Herbs from around the world to help with stress, fatigue, and the chaos of life

“What doesn’t bend breaks,” as the saying goes, and the degree to which we are expected to “bend” is ever increasing. Our ability to stay focused, adaptable, and calm is of the essence in our fast-paced, outcome-oriented culture. Although energy drinks and other stimulants offer quick fixes, their effects are not only short-lived, but also potentially harmful to health. Fortunately, an entire class of herbs may offer us stress-coping support and a sustainable energy boost. In addition to eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, these plants – aptly named adaptogens for their ability to help the body adapt to stress – can help us “bend” more deeply and gracefully.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha has been shown to support both the brain and the body’s ability to deal with stress. In a double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of adults experiencing chronic stress, supplementation with ashwagandha significantly reduced perceived stress levels, decreased food cravings, and improved happiness, while also reducing objective markers like cortisol levels and weight.[1] Stress also is a major contributor to gastric ulcers,[2] which ashwagandha has been shown to help prevent.[3]

Stress and disturbed sleep often go hand-in-hand, and thankfully ashwagandha may help with both. The herb has evidence it may not only buffer the negative effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive function,[4] but also may mitigate the associated inflammation, anxiety, and cellular injury and death.[5] Yet, as energizing as the plant can be, the Latin name somnifera reflects ashwagandha’s ability to enhance sleep quality,[6] largely due to its effects on the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).[7]

In men, ashwagandha has been shown in a variety of studies to improve sexual function and markers of fertility, increasing testosterone levels, sperm count and motility, and reducing oxidative stress, a contributor to infertility.

Stress can also impact sexual function, and ashwagandha seems to help with that too: the herb was shown in one study to support sexual function in females ages 21 to 50, improving not only arousal, but also sexual satisfaction.[8] In men, ashwagandha has been shown in a variety of studies to improve sexual function and markers of fertility, increasing testosterone levels, sperm count and motility, and reducing oxidative stress, a contributor to infertility.[9]

Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)

Holy basil has been used in the thousands of years-old system of Indian healing known as Ayurveda, and serves as a perfect example of how an ancient remedy can help us with modern ailments. Also known as tulsi, holy basil has been shown to help the body and mind cope with stress, largely through balancing the feedback systems of the brain and adrenal glands (which produce the stress hormone cortisol).[10] However, there is ever-growing evidence that holy basil can help with physical, chemical, metabolic, and psychological stresses through a variety of pharmacological actions.

Holy basil has data showing it may protect the body – the liver, kidney, and brain, specifically – against chemical stress from heavy metals, overdoses of pharmaceutical medications, and sources of industrial pollution, largely through its antioxidant effects.[11],[12],[13],[14] In animal studies, holy basil has also demonstrated efficacy in protecting the body against the harmful effects of oxygen deprivation, over-exertion, cold exposure, and exposure to loud noises.[15],[16],[17] These studies also show enhanced aerobic metabolism, improved swimming time (a measure of physical performance and depression in animals[18]), and a reduction of stress hormone levels, oxidative tissue damage,[19],[20],[21] and inflammation.[22]

In humans, holy basil has been shown to increase brain function, significantly improving reaction time, error rate, and other markers of function compared to placebo.[23] Animal models have shown it mitigates psychological stress and protects against age-related memory deficits, acting similarly to an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.[24],[25]

In animals and humans, this herb has also been shown to help normalize blood sugar balance,[26],[27] cholesterol levels, [28] and reduce blood pressure,[29] thereby countering metabolic stress.

A six-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that holy basil not only significantly improved general stress scores, but also helped with sexual problems, sleep trouble, forgetfulness, and energy.

Holy basil also has been shown to ease the symptoms of both depression and anxiety,[30],[31],[32] with effects comparable to pharmaceutical antidepressants.[33] In fact, a six-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that holy basil not only significantly improved general stress scores, but also helped with sexual problems, sleep trouble, forgetfulness, and energy.[34] It is likely for these reasons that holy basil is also known as “liquid yoga.”[35]

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

Also known as golden root, rhodiola is commonly used in Russia and the Scandinavian countries where it grows. Like other adaptogens, rhodiola has been shown to fight fatigue, but is especially helpful in helping with the fatigue specifically associated with stress[36] as well as with chronic fatigue.[37]

In male students experiencing the stress of examinations, rhodiola was shown to increase learning capacity, reduce mental fatigue, and decrease situational anxiety.[38] Similar results were also reported in a study of military cadets, with improvements in mental capacity, coordination, physical work capacity, and general wellbeing.[39] In cases of physical stress, rhodiola has been shown in animal studies to reduce the risk of drug-induced arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)[40] and to prevent stress-induced damage to the heart muscle.[41] It has further been shown in humans to enhance performance during endurance exercise such as running.[42]

In male students experiencing the stress of examinations, rhodiola was shown to increase learning capacity, reduce mental fatigue, and decrease situational anxiety.

In a study of over 100 people with life- and work-related stress, daily rhodiola supplementation yielded significant improvements in energy and mood after a mere three days, with improvements continuing throughout the four-week study.[43] In another study focusing on burnout in 118 participants, rhodiola was shown to lower stress levels and alleviate symptoms of depression.[44]

Several studies have suggested rhodiola’s likely impact on depression comes from its effects on neurotransmitters.[45],[46],[47] In one clinical trial, rhodiola was shown to help not only with depression, but also with insomnia and emotional stability.[48] Other studies suggest it also may help with self-esteem.[49],[50] Because rhodiola may impact the activity of neurotransmitters, in particular serotonin,[51] use in combination with medications for depression should only be done under the guidance of a knowledgeable medical practitioner.

Herbs from the family of adaptogens, known for their ability to help us cope with stress and life’s challenges, are found worldwide. This speaks not only to the commonality of stress, but also perhaps to nature’s interest in helping deal with it, no matter where in the world we may find ourselves.

 

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