Herbs Promote Stress Reduction

By Tereza Hubkova, M.D., Contributor

Dr. Tereza Hubkova wrote about adaptogens for John Knox Village

Dr. Tereza Hubkova

There are many lessons we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic: We can reflect on our vulnerability and mortality, our values, the importance of connection to others: Our families and friends, the importance of nature, the benefits of taking a break from the human rat race we have imposed on ourselves, the importance of taking better care of our health and more.

Regardless of whether you are taking the opportunity to learn from this global crisis, the pandemic has brought an enormous amount of stress to many of us.

Stress suppresses immune systems and can make us more prone to infection, but it can also take a toll on our cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of heart attacks, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), strokes and if persistent—increasing the risk of dementia.

It has a negative impact on our digestive system, but it can also cause flare up of autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis.

At this time more than ever, we need all the help we can get. And, there is a lot of help we can get from Mother Nature.

Nature’s Stress Relievers

Adaptogens are plants and mushrooms that help us deal with stress. They can assist both physically as well as emotionally. These wonderful gifts of nature support our immune system and make us more resilient—less likely to catch an infection. In addition, adaptogens support our nervous and endocrine systems (normalizing hormone levels, sharpening focus and memory).

Herbalists use the term tonic for herbs that support healthy organ function. As such, tonics promote health and longevity. All adaptogens are tonics. Some are liver tonics, some are lung or kidney tonics, most are immune tonics. They protect our bodies from depletion.

Many adaptogens are antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, reducing the collateral damage of stress on our cells and organs. Through their effect on hormones and neurotransmitters, adaptogens also improve brain function: They can be very helpful for prevention and treatment of anxiety, depression and insomnia, as well as improving focus, memory and mental stamina.

For these challenging times, get acquainted with these few adaptogens with available modern research.

With an over 3,000-year-long tradition of use in India, Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been shown to improve sleep quality and the ability to focus, while reducing fatigue and anxiety. It improves many stress-related blood markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), DHEA-S (the vitality hormone), cholesterol and glucose and even improves muscle strength.

This is a wonderful plant to help you deal with stress, and also to promote recovery both physically and mentally from a disease or surgery. Ashwagandha seems to minimize the pathology of Alzheimer’s (in a test tube and in animals) and has been used to boost memory and promote longevity for centuries. It is available in many forms including powder, pill, capsule, oil and liquid.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) may be my personal favorite adaptogen. Also known as arctic or golden root, Rhodiola contains more than 140 active ingredients.

Traditionally, Rhodiola has been used to prevent upper respiratory infections and, in the pre-antibiotic era, even to treat lung diseases such as tuberculosis. Modern studies support its use for depression, stress-related insomnia, fatigue and burnout. In studies, many noticed benefits in mental performance in less than a week.

Like many herbs, Rhodiola rosea is available in capsules, tablets, dried powder and liquid extract.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) was the first plant that turned me into a fan of botanical medicine. When my daughter was young, I would get sick each time she brought home another germ from her playgroup or kindergarten.

My immune system was weak due to sleep deprivation. My daughter was a terrible sleeper and thus, I was getting very little sleep myself. The infections often triggered a dry, asthma-like cough in me for weeks. As a physician, I felt ashamed that I could not handle this. That is, until I came across Astragalus.

With Astragalus my immunity improved, and I now rarely get a cold when I use it (and I use it each flu season). I have not used my inhaler for years.

In China, where Astragalus has been used for thousands of years, it was believed to strengthen the lung and protect it against negative external influences such as infections. It may even prevent immunosuppression caused by chemotherapy. My own experience with Astragalus started my herbal studies and I could not imagine practicing medicine today without using herbs.

There are dozens of adaptogens and tonics that might help you deal with the stress of COVID-19 and modulate your immunity. Once you start learning about them, a whole new world opens for you, full of support, gentle healing and deeper connection to nature.

Adaptogens May Aid Your Health

Consider these times as an opportunity to broaden your knowledge and improve your health. These plants will continue to serve you long after COVID-19 is gone.

Certainly, more research is needed to understand how adaptogens may interact with medications, and to establish safety (although most seem to be quite safe with only a few warnings). Still, when using herbs, I recommend working with a trusted and experienced practitioner.

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About the author

Dr. Tereza Hubkova is former Medical Director at Canyon Ranch and has been practicing internal medicine for the past 20 years. Currently, she is the Medical Director of Advent Health, The Center for Whole Person Health, in Overland Park, Kansas. Before the pandemic gripped the world, Dr. Hubkova was scheduled to be a guest presenter at John Knox Village for its residents and members of the greater community, including the Lifelong Learning Institute at Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Hubkova wrote this article for John Knox Village’s Gazette.

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