In today’s always-on-the-go, connected-to-everyone world, many of us feel constantly stimulated. No wonder up to 90% of all doctor visits are prompted by stress-related complaints, such as fatigue, pain, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Of course, a doctor visit usually means another prescription. It’s not surprising that sedatives, antidepressants and antianxiety drugs are among the best-selling drugs in the US. While these potent pharmaceuticals may temporarily improve mood and other stress-related symptoms, they’re not a permanent fix and often come with side effects.
NATURE’S STRESS FIGHTERS
The best way to deal with stress is with some basic—but critical—lifestyle changes, such as getting regular exercise, eating a healthier diet and maintaining a stress-reducing practice, such as meditation.
To augment those healthy habits, you can often use herbal medicines to help your body (and brain) cope with stress-related symptoms.*
For stress-related disorders, so-called adaptogenic herbs work well. Also known as stress modulators, these herbs can create balance when your body’s stress-related hormones are too high or too low. The herbs aren’t always a substitute for prescription drugs but may help you avoid them.
The following herbs can be taken singly or in combination. If you’re combining herbs, be sure to keep their individual properties in mind as they can lessen each other’s effects or work in synergy. While you can safely combine most adaptogenic herbs, be aware of what you’re eating and drinking. Coffee, for example, can negate the calming effects of many herbs.
Options for herbal therapy: You can take the herbs below as a tea, tincture or capsule. Follow the recommended doses listed on the product labels.
BEST STRESS-FIGHTING HERBS
• Ashwagandha. This nutty-tasting herb gives a mild energy boost. Paradoxically, it can also improve sleepiness at bedtime.
A study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that people who took ashwagandha for 60 days had levels of cortisol (one of the main stress hormones) that were nearly 28% lower than those who took a placebo. The herb also gives a mild boost to thyroid function.
Caution: Ashwagandha is in the nightshade family. Try a small amount at first if you react to nightshades such as tomatoes and potatoes. If you have hyperthyroid disease or are on thyroid medication, consult your physician before taking ashwagandha.
• Schizandra. It’s a “mid-range” adaptogen that both calms and energizes, depending on what your body needs. It can help people with stress-related insomnia. It’s also good for boosting vitality, mood and libido, and is one of the best herbs for stimulating digestion and improving liver detoxification.
Caution: Schizandra occasionally aggravates an active ulcer or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
HERBS FOR ANXIETY
If you mainly suffer from anxiety or stress-related “nerves,” try one of the calming adaptogens…
• Holy basil. This herb contains eugenol and other aromatic compounds that give it a pleasant odor—and that appear to reduce stress and improve mental clarity.
Studies suggest that holy basil reduces the stress hormone cortisol. In addition, it’s often used for reducing anxiety and grief.
You can take this herb as needed or on a long-term basis. I particularly love it as tea and grow it in my garden.
How to try it: Steep one teaspoon to one tablespoon of dried holy basil (or a handful of the fresh herb) in eight ounces of water for 15 minutes. Drink one to three times daily.
• Gotu kola. There is some evidence that this herb improves brain circulation and mental functions, while also reducing anxiety. The effects of gotu kola are subtle, making it ideal for long-term emotional balance.
You may not notice significant improvements for two to three months, and you can take it for a year or more. You can also safely combine it with other adaptogens, such as holy basil or ashwagandha, if you feel you need more potent (and faster) effects.
Note: Combination stress formulas are readily available on the market and can often be helpful. Take a look at the ingredients and consider each herb’s individual benefits and potential side effects. Pick a formula that makes sense for your needs, and listen to your body.
Using these herbs: Most of the herbal adaptogens listed above will have some effect within one to three days, but with regular use, the effects tend to get more pronounced over the course of several weeks. If you don’t notice improvement after two months, try one of the other herbs. Side effects, if any, will usually occur within the first day or two.
While you could take any of these herbs as needed—for example, a cup of holy basil tea on a stressful day—they work better when taken regularly for several months to a year. They’re generally not dangerous to take on an ongoing basis, but most people find that they don’t need them after a while.
SHOPPING FOR HERBS
You can find good-quality herbs at your local herb shop or natural-food store. Seek organic herbs whenever possible—they are grown without synthetic chemicals and more likely to be good quality. Some of my favorite brands for capsules and tinctures include Gaia Herbs, Herb Pharm, Oregon’s Wild Harvest and MegaFood.
*Before trying herbal therapy, consult your pharmacist or seek a naturopathic doctor or clinical herbalist’s assistance, especially if you take prescription medications or have a chronic medical condition.