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Stress Less with Adaptogens and Other Natural Remedies

Use improved habits and herbal remedies to reduce your stress load and become happier and healthier.

| September/October 2012

  • Spending time in nature has been proven to help relieve stress.
    Photo By iStock

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.

Natural Stress Relievers

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.

Adaptogens: Herbs for Stress

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.

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