Botanicals for stress support

By Dr. Shawn Morris, ND

Every day, we navigate the countless stressors hurled our way. We all have our strategies to adapt and stay balanced. Maybe we go for a walk, spend time with loved ones, stream that new Netflix special, take a bath, or simply close our eyes and breathe for a moment. Pressing the pause button and taking time to restore is essential.

From time to time, demands pile up, or we confront major life challenges, and our adaptability is put to the test. Feeling constantly overwhelmed, wiped out, and daydreaming about staying in bed all day are signs we’ve been pushed a little too far. Just like the check engine light coming on, this state of exhaustion is a sign we need to attend to our wellbeing. Along with lifestyle changes and mind-body care, botanical medicine can support recovery.

Nervines & adaptogens

In nature, there are many plants that balance stress hormones and restore the adrenals. The adrenals are a key part of the endocrine system, and regulate cortisol and other stress hormones. They help us adapt to the demands of life. Traditional cultures have a long history of using botanicals as teas and tinctures to support the adrenals and nervous system. There are two main categories of plants: nervines & adaptogens.

Nervines are herbs that calm down a hyperactive, stressed out nervous system — like when we’re in the “fight or flight” state. Nervines increase levels of calming compounds in the brain and body, soothing restless thoughts and supporting sound sleep.

The second group are adaptogens, which balance cortisol levels and promote adrenal health. In each of these two categories, there are botanicals that are safe and effective when used appropriately. All information here is educational only, and not intended as a treatment for any disease. I recommend checking in with your care provider before taking botanicals to find a treatment approach that is right for you.

Nervines

Most of the nervine herbs work by increasing the effects of the calming neurotransmitter gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short. GABA shifts us into the “rest and relax” state of our parasympathetic nervous system. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a common perennial from the mint family, and has this calming effect. Used for hundreds of years by traditional herbalists, studies have found that lemon balm blocks the breakdown of GABA, keeping more in circulation.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) similarly increases levels of GABA, by inhibiting breakdown and increasing production. Hops (Humulus lupulus) also has this effect. This is why beer leaves us feeling more relaxed — so opt for the high hop content in IPA from your local brewery! Keep it to one drink though, as too much alcohol ramps up cortisol and other stress hormones.

From South America, the fruit and vine of the passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) have been used for centuries as a nervous system restorative. Spanish explorers learned about the calming effects from indigenous healers and drank passionflower tea during their long sea voyages. Current research shows that passionflower enhances the effects of GABA at the receptor, leading to increased sedation.

Another ancient remedy that works with GABA is magnolia bark. Native to China, magnolia has a long history of use in Chinese medicine. Other botanicals that work with GABA are California poppy (Eschscholzia californicum), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum).

Nervines should not be taken with anxiety or hypertensive medications, due to their synergistic effect. Also, St. John’s wort will decrease the effectiveness of all prescription drugs, so avoid taking with medication.

Adaptogens: Rhodiola and Ashwaghanda

The second class of herbs for stress recovery are the adaptogens. Adaptogens balance cortisol output and also nourish the adrenal glands. Of these herbs, rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is one of the most effective. Rhodiola, or golden root, is both stimulating and sedating — depending on the dose. Counterintuitively, higher doses are calming, while lower doses are stimulating. Used by Chinese physicians to promote longevity and endurance, rhodiola enhances thyroid and adrenal function in research. Scientists discovered that rhodiola also protects the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, improving the body’s resistance to stress.

Ashwaghanda (Withania somnifera) is an adaptogen from Ayuverdic medicine that promotes healthy stress response. Ashwaghanda improves adrenal exhaustion, memory, and overall wellbeing. Current research is clarifying the pharmacology behind these clinical effects. Ashwaghanda has neurotransmitter protective properties like rhodiola. The alkaloids in ashwaghanda are sedative, and decrease the half-life of cortisol, promoting breakdown.

Researchers found that taking Ashwaghanda daily led to a significant reduction in cortisol levels for chronically stressed individuals. Other adaptogens include astragalus (Astragalus propinquus), reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticocus), and schisandra (Schisandra chinensis).

Nervines and adaptogens support nervous system recovery — helping you regain balance. Combining botanicals with sound nutrition, mind body therapies, and healthy sleep will be far more effective. Teas, tinctures, and capsules are all effective delivery methods, but pay attention to sourcing and quality. Go for organic, sustainably sourced botanicals from reputable companies. In our area, there are quite a few suppliers with high standards, including Wise Woman Herbals, Mountain Rose, and Gaia Herbs.