Throughout history, people have searched for ways to relieve stress. Some methods are healthy, such as gathering with friends and family, meditation, or ritual. Other de-stressors can have negative consequences when used in excess—think cocktails, drugs, or midnight ice cream binges
While they don’t take the place of great social support, herbs are a wonderful, natural way to help the body and mind cope with stress. Whether your stress shows up as muscle tension, circling thoughts, digestive upset, or a racing heartbeat, there is a traditional herbal remedy to soothe the reaction.
Understanding Stress Reactions
The body has certain built-in mechanisms for recognizing and reacting to stressors. The sympathetic and parasympathetic
nervous systems are two sides of a coin: they work together, ideally, to keep you in balance.
The sympathetic nervous system ramps things up: gets your heart racing, narrows your vision, shuts down digestion releases sugar and adrenaline into the bloodstream—it’s a rush! And it empowers you to deal with danger, such as a sabre-tooth tiger. Our ancestors, when under attack, had to either fight the tiger or run away. The body is magnificently prepared to do one or the other: it’s known as the “fight or flight response.” A third option is to play dead. What’s your reaction of choice or habit?
The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite, allowing your body to “rest and digest” or “feed and breed.” It calms things down, brings blood flow to the gut to fully digest our food, and allows us to revel in safety and joy.
Without any sympathetic nervous system action, we’d never get out of bed. A healthy stress reaction is a good thing! And, the body’s extreme stress reactions are meant to be short-term, or acute: Deal with the saber-tooth tiger, get over it, and get on with the good stuff. In modern life, many of us experience unhealthy stress reactions: long-term or chronic situations. For example, if you’re in an intensely pressured job situation for months or perhaps years, your stress reactions are no longer helpful. You cannot fight, or run away, or play dead. When the sympathetic stress reaction is chronic, it can lead to inflammation, weight gain, and depletion of the adrenal glands. That’s where herbs can help.
Matching Plants and People
People have been using plants for health for as long as there have been people and plants. Plants contain multiple complex chemicals, called constituents, that affect our bodies by connecting with specific receptors on cell membranes. Caffeine, for example, is a constituent found in coffee beans and tea leaves.
Our bodies’ interactions with plants are more complex than with synthesized drugs, due to the wide range of constituents in each plant. For example, chamomile calms the mind and supports digestion. When it comes to managing stress, not every herb is perfect for every person. Here are some starting guidelines:
Are you a hot, fiery, “fighter” type? In that case, warming herbs may not be the best choice for you (i.e., cayenne pepper); choose something cooling and soothing instead.
Is flight your reaction?
Are you always on the lookout for danger? You may do best with grounding, nourishing herbs.
How about playing dead—do you tend toward inertia? In that case, you may react best to pick-me-up plants to get you moving.
Ten Herbs to Consider
To work with stress reactions, turn to herbs that can affect the nervous system, taking things down a notch to counteract acute (stage fright) or chronic (job stress) sympathetic activity. Herbs that do this are called nervines. Herbs that go a step further, helping the nervous system to really rewire the way it behaves over time, are called neurotrophorestoratives.
Here are ten herbal de-stressors to consider. Choose the ones that match your “type” (above) and need.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): This humble, apple-scented flower is traditionally taken as a tea after dinner because it’s a nervine, and because it supports digestion. Chamomile has been shown to be a powerful anti-inflammatory—reducing “inflamed” thoughts as well as inflammation in the body. Safety concerns: If you’ve got a ragweed allergy, you may have a negative reaction to chamomile or anything else in the Asteraceae family.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is called “the gladdening herb” for itsability to uplift and calm at the same time, both as a tea and through its lovely scent. Traditionally, it’s been used to decrease anxiety and ease sadness. Lately, it’s been researched for its ability to support cognition, especially in Alzheimers patients. Safety concerns: Avoid large doses if you have low thyroid function.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia; other species are interchangeable) is a well-known and -loved scent; in fact, it’s been clinically proven to relax, especially when sniffed off and on (rather than as a constant background scent). Lavender flowers are warming, and are used to reduce anxiety, especially the sort that keeps you from eating. Lavender is also used to combat sadness, whether centered in your thoughts or in your heart. A little bit goes a long way: use a wee dash in a mug of tea, or 2-5 droppers per day of tincture; or, simply smell the essential oil or the flowers. Safety concerns: Avoid if you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Damiana (Turnera diffusa/ T. aphrodisiaca) is traditionally considered a men’s herb, and an aphrodisiac—the libidoenhancing effect is not physiological, but rather enhances mood. This makes it a fun addition to winter cordials—but don’t worry, it’s a gentle herb, not a crazy love potion. Damiana is a warming, uplifting neurotrophorestorative when used over time. Also, clinical trials have shown that it can lower blood sugar. Safety concerns: Use caution in pregnancy; and it may have a mild laxative effect.
Tilia (Tilia Americana/ T.cordata/ T. playtphollos/ T. tomentosa) is also called linden flower, lime flower, and basswood. The flowers can be made into a tasty tea or tincture. Tilia has been used to reduce anxiety and soothe restless sleep and insomnia. It also supports the circulatory system; a tilia tea can help if your anxiety results in heart palpitations. Safety concerns: Separate from iron supplements by 2-3 hours.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is named because of its amazing tropical-seeming flowers. It seems impossible that this plant is a North American East-Coast native, and even considered an invasive weed in some places. The flowers, leaves, and vine can be used for tea or tincture, and the species is important—other Passifloras produce better fruit, but Passiflora incarnata is the species used by herbalists. Used over time, passionflower can support sleep, help to reduce anxiety, and, as herbalist Michael Moore said, soothe “chatterbrains.” Safety concerns: None.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) makes the sun shine a little brighter, and it has been extensively studied as a tool for lifting depression. It’s been found useful in mild to moderate depression, and traditionally was used to relieve anxiety and lift sadness. The flowering tops are, ideally, harvested at midsummer. It makes a nice tea, or you can purchase tablets containing concentrated extracts. Safety concerns: St. John’s wort will cause photosensitivity, meaning you’ll sunburn much more easily when taking it. Do not take St. John’s
wort if you are taking medications: it works with the liver to remove toxins— and drugs—more efficiently from the body; this includes birth control pills.
Bacopa (Bacopa monieri/ B. monniera; Herpestis monnieri) is an herb from India also called brahmi—but there are a few other herbs also known as brami, so using the name bacopa helps avoid mixups. Bacopa reduces anxiety and has an antioxidant effect in the body. It is cooling, and is especially suited to people whose memory is affected by stress. Bacopa is bitter, so it doesn’t make a great tea; it’s best taken as a powder. Safety concerns: Bacopa can cause gut irritation. Use caution if you’re taking anti-cholinergic medications or have a thyroid condition.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) got its name because its flowers look like little hats. It’s a nervine and a neurotrophorestorative, and also helps the skeletal muscles to relax. Skullcap is moistening and great for anyone feeling something akin to stage fright. It’s bitter, so if you’re making tea, try mixing it with something more tasty. The tincture has a more gentle, nourishing effect. Safety concerns: Historically, skullcap was diluted with germander, which is toxic to the liver; this is no longer an issue.
Kava kava (Piper methysticum) hails from Polynesia, where it is traditionally used in social gatherings and rituals. Kava has been shown to reduce anxiety, relax skeletal muscles, and relieve some types of pain. Kava has a very distinctive taste, and it can numb your tongue. Many prefer tincture to the concentrated powder, which can be too strong. Safety concerns: Avoid with liver disease and heavy drinking.
Depending on how sensitive you are, and how well-matched you are with a particular plant, it may have immediate, noticeable effects. Some herbs are drop-dose, meaning you should take only a few drops at a time; others need to be taken in larger amounts. (None listed here are drop-dose.) Many herbs are tonic, meaning they take weeks to months to slowly help the body shift its patterns. This is a deeper level of healing, and it requires patience, persistence, and observation. Keeping a journal can help determine if your stress reactions are shifting.
For the most part, our bodies know how to utilize the benefits of herbs. That said, negative reactions can occur. The most common are nausea and/or dizziness. There is also the chance, as with anything you ingest, that you may have an allergic reaction to an herb. If you experience a negative reaction, stop taking the herb immediately and consult a doctor if you have problems breathing or break out in hives.
It’s also important to work with good-quality products. Figuring out which companies are reputable and which products worthwhile can be overwhelming. Use common sense, don’t believe any hype for magic pills, and read labels. And, consider consulting a trained herbalist, who has gone to school for years to figure this stuff out.
Lifestyle Shifts to Reduce Stress
Without self-observation and lifestyle shifts, herbs are only a band-aid. You need to meet the herbs halfway. Here are some action steps to do that:
• Self-observation is a great way to keep tabs on whether your stress levels have risen to an unhealthy place. Where does stress manifest in your body? For some, it’s headaches; for others, it’s tight shoulders, an upset stomach, or even sleeplessness or mood swings. When you catch the stress reactions early, you are in a brilliant position to make adjustments for a healthier lifestyle.
• Breathe: deeply, into the belly, focusing on the place(s) in your body where your stress manifests. This triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, and lets your body know it’s safe to relax.
• Exercise: joyfully, in a way that you love; it helps the body release built-up stress hormones.
• Touch: being touched releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel happy. For real. Go get a massage.
• Sleep: the body has things to do that it can’t get done while you are awake. Get more sleep—even an extra ½ hour— for a greater sense of well-being.
• Meditate: meditation leads to calmer brain waves, and a greater ability to deal with stress. Start with two minutes a day—no pressure.
• Cultivate a spiritual practice or philosophy: Having a larger perspective or big picture, of any tradition or of your own making, eases the sense of chaos that can be triggered by the random events of life—thus reducing stress reactions.
—Tricia McCauley, MS
Choosing organic (or close-to-organic, “consciously wildcrafted” herbs) from responsible green companies helps you avoid toxic pesticide residues and support organic farming. Truly green companies also refuse to sell endangered herbs, such as true unicorn root. And they will offer Fair Trade versions of herbs sourced from overseas to protect workers. The following companies bear Green America’s Seal of Approval for their top-level green practices:
• Frontier Natural Products Co-op, 800/786-1388
• Herbalist & Alchemist, Inc., 800/611-8235
• Mountain Rose Herbs, 800/879-3337
• San Francisco Herb and Natural Food Company, 510/770-1215
• The Scarlet Sage Herb Co., 415/821-0997
• Taos Herb Co. Inc., 800/353-1991
Tea, Tincture, or Powder?
Choosing the form of your herbs is important. Some herbs are only effective when processed in a certain way, though most are more flexible. Choose a preparation that fits your lifestyle and budget.
Tea (technically an herbal infusion) is often easy to get hold of; common herbal teas can be found in the grocery store. Loose-leaf teas are easy to make in a French press. If you’re a gardener, it’s fun to grow your own herbs for tea. Many people enjoy the soothing ritual of a morning or evening cup of tea.
A tincture is an herb that’s been soaked in a mixture of alcohol and water. If you avoid alcohol, this is not the form for you. Tinctures are more expensive than teas, often prohibitively so. However, they are more portable, and if brewing tea every day stresses you out, a tincture may be much more convenient.
Powders are created by drying and grinding up an herb. They can be nice to mix into applesauce, yogurt, or nut butters. Capsules, of course, are available in most grocery stores and organic markets, and are convenient if you don’t mind swallowing pills. Always read labels so you know what you’re getting.