By Ric Coggins
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Stress symptoms may be affecting your health, even though you might not realize it. You may think illness is to blame for that irritating headache, your frequent insomnia or your decreased productivity at work. But stress may actually be the cause.”
Even in conventional medicine, stress has been linked to such diseases as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and yes, even diabetes.
We also know that stress has a huge impact on our immune system’s ability to function. So it makes sense then that a number of other disorders which are immune-related can be directly linked to stress. Think of where you usually feel stress…in your gut, the center of the immune system. It makes sense then that stress can be responsible for a myriad of autoimmune disorders, including cancer.
Can you Change Stress Levels?
Since we really have little hope that we can eliminate stress or even minimize it for that matter, you will be happy to learn that while we think the malady is stress, it’s not. The real issue is our failure to deal with stress… and that IS something that we can definitely change.
In another age, stress was the body’s natural defense against predators and danger. It flushed the body with hormones to prepare its defense systems to evade or confront danger. We have all heard this called the “fight or flight” mechanism.
In stress’s original intent, the body produced larger quantities of chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline to trigger an increased heart rate, heightened muscle readiness, and enhanced alertness. All these factors improved our capability to respond to an acute, hazardous or challenging situation which usually came and passed quickly. With the danger soon gone, our systems returned to normal once we caught our breath.
For the most part today, our stressors are chronic. The “real” ones, like the job, the relationship, the finances and the kids, even PTSD lives here, too. Then there are the perceived stressors, no less real in the damage caused, but sometimes harder to define the source of. These can include chronic fear, self-doubt, or the other end of the spectrum—overconfidence and the pressure to always succeed.
With all of these things running constantly in the background of our psyche, we find our bodies constantly deluged with the “fight or flight” chemistry intended to be only used in spurts. This self-imposed hormonal drenching over time takes its toll in the form of many serious health maladies.
I have found there are a number of accessible, inexpensive and effective approaches to relieving stress. They tend to fall into categories of herbal, physical, energy and mental. You may find one better than another for your stress or even find a particular combination that’s particularly effective. I recommend you take some time to research and experiment on yourself. You may soon find yourself to be a different person.
While there are many herbs that can bring calm, without creating a drugged state, there are some that stand out in herbalism for reducing stress. I present these in no specific order of efficacy. One size does not fit all, and many of the best results come from the synergies of herbal combinations.
A great place to start (and perhaps end) is with ashwagandha. One of the most powerful herbs used in India, it has been highly revered in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Double-blind clinical studies show that those who took ashwagandha capsules experienced significant reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also developed higher resistance to stress, and the herb did not produce any serious side effects.
Usually, stress, lack of sleep and anxiety go hand in hand. If you’re dealing with all three, one of the best herbs for stress and anxiety is valerian root. The perennial flowering plant that grows mostly in Europe and Asia contains components that influence gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which reduces the activity of the amygdala and hippocampus of the brain. These two glands can increase your perception of threats and worsen your feelings of stress and anxiety.
Maca is another one of those herbs that can help make your life stress-free. It is a type of adaptogen, which means it allows your body to cope with the physiological and mental changes due to stress. In one animal study, mice that received maca experienced a reduction in corticosterone. It also boosted their production of noradrenaline and dopamine, a neurotransmitter that provides you with a natural high.
Stress is a serious root cause for people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a chronic pervasive type of anxiety that can be debilitating. It’s not the easiest mental health disorder to treat, but some herbs have shown significant efficacy. One of those natural herbs for stress and anxiety is kava root. Kava is a common crop in the Pacific Islands. Kava works similar to valerian root by working on enhancing the GABA pathway. The plant, however, is not hypnotic, so you can still function well.
Turmeric is one of the wonder herbs because of its long list of health benefits. While it’s best known for joint health, it’s also one of the best herbs for depression and stress, thanks to the active ingredient, curcumin. When a person is under chronic stress, it raises the risk of chronic inflammation. Picture it as the body on fire. Under the influence of this chronic inflammation, the body releases more cytokines, which are proteins that act as messengers for the immune system. Under normal circumstances these are beneficial; however, a lot of cytokines can result in a crisis. They can kill cells and damage tissues, as well as increasing the likelihood of depression-like behavior. A study published in Neuroscience revealed curcumin can work as an antagonist for this protein and repress inflammatory responses, particularly in the brain. So turmeric is not just for arthritis!
Another herb that can improve your life, making it more stress-free, is rhodiola. Also known as the arctic root, it usually grows in the colder regions of Asia and Europe, especially Russia. Rhodiola is another adaptogen, alleviating the feelings of stress and fatigue. In a 2017 study, participants who took at least 400 mg of the extract showed significant improvements in factors associated with stress and burnout. Even more surprising, these individuals developed a higher tolerance for stress even after only a week of consuming it.
One of the longest-standing herbs for stress relief is lemon balm. Its history as a medicinal herb goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Animal studies show that lemon balm can modulate both mood and cognitive function. It not only enhances a sense of well-being but also improves learning and memory. You can take it in different ways such as topical (on the skin) or capsule. You may also make it into a drink or morning smoothie.
While there are a number of patented pharmaceuticals designed to address stress and anxiety, simple lavender has been shown to equal or even exceed their results. For example, one of the clinical trials involving Silexan, an oral preparation of lavender oil, found that those who consumed it reduced their symptoms associated with GAD such as restlessness, agitation, and disturbed sleep. In another similar study comparing Silexan to the pharmaceutical lorazepam (also sold as Ativan) found those who consumed Silexan for a period of six weeks improved their symptoms in exactly the same way as those taking lorazepam, but without the long list of side effects.
Women who have reproductive issues may be less stress-free than those who don’t. Worse, there may be a link between stress and infertility. Stress can impact fertility, as it may lead to hormone imbalance. For instance, high levels of cortisol can inhibit the function of progesterone, the hormone that stimulates the production of luteinizing hormone that induces ovulation. One of the herbs you can try is chasteberry. A well-known medicinal plant since ancient times, it can improve libido. It also optimizes the levels of progesterone and even helps women deal with premenstrual discomfort.
Damiana is another herb used to relieve anxiety, nervousness and mild depression, especially if these symptoms have a sexual component. The herb is also used as a general tonic to improve wellness. As a general tonic it is said to act as a stimulant, improve circulation, and regulate hormonal activity. Some herbal practitioners also use it as a diuretic. Damiana tonic should be used moderately, and not be taken on a long-term basis. The active ingredient in damiana is a volatile oil having calming effect not unlike THC from cannabis.
And speaking of cannabis, my report would not be complete without discussing cannabis and stress relief. Recent studies show that cannabis does relieve stress, but only at low doses. Those receiving a low-dose capsule containing 7.5 milligrams of THC showed more stress relief than those receiving a moderate dose of 12.5 milligrams. Much more study is needed here, and this author recommends becoming thoroughly aware of the legalities of medical marijuana, as well as finding a practitioner with specialized experience in medicinal cannabis.
Many studies show that simply becoming more physically active will improve how one deals with stress. Any kind of physical activity works. Walking, biking, swimming, working out at a gym and jogging are great starts. Getting the heart pumping and the blood flowing has a very positive effect on the stress we accrue in an otherwise sedentary existence. Yoga can be classed as both physical and spiritual, for some obvious reasons. Overall, the goal with physical activity is to burn off the anxiety (and stress chemistry) with physical exertion.
By energy, I am referring to the varied aspects of Energy Medicine and its understanding of natural energy flows within the body. It is from these understandings that we get acupuncture and acupressure. While both of these necessarily require a trained practitioner, a new field has spun off of these general studies, called tapping. Tapping is an amazingly simple, self-administered method that involves tapping on points about the head, face, shoulders and chest while mentally focusing on areas that are causing us stress. As I was taught this technique, I learned to recite certain affirmations while at the same time tapping on pressure points known to enhance energy flow and release by stimulation. Once I overcame the awkwardness (to me) of reciting affirmations while tapping on my face, I found the whole process to be quite freeing and de-stressing. There’s is a lot of information about tapping on the internet and YouTube. Take a look. Try it.
By mental, I mean meditation. I could just as easily called this spiritual, not to imply that mental and spiritual are the same things, but in this area their circles clearly overlap. It’s a fine line (if at all) between prayer and meditation. The point here is to get outside of yourself. In doing so, you are able to find different vantages by which to view the stressors in your life. Sometimes the proper perspective can shrink things down to size… a size that we feel we are then not overwhelmed by and then not stressed by. One kind of meditation is to repeat a phrase that has meaning to you. One phrase I meditate on is a spiritual one, actually part of a prayer. It’s a bit of a mixed metaphor as it is a prayer prayed often by Christians, but I mull it over and over in Hebrew as it would have been uttered by its author.
“Avinu Sheba Shamayim Yeet Kadesh Shim Cha”
I meditate on the deep meaning to me of this phase and focus on something (someone) bigger than me.
You more likely recognize this as, “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”
You, of course, need to pick something of equally deep meaning to you, to close out the world and bleed off the stress.
We no longer live in the momentary fear of a tiger jumping out of the jungle, but our body, mind and soul have not kept up. With sincere effort, we can choose how we respond to the stress that we cannot eliminate. We will live longer and prosper more if we do.
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Ric Coggins is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who grew up on a one-acre garden tended by his father, who was a regular contributor to Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening and Farming magazines. Ric continues his father’s “green” traditions on a one-acre organic garden urban homestead in Mesa he calls The Fool on the Hill Farm.