Your body is amazing and has built in mechanisms to enable you to adapt to changes in the environment. Stress is an increase in pressure on the body due to challenges or threat, which in the short term, the body can adjust to. We tend to think of ourselves as being too stressed when we are under an abnormal amount of pressure or feel that we cannot cope with the demands being put upon us. Stress can be particularly harmful when it is prolonged, especially when we find ourselves unable to sufficiently relax and relieve the tension.
Stress can affect us both physically and emotionally and long-term stress is considered to play a part in the development of chronic illness. Stress can cause headaches (for help with migraines read our article here), muscular tension, sweating, digestive upset, heart palpitations and breathlessness. Long-term stress is implicated in a number of physical problems including irritable bowel syndrome, menstrual problems and high blood pressure, and can lower immunity making us more susceptible to infection. Many health conditions, such as skin conditions, worsen with stress.
The emotional and psychological effects of stress can be particularly distressing and negatively impact on quality of life. Stress can lead to fatigue and insomnia; affecting memory and the ability to concentrate, and can impair judgement. The effects on mood can be profound and can result in feelings of anxiety, irritability, panic and depression.
Stress is a very real and common problem, and can lead to physical and psychological illness. Ensuring that we care appropriately for our mental well being and managing the stress in our busy modern lives should be a fundamental part of our self-care.
There are a number of types of herbs used by herbalists that have actions to help with the emotional and psychological symptoms of stress. These include:
- nervine tonics (nervous tissue restoring) – they are traditionally considered to nourish and strengthen the nervous system and are of particular benefit where long-term stress has led to fatigue and exhaustion
- adaptogens – so called because of their ability to support the body’s mechanisms to adapt to stress
- adrenal tonics – help to potentiate cortisol (the hormone released by the adrenal glands to help though times of prolonged stress), reducing the burden on the adrenals
- relaxing herbs – help with anxiety
- thymoleptic (antidepressant) herbs – help with feelings of low mood.
A number of herbs may be prescribed by a herbalist to help with the range of physical symptoms that can occur.
Hypericum perfoliatum (St. Johns Wort) is a nervine tonic that helps to reduce anxiety and is commonly used to help with mild depression. St Johns Wort can interact with a number of pharmaceutical drugs, so check with a pharmacist or Medical Herbalist before using. Avena sativa (oat straw) is generally considered the best nervine tonic helping with fatigue and nervous depletion. Verbena officinalis (vervain) is similar to oat straw but with a slightly thymoleptic edge, helping with fatigue and low mood. Scutellaria lateriflora (skullcap) is another nervine tonic that helps with feelings of anxiety and is especially suited to stress that results from overwork. Withania somnifera (ashwaganda) is an Ayurvedic herb from India that is both nervine tonic and adaptogen and, as it’s name suggests, helps to calm and relax rather then stimulate.
Other adaptogens include Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng) and Panax ginseng (red ginseng) which help with fatigue; improving stamina and mental acuity. Schisandra chinensis (Wu Wu Zei) is a Chinese herb that improves stamina and helps to protect the liver (the organ which has to process all the hormones that the stress response produces).
The 2 main herbs for adrenal support are Glycyrhizza glabra (licorice), which potentiates (increases the effect of) cortisol and Rehmannia glutinosa (rehmannia). Licorice is contraindicated in cases of high blood pressure and should only be taken for short periods of time.
A number of herbs are excellent at calming and relaxing and can help with anxiety. Notable herbs include Lavandula officinalis (lavender), Melissa officinalis (lemon balm), Tilia spp (lime blossom) and Passiflora incarnata (passion flower). Lavender, lemon balm and passion flower are believed to reduce adrenaline. Lavender and lemon balm are also uplifting, so relax tension whilst lifting mood. Passion flower is very calming and helps with anxiety and panic, and is specific for insomnia marked by frequent waking through the night.
Relaxation can mean different things to different people. It is important to think about what activities you find both relaxing and enjoyable to help you build them into your lifestyle. Exercise plays an important part in managing stress, and some types of exercise such as walking (especially when in nature) or swimming can be especially useful. Some people find yoga and meditation helpful although for those with particularly busy or overactive minds ‘meditation in motion’ such as Tai Chi or Qi Gong may be preferable. Many activities such as singing, gardening, painting or dancing can all help us to unwind.
It is really important to pay attention to good diet when you are experiencing times of stress. Keeping blood sugars on an even keel is important so incorporate protein into each meal and replace refined carbohydrates with wholegrain (see our article on hypoglycaemia). Make sure you have plenty of essential fatty acids (nuts, seeds and oily fish) and eat plenty of fibre to support good digestion. As a general dietary rule aim for a rainbow diet of fruit and vegetables (as many colours as you can fit into your day!).
Sometimes B-complex vitamins can be useful during when stressed and you may want to consider a supplement. Magnesium is another important ‘stress’ nutrient and may help with anxiety and insomnia. Magnesium is found in leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. B vitamins are found in a range of foods, but it is important for vegans to supplement with vitamin B12, because this vitamin is only found in animal produce.
If you are feeling very anxious or experiencing heart palpitations then avoiding coffee and caffeine may help.
Increasingly, the microbiome (the natural balance of bacteria that live in the digestive tract) is being implicated in stress, anxiety and depression. Eating to maintain a good gut flora by including plenty of soluble fibre (found in root vegetables and grains such as oats) or taking a good probiotic will help here.