Lessen your Stress Herbal Allies for Healthy Living

Millions of Americans suffer from anxiety, insomnia and illnesses related to stress and its impact on the body. Recent studies attribute 85% of all disease to stress-related factors. Of course stress is not the only factor, heredity, diet and lifestyle play a huge role, but it is certainly a major contributor.

What is Stress? Stress is your body's way of responding to a perceived or actual threat to your life (force). There is more than one pattern of stress response in your body, but the most commonly discussed is the adrenaline stress pattern. With this pattern, the brain perceives a threat, and the pituitary gland sends a message to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline.

Adrenaline is a hormone that works through the sympathetic nervous system to trigger very fast and very dramatic changes in metabolism. Most of us have felt that adrenaline "rush" at some point, perhaps a close call with a car, or while bungee jumping. But along with the obvious changes, pounding heart, sweating, altered breathing patterns; there are more subtle changes to the body when this "fight-or-flight" mechanism is triggered. Blood sugar goes up to provide fast energy, the pupils dilate to allow better vision, the spleen shrinks to increase circulatory blood volume, blood pressure goes up. As certain systems in the body are amped up, others (such as the digestive, reproductive, and immune systems) deemed not necessary for surviving the next 15 minutes, start to slow down.

When this fight-or-flight mechanism is triggered, the expectation is that you really will fight, run away or die in the attempt. In either case, your body will use up the adrenaline and the sugar in the process, and leave you (if you have indeed survived the encounter) exhausted.

Ideally, your body will now switch into rest and recuperation mode. At this time all those suppressed metabolic functions will kick into gear again, blood pressure and sugar levels will return to normal, and you will begin to heal any injuries you have received. The adrenal glands require a recovery period after each time they are challenged. During this time the body is less able to respond to stress, the over-stimulated mechanisms are resistant to more stimulation, a person feels tired, listless and desires to rest. This is the function of a "good night's sleep."

However, if the stress is prolonged, the adrenal glands increase the production of several other hormones, especially cortisol. The role of cortisol is to help the body cope with stress and also protect it from excessive response to stress. It affects how we think and feel and has an effect on every tissue, organ, and gland of the body. . In our modern world, our constant "pedal to the metal" lifestyles leave little room for adequate recovery; our stress mechanisms are kept constantly functioning at their maximum capacity, often by using stimulants, such as coffee. colas, and sweets, to keep going.

One problem is that the body responds the same to stress no matter what the source. Problems at work, unemployment, striving to achieve, relationship tension, fear, lack of relaxation or adequate sleep, over exertion or lack of exercise, smoking, poor eating habits or eating junk food, drug and alcohol abuse, infections, allergies, pollution, drinking poor quality water, noise, severe emotional trauma, or major surgery. Even positive events, i.e., marriage, a new baby, a promotion, or graduation can also be sources of stress.

All stresses are additive and cumulative whether or not you recognize them as stresses. The intensity of each stress and the frequency with which it occurs, plus the length of time it is present, all combine to form your total stress load. Each person has a different capacity to handle the total stress load. The result of all of this can be what is called adrenal fatigue. A person may have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Coffee and other stimulants no longer work to perk them up. They suffer from frequent colds, allergies and other illnesses because their immune response is suppressed. They may also have anxiety, depression, increased difficulty concentrating, poor memory, insomnia, decreased tolerance for frustration, and energy so low they have trouble getting through the day. They can tolerate mild but not severe stresses.

Eventually, our body starts to break down. A few examples; for someone with a family history of insulin resistance, that constantly elevated blood sugar can lead to diabetes, for a smoker, high blood pressure can become chronic. Constantly suppressed immune function can make us more susceptible to disease, including cancer. Suppressed digestive function can lead to constipation, chronic reflux, ulcers, and other digestive tract diseases. Lowered reproductive function can lead to a host of hormonal imbalances and problems with fertility.

So what is a person supposed to do?

Recovery from adrenal stress or fatigue requires awareness of your stress triggers and a commitment to lifestyle changes of various kinds. To balance the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system, you can nourish and support your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the body's rest and repair mechanism. It is most concerned with promoting normal digestion and elimination and conserving body energy, especially by decreasing demands on the cardiovascular system. This system is most active when the body is at rest and not threatened in any way, it is stimulated through activities like yoga, meditation, prayer, spiritual practice, moderate exercise and deep breathing.

One approach to recovery is the use of herbs specifically known as "adaptogens". These help the body adapt to or resist the physiological effects of stress. They may do this by mitigating the pituitary-adrenal response - i.e. your body doesn't perceive so much stress. Some adaptogenic herbs nourish the adrenal glands so they don't get so fatigued, or they may work to support and strengthen the organs, glands, and immune defense systems of our bodies. The effects exerted by these adaptogenic herbs upon our human physiology have been studied and used for centuries in China and India. These herbs are considered tonics and are safe for use over long periods of time. Some of these herbs are: Holy basil, Astragalus root, Siberian Ginseng, both American Ginseng and Asian Ginsengs, Burdock, Gotu Kola, Licorice; and shelf mushrooms such as Maitake, Shitake, and Reishi. A second herbal approach to stress is through the use of the plant group called 'nervines' to nourish, tonify and relax the nervous system. Tonifying herbs work well in small frequent doses over a longer period of time. These herbs are rich in calcium, silica and other essential vitamins and minerals to promote a healthy resilient nervous system. Some of theses are; alfalfa, burdock, chamomile, horsetail, nettles, oats, red clover and St. Johns Wort.

Of particular note is oats, which increases strength of body, mind, and spirit and has been used by both men and woman in cases of sexual debility, seemingly, getting us `out of our heads and into our bodies'.

Other herbs that lend themselves to the repair of nervous system stress through their relaxing and calming effect are Skullcap, Passion Flower, Kava Kava, and Hops. Skullcap relaxes nerve tension, eases insomnia, and calms cravings for substances. Together with oats it can ease withdrawal symptoms and support the retraining of the craving for stimulants, which can overload and strain both the nerves and adrenal glands. Passion Flowers popularity stems from the fact that it tends to relaxation without drowsiness, unlike some other nervines. Another common anti-anxiety herb that has been traditional used in Polynesia for centuries is Kava Kava. It is used to ease social anxiety and is used to relax both mind and body without causing drowsiness. If that `good night sleep' is illusive, particularly if it is due to a nervous stomach, Hops can provide both a calming drowsiness as well as assisting to stimulate and redefine effective stomach function.

In addition to the adaptogenic and nervine herbs mentioned above, there are also a variety of herbs that support the healthy functioning of the body's systems (immune, circulatory, digestive, etc.) which in turn supports our ability to deal with stress. Consult with your local herbalist or knowledgeable health care practitioner on the proper and safe use of herbs.

We live in a stressful world at a stressful time. We can support ourselves and our loved ones by deciding to relax and de-stress. Through self-reflection, lifestyle and dietary shifts and the use of some of our plant allies, we can find better health, and more energy to put into manifesting our dreams.

We wish you happy, healthy, and less stressful living.

- The Silver City Herb Guild

For more information about herbs and stress, upcoming classes and events sponsored by the Silver City Herb Guild and current legislature effecting the future availability of herbal medicines visit our web site at:

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