Modern life is stressful in so many ways and can affect people in different ways depending on their individual strengths and weaknesses or ‘constitution’. Some types of stress are healthy, like the acute short-lived stresses of exercise, work requirements, intermittent fasting. They help keep a good balance in the autonomic nervous system that controls healthy body function. However, when stresses on the body become longer-lasting and chronic this is not healthy and does not allow for recovery between stressful episodes. Chronic and damaging stresses may be constant work or home stresses or inflammatory stress from ongoing illnesses. Any underlying health conditions are likely to be worsened by chronic stress as it diverts energy away from dealing with other demands.
The damaging effects of chronic stress on the body both unbalance the autonomic nervous system and deplete the adrenals that play a central role in dealing with stress. Tiredness and fatigue may be a result of adrenal depletion and the thyroid reducing metabolic rate to conserve energy. Many people find they can increase their energy with exercise or work but when they relax the become tired again. Adrenal depletion may result in low morning energy but better energy in the evening and poor sleep. Stress activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the ‘fight or flight’ response, that increases blood flow to muscles and brain but reduces it to the digestive system. With chronic stress there may therefore be poor digestion.
Whatever the source of the stress on the body, there are many herbs that can help increase resilience and healing. Ideally it is better to reduce the source of chronic stress on the body but if this is not possible the effects can be reduced. Herbs can act on the stress or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal/thyroid axis and can balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, therefore regulating body functions. It may also be beneficial to use herbs that address an individual’s response to chronic stress such as tension, poor circulation, mood issues, digestion or immune function. In addition it may be necessary to reduce any chronic inflammation that is stressing the system, such as in arthritis, blood sugar problems, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune conditions or cardiovascular issues.
There are many adaptogenic and tonic herbs that help to reduce the stress response and balance the stress axis and autonomic nervous system and each has it’s own specific character in terms of how it works in the body.
Herbal ‘adpatogens’ increase energy, immune strength and wellbeing by offering resistance to the effects of stress on the body. Adaptogens are also often considered to be ‘tonic’ herbs, which balance the autonomic nervous system and strengthen the whole body particularly the adrenals and energy reserves. Many adaptogens are well researched and include Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Rhodiola (Rodiola rosea), Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) and Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera). They are generally not suitable for the UK climate and therefore must be imported. However there are also other herbal adaptogens that grow in the UK but are less well researched concerning these attributes. Examples are Rosemary, the oat plant and nettle seed.
All adaptogens are different and although safe and non-toxic not all are suitable for everyone. Properties of different adaptogens:
• Ashwaganda and Oat may be more appropriate for those who are extremely depleted as most adaptogens are somewhat stimulating
• Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is particularly stimulating and should be used with care.
• Rosemary and Astragalus stimulate circulation, particularly to the head
• Liquorice and Rehmannia are used to restore and nourish depleted adrenal glands
• Schisandra and Bupleurum are bitter herbs that help liver function and digestion
• Rosemary and Bupleurum help lift mood
• Astragalus, Shatavari and Codonopsis help to nourish dryness
• Shatavari helps to balance female hormones
• Ashwaganda helps to boost testosterone
• Nettle seed helps to protect the kidneys