Most of us know something about stress because we’ve experienced it. That tense feeling in the neck… agitation…jitters in your stomach…and that rush of adrenaline that comes when you step off the curb only to realize a bus is barreling toward you.
These are all sensations of stress. The stress response is part of what is called the “general adaptation syndrome,” of which there are three phases: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. These phases are in large part regulated by our adrenal glands.
The initial stress response is the alarm reaction, referred to as the fight-or-flight response. This phase is usually short and is designed to help us respond to danger… like stepping out of the way of that bus. Our heart rate goes up, our rate of breathing increases and blood sugar levels are increased in order to supply enough blood and oxygen to parts of the body that are needed for us to respond quickly.
The next phase is the resistance reaction, which allows the body to continue dealing with a stressor after the effects of the fight-or-flight phase have worn off. Hormones secreted from the adrenal glands are largely responsible for the resistance reaction phase, which enables us to have a good supply of energy from proteins after those glucose supplies are depleted. These changes in our physiology during this phase of stress reactions help us to deal with the emotional fallout, as well as the physical demands and the immune impact of stress.
If stress is prolonged or severe—or both—it overrides our ability to adapt, and exhaustion results. This is when our adrenal glands are depleted in their production of hormones, when our cells and tissues do not receive enough glucose and other nutrients, and the cells lose potassium. Everything becomes weakened—mentally, emotionally and physically.
The good news is that we can do something about exhaustion! Many things can be done to help us adapt to stress, but the best way to start is in practicing good habits for calming the mind and body, such as relaxation techniques, yoga, meditation and prayer.
Altering lifestyle habits is another important way to minimize the effects of stress. Examples include good time management, setting priorities, improving relationships, seeking counseling, eating a healthy whole food diet, abiding by regular meal times, getting regular exercise and sleep, being in nature, and reducing alcohol, caffeine and sugar.
Supplementing the diet with herbs and nutrients can also be very helpful in achieving a calmer state and helping us to adapt and recover from stress.
Adaptogens, for example, are a class of herbs that are important for improving our stress-adaptation mechanisms. These herbs help the body resist stress and help normalize, regulate and even produce a “tonic” kind of effect (rather than a stimulant effect). My favorite adaptogens are ashwagandha, rhodiola, maca and panax ginseng (aka Korean ginseng). These can be taken daily and long term. Since these are not quick-acting herbs, they should be part of a medium to long-term strategy for coping with stress.
There are also herbs that can help you feel less anxiety and bring about a calmer state more immediately (usually within about 30 minutes). Herbs with this gentle mild effect are chamomile, passionflower and lemon balm. For herbs that pack more of a punch, turn to valerian or kava.
Several herbs can help with more entrenched anxiety states. My favorite is lavender oil extract in pill form, although even simply inhaling or diffusing lavender essential oil has been shown to have anxiety reducing effects. Supplements such as L-theanine and GABA are also used to reduce general anxiety.
We all have stress—it’s a normal part of life. But as many of us try to adapt to faster paces, more stimuli, less down time, more pressure and more complicated lives, we often find there is indeed a limit.
So let’s stop, pause, breathe, look at the sunset, walk amongst the beauty of nature, learn skills and adopt habits to better manage stress, and utilize these important supplements in order to feel better and prevent the long-term consequences of prolonged stress.