When faced with a life or death situation, our early ancestors' reaction was what we now refer to as the 'fight or flight' response - their bodies prepared for the physical challenge of either running from danger or fighting for survival. Today, however, this response is triggered by traffic jams, over-due bills and impending deadlines. Like our ancestors, our bodies prepare us to meet the challenge, but now it is unlikely we will utilize such preparation. Our heart races and breathing increases supplying extra blood and oxygen to our muscles, lungs and brain; we sweat to lower our body temperature; digestive activity is reduced dramatically to supply energy elsewhere; and glucose is dumped into the bloodstream raising our blood sugar.
Noted herbalist David Hoffman describes stress as "any stimulus or change in the internal or external environment which distresses homeostasis or inner harmony". Unfortunately when our bodies are no longer able to adapt to this stimulus as well as it should our physical and emotional health pay the price. We may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, and digesting our food. Overworked adrenal glands begin to give up and our immune system suffers from the constant flood of stress-related chemicals. In addition, our modern lifestyles expose our bodies to stimulants (caffeine, nicotine), and toxins (farm chemicals, drugs, pollution), and gives us less opportunity to nourish ourselves with diet and exercise.
There are many things we can do to manage our response to stress including relaxation therapy, exercise, aromatherapy, massage, and dietary changes. Herbal remedies are ideal to include in a holistic program for stress management. Herbs help nourish the nervous system so that it may better adapt to future problems. Some remedies are useful in acute situations, while others provide long term benefits. The following are herbal remedies that may help relieve insomnia, mild depression, and anxiety. Always consult with a qualified practitioner before self-medicating if symptoms are persistent and/or severe, or if you are pregnant or nursing.
Chamomile (Chamomilla recutila)
Carminative, Analgesic, Anti-spasmodic, Sedative
Chamomile is probably one of the most popular herbs in North America. A strong tea can be a potent sedative, whereas low doses can be used long-term for anxiety, indigestion, chronic inflammatory conditions, migraines, and menstrual problems. This herb is ideal for children – particularly those with hyperactive or colicky conditions. One of the active constituents in chamomile, called chamazulene, is formed when the herb is heated (i.e. while making tea) and has been attributed with it's pain-relieving abilities.
Kava-Kava (Piper methysticum)
Sedative, Analgesic, Anti-convulsant, Muscle- Relaxant
For the treatment of anxiety, kava appears to be one of the most effective alternatives to drugs. It's effects are similar to Valium, only without the side effects. Studies show that kava can improve mental function, reduce anxiety and relieve menopausal symptoms. Traditionally it is used in the South Pacific as a social drink during ceremonies and celebrations. Kava drinkers do not experience the side effects alcohol drinkers might (psychological impairment, aggressiveness, sedation, morning hangover etc)
St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Nervine, Anti-depressant, Anti-spasmodic
Clinical studies have found St. John's wort to be more effective in relieving depression than several standard anti-depressant drugs - only without the side effects. This wild flower contains chemicals that alter brain chemistry in a way that improves moods and sleep quality. It is also used for menstrual difficulties, pain relief, and depression related symptoms such as stomach aches and insomnia.
Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
During times of stress, the use of an adaptogen such as Siberian ginseng can help enhance the body's ability to cope with tough situations. Because it can increase the tone and function of the adrenal glands, it helps prevent stress induced damage such as an impaired immune system and adrenal exhaustion. Siberian ginseng also has antioxidant properties and may help to increase mental alertness and improve physical performance.