Adapting To Long-Term Stress

Adapting To
Long-Term Stress

This section is compiled by Frank M. Painter, D.C.
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From the Nutrition Science News

Thomas Garvey May

Laptop computers, sport-utility vehicles and booming stock markets are all supposed to make life easier, right? Well if it's true, it doesn't show. Stress seems to be endemic in America, and while no monetary policy issued from the Federal Reserve can ease stress, there are herbs that will.

When faced with a stressful situation, the human body instinctively responds by secreting hormones that change physiology and enhance the organism's ability to either run away or stand and defend.

"The fight-or-flight response is quite necessary," says Christopher Hobbs, author of Stress & Natural Healing: Herbal Medicines and Natural Therapies (Interweave Press, 1997). The response includes stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands, and it results in higher heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate as well as increased blood-sugar levels. It's the body's way of gearing up for unexpected situations.

But this evolutionary response was designed for our ancestors whose survival depended on fighting off or fleeing from real physical dangers. Americans in the 21st century experience an alarming number of stress episodes on any given day, and the body expends a great amount of energy keeping itself in a heightened state of readiness.

"When [the fight-or-flight response] gets too chronic," says David Bunting, staff herbalist at HerbPharm in Williams, Ore., "the stress just wears people down."

From parents to business analysts, everyone is overworked, and customers complaining about symptoms of stress come into Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass., all the time. Toward the end of any given semester, college students, "and frequently their professors as well," will come in with questions says Lorri Legacy, a manager at the store.

Most people come in looking for kava, and some think St. John's wort can help anxiety. Legacy says that most new customers who try these relaxing herbs are pleased with the perceived results and come back. "When people are stressed out or anxious, they want to know that what they're taking will change things," she says. "Kava opens their eyes to how herbal medicine can really work."

Daniel Gagnon, herbalist and president of Herbs Etc. in Santa Fe, N.M., agrees: "If you don't give them relief, they're going to go someplace else." When he talks to customers, he addresses the basic symptoms, but then he tries to talk more broadly.

Kava's relaxing effect is well documented, and according to Hobbs, the herb has a place in acute-stress therapy. But, says HerbPharm's Bunting, while taking a tincture or having a cup of tea made from relaxing herbs when a day has been tough will address the symptoms of stress, if customers want to consider a more whole-body and long-term approach, "there are herbal options more oriented toward chronic conditions."

"People can't abuse their bodies all day then take an herb every once in awhile and expect to be fine," says Mindy Green, director of education at the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo.

Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help multiple body systems. They normalize a range of body functions and make it more comfortable to deal with periods of stress, Green says. "It's almost like a shotgun approach."

Many herbs focus on particular systems in the body, but adaptogens fortify the entire body, and they can be taken long term, which makes them perfect solutions for chronic stress, Green says.

The term adaptogen was first introduced by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev in 1947. It refers to a substance that helps the body adjust to difficult or extreme circumstances, or a substance that demonstrates a nonspecific enhancement of the body's ability to resist a stressor.

Hans Selye, a Viennese-born endocrinologist, conducted some of the first studies on stress and stressors in the 1950s. He said that stress was the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it, and his research provides a physiological explanation of why adaptogenic herbs can provide relief.

Selye proposed that a human's adaptive response to stress had three stages. First was the alarm phase, where instinct and adrenal glands take over. If the stressor continues for several days, the person enters the resistance stage. And at this point, the changes that happened during the alarm phase normalize and the person reaches a point of optimal adaptation. But if screaming bosses and overdue bills continue, exhaustion sets in, and the body loses its ability to adapt.

The theory behind adaptogens for stress holds that these herbs will lessen the reactions of the alarm phase and thereby delay the onset of exhaustion. "They modulate the body's physiological response," says Shayne B. Foley, national herb educator for Gaia Herbs in Brevard, N.C.

So while upwardly mobile consumers at natural products stores consider their lives to be rational, ruled entirely by the theories of philosophers like Descartes, remind them that it's often the Darwinian struggle for survival that governs human response. And if they need help keeping the fight-or-flight responses from running them down, recommend one of the host of adaptogens below.

Asian ginseng   While it has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, it was crowned king of the adaptogens this century. Numerous studies support its effectiveness at improving a person's ability to withstand stress, improve work performance and quality, and enhance mental function.

American ginseng   Although this species comes from the same genus as Asian ginseng and shares many characteristics, this white root is considered a yin tonic rather than a yang tonic, and as such, it is indicated for those who already have hotter and more aggressive constitutions.

Siberian ginseng   This plant is actually not a ginseng, but it has been called such due to the adaptogenic characteristics Russian doctors proved it shares with the members of genus Panax. The herb has been shown to normalize reactions to physical and mental stress with great effectiveness when used for several months.

Astragalus   This is one of the more famous tonic herbs from China, and while it is not usually classified an adaptogen, it is often used in formulations to enhance recovery following an illness or prolonged period of stress.

Suma   Suma is a large ground-vine native to Central and South America. It is sometimes called "Brazilian ginseng" because of its adaptogenic properties.

Ashwagandha   The herb is botanically more closely related to potatoes or tomatoes, but because of its similar uses it is often called "Indian ginseng." It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It is a tonic herb traditionally believed capable of strengthening the body, but it is milder and less stimulating than ginseng.

Schisandra   Also called wuweizi by the Chinese, schisandra is commonly used as a general tonic and to promote liver health. It can be used to counter the effects of stress and fatigue, and some scientific studies have shown it has a normalizing effect in cases of insomnia and physical duress.

Jiaogulan   This member of the gourd family that grows in southern China, Korea, Japan and India is new to the list of adaptogens. But according to some studies, it has active constituents at nearly four times the concentration of Panax ginseng.

Licorice root   Though not often listed among adaptogens, this root has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to tonify. The herb promotes or enhances immune-system functions, and maybe more importantly, it has a stimulating effect on the adrenal cortex—fight-or-flight central.



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