According to a recent BBC programme stress accounts for half of all sick days and is considered the health epidemic of the 21st century. We can be exposed to a variety of pressures throughout the day which initiate stress responses by the body. Some stress can be effectively harnessed to perform well in exams and sporting events. It is the chronic daily stress that can have a detrimental effect on the body causing long term health problems through increased blood glucose, blood pressure, anxiety and depression as well as a weakened immune system.
Ours bodies are well adapted to responding to acute stressful events which ensure the ‘flight or fight’ response where the release of adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal glands prepares the body for coping with a stressful event. If the stress is ongoing and the body is unable to return to a restful state, adrenal cortisol secretion is prolonged and we can become exhausted and no longer able to focus and perform effectively.
The BBC programme described three ways to improve our response to stress: improved diet, regular exercise, and mindfulness. Herbal medicines should be added to this list.
Herbal medicines can provide an effective way of normalising the adrenal response and help us to responding effectively to stress. A key group of herbs are the adaptogens, which act on the brain-adrenal axis to balance the release of adrenal hormones. Herbs shown to have this action include Siberian ginseng , Ashwagandha ,Rhodiola, Astragalus and Schisandra. Others herbs which help cope effectively with stress are nervines or nerve tonics such as Oat seed, Skullcap, and St John’s Wort which are calming and relaxing, restore emotional balance, and nourish the nerves and nervous system. Combining adaptogens and nervines herbs restores the function of the nervous and adrenal systems and allows the body to normalise its response to stress.
The choice of herbs will depend on each person’s stress response but finding the right herbal mix and combining it with improvements in diet and exercise could lead to improved quality of life and increased ability to cope with stress.