Stress is one of the hardest things to deal with in modern life. Unless you’re living on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, you’ve probably been affected by the pressures and stresses of daily life. Add to that any other challenges (grief, illness, financial worries) and you can end up in quite a bad way resulting in panic attacks, depression or even illness. Anxiety is also a very common condition. We all have it occasionally but sometimes it can become overwhelming and can take over our lives. It can be brought on by life events or sometimes it seems to appear out of nowhere, but either way it’s important to deal with it before it gets out of hand. Talking through specific problems, either with a friend or therapist, can be hugely helpful but isn’t always enough. We all self medicate to a certain degree. I myself find daily exercise the single most effective de-stressor. Also that nice glass of wine at the end of the day to help relax? Easy for that glass to turn into a bottle though and then we end up with a different problem.
However, nature has some wonderful herbs that can really make a difference. Here, nutritionist Fleur Borrrelli, looks at some of the most effective. I’ve used most of these at some stage or another and they truly do make a difference. At the end of the article I also write about some stronger choices (all still natural supplements and herbs), as advised by holistic GP Dr Sharma.
Using adaptogens to cope with the pressures of modern life:
Living in a modern age of smartphones and social media means fewer boundaries and less downtime. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), psychological problems, including stress, anxiety and depression, are behind one in five visits to a GP.
Stress is the response the body makes when we sense ‘danger’. From an evolutionary point of view, stress is important because it allows us to mobilise our resources to either run away or fight our foe. Genetically we are back in an era where hunger or thirst, heat or cold or a dangerous predator would have been considered a stress factor for our ancestors (1). This would have produced a whole cascade of chemical reactions from hormones to neurotransmitters. These are designed to prepare the heart, lungs and muscles for action and the brain for motivation to move to find a solution to the problem.
Nowadays we still produce those same symptoms of stress. The heart can pound and breathing can quicken. Muscles may be tense and beads of sweat can appear. The immune system may be primed to switch on all genes producing inflammation in case of a pathogenic attack. The problem is that we are no longer foraging for food or moving to find water, or even fighting pathogens in our overly hygienic environments. ‘Old stressors’ are situations that the brain can easily recognize and that can be dealt with fairly quickly in the scheme of things.
Modern stress tends to be long term and our problems are no longer ones that can be resolved quickly. Paying the mortgage or dealing with the constant bombardment of texts and emails can all take their toll. We have not had enough time to adapt over the past fifty thousand years and changes particularly in the last fifty years have been unprecedented. We fight our never-ending financial concerns as if we were fighting an infection because we have not had enough time to adapt to chronic problems. This is done by producing inflammation – not the type that helps in wound healing but more the non-stop version that can go on and on. In the short term this can do us no harm but in the longer term it causes wear and tear and can affect our mental wellbeing leading on to anxiety and depression (2).
Psychological health is associated with the ability to be flexible (3). This means being able to move between ‘here-and-now’ thinking which is what we do when we are ‘in the moment or ‘there and then’ thinking when we can ‘switch off’ and consider the future. The ‘here-and-now’ focus is what we use when we cooking, for example, or caring for children. Our ‘there-and-then’ neuroanatomy gives us motivation and drive and an ability to consider future actions. When we are stuck in a negative way of thinking, for example when we cannot see a way out of an unpleasant situation at work, we can’t move beyond the ‘here-and-now’. This can be exhausting and contributes to a number of conditions such as chronic fatigue and depression (4).
Adaptogens are nature’s herbal answer to twenty-first century living. They not only increase your resistance to the detrimental effect of chronic stress, they also support the immune system and can increase your general sense of well-being. This in turn can help you to become flexible rather than stuck in your ways. Here are some of the key adaptogens:
- Rhodiola Rosea is thought to strengthen the nervous system, fight depression, boost your immune system, give you more energy, enhance memory, support fat loss and increase your libido (5).
- Panax Ginseng Ginseng is a tonic herb used to rejuvenate and invigorate. It is considered an adaptogen, providing non-specific protection against various mental, physical and environmental forms of stress (6).
- Maca is otherwise known as “Peruvian ginseng,” although it bears no relation to ginseng. But like ginseng, it increases strength, energy, stamina, libido and sexual function (7).
- Crocus Sativus is the plant from which saffron is produced. Its active ingredients may have a unique influence on many pathways related to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, sexual impotence, depression, anxiety and pain (8).
- Ashwagandha is an exotic Indian herb which has remarkable stress-relieving properties comparable to those of powerful drugs used to treat depression and anxiety (9).
I also asked Dr Sharma what he prescribes for people with very high anxiety levels or panic attacks. He believes that if there are problems triggering the anxiety, it’s important to seek counselling to address these issues.
However he mentioned two quite powerful natural medications that can be used either singly or together if the anxiety is very extreme.
The first is a specially formulated supplement called Stabilium. It contains an ingredient called Garum Armoricum which is extracted from the “great blue fish” ( so not a good choice for vegetarians or vegans ) found in only one place in the world and discovered by the ancient Celts. It’s been found to have impressive anti-stress properties and is effective in reducing anxiety and depression.
The second is called HPA-JA and is a liquid formulated by John Andrews. It’s basically a combination of most of the adaptognens mentioned by Fleur above with a couple of additions, making it quite powerful and effective. However, because it’s a combination of remedies it can only be got through a practitioner such as John Andrews or Dr Sharma. Dr Sharma describes the combination of Stabilium and HPA-JA as one rung below taking an actual anti-depressant.
I would say that if you are at this level of stress, anxiety or depression, it’s best to seek medical advice in any case. Please be wary of using such herbal remedies as mentioned above if on any other medication, as herbs and natural remedies may inter-react with conventional medication. It’s always best to meet with an integrated doctor or medical herbalist before self-prescribing.