So what’s a human living in the 21st century to do? Aside from lifestyle interventions – such as healthy diet, regular movement, strong social support networks, mind-body practices, and adequate rest – there are certain herbs that can help us to manage the high levels of stress we inevitably face in this day and age.
Rather than indiscriminately throwing a bunch of herbal powders and potions down the hatch and hoping for the best, it is important to know about the three stages of stress adaptation your body experiences as different herbs are most effective at different stages.
The three stages of stress adaptation and suitable herbs
In 1936 Hans Selye, the father of stress research, proposed the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model. Nowadays GAS is more commonly referred to as the stress response. It consists of two primary pathways that our bodies possess for responding to acute stress: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Both of these systems act as biological shock absorbers that help us manage and recover from acutely stressful events. They set up a two-way brain-body communication that either “switches on” or “switches off” the fight or flight response.
Selye's original GAS model demonstrated three stages the effects of stress on the human animal. The first stage is alarm, followed by resistance, and finally, exhaustion (1).
1st Stage: Alarm – anxiolytics
You’re driving home after a long day at work when someone suddenly cuts you off, narrowly missing you by what seems like millimetres! The instant adrenaline rush and feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach are part of your fight or flight response, your initial hormonal reaction for handling stress very quickly.
While it’s not always practical to take herbs to help you deal with the situation (such as in the above example), there are some instances where herbal relief is possible and can help immensely. Say you have a fear of flying and later in the day you are to board a plane.
Anxiolytics such as kava (Piper methysticum) and passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) may offer temporary relief of anxiety and acute panic in this and similar short-term stress situations, and help you get to your destination in a calm and collected state of mind (2). Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) are also wonderful choices, and chamomile is especially safe for children.
2nd Stage: Resistance – adaptogens
Normally, acutely stressful situations subside and the body’s hormonal function goes back to normal fairly quickly, but if a stressful condition persists – say your boss is abusive day in and day out to the point where you dread going to work – your body adapts by remaining in a continued state of arousal even when you’re not at work.
Health issues such as poor sleep, concentration problems, blood sugar issues, digestive symptoms, and raised blood pressure might manifest when you find yourself feeling a continuous undercurrent of stress. This is especially the case if you get little or no recovery. Ultimately this moves you into the final stage, exhaustion.
Adaptogens are a special class of herbs that have been used in Ayurveda and Tradition Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, to promote a sense of well-being. Adaptogens do just that – they help your body adapt to the ongoing stresses of daily life. They regulate the stress response, increase energy, and most of them are non-stimulating (with the exception of Korean ginseng) (2). Adaptogens work best when they are taken for a minimum of three months.
Examples include, but aren’t limited to:
- Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) – a soothing adaptogen that I use on and off to keep up with the demands of breastfeeding and being a new mum. Avoid with pharmaceutical sedatives and pain medications.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) – an anti-anxiety, immune-boosting adaptogen. Avoid if you have bipolar depression with manic tendencies.
- Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) – the queen of women’s adaptogens. Avoid in pregnancy and lactation, or if you have oestrogen-receptor positive cancer.
- Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) – a focus and performance enhancer. Avoid with high blood pressure; and if you’re prone to insomnia use a different adaptogen (2).
3rd Stage: Exhaustion – adrenal tonics
If ongoing stress has persisted for a long time, your the functioning of your HPA axis may become impaired to the point where the body’s shock absorbing systems can no longer stay on top of the wear and tear. Your body's capacity to produce the stress hormone cortisol can fall through the floor.
This stage is also known as adrenal burnout, but a more accurate way to describe it would be HPA maladaption or HPA dysfunction since the adrenals are only part of the entire set of organs involved, and it's not technically the adrenals that become exhausted but the functioning of the entire hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
This stage of the stress response is the most health damaging as it can result in heart disease, nerve damage and auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Adrenal tonics are a group of herbs that improves the tone and function of the HPA axis, especially the adrenal cortex (2). They include:
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – helps the body to regulate cortisol and gives the adrenals a rest (3). Be careful not to take licorice long term without a break, and avoid completely if you have high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, oedema or hypokalaemia; caution in kidney or liver disease.
- Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa) – an adrenal tonic from Traditional Chinese Medicine. Use with caution in pregnancy.
- Bupleurum (Bupleurum falcatum) – another TCM herb that’s also a liver-protectant; so excellent if you have liver damage or hepatitis. Use with caution if you experience reflux (2).
Additionally, some of the adaptogens may be used since they work whether you are experiencing adrenal over-stimulation (2nd stage) or adrenal fatigue (3rd stage).
Finally, if you were building a house from the foundations up, would you go for an experienced builder who works according to a logical plan, or a less organised builder who is lackadaisical about the whole thing? The former, I bet.
Similarly, when it comes to building a resilient stress adaptation system, I highly recommend seeking the advice of a qualified health practitioner familiar with the use of botanicals in stress management, rather than ordering something online and self-medicating. Herbs are medicines – they are extremely powerful and can have negative side effects if taken along with certain medications or in the wrong doses.
Remember, there’s more to stress management than taking herbs – but these powerful botanicals can go a long way in helping you move through life with balance, poise and resilience.
Article originally published in Living Now magazine, Winter 2016
(1) Murray, MT & Pizzorno, J (2012), The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 3rded, Atria Paperback, New York.
(2) Bone, K (2007), The Ultimate Herbal Compendium,1st ed, Phytotherapy Press, Warwick.
(3) Al-Dujaili, EA, Kenyon, CJ, Nicol, MR, Mason JI (2011), Liquorice and glycyrrhetinic acid increase DHEA and deoxycorticosterone levels in vivo and in vitro by inhibiting adrenal SULT2A1 activity, Mol Cell Endocrinol, 336(1-2):102-9.