress.
Recent research shows that adaptogens work at the molecular and cellular level to combat stress. In lab studies, they block stress-induced suppression of brain-protective growth factors, help restore the stress hormone cortisol to normal levels and protect against ailments associated with chronic stress.
Many of the commonly used adaptogens come from the East. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners have long valued Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). This last herb, formerly known as Siberian ginseng, is not a true ginseng, though it belongs to the same plant family. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has similar actions to its Asian botanical cousin.
Not only do these herbs buffer the stress response, they also enhance immune function—a good thing, since chronic stress undermines the immune system. Extracts of ginseng, eleuthero and astragalus can protect against respiratory infections and possibly cancer. Ginseng and eleuthero reduce blood sugar, which may oppose elevations induced by stress hormones.
Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, also boasts adaptogenic herbs. Examples include bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Both are also calming and antidepressant. Furthermore, recent research suggests bacopa (also called brahmi) improves memory in older adults. That’s comforting news, considering the detrimental effect chronic stress has on memory.
Another herb that has caught on in the United States is rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), also called roseroot because of the fragrance from the cut roots and rhizomes. This succulent grows in Arctic regions of Asia, Europe and North America. Rumor has it that ancient Scandinavian peoples such as the Vikings chewed the root for endurance and strength. Scientists in the former Soviet Union took a keen interest in the herb. That research has continued in Russia, Sweden and elsewhere. Extracts improve cognitive function, reduce fatigue, and have antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects. In a study of people with stress-related fatigue, a concentrated root extract significantly improved attention and concentration and reduced symptoms of stress burnout and morning cortisol levels.
How to Take Adaptogenic Herbs
Adaptogens are considered tonic herbs. By definition, that means healthy, non-pregnant adults can safely take them long-term. If you’re being treated for diabetes, consult your doctor before using eleuthero, Asian ginseng or American ginseng, all of which can lower blood sugar levels. Because many adaptogens also enhance immune system function, they shouldn’t be combined with immunosuppressant drugs. An exception is chemotherapeutic drugs, in which case immunosuppression is an unintended side effect. Even then, it’s important to discuss your use of herbs with your doctor.
The part used for most adaptogens is the root, the exceptions being schisandra berries and bacopa leaves. You can find them all as standardized extracts and tinctures, both single-plant extracts and combinations of several adaptogenic herbs.
You can also consume adaptogenic herbs as tea. Schisandra berries excite all five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, astringent and salty. For a sour candy experience, pop one in your mouth. When brewing tea from roots, use the decoction method. Bring 4 cups water and 4 tablespoons dried, chopped root to a boil, turn down the heat, simmer for a good 40 minutes, strain and drink. When making brothy soups, add 2 to 4 sliced astragalus roots and remove before serving. Their mild taste plays well with other seasonings.
Calming Herbs for Stress
Nervines are another category of herbs that comes in useful during stressful times. If stress is making you anxious by day, consider sipping an herbal tea made from chamomile (Matricaria recutita), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) or lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Because skullcap is a bit bitter, you might want to combine it with the much-tastier lemon balm. You can also take it as a tincture.
Stress is hard on the heart. Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is calming and quiets heart palpitations. The somewhat bitter leaves can be taken as tincture. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) has long been used as a heart tonic. Extracts of the leaves, flowers and berries also unwind anxiety.
Plant essential oils also calm our nervous system. Prime examples include lavender (Lavandula spp.), clary sage (Salvia sclarea), jasmine (Jasminum officinale), bergamot (Citrus bergamia) and neroli (Citrus aurantium). Your choice depends upon your olfactory preferences. Choose a scent that evokes peaceful times, say, a Hawaiian vacation. When you’re feeling stressed, you can add three to five drops to a diffuser or a bowl of hot water. Topical uses include five to 10 drops in bath water or 10 to 12 drops diluted into an ounce of vegetable oil and massaged into your skin.
Note: Be aware that bergamot can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.
Herbal Sleep Aids
If stress interferes with a good night’s sleep, try valerian (Valeriana officinalis), hops (Humulus lupulus) or California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Tinctures, which act quickly, can help you get to sleep. If maintaining sleep is more of a problem, try encapsulated herbs. (For more stress relief, try this recipe for stress-relief tea.)
Fuel your Body
Because good nutrition fuels body and mind during stressful times, nutrient-packed herbs such as nettles (Urtica dioica) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) should be everyday staples. Consume tea from the dried leaves. During the spring and early summer, you can add spring dandelion leaves to salads. Gently sauté fresh nettle and dandelion greens. Wear gloves to pick nettles, otherwise known as stinging nettles. You don’t want to add to your stress. Once the leaves wilt, they no longer sting.
As you eat your herbaceous foods, sip your teas and perfume your living spaces, remember to breathe and feel grateful for these plant allies.
Try These Natural Stress Relievers
Stress Advantage by New Chapter, $34.95.
At Ease by Redd Remedies, $27.99.
Adaptra by EuroPharma, $33.95.
AdaptoStress3 Energy by Reserveage Organics, $24.99.
Linda B. White, M.D., works as a freelance writer and teaches about herbal medicine and other subjects in the Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Like most Americans, she’s no stranger to the ill effects of stress. She’s thankful for the herbs that help her weather occasional storms.