In our fast-paced culture, we all experience stress at one time or another. Stress can come from feeling overwhelmed during a busy day or from apprehension over the outcome of a particular event. And additional activities during the holiday season can definitely add extra pressure to our days.
Believe it or not, our bodies are actually quite adept at dealing with everyday stress. When we're uptight, our adrenals — the two glands on top of our kidneys — release adrenaline, which can work in a positive way to give us the energy boost to meet a deadline or finish our holiday shopping. However, prolonged stress may put too much strain on the body by overexciting the adrenals, compromising our immune systems and causing illness. Fortunately, there are easy-to-use natural remedies that can offer relief.
Coping with Stress
We all have our ways of alleviating stress. Meditation. Yoga. Avoiding negative situations and toxic people whenever possible, and choosing more positive influences instead. We can also help ourselves by getting enough rest and exercise, and allowing key nutrients to support adrenal function, including vitamins B6 and C, pantothenic acid, zinc, magnesium and herbs such as Siberian ginseng, licorice and oatstraw.
In Chinese medicine, practitioners often treat stress symptoms with acupuncture — a Chinese medical practice of inserting needles into the skin at certain points to rebalance the body's energy (called qi, pronounced "chee"). "There are many acupuncture points that deal with stress symptoms such as anxiety, agitation, insomnia, irritability, and fear of people and social situations," says Patrick Cunningham, LAc, who teaches at the New England School of Acupuncture in Belmont, Mass. "You can see a person's emotions change as the flow of qi improves."
In conjunction with acupuncture treatments, Cunningham frequently recommends herbs for stress. Although he advises seeing a health care practitioner for remedies specific to individual needs, he also says: "Herbs for stress are wonderful. They're something a person can take at home, which is like getting treated every day, and this is empowering."
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is an important herb for enhancing resistance to stress and disease. Also known as eleuthero, it contains compounds called eleutherosides that act on the neuroendocrine system to help the body build immunity and better adapt to external influences. "Siberian ginseng is used in both the Far East and the West," says Cunningham. "It's an adaptogen — that is, it increases the body's ability to respond to and withstand stress."
Ron Teeguarden, in his book Radiant Health: The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs (Warner), writes, "This herb has been shown to reduce the activation of the adrenal cortex in response to stress, which means that it helps prevent excessive stress reactions, which can damage other components of the endocrine and nervous systems and result in exhaustion." Indeed, Russian studies show that Siberian ginseng is stress-protective as well as effective for enhancing physical performance. Siberian ginseng has been used by Russian cosmonauts and is regularly taken by athletes worldwide to increase energy, vitality and endurance. It has also been documented for its ability to modulate the immune system, according to Varro E. Tyler, PhD, author of Herbs of Choice (Pharmaceutical Products Press). Today, Siberian ginseng is one of the most widely used herbs in the world. Some health care practitioners caution against using ginseng if you have hypertension.
Sometimes called "the grandfather of herbs" in Chinese medicine, licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra and G. uralensis) is a good choice if you want to get back on an emotional and physical even keel. "Licorice is an endocrine restorative, an adrenal gland tonic and a stimulant, so it's good for addressing stress," says Cunningham.
Licorice has been used in Western and Chinese herbal medicine for centuries, and has many uses. It contains the chemical agent glycoside glycyrrhizin, which is responsible for the root's sweetness, and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Cunningham says it's also "an immune enhancer, fights infection, protects the liver and has been used to treat ulcers." Because licorice is estrogenic, it can also be helpful in treating amenorrhea, PMS with dry skin and menopause. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1999, vol. 70) noted that licorice root also contains potent antioxidant compounds that provide significant protection against chronic diseases.
Long-term use of licorice can produce side effects including headache, lethargy, sodium and water retention, excessive potassium excretion and high blood pressure. These effects are related to the herb's glycyrrhizin content and can be avoided by taking deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL); however, DGL lacks the anti-inflammatory properties of licorice. People with high blood pressure, water retention, excess adrenal conditions and estrogen-related cancer should avoid licorice.
We tend to think of oatmeal as an ordinary food, but the whole oat plant, called oatstraw (Avena sativa), can be dried and used for medicinal purposes — specifically stress. Containing flavonoids, many minerals and vitamins B1, B2, D and E, oatstraw is "an excellent tonic for the whole system, used for both physical and nervous fatigue," writes Penelope Ody in The Complete Medicinal Herbal (Dorling Kindersley). It's also good for easing anxiety, depression and insomnia.
While Cunningham primarily prescribes Chinese herbs in his practice, he also recommends oatstraw as a nervous-system restorative and sedative. And Edward Bach formulated his Wild Oats flower remedy to be taken during times of uncertainty and dissatisfaction. Other uses for oatstraw? James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale), recommends it for gout, psoriasis and, in case you want to sow those wild oats, as a male sexual stimulant.
Deborahann Smith is the author of several books, including Work With What You Have: Ways to Creative & Meaningful Livelihood (Shambhala).