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Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald

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Wired and Tired? 7 Herbs to Reduce Stress and Increase Vitality

Posted: 04/25/2012 8:45 am

Tonight you'll meditate. You really will.

Tomorrow, you'll figure out a way to fit in that yoga class, between getting your kids to school and making it to work on time.

This week, you'll start inching toward that elusive "work/life" balance you keep reading about, keep a positive attitude, and work in plenty of "me time" without neglecting any responsibilities. Really, you will.

If you're like a lot of us, you tell yourself things like this every day but still struggle to make it all fit. You wonder: Who are these people anyway, who eat only home-cooked vegan, organic meals, get regular massages, meditate daily, work, raise their kids, and still find time to blog about how they "have it all"?

Who are these people who reach for their yoga mats in times of stress? The only things you feel like reaching for is a sugary snack, a cigarette, or a glass of wine.

You're not alone. Most of my day is spent assisting patients in finding ways to create some calm in their lives that can seem full to the point of bursting. When I ask them if they feel "wired and tired" the response is usually enthusiastic and immediate: "Yes, that's exactly how I feel!"

People come to our clinic seeking relief for a variety of health challenges: digestive concerns, musculoskeletal pain, immune issues, hormone imbalances, chronic fatigue, etc. We spend significant time discussing contributing factors, which are often stress, nutrition, and lifestyle issues. If you were a fly on the wall in the clinic, you'd hear discussions of strategies on how to reduce chronic stress and how to create a more balanced and fulfilling life all day long.

Over the past 20 years of practice, I've noticed a dramatic increase in how patients rate how stressful they perceive their lives. I've also witnessed an increase of more young people looking for ways to balance lives that seem unmanageable. Along with it, the number of people on antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs has skyrocketed. We see a huge boom in spas, yoga centers, wellness centers, life coaches, and so on. It seems like being "crazy busy" has become a badge of honor rather than being "balanced," and people are desperately seeking a way out of the chaos.

The people I see know there's a problem. In fact, they're often burdened with guilt and self-judgment: "I know I should meditate. I know I should drink more water. I know I should exercise." And that's before I've even asked.

Ironically, some of these people are so stressed that the idea of trying to get to a yoga class or learning to meditate is too much to handle. They are the people that often go into the deepest states of relaxation when they receive an acupuncture treatment. They are people seeking relief but are paradoxically too stressed to make healthy choices to find relief.

In the long run, lifestyle changes and better habits are the key to reducing stress. But for those of us who might not be able to become yogis or yoginis tomorrow, fortunately there are herbal formulas found in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine that can provide relief from these chronically-heightened stressful states. Often when relief from stress is provided, patients are encouraged and able to start making better lifestyle choices.

Herbs that are used to support a healthy stress response are often referred to as tonic herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine, rasayanas within the Ayurvedic medicine tradition, and more recently, the term "adaptogen" has been used to describe this category of herbs.

An Alternative to Red Bull: An introduction to Adaptogenic Herbs

"Adaptogens" are a group of herbs that seem custom-made for our stressed out times. By definition, adaptogens are "non-specific," so rather than targeting one particular symptom or part of the body, like much of Western medication, they increase your resistance overall against physical, chemical and biological stressors. They're non-habit forming, even when taken over long periods of time and, most importantly, they are normalizing -- they create balance in the body without negatively influencing any particular body system at the expense of another.

Basically, adaptogenic herbs are to stress what a hot bowl of homemade soup is to a cold, rainy day -- relaxing and yet restorative and, in short, just what the doctor ordered.

Herbs used to restore a healthy stress response are traditionally prepared as formulas, not taken as individual herbs. As an introduction to this fascinating subject, here are seven of my favorite adaptogenic herbs often used in such formulas and some basic info on how they can help you relax and recharge:

Note: When using herbs, please consult a licensed healthcare provider trained in their use. Some herbs are not compatible with medications. To learn more about the subject of adaptogens, I recommend an excellent book on the subject: "Adaptogens for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes."

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  • Panax Ginseng (Asian Ginseng)

    Panax ginseng is perhaps one of the most studied medicinal herbs in the world -- and might be one of the most widely used. It's used to promote a <a href="http://nccam.nih.gov/health/asianginseng/ataglance.htm" target="_hplink">sense of well-being</a> and endurance, as an <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22335772" target="_hplink">anti-depressant,</a> for <a href="http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/1000.html" target="_hplink">memory </a>and<a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20737519" target="_hplink"> calmness, for energy</a> (it's one of the ingredients in most energy drinks)... and even as an aphrodisiac! Panax Ginseng has been used in China for more than 5,000 years -- and in 300 A.D., the Chinese demand for Ginseng was one of the drivers of the creation of international trade!

  • Rhodiola

    Rhodiola -- also called "golden root" -- is <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22228617" target="_hplink">used mostly to treat </a><a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20378318" target="_hplink">stress,</a> <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21601431" target="_hplink">depression</a> and fatigue, and is also believed to increase <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21036578" target="_hplink">mental performance.</a> 
Used for centuries in Asia and Scandinavia, Rhodiola is still relatively new to the Western market, but its popularity is growing, in large part because of what an incredibly versatile -- and relatively inexpensive -- herb it is. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/55368994@N06/6062957780/" target="_hplink">Scott Loarie</a></em>

  • Holy Basil

    Holy Basil (a cousin of the garden-variety "sweet basil" you use in your pasta sauce) comes from the lowlands of India. It's called "holy" because it is believed by Hindus to be the avatar for the goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealthy, wisdom, and light. Holy Basil has a wide variety of uses, stemming back thousands of years. Within the tradition of Ayurvedic medicine, <a href="http://www.queenofherbs.com/html/stress_disorders.html" target="_hplink">it is used to</a> <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17922070" target="_hplink">alleviate stress</a>, headaches, colds, digestive problems and <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20509321" target="_hplink">inflammation</a>. Recent studies have also shown that it's also a powerful antioxidant and may even be able to reduce blood glucose levels and cholesterol.

  • Ashwagandha

    Ashwangandha is one of the premier restorative herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. It is known to help stabilize mood and support optimal physical and <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11194174" target="_hplink">emotional well-being.</a> It is also known to improve memory and focus and endurance. It is believed to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16846833" target="_hplink">reduce the effects of stress</a> on the body.

  • He Shou Wu

    He shou wu is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a tonic to slow down the aging process. It is a restorative herb, calming to the nervous system, and has also been shown to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21419834" target="_hplink">promote hair growth</a>, alleviate insomnia, and may aid with <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20951128" target="_hplink">learning and memory</a>. The herb is named after a Chinese man, He Shou Wu, who was old, impotent, and an alcoholic. He fell asleep in the forest one day, drunk, and woke beneath two, beautiful, intertwining herbs. He interpreted it as a sign, ground up the root of the vines and took it. According to legend, after doing so, he became possessed by incredible vitality, grew back a full head of thick hair, developed a strong, youthful physique and soon married and fathered several children. <em>Photo by <a href="http://www.nutraherbalsolutions.com/Herb Garden, Guangxi, China.htm" target="_hplink">nutraherbalsolutions.com</a></em>

  • Schizandra

    Long used in traditional Chinese medicine, the schizandra berry has a <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18515024" target="_hplink">wide variety of uses</a>: It promotes liver function, supports the immune system, relieves anxiety, increases energy, and it can improve mental clarity. It's sometimes called the "five flavors berry," because it tastes sour, bitter, sweet, salty and acrid all at once. <em>Photo by <a href="http://www.greendragonsuperfoods.com/" target="_hplink">Green Dragon Superfoods</a></em>

  • Reishi Mushroom

    Traditional Chinese medicine uses reishi to "calm the spirit." Reishi, (literally "supernatural" mushrooms) have been used for more than 2,000 years, making them perhaps the oldest mushroom to be used medicinally. They can be helpful to reduce anxiety, alleviate insomnia, combat fatigue, and lower blood pressure. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/frankenstoen/3732807582/" target="_hplink">frankenstoen</a></em>

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