I'm certain we all felt stressed at some point in our lives for any reason such as a work load, having exams, undergoing trauma, injury or health issues, having relationships problems or money issues just naming a few. Stress comes in many forms whether we feel it consciously or subconsciously. A recent survey by Mental Health foundation has presented with 74% of UK population were felling stressed and unable to cope. Findings also stated this to be more prevalent in women and young adults. That's high and rather worrying outcome don't you think?
In medical terms stress is defined as "a physical, mental or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension." Often described as 21st century disease, stress can have internal or external causes. The most common stressors include physical, psychological, nutritional, chemical, environmental, and biological. In other terms, stressor is any factor or event which threatens our body's natural balance. We need stress in some degree as it's a natural response and defence mechanism of the body to protect us. When the body is under the stress it ignites a cascade of hormone releasing reactions promoting physiological changes. Stress responses are facilitated by two main neuroendocrine pathways: HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) and SAS (sympatho-adrenal system) with adrenal glands playing important role in both. Main stress hormone released by adrenal gland is cortisol and neither too much or too little cortisol is any good.
In general, there are three stages of stress reactions: alarm, resistance and exhaustion, also known as a general adaptation syndrome. Each stage has specific physiological manifestations. Alarm stage for instance reflects the immediate reaction to a stressor such as fight or flight reaction and body has usually enough energy to deal with stress. In resistance stage the body adapts to the stress and becomes resistant. If the stress becomes prolonged and persistent, the releasing hormones will cause array of unwanted effects leading to a various health problems respectively. At this stage of exhaustion the body is usually depleted of it's energy and has no ability to adapt. The exhaustion stage has been also classified as an adrenal fatigue in which adrenal glands are under functioning. Heath problems will then manifest in various presentations such as diabetes, weight gain, hypertension, forms of inflammation, insulin resistance, sex hormone imbalances, insomnia, anxiety or depression, low immunity, infections, fatigue, digestive issues, etc..
Type of herbs to administer in stress related conditions are primarily adaptogens. Luckily each herb has several medicinal properties so treatment can target specific manifestations depending on presenting symptoms or it's causes. What exactly are adaptogens? Adaptogenic herbs increase the resistance of the body to stress and aid adaptive responses of the body to achieve balance. Simply put, adaptogens help us to cope with stress more effectively by modifying the stress hormones release in the body occurring at each stage of the stress response as described above. Adaptogenic herbs are also referred to as general tonics and restorative herbs because of their ability to support organs involved in stress responses.
One of my favourite adaptogenic herbs for stress management are schizandra, liquorice, Siberian ginseng, ashwaganda, holy basil, astragalus, and rhodiola. Some herbs such as ginseng family and rhodiola are native to northern hemisphere growing in harsh conditions reflecting their own resistance as plants to surrounding environment.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) - tulsi, native to India and southeast Asia, adaptogen which modulates both neuroendocrine pathways by reducing adrenalin and cortisol production. Tulsi is very effective in autoimmune conditions or impaired immunity, stress induced gastric ulcers, lack of concentration, poor memory and mental fog. It's also very effective in reducing allergies such as animal dander, allergic rhinitis or hay-fever.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) - winter cherry, native to India and frequently used in Ayurveda for various conditions. Unlike other stimulating adaptogens Ashwaganda is calming adaptogen mostly used for thyroid issues, convalescence, autoimmune conditions, stress induced insomnia, neurosis, chronic fatigue syndrome,
immune deficiencies, or adjuvant treatment of iron-deficiency anaemia and cancer support.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) - native to Siberia and northern China, eleuthero is a mild adaptogen suitable for all ages. It helps to increase resistance to emotional or physical stress. It's been used to increase stamina and impaired cognitive function, and it has a great effect on stress induced hypertension or high cholesterol levels.
Schizandra berry (Schizandra chinensis) - climbing wine native to China, characteristic by five flavour fruit "wu-wei-zi." Schizandra is very effective in 'wet conditions' such as diarrhoea, excess sweating, chronic coughs, stress induced asthma with wheezing due to it's astringent actions. Other indications include insomnia, exhaustion, depression and anxiety induced palpitations or compromised liver function.
Clinical herbalists focus on overall picture of the health concerns and individual manifestations. It's like a puzzle being put together. Each organ systems are supported if the function is being compromised. Great advantage of adaptogenic herbs (and all other herbs) is that they possess secondary medicinal actions allowing personalised prescription to help the body regain optimal balance. Main aim is to remove the stressor causing imbalance but it's not always possible. Herbal support can at least modify and support our ability to cope with stress more effectively.
For this time, I wish you a beautiful Christmas and holiday season with your family and friends, and peaceful and stress free celebrations of the New Year of 2019! Let the New Year be positive, healthy and prosperous filled with happiness and love.
All the best, J.
Winston D. and Maimes S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Vermont: Healing Art Press.
Kuhn M. A. and Winston D. (2008). Herbal Therapy & Supplements: A scientific and traditional approach. 2ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.