Herbal Support for Stress

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Herbal Support for Stress

(published in Positive Health)
Our nervous system clearly illus­trates the relationship between mind and body. It is an amazing system of communication involving neuronal signalling by which the brain and the nerve cells can send messages via neurotransmitters across synapses from one nerve cell to another or to a collection of muscle fibres. Up to date we know of approximately 300 substances that act as neurotransmitters including endorphins, neuropeptides, adrenaline, noradrenaline and acetylcholine. Composed of neurones and nerve fibres, the nervous system is part of the physical body.  Yet as well as controlling physical activi­ties and sensations, it expresses our thoughts and emotions… there is really little difference between mind and body except that which we have created. We are well aware that just as physical symptoms can affect the way we think and feel, and create psychological problems, so thoughts and emotions have a direct effect on the physical body and can create physiological illness. Negative thoughts and feelings can diminish energy and vitality and reduce resis­tance, and can be expressed as disease. Harmonious thoughts and feelings, such as hope, faith, love and happiness, create corres­ponding physical well-being, affecting as they do the chemical composition of the tissues and secretions of the body in a positive way.  A large study of 22,461 Finish adults found clear correlations between life dissatisfaction and mortality in men (though curiously not in women), suggesting that part of the effect is mediated via adverse health behaviour. (Koivumaa-Honkanen H et al 2000) It is of course difficult to untangle cause and effect, but happiness does indeed seem to promote health!

Treatment of disharmony in the body that addresses root emotional causes can be sought through a psychological approach, counselling or psychotherapy, for instance, and disharmony in the mind can be treated physical means, including taking regular exercise, practicing yoga, and through nourishing the nervous system as a tissue, through herbs and diet. Using her­bal nervines and a nutritious diet, the function of the nervous system can be enhanced, and resilience to stress increased making it far easier to remain strong and positive even in the face of adversity. There are many herbs that have the ability to affect the nervous system beneficially. They contain molecules with pieces that resemble neurotransmitters found in the chemical messaging system. Some herbs stimulate receptor sites and act as agonists, while others are able to attach to receptor sites and block chemical reactions acting as antagonists.

Herbal tonics have the ability to nourish the nervous system and enhance resilience, and are excellent when tense, anxious or depressed, tired and run down.  Some of my favourites include vervain, rosemary, lemon balm, skullcap, wild oats and ginseng. The effect of both Panax ginseng and Eleuthrococcus senticosus on stress and well being is well documented. Both appear to have a paradoxical effect of either increasing or decreasing the stress response. This property, known as an adaptogenic action is believed to be due to ginseng’s effect on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, increasing plasma corticotropin and corticosteroid levels. (Nocerino et al 2000, Gaffney et al 2001). Recent research in healthy subjects supports the anxiolytic properties of skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) (Wolfson 2003). This action may be mediated by binding of the compounds baicalein and baicalin to the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA receptor. (Hui et al 2000)

Chamomile, lime flower, valerian, hops or passion flower all have relaxant properties and can be given to calm nerves and relax tense muscles. A trial on 22 healthy subjects indicated an increase in positive mood ratings on exposure to chamomile oil (Roberts et al 1992) whilst in vitro trials suggest that apigenin, a flavonoid found in chamomile, acts as a central benzodizepine receptor ligand. (Viola et al 1995) A double blind randomised trial of the effect of passion flower (Passiflora incarnate) compared to oxezapam in patients with general anxiety disorder, concluded that Passiflora was as effective as the drug. The herbal extract also had the advantage of reducing the incidence of impairment of job performance found in the oxezapam group. (Akhondzadeh et al 2001)

There are many beneficial Ayurvedic herbs for the nervous system. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a nourishing nerve tonic, helping to calm an agitated mind, enhancing resilience to stress and promoting energy as well as good sleep.  Gotu cola is an excellent herb for promoting brain function, for poor concentration and for calming an agitated mind. Oil prepared from coconut oil and gotu cola can be massaged regularly onto the soles of the feet and the head to calm the mind and promote relaxation.

Sandalwood (Santalum album) is an excellent brain tonic and is used in mental debility, irritability and poor concentration through an agitated or restless mind. Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) acts as a nourishing brain tonic, promotes energy and vitality, enhances immunity and helps to relieve pain. Licorice  (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is an adaptogen, supporting the adrenals and increasing resilience to stress. Bala (Sida cordifolia) is also a nourishing tonic to the nervous system and good for nerve disorders generally. Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi) is an effective sedative and brain tonic, enhancing concentration and memory. It is one of the best herbs for stress related headaches and insomnia. Vacha (Acorus calamus) is a well known brain tonic, which is used to clear “tamas” from the mind and enhance intellectual function.

There are certain nutrients which are vital to the production of neurotransmitters and normal function of the nervous system of which we need an adequate supply at all times.  These include essential fatty acids, vitamins C, B, and E, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Unless they are in plentiful supply during times of stress, a deficiency may arise, further exacerbating any stress-related problems. Generally a healthy diet, with plenty of organic fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and foods containing protein and essential fatty acids, should provide most of the necessary nutrients to support the nervous system.  Attention to diet and supplementation can prove beneficial especially during stressful periods in one’s life.

Akhondzadeh S, Naghavi HR, Vazirian M, Shayeganpour A, Rashidi H, Khani M. ‘Passionflower in the treatment of generalized anxiety: a pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial with oxazepam.’ J Clin Pharm Ther.  2001 Oct; 26(5): 363-7.

Gaffney BT, Hugel HM, Rich PA. ‘Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus may exaggerate an already existing biphasic response to stress via inhibition of enzymes which limit the binding of stress hormones to their receptors.’ Med Hypotheses.  2001 May; 56(5): 567-72.

Hui KM, Wang XH, Xue H. ‘Interaction of flavones from the roots of Scutellaria baicalensis with the benzodiazepine site.’ Planta Med.  2000 Feb; 66(1): 91-3.

Koivumaa-Honkanen H, Honkanen R, Viinamaki H, Heikkila K, Kaprio J, Koskenvuo M. ‘Self-reported life satisfaction and 20-year mortality in healthy Finnish adults.’ Am J Epidemiol.  2000 Nov 15; 152(10): 983-91.

Nocerino E, Amato M, Izzo AA. ‘The aphrodisiac and adaptogenic properties of ginseng.’ Fitoterapia.  2000 Aug; 71 Suppl 1: S1-5.

Roberts A, Williams JM. ‘The effect of olfactory stimulation on fluency, vividness of imagery and associated mood: a preliminary study.’ Br J Med Psychol.  1992 Jun; 65 ( Pt 2): 197-9.

Viola H, Wasowski C, Levi de Stein M et al. ‘Apigenin, a component of Matricaria recutita flowers, is a central benzodiazepine receptor-ligand with anxiolytic effects’ Planta Med 1995; 61: 213-215.

Wolfson P, Hoffmann DL. ‘An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers.’ Altern Ther Health Med.  2003 Mar-Apr; 9(2): 74-8.