How and Why to Use Herbs for Stress
In herbalism, there are many botanicals used to help us manage the stress and burnout increasingly found in our busy lives. Although adaptogens have gotten all the press in recent years, there is another group of herbs called nervines that help restore resilience through calming the mind, releasing muscle tension, and helping with disturbed sleep through supporting the nervous system.
Stress is a normal part of everyday life and it's the job of the adrenals to help our bodies cope with it. Short-term stress and anxiety, like nerves before your wedding, starting a new job, or public speaking is usually fleeting and our bodies are well equipped to deal with it.
Chronic stress is not meant to be a part of our everyday lives and it impacts how well we feel overall. The dysregulation of cortisol (our primary stress hormone) can have many negative implications on our physical health. Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenals to help our bodies deal with short-term, immediate threats. It changes our blood sugar levels, alters immune function, suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and basically any non-essential processes that won’t help us get out of a threatening situation fast.
When a perceived threat has passed, our hormone levels return to normal. But, if someone always feels stressed and under attack, cortisol and other stress hormone levels never really return to normal and they begin to disrupt the body’s processes for the long term, causing or exacerbating many serious health problems.
A key part of herbalism is treating the whole body and helping the mind, body, and spirit to align. Herbs can be an effective way to manage the symptoms of long-term chronic stress by supporting the nervous system, building stamina, and resilience to stress.
Adaptogens have been touted as the panacea for stress in our modern lives and they certainly have their place in herbalism. Due to their popularity, they have often been recommended as quick energy fixes to help someone get through a tough day; or worse, they have been marketed as the magic bullet for all our modern-day, stress-related ills. Plants are pretty amazing for all that they can do, but their use comes with a lot of caveats and variability. I’m not going to get into all that is wrong with adaptogen marketing here, but this New York City-based herbalist does a great job of clearing the air around adaptogens.
A group of plants called nervines is gaining increased attention because they have beneficial effects on the overstimulated nervous system. The term nervine is used in western herbalism and it refers to an herb that has an effect or an action that helps to support the nervous system. They are differentiated into three major categories and range in their potency from mildly calming to string relaxants.
With work-related burnout now an official medical diagnosis, this category of herbs is a powerful ally in our modern times. This group of plants helps to restore our nervous system after periods of long term and chronic stress. These herbs and mushrooms are for people who feel depleted and are lacking sleep. Results are best seen when these plants are taken longterm.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashawagha is an adaptogen that helps the body adapt to stress through regulating hormones and biological processes associated with stress. Clinical trials support the use of ashwagandha not only for anxiety but also for nervous exhaustion, debility due to stress, inflammation, Parkinson’s disease, and certain cognitive and neurological disorders.
Withanolides are the active phytochemicals in Ashwagandha; and while researchers don’t yet know how they work, they think withanolides act as hormone precursors which may be convertible into human hormones as needed or that if there is an excess of a hormone, withanolides can occupy the cell membrane site so the hormone cannot exert its effect.
Oatstraw (Avena sativa)
In herbalism, milky oats are used as a nervine and restorative herb that has a gentle and supportive nature. This herb is for people who feel depleted, cold, tired, and disconnected due to pushing too hard. Due to the nutritive and restorative properties of milky oats, herbalists recommend the plant in cases of stress and anxiety, particularly when over overworked and rundown.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi mushroom is a well-known medicinal mushroom with a very long history of use. Reishi’s medicinal properties are far-reaching and are backed by strong scientific evidence. Reishi has antimicrobial, antioxidant, liver protective, blood sugar control, and anti-inflammatory effects and it supports the immune and cardiovascular systems. In cases of stress and anxiety, Reishi works as an adaptogen, supporting our adrenal glands to help us manage chronic stress and fatigue.
Reishi also alleviates insomnia, especially when the troubled sleep comes from a racing mind that won't turn off. New research is supporting what traditional use has known for centuries: that reishi has anti-aging properties through its function as an anti-oxidant, immune modulator and protection of the nervous system.
Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)
This medicinal mushroom which gets its name because it looks like the scruff of a lion is well established for brain and nerve health. Lion’s mane is a nootropic (something that promotes the enhancement of cognition and memory) and also has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune system benefits, neuroprotective, and cardiovascular effects among many other health-promoting benefits. One Japanese study showed that the mushroom may improve anxiety and depression.
These are remedies that relax, calm, and deeply restore the nervous system. They can often be used throughout the day and generally will not make you sleepy, groggy, or low in energy. They are “weaker” than some of the other nervine herbs, but are excellent nervous system tonic that can be used throughout the day and over the long term.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum)
Holy basil or Tulsi is an herb used in Ayurveda where it is consumed as an herbal tea, dried powder or fresh leaf mixed with ghee. The herb is indigenous to India and has a long history of use there. This herb is a powerful antidote to modern life, its adaptogenic properties help improve our response to physical, mental and environmental stress. Many studies have shown holy basil to have anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, and immune effects. The plant is recommended for diabetes and for the management of stress through its positive effects on memory, cognition, and its relaxant and anti-depressive effects. Holy basil will help uplift a tired mind and clear brain fog while relaxing the nervous system.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
This gentle herb is in the mint family and contains rosmarinic acid, which has positive effects on mood and cognition. It has traditionally been taken to reduce restlessness and nervous digestive problems. Avoid taking long-term if you have hypothyroidism.
Verbena (Verbena officinalis)
This botanical is a nervous system tonic that releases tension, stress, and irritability. It's a good digestive system tonic and indicated for people who suffer from anxiety-related digestive issues. Herbalists recommend verbena for the workaholic and overachiever who is stressed and tense.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
Chamomile is one of the oldest medicinal herbs known and today is widely used to promote sleep, reduce inflammation, help with digestion, pain, and many other ailments. Research shows that chamomile helps insomnia because it acts as a sedative. It has also been used in the treatment of moderate to severe anxiety disorders. It is safe and gentle enough to use in infants.
Nervine Sedatives and Hypnotics
This group of plants generates a much stronger level of relaxation, sedation, and even sleepiness. They are used more in acute situations or on an as-needed basis. They generally should not be used during the day because they can make a person feel quite sedated and sleepy. None of these should be taken along with medication for depression and anxiety. The effectiveness of these herbs is largely dependent on their dose, so work with an herbalist or an N.D. to find the right one for you.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
This beautiful plant can safely be used for nervous tension, restlessness, muscle spasms, irritability, anxiety, and insomnia. The herb is a popular sleep aid and studies show that a tea made from passionflower enhances the quality of sleep. The plant works on GABA receptors and reduces the activity of some of the neurons that cause anxiety. Studies have shown it to be an effective treatment of generalized anxiety disorder.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
This golden-coloured flower from the poppy family has been used as a relaxant, analgesic, sedative, and sleep aid. California poppy is a cooling nervine for a hot, stressed, agitated, and wired nervous system. It brings a sense of tranquility to the heart and is effective at calming stress and anxiety. The herb is also indicated for those with insomnia and worrisome, repetitive thoughts. California poppy is very safe and gentle enough for children.
Kava (Piper methysticum)
Kava is a medicinal plant found in the south Pacific and used for its sedative, euphoriant, and anesthetic, and psychotropic properties. Research shows that Kava is an effective symptomatic treatment for anxiety, stress, and restlessness, through its actions on the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) pathway, while another study on anxiety showed it to be more effective than placebo in treating generalized anxiety disorder.
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis)
This well-studied root is used for nervousness and insomnia and contains valerenic acid, which works by increasing GABA levels in the brain. The root contains over 150 chemical constituents, many of which act on our physiology. Valerian tends to work better after a few weeks of use. Many people do not like the taste or the smell of this herb and prefer to take it as a capsule.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
This is an herb native to North America and is used for anxiety, muscle tension, and restlessness. It can be used long-term for nervous tension or nervous exhaustion. Due to its antispasmodic properties, the skullcap can be used for muscle tension and is particularly useful for women with premenstrual related anxiety or tension.
As mental health issues skyrocket and especially in teenagers, the use of prescription medication is rising. If you take medication for depression and anxiety, you can still add some medicinal herbs into your stress and anxiety management toolbox. However, just because herbs are "natural," that doesn't mean they are always safe. Many herbs that have actions on the nervous system affect the same neurological pathways that medications do. This means that some herbs can make your medications stronger or weaker. If on medication for depression and anxiety, always check with your health care provider when using herbs. They need to know what medications you are taking in order to avoid potentially harmful interactions
Finally, while herbs have a place in whole-body wellness, they are not a magic bullet to health. When managing whole body conditions like stress, herbs need to be combined with lifestyle factors such as quality sleep, exercise, diet, breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, talking to a friend, family member or therapist.
Stress Relief Tea
1 part passionflower
1 part holy basil
1 part verbena
1 part oatstaw
Mix all the herbs together and use one tablespoon per cup of boiling water. Allow it to steep for 10 minutes. Make a big enough batch to last you a few weeks. This is a recipe for a simple but effective tea for easing tension and stress. Use as needed, even if it is every day.