With busy schedules, demanding jobs and growing concerns about our world, most of us deal with at least some level of stress on a daily basis. This is bad news considering that stress contributes to some of our nation’s most prevalent and deadly chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Hormones released during the stress response can also interfere with sleep, age our cells and damage brain areas critical to memory formation.
Our bodies’ stress response is designed to jolt us into action to avoid physical harm. Something threatens our 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. But fortunately, by involving our higher brain functions, we have the ability to stress less.
Some of our best methods for stress reduction involve modifying our thinking and habits. Learn to watch yourself for signs of stress: clamped jaw, clenched fists, tight neck and shoulders, headache or stomach pain. Then try to calm yourself. One of the most immediately effective methods is to focus on the positive. Rather than stressing if you’re stuck in traffic on the way to work, 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. Then monitor your thoughts and body for signs of stress: Relax your tensed jaw and shoulders (you don’t need them to drive) and slow your breathing. Breath control is one of the most effective and ancient methods of controlling our fight-or-flight response. For millennia, practitioners from around the globe have prescribed breathing exercises to calm stress, and research confirms it works. Inhale for a slow count of four, hold for four, exhale for six, and repeat. Counting also distracts your mind from worried thoughts.
Outside of stressful moments, our general habits can also help control our bodies’ response to stress. Regular exercise is a proven stress reliever. Physical activity bumps up the production of endorphins, our brains’ feel-good neurotransmitters, and helps us forget the day’s irritations and concentrate on our body movements, according to the Mayo Clinic. Exercise methods that combine movement, meditation and breath control such as yoga, tai chi and qigong are particularly good for reducing psychological distress. Spending time in nature has also been proven effective in helping to soothe frayed nerves. And make sure to get proper nutrition and rest: Junk foods and sleep deprivation activate the stress response.
Despite our best efforts to stress less through good habits and awareness, sometimes stress gets the best of us. If this is the case for you, consider enhancing your sense of calm with adaptogens—medicinal plants that augment our 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 were shown to 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.
Adaptogens are considered tonic herbs, which means healthy, nonpregnant adults can safely take them long-term. All of the adaptogens listed in “Herbs for Stress” below are easy to find and take as extracts and tinctures—both single-plant extracts and combinations of several herbs. You can also consume many adaptogenic herbs as tea.
Note: Because adaptogens enhance immune system function, they shouldn’t be combined with immunosuppressant drugs. Although one exception may be chemotherapeutic drugs (because immunosuppression is an unintended side effect), always discuss use of herbs with your doctor if you are taking prescription medicines, or if you are pregnant or nursing.
Adapted with permission from The Herb Companion
Tonic herbs are adept at reducing the body’s stress response and are easy to find as standardized extracts and tinctures. Discuss use of any herbal medicine with your doctor if you are already on medication.
• Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): Calming and antidepressant
• Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng): Buffers stress response and enhances immune function, which helps protect against respiratory infections; may also help prevent cancer; reduces blood sugar, which may help oppose stress hormone-induced blood sugar elevations; American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has similar actions; consult your physician before using if you have diabetes
• Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): Buffers stress response and enhances immune function; can protect against respiratory infections and possibly cancer
• Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri): Calming and antidepressant; improves memory in older adults; also called brahmi
• Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Buffers stress response and enhances immune function; protects against respiratory infections and possibly cancer; reduces blood sugar, which may help oppose stress hormone-induced blood sugar elevations; formerly known as Siberian ginseng, but not a true ginseng; consult your physician before using if you have diabetes
• Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.): Relieves anxiety; long used as a heart tonic
• Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): Calming; may quiet heart palpitations
• Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): Used to improve cognitive function, reduce fatigue and for antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects; in study of people with stress-related fatigue, a concentrated root extract improved attention and concentration; also called roseroot
• Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis): Buffers stress response and enhances immune function
Plant essential oils can help calm our nervous systems when we breathe them in. Prime examples include lavender (Lavandula spp.), clary sage (Salvia sclarea), jasmine (Jasminum officinale), bergamot (Citrus bergamia) and neroli (Citrus aurantium). Choose a scent you find peaceful and, when you’re feeling stressed, add three to five drops of pure essential oil to a diffuser or a bowl of hot water. Or try putting five to 10 drops into bath water or adding 10 to 12 drops to an ounce of vegetable oil and massaging your skin.
Note: Be aware that bergamot can make skin more sensitive to the sun.
If stress interferes with a good night’s sleep, try valerian (Valeriana officinalis), hops (Humulus lupulus) or California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Tinctures act quickly and can help you get to sleep. If maintaining sleep is more of a problem, try encapsulated herbs.
Adrenal Health and Stress Response blends
Adrenal Support Tonic and Anxiety Soother Compound
Himalaya Herbal Healthcare
Mountain Rose Herbs
Adrenal Health capsules
Stress Advantage blend
individual herb extracts
At Ease blend
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