Stress Less: Herbs to the Rescue!

By Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG), Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

‘Tis the season for holiday parties, gift-giving, and mad rushes to get it all done. It’s easy to push ourselves to the limit this time of year. While subscribing to a calmer lifestyle would certainly be ideal, it’s good to know that taking herbs can also reduce the wear and tear of stress during these busy times. A specific category of herbs known as “adaptogens” hold superpower-like capabilities for modulating stress hormones and helping us stay healthy and sane in spite of the craziness around us. By their nature, they’re nontoxic and have a variety of side benefits, depending on the specific herb. Some are more energizing while others are more relaxing; you can choose what fits you best. Here are a few of my faves to consider…

The Energizers

When you need a kick in the pants, these are my go-to herbs. Combining them with spices, cocoa, tea, or mate tends to amplify their effects. Combining them with the “zen herbs” will mellow them out a bit.They are available in many forms in the Co-op’s Health & Beauty Department, both singularly and in blends.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Formerly known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is an affordable, sustainable ginseng relative that has somewhat similar benefits. (True ginsengs – both American and Asian – are over-harvested and expensive, so I limit their use and opt for organically cultivated when I do buy them.) Russian researchers have tested eleuthero on literally thousands of people and found that it does a remarkable job making stressful situations less bothersome. People taking eleuthero stayed healthier, felt better, performed better, in spite of physical and psychological stressors. Eleuthero also has the reputation for supporting immune health (which tends to fail during times of stress, by the way), and is among our more stimulating adaptogens. It tastes ok as a tea, better when mixed with chai spices. Most people prefer it as a tincture or capsule.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): I find it fascinating that adaptogen roots tend to grow in harsh environments, and rhodiola is no exception. Like eleuthero, it grows in Siberia, and it’s also called arctic root, rose root (because it smells a bit like roses), and golden root (because of it’s color). I love rhodiola for people who need a little kick in the pants. It’s a fabulous herb for both physical and mental energy, particularly those who don’t feel their memory is up to snuff. Specifically, consider it if stress or lack of sleep are aggravating brain fog, which is particularly common during menopause. Studies have shown good results for night-shift workers and students taking tests as well, and it’s often used by athletes. Since it is not particularly tasty, tincture and pill forms are most popular.

Neither of these energizing adaptogens should be taken before bedtime because they might cause insomnia. Use caution if you have anxiety, high blood pressure, or episodes of mania because the stimulating effects of the herbs may aggravate these conditions.

The Zen Herbs

These are some of my favorite adaptogens because they provide calm energy that is more appropriate for a wider range of people. Several of them come from the healing practice of Ayurveda in India.

Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum, syn O. tenuiflorum): Also called Tulsi and Sacred Basil, this herb is planted throughout temples in India and has an aromatic minty-floral scent. It is a tremendously useful herb in that it balances the stress hormone cortisol (which also plays a roll in metabolism, sugar balance, and food cravings), reduces inflammation, supports immune health, and so much more. It has a calm-energy effect that reminds me of the feeling you get after completing a yoga or meditation session. Holy basil leaves and flowers gently uplift the spirit while quelling anxiety and improving the overall sense of wellbeing. You can use it in any form, and even grow it in the garden as an annual. My favorite way to take it is as a tea, often combined with green tea as a morning beverage.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica): Compared to the other herbs mentioned here, gotu kola’s effects are not as easily noticeable; however, its benefits are profound. In addition to having calm-energy properties, gotu kola improves circulation to and function of the brain, calms anxiety, improves vascular health (including varicose veins, hemorrhoids, capillary health, and spider veins), and enhances connective tissue health both topically and internally. It’s a bland herb that blends well enough in teas and can also be taken as a capsule or tincture. It grows in rather sludgy conditions in India, though, so seek organically cultivated to help ensure quality material free of bacterial contamination. Some companies call gotu kola “brahmi,” but this can be confusing because another Ayurvedic herb called bacopa is also called “brahmi.” Fortunately, they have some overlapping properties, but it’s best to be sure you know what you’re taking.

Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis): Another fantastic calm-energy herb, what I love most about this Traditional Chinese Medicine berry is its unique affinity for the liver. It appears to improve liver function while also protecting it from toxins, which from a holistic perspective is important for overall health and digestion. It also has a reputation for improving sleep, libido, respiratory and immune health, so you’ll find it in a wide range of herbal formulas. Schizandra berries are also called “five flavor fruit” because they’re simultaneously sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and pungent. I feel like it works better if you taste it, so tincture is my favorite way to take it. However, pills and teas are also fine. (I really like blending the berries with hibiscus blossoms and honey to play on the sweet-sour flavors. Add some dry elderberries for a tasty immune-enhancing blend.)

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): This Indian root bridges the gap between the energizing and calming adaptogens. Although it’s useful to uplift and energize, it’s also very supportive to the nervous system and often taken before bedtime – infused in milk – for anxiety, insomnia, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Other uses of ashwagandha include libido, immune health, thyroid support (particularly for hypothyroid – it appears to nudge the thyroid to produce healthier levels of thyroid hormones), and as an anti-inflammatory for pain. I often combine it in formula with holy basil for pain that has a stress-related component, and clients often notice improvements within a week. Ashwagandha is tasty enough to be added to chai tea and other blends, but capsules and tinctures are also easy. Ayurvedic healers often simmer the chopped or powdered roots in milk (or other fatty milk replacement like almond or coconut milk) for a beverage that targets the nervous system, which is lined with fat. You can add a little maple syrup and cinnamon or nutmeg to taste.

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The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.