Part I of this article series, Nervines for a New Year, makes the point that with the appropriate nervine tonics, we can lessen the impact stress has on our bodies. That by doing so, we live a fuller life with decreased incidence of stress induced illness. In Part II, I will talk briefly about how stress affects our health, recommend plants from our previously outlined Materia medica to support each, and add a bit about aromatherapy.
Stress can be a natural part of the vital life force. It can motivate us to complete a project and inspire us to focus. But it can also become a distraction that undermines our work, as well as our mental and physical health. The question is, how is stress able to destabilize our health so drastically? From insomnia and anxiety, to digestive disorders and depressed immunity, stress hits us at our weakest point.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to give an in depth answer to this question, an explanation can be given in general terms. Terms that, hopefully, establish why it’s important to be pro-active in our approach to stress instead of standing by while it consumes us.
The Physical Path of Stress
Our emotional reaction to life circumstances and traumatic incidences echo throughout our body. The echo has purpose. It vibrates our nervous and endocrine system to react, thus stimulating organs to maintain function and balance through adversity.
We have two main divisions in the nervous system, the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The CNS is responsible for reading our environment and connecting with conscious thought. We control our bodies this way-move an arm, speak, walk.
Our ANS divides into two parts which stimulate the endocrine system and adrenal glands to secrete hormones that oversee natural reflexes in the body. Our immune response, heart beating, blood pumping, and our digestive system functioning for example.
Stress hits our nervous system, stimulating a rain of hormones throughout the body to help us maintain balance. As these levels surge and drop, energy is shuffled from some organ systems-digestive, reproductive, immune- to increase function in others-muscles, respiratory, heart.
Typically, our body is able to recover from stress once it has passed, but chronic stress cycles lead to patterns of deficiency and excess. And what is soon to follow are chronic health problems. Here is a brief mention of what can go wrong.
1. The Heart- Whether anxious, euphoric, happy or sad, the rhythm of the heart can become disrupted, increases in speed, or stay steady and calm. Stress can cause anxiety and kidney deficiency, leading to cardiovascular excess. This can translate as high blood pressure.
2. Digestion- When we stress, blood moves away from digestive organs out to the periphery as we prepare for fight or flight, thus decreasing our digestive power. Combined with a poor diet, stress can increase stomach acid, the risk of an ulcer, and adversely affect enzyme production, liver and colon function. In some, it can decrease the stomachs ability to produce acid.
3. Urinary tract: Nervousness can result in an overactive urinary tract or an under active one. When the kidneys feel unsupported in their work, they cannot filter or read the blood effectively to communicate messages about the blood to the bone marrow. Stress hormones adversely affect function. Excess adrenaline causes water retention that is relieved when relaxation occurs as we sleep. Excess cortisol causes a decrease in function overall, thereby resulting in the kidneys being unable to do their job of filtering the blood.
4. Immunity: Immune function and white blood cell count is decreased as a result of excess cortisol, and the fact that energy is diverted to places it is needed for fight or flight. It is also depressed by a lack of proper rest and sleep.
Now that we’ve established the idea that stress affects the whole, let’s plug the herbs from our Materia medica into the maladies. You may notice that I included some that weren’t mentioned in the last article. Resources for reading up on those will be mentioned in the closing.
Stress Related Woes
Anxiety is a body-wide response to a perceived threat. An event or situation fuels a chemical reaction in the endocrine system. Combined with personal history, spiritual wounding and the power of the mind, one is left feeling compromised, vulnerable and in danger.
There are a host of chronic health problems caused by anxiety. A list of the most dominant complaints are: impaired digestive function, nausea, ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, heart palpitations, insomnia, water retention, libido decreased, vertigo and headaches.
Sample formulas for anxiety:
Anxiety with an over-acidic stomach: Daytime tincture: blue vervain if tension in the spine, motherwort if tension in the heart, 10-20 drops 3-4 times daily; Pre-meal tea: chamomile tea (it’s an antacid), 2 tablespoons steeped for 10 minutes drunk 20 minutes before meal, add peppermint if nauseous; fennel or caraway for greater carminative effect
Anxiety with a nervous stomach: Pre-meal: equal parts tincture of lemon balm (specific for nervous stomach with overstimulation of the autonomic nervous system) and yellow dock root, 10 drops before meals; sip on peppermint tea throughout the day if nauseous
Anxiety with heat that rises and a heart that is constricted: equal parts hawthorn, motherwort, passionflower or rose tincture, take 10-35 drops 3-5 times daily; may also take a dose of 60 drops when symptoms are extreme.
Anxiety leading to digestive distress: Pre-meal formula: lemon balm and yellow dock root, take 5-10 drops before eating a meal; Daily formula of: motherwort, lemon balm, hawthorn, holy basil, 10-35 drops 3-5 times daily, and can take 60 drops when symptoms are extreme
Anxiety with IBS and spasms in the colon: Tincture: equal parts motherwort, holy basil and hawthorn, 10-35 drops 3-4 times daily. Can take 60-90 drops of motherwort if in the throes of spasms. Sip on peppermint tea throughout the day.
Auto immune Disease
Auto immune disease is tricky. While the illnesses themselves are stem from heat and excitement internally, I find there is a certain amount of cold tension which constricts the nervous system. Using nervine tonics to relax the constriction can help lessen and interrupt the effect stress has on disease progression and flare-ups.
It is important to also note that the heat and inflammation in auto immune should be addressed, but that is for another article.
Most of the plants I have had success recommending here are acrid bitters, such as blue vervain. Acrid tastes bring a shiver when they hit the tongue, symbolizing their need in releasing trapped wind and energy.
You will notice that I like also like using the nervines with hawthorn. I have found through experience that cardiovascular (heart) weakness is synonymous with autoimmune. It is a generality, but a theory that has yielded positive physical response.
Here are a few plants to be considered. Be specific about the choice for you. Dosage will vary per person, but a general guide is 10-25 drops, 3-5 times daily.
Prickly nerve pain: calendula, yarrow, or the sweet and balsamic St. John’s Wort (St. John is contraindicated if you are currently taking an immune suppressing drug)
Digestive distress from nervousness: lemon balm and blue vervain.
Anxiety: motherwort, hawthorn and blue vervain.
Tight feeling emanating from the spine: motherwort, hawthorn and blue vervain.
Withered, undernourished, dry and exhausted: fresh milky oat tincture, hawthorn and blue vervain
A side note: While many use stimulating adaptogens, i.e. the ginsengs, in auto immune disease I generally find them to be a poor choice. A person with depleted energy who is consumed by excessive heat and is sensitive cannot support the heat and stimulation that comes with many adaptogens.
It is important to rebalance the energy in the nervous system, decrease the heat and inflammation, and support deficient function first. When that work has taken root, only then should heating adaptogens be considered. Be sure to employ them cautiously.
The constantly suffering insomniac wakes to many dawns of exhaustion. This exhaustion disables the body’s ability to do important tasks, and makes insomnia a precursor for other more serious health problems. Here are a few of the ways lack of sleep affects the body.
The immune system and body’s ability to heal kicks in as we sleep. When we don’t rest, we are more prone to acute and chronic illness, and take longer to recover.
Appropriate rest and relaxation gives our adrenals and nervous system a break, preparing us to more capably deal with stress, and be more emotionally balanced.
Insomnia can lead to anxiety, depression and emotional distress, further affecting the heart and digestive organs.
With my clients sleeplessness is one of the first problems I address. If needed I recommend lifestyle modification. But an internal plant remedy or external application of aromatherapy is always applied.
There are specific reasons I would choose aromatherapy over a tincture. For one thing, it helps set the mind and body in a relaxed direction quickly for it has a direct effect on chemical firings in the brain. And because its applied topically, I can avoid herb drug interactions, or simplify how many plants are being taken internally. (For specific formula recommendations, refer to the aromatherapy section.)
You’ll notice I said tincture above and not tea. I avoid teas when trying to get someone to sleep. I don’t want my client disrupting their sleep cycle to visit the bathroom.
There are those who wake up naturally as they learn to re-balance as they work to rebalance the sleep cycle. So I recommend they take another 35 drops of tincture, or reapply the aromatherapy formula and go back to bed.
Formula for Insomnia with cold and depressed function, prone to acute infections: equal parts tinctures of lavender, blue vervain, passionflower, 35-70 drops 30 minutes before bed.
Formula for Insomnia with anxiety and heat rising to the head: equal parts tincture of passionflower, motherwort, and hawthorn; 35-70 drops 30 minutes before bed.
Insomnia that stems from excess use of stimulants, leading to an inability to sleep and exhaustion during the day. This takes retraining the rhythm of the body a little differently. Daytimes tincture: equal parts of Siberian ginseng or American ginseng, with holy basil, 10-20 drops 3-4 times daily. Cease use of this tincture after 5 pm. Nighttime tincture: motherwort, California poppy, passionflower, 35-70 drops 30 minutes before bed. (Note: I have had successfully used this approach with former drug addicts. Of course, they have to be off drugs for it to work.)
There are things that can contribute to insomnia and should be avoided 30-60 minutes before bed. T.V, the computer, and foods that are high in sugar. In this window of time it is important to engage in activities that slow the mind down in preparation for bed. A bath, writing in a journal, knitting, drawing or reading. For those who can’t seem to get tomorrows tasks off their mind, this is also a good time to make a written list of those things and set it aside. Cause you can’t do anything about them now.
This is one of favorite mediums for stress. I use it when working with stress, emotional and spiritual illness. Scent perception occurs in less than a second with body wide effects. It bypasses organ system processes and overrides conscious thought, making it an effective ally in stress related illness. Once you’ve tried an essential oil bath, you will most likely agree.
Formulas for stress relief, anxiety and insomnia should be applied to the feet, heart and back of the neck. The veins in the feet bypass the liver and run directly to the heart and respiratory tract. Foot application is a direct way to calm the heart, while inhaling scent calms the mind.
It’s also good practice to make a small bottle of your formula and carry it with you or keep it at your desk. Instead of a coffee break, make a cup of tea, and take 5 minutes to smell your formula.
Healing baths are an excellent way to manage excess stress. I have nearly all my stressed clients take them, and no one has complained yet. These baths quickly become a simple pleasure with great effect. To take a bath, apply your formula to your body before stepping into a tub, and add 1 cup of Epsom salts. Soak for at least 20 minutes.
All formulas, bath and other, should be made at a 1-2% dilution, which translates as 7-14 drops of pure essential oil in a carrier oil. Here are a few sample formulas to try.
Anti-Anxiety Formula: clary sage, lavender, and lemongrass; or vetiver, lemongrass, lavender.
Nervine and immune tonic: lavender, vetiver, frankincense, and geranium.
Lymphatic Congestion: frankincense, lemongrass, cypress, vetiver.
Insomniacs Dream: sweet mandarin, spikenard and rosewood. The three oils combine to make a sedative combination that quiets the mind and relaxes the heart and nervous system. For insomnia apply at least 20 minutes before bed. Reapply overnight if needed.
Digestive Distress Formula: grapefruit, lavender, lemongrass; An aromatherapy bath can be a healing thing for gastrointestinal distress, IBS and IBD. It relaxes the intestinal tract, supports liver and gallbladder health, relieves emotional stress, and boosts the immune system. This formula can also be massaged over the abdomen.
Immune Support Formula: lavender, frankincense, and lemongrass. Boosts immune function, increases lymphatic circulation, and relieves stress.
Aphrodisiac Formula: rose, clary sage, cardamom, sweet mandarin; I didn’t speak too much about the effects stress has on libido. This general formula relaxes the nervous system, decreases anxiety and increases sex drive.
This article lists some of the most obvious reactions to stress. There are many others, as are there many other solutions. With so much information, some of you may be trying to figure out where to begin. That is a valid thought.
You begin with one formula, one bath or one walk around the block to clear your head. You begin practicing the art of substitution, adding one healthy and supportive therapy or thought while subtracting one unhealthy element from your life. And you welcome the notion that you/we deserve better then the slow and unnatural decline that comes with chronic stress. Because without it we can bring to fruition the all of who we are.
For further information about plants, the role of spiritual wounding in stress related illness, and aromatherapy, please refer to past articles on my website, www.redrootmountain.com, books by Matt Wood for herbals, and Robert Tisserand for aromatherapy.