Herbal medicine for stress and anxiety
By Sarah Woolner, Naturopath – BHSc (Naturopathy), BSc (Microbiology)
Stress has become an integral part of daily life for most of us. Whether it is work-related, financial, relationship, family or trauma-related stress, generally we are all dealing with a least one of these at any given time. Of course removing stress from our lives is a preferable approach, it is not always so easy to execute. Herbal medicines can have a profound effect on balancing the stress response, particularly a group of herbs known as the adaptogens.
The HPA axis and stress
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is essentially a communication pathway between a part of the brain (hypothalamus) and hormone-secreting glands (pituitary and adrenal glands). The HPA axis plays an important role in the body’s stress response and the subsequent release our major stress hormone, cortisol.
Activation of our HPA axis occurs on exposure to acute stressors that pose significant threat or danger, and is designed to help us survive. However, the HPA axis is yet to adapt to dealing with the chronic stress that we experience in our everyday lives.
Repetitive activation of our stress-response pathways can cause imbalances in the HPA axis, which can have long-term effect on our nervous system such as disrupted sleep patterns, increased anxiety, fatigue and metabolic dysfunction.
The herbal adaptogens
Adaptogens are a group of herbal medicines that are able to modify the stress-response, increasing adaptability and resistance to stressors. There are a number of adaptogen herbs, each with their own unique properties, but here are three of our favourite adaptogen herbs.
Withania (Withania somnifera)
Withania, also known as winter cherry or Ashwagandha, is one of the classic adaptogen herbs. A traditional Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha is a rejuvenating herb which was traditionally believed to impart the strength and vitality of a horse. In Sanskrit, Ashwagandha means “the smell of horse”, referring to the distinct horse-like smell of the root.
Clinical studies have shown that Withania modulates the stress-response (via modulation of the HPA axis) and reduces serum cortisol levels. In addition to adaptogenic and anti-stress properties, Withania has also been shown to have a significant effect in alleviating anxiety and insomnia.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
Rhodiola, another of the adaptogen herbs, has a long history of use as a strengthening herbal medicine dating back to the Viking era. Rhodiola grows high up in the crevices of arctic mountains — which is certainly no easy feat. The ability to grow in such treacherous conditions speaks volumes of Rhodiola’s adaptogenic properties.
Research has demonstrated that Rhodiola inhibits physiological stress reactivity, which in turn moderates perceived stress and anxiety levels. Rhodiola interacts with the HPA axis to lower cortisol and mitigate the effects of prolonged stress. Clinical trials have also shown that Rhodiola has an antidepressant effect in mild to moderate depression.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, is another Ayurvedic herbal medicine that was traditionally used for its anti-stress and adaptogenic properties. In Sanskrit, Tulsi means “the incomparable ones”, and is considered to be one of the sacred plants in Hindu religion.
In vitro studies have demonstrated that Holy Basil balances the activation and reactivity of the HPA axis by inhibiting the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. Therapeutically, Holy Basil has also been used in respiratory conditions, colds, coughs and fevers – owing to its antimicrobial properties. This herb is ideal for those who have a tendency to poor immune function with higher stress loads.
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