Case studies from an herbalists notebook: Herbal remedies to counteract the long-term effects of stress and depression.
One year ago, a 47-year-old woman named Sara came into the clinic seeking help for bouts of depression. She had tried many different pharmaceuticals, but none of them had worked. She felt fatigued much of the time and occasionally nervous, even anxious, especially when she lay down to sleep. She was thin and her eyes darted around the room. Her tongue had a bright red tip, indicating to me that her sympathetic nervous system was overexcited. Her pulse was weak, yet fast, at ninety-two beats per minute.
During our thirties and forties, we often begin feeling the accumulated effects of stress. Over time, stress can heavily tax our nervous and hormonal systems and cause physical discomfort. We may turn to caffeine drinks such as coffee, tea, and colas; refined sugar products such as candy and ice cream; and drinks and foods that contain both caffeine and sugar, such as chocolate, in an effort to relieve stress. But adding these stimulants to daily stress can contribute to muscle tension, nervousness, and anxiety—none of which is very pleasant. In some cases, a health-care provider may prescribe a powerful drug, such as Valium, Prozac, or Zoloft, to help counteract stress. But if our desire is to create lasting emotional, mental, and physical health, I have found that diet, exercise, and herbal and nutritional supplements offer more healthful, long-lasting ways to overcome the negative impacts of stress.
For Sara, I diagnosed “kidney yin deficiency with heart fire” which, in Chinese medicine, means that stress and worry had weakened her ability to produce a sufficient quantity of some important hormones and to regulate their action. The result was that Sara had dysfunctional nervous and hormonal systems, which had left her fatigued, depressed, and anxiety-ridden.
To correct Sara’s imbalance, I recommended the following program:
• A diet that includes as many whole foods as possible, including lightly steamed or stir-fried vegetables in season; moderate levels of fresh fruits in season; well-cooked beans, nuts, and seeds; deep sea fish (tuna, salmon, snapper, halibut); organic chicken and turkey, and other protein sources, limiting servings of organic red meat to one or two a week.
• A diet free of refined sugar products, alcoholic beverages, stimulants, and drugs of any kind, except prescription drugs for severe pain or life-threatening ailments.
• Daily practice of yoga, stretching, tai chi, qi gong, meditation, prayer, visualization, or a combination of two or more of these.
• Finally, I suggested that she take St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) to help with depression; scientific research is showing that this herb is an effective antidepressant with fewer side effects than synthetic antidepressants. (Side effects can include increased sensitivity to ultraviolet light and potentially adverse interactions with some psychoactive medications.) I also suggested California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)or valerian (Valeriana officinalis) extracts to help reduce nervousness and anxiety. Excessive use of valerian can lead to headaches or a feeling of nervousness in some people; consult an herbalist for more information.
After three months on this program, Sara decided to reduce by half the amount of drugs she was taking. After nine months, she stopped using them altogether. Her energy levels today are much improved and her creative juices are flowing. She hikes in the woods every week, dances regularly, and once again has the energy to take part in many of her favorite activities.
To develop your program for defeating depression, I suggest that you see a professional who is trained in natural healing.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his nearly thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board member and licensed acupuncturist.
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