Maybe it’s a looming deadline at work. Or perhaps it’s one of the big events, like buying a new home, having a baby, or starting a new job, and things are not going as well as you had hoped.
Whatever it is, you’re stressing out. You eat too much or can’t sleep. Your shoulders are tight and you’re on edge. That’s no way to live, but let’s face it: We all experience stress and, despite the conveniences of our modern age, things seem to be getting more frantic all the time.
What Is Anxiety?
Sometimes stress doesn’t dissipate, even when its apparent causes pass. Excessive, persistent stress is also known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It’s characterized by a recurring sense of worry accompanied by sleeplessness, restlessness, muscle tension, irritability, and low sex drive, among other symptoms.
The acute form of anxiety shows up in panic attacks, sudden bouts of fear and dread accompanied by rapid heartbeat, chills, excessive perspiration, dizziness, and other physical symptoms.
Drugs such as Zoloft and Valium are often prescribed as treatment, although some can be habit-forming and can cause unwanted side effects.
Fortunately, there are natural options that have proved to be effective stress busters.
Botanicals Beat Stress
One of the top herbs for treating stress and anxiety is kava, an herb from the South Pacific islands. The medicinal compounds of the root, kavalactones, have relaxing properties. Ray Sahelian, MD, author of Mind Boosters: A Guide to Natural Supplements that Enhance Your Mind, Memory, and Mood, has prescribed kava for many of his patients.
“Having talked to quite a number of kava users, recommended it to patients, and having taken it myself, I have discovered that not everyone reacts exactly the same way to the herb,” says Dr. Sahelian. Personal biochemistry, amounts taken, and where the herb comes from can affect its potency.
Dr. Sahelian explains that most of the time, the results after taking kava—such as relaxation, reduced muscle tension, peacefulness, and sometimes mild euphoria—can be seen within an hour or two of taking the herb.
There are some cautions, however, that go along with kava, as it seems to enter the grey area between a natural botanical and a pharmaceutical or drug.In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an advisory about the potential risk of liver damage associated with the herb. According to the FDA, at least 25 cases of liver toxicity, including hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure have occurred throughout the world.
It’s not clear whether kava alone was to blame in these incidents. Factors such as other medications, drinking alcohol, and genetic predisposition need to be taken into account. “Until we know the full details,” explains Dr. Sahelian, “it’s best to restrict the use of kava to no more than a few days per month.”
Another popular herb used to treat stress is valerian, which is often used as a sleep aid. Taken in low doses, it can help ease anxiety.
In a recent study, scientists compared the effectiveness of 81 mg of valerian extract to 6.5 mg of diazepam (Valium) or a placebo. They found that both the valerian and Valium, but not the placebo, offered a significant reduction in the psychic symptoms of anxiety.
A favorite stress-reducing herb of Laurie Steelsmith, ND, author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health, is Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). She explains that ginseng is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it does not always have the same physiological effect, but instead adapts its mode of action to help your body correct an imbalance, such as excessive stress.
“Modern science has proven what has long been known in Asia—that Siberian ginseng contains substances that can help your body adapt to stress. I often prescribe Siberian ginseng to help my patients handle stress and enhance their immunity,” Dr. Steelsmith says. “If you are under a lot of stress, it can help you cope by decreasing the release of stress hormones from your adrenal glands. The herb can also help your immune system fight infections because it can increase both the quantity and the activity of your immune cells.”
In a recent study, researchers wanted to explore this herb’s ability to increase resistance to stress and fatigue. In the past, studies reported that Siberian ginseng has antifatigue and antistress actions, but the mechanism for these actions was unclear. Conducting stress tests on mice, researchers found that the herb contributed to the antifatigue action, the recovery of the reduction of natural killer activity, and the inhibition of corticosterone elevation induced by stress.
Dr. Steelsmith does caution, however, that those with high blood pressure or those taking the pharmaceutical drug digoxin or barbiturates should not use Siberian ginseng. Some people have reported insomnia if they take the herb too close to bedtime, and mild diarrhea if they take too much.
Another favorite of hers is the herb Rhodiola rosea, used for centuries in Russia and Scandinavia. Also known as golden root or roseroot, rhodiola grows in dry, sandy ground at high altitudes in Europe and Asia.
In traditional folk medicine, rhodiola was prescribed to increase physical endurance, fertility, and longevity and to help relieve fatigue and disorders of the nervous system. Modern science has backed up some of these beliefs.
Rhodiola is also classified as an adaptogen. “Several studies have shown that the herb shortens recovery time between sessions of intense exercise and also increases physical and mental work capacity,” says Dr. Steelsmith.
Researchers have found that rhodiola can affect levels of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine by inhibiting their breakdown. It can also influence levels of hormones and other neurotransmitters that are released in response to chronic and acute stress. In one study on the effects of rhodiola on stress, 161 participants aged 19 to 21 years were given rhodiola extract or a placebo. The results showed that those given the rhodiola had a highly significant antifatigue reaction, while the placebo group scored much lower.
Dr. Steelsmith does caution, however, that those taking pharmaceutical antidepressants should avoid rhodiola due to possible inverse reactions. (Remember that adaptogens tend to normalize, so it would not be surprising to find rhodiola trying to “undo” the work of the pharmaceutical treatment.)
Looking toward traditional Chinese medicine, reishi mushrooms can be another tool for alleviating stress. Dr. Steelsmith takes a reishi supplement herself. “I’ve been exhausted between work and deadlines for my book,” she says. After numerous colds and bouts with allergies, she decided to supplement her healthcare regimen with reishi. “I haven’t been sick since, and it’s made a huge difference in allergies.”
Reishi mushrooms have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, and modern research finds that they contain many different active constituents. According to a September 2000 monograph by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, most of the research on reishi mushrooms has been centered on its immune-enhancing, cardiovascular-regulating, and blood-sugar-lowering actions, as well as its liver-protective properties.
“I’ve felt like reishi has given me an armor that I didn’t have before,” says Dr. Steelsmith. She adds that although reishi mushrooms have an excellent safety record, they should not be used by people who are taking anticoagulants and cholesterol-lowering drugs that inhibit HMG-CoA reductase (such as Lovastatin).