Tag Archives: adaptogens

Ashwagandha for Stress and Brain Health

If stress is at all a significant issue in your life, ashwagandha is an herb you should consider trying. We all know the negative effects stress can have on our lives. Not only do we feel stressed and tense, but long-term stress also contributes to the development of many common chronic diseases, such as depression, high blood pressure, cardiac diseases and metabolic disorders.

There are many herbs that help combat the negative consequences of stress, but ashwagandha stands out from the crowd because of its mood and memory benefits.

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By helping us combat stress, ashwagandha may:
• Reduce fatigue
• Improves learning, memory, and reaction time
• Reduces anxiety and depression
• Rejuvenate the brain
• Improve immune function
• Help prevent cancer
• Stabilizes blood sugar
• Protect the heart
• Improve thyroid function
• Reduce inflammation in the body

I have been taking ashwagandha for less than a month now and am already noticing its benefits. I still have a ton of work on my plate, especially since in the garden at this time of year, but I feel a little calmer and less overwhelmed by it all. Many people note a greater sense of well-being from taking ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha also stands out as a memory herb. Some people even categorize it as a nootropic herb, meaning it improves cognitive performance and memory. Part of this benefit is from stress reduction. Long-term stress actually causes shrinking of some of the memory centers of the brain, like the hippocampus. But clearly, ashwagandha is doing more that just preventing this damage because cognitive improvements were seen in as little as 2 weeks in one study. In a comparison study between ginseng and ashwagandha, the participants taking ashwagandha showed improvements in mental abilities while the ginseng group didn’t. So though ginseng might be another great herb for stress, it lacks ashwagandha’s full brain benefits.

Ashwagandha might also be one of our key herbs for preventing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. In studies done with mice, ashwagandha contributed to improvements in cognitive abilities and cellular markers in the brain. Ashwagandha is loaded with brain protecting antioxidants and may even help with the regeneration of nerve networks in the brain.

So try ashwagandha, and see if you feel it deserves its ancient reputation as a rejuvenating herb.

Astragalus: Traditional recipes for the immune system

When it comes to staying healthy during the winter, astragalus is my favorite herb to strengthen the immune system. Astragalus is an immune modulating herb, meaning that it helps rev up or calm down the immune system based on what the body needs. I love this “wisdom” that some herbs offer us by cooperating with our bodies instead of forcing us in one direction like some medications do. Astragalus can be used long term, so it is a great choice to take all of cold and flu season. Astragalus also has some antiviral properties, and research shows that it may help to prevent upper respiratory tract infections.

Astragalus roots

Astragalus roots

In addition to its immune benefits, astragalus can help the body compensate for long-term stress. Stress has many negative effects on our bodies, particularly on our adrenal glands that help regulate our metabolism among other things. Our adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress. Disrupted cortisol production can be associated with fatigue, insomnia, and even high blood sugar and blood pressure. By balancing adrenal output, astragalus can be a great part of the plan to help us recover from these types of issues. Because astragalus is high in antioxidants, it can also help protect the liver.

This winter I am enjoying my astragalus the traditional way by making astragalus soup and astragalus bone broth. I looked through several different recipes for astragalus soup, the traditional Chinese way of using this immune boosting herb. I was trying to decide how long the soup needed to simmer. Some recipes recommended adding astragalus root to any chicken soup and simmering for 10 minutes, but I didn’t think this was long enough. Then I found a traditional recipe. It called for 2/3 of an ounce of astragalus in 5 cups of liquid cooked over medium heat until only 2 cups of liquid was left. This was clearly a “real” recipe with its longer cooking time to extract the maximum benefits from the astragalus, so I decided to add astragalus root to my bone broth.

Here is my recipe for Astragalus Bone Broth:
Place chicken or other bones in a pot or crockpot
Cover the bones with water
Add about 2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar for every 8 cups of water
Add 1 ounce of dried astragalus root for every 8 cups of water or so
Cover with a tight fitting lid
Simmer very low on the stove or cook on low in the crockpot for 12-48 hours
Strain the broth and enjoy

I drink this broth as a hot beverage with a little bit of salt. The astragalus has a mild nearly smoky taste and the broth is quite delicious. If you want to try astragalus soup but aren’t ready to make a bone broth, try adding the astragalus roots to any soup you are making. Cook the soup with the astragalus roots for at least 20 minutes. Then remove the astragalus roots before you serve the soup just like you would with bay leaves. And of course, astragalus comes in capsules too so you can get these immune benefits no matter how busy your schedule is.

Shower Hokey Pokey: 1-minute a day to decrease your stress

I put my right leg in. I take my right leg out. I put my left leg in. And I think you can guess some of the next steps, but why am I doing this in the shower?

After my normal warm shower, I turn the temperature to cold and step aside. Then I put one limb at a time into the stream of cold water, usually with that silly children’s song going through my head. I have to confess I don’t usually do this in the wintertime, only summer.

The theory is that exposing yourself very briefly to cold water helps your body learn to adapt to stress. Cold is one of our most ancient stressors, and our body can use it to learn to respond to all stress better. We can’t necessarily do the same thing by exposing ourselves to terrible traffic or bad bosses in short doses.

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A small study showed that a 1-minute cold shower at the end of a regular shower increased immune function and decreased the number of colds among participants. Improved immune activity is just one of the benefits from improving one’s stress response. By balancing out our cortisol response to stress we can potentially increase our energy, mood, memory, and metabolism. Elevated stress levels can also contribute to cardiovascular disease and blood sugar issues. So this simple 1-minute activity has the potential to help our health in numerous and profound ways.

The exposure to cold water might also improve metabolism as the body warms itself back up. This could possibly help some of us achieve our weight loss goals.

In addition to doing the shower hokey pokey, I take adaptogenic herbs to further improve my stress response. These herbs can help with all of the issues I mentioned above. I notice that they particularly help my stamina so I can work long days at my job and than some more on our farm. One of my favorite blends of adaptogenic herbs is Gaia Adrenal Health. It contains Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Rhodiola, and Schisandra. Other great adrenal herbs are Maca, Astragalus, and American Ginseng. Try a few to see if one works better for you.

Directions for the Shower Hokey Pokey

After your normal shower, turn the faucet to cold or at least cool and step away.

Put the back of your right leg in the cold stream. Take it out.

Put the back of your left leg in. Take it out.

Turn around and put the front of your right leg in. Take it out.

Then front of left leg.

Put the outside then inside of your right arm in.

Same with left arm.

Then put your chest and face into the cold water.

Turn around and get your back in briefly.

And that’s what it’s all about!

Amazing American Ginseng

September is the beginning of American ginseng season here in Arkansas, or as the old-timers call it ‘sang. We are lucky to have such an amazingly beneficial plant growing nearby, but we need to make sure that we protect it. If you are lucky enough to know a ‘sang hunter or are one yourself, make sure the rules are followed about planting the red berries 1-2 inches deep when the root is harvested. American ginseng grows throughout the Eastern United States, but it tends to grow in small clusters and has a lot of harvesting pressure on it. Since it is monetarily valuable, unscrupulous hunters will over harvest an area. For instance, trespassers stole my friend’s ginseng patch that he had been cultivating for over 20 years. Efforts need to be made to insure that we will continue to have this jewel of a plant in our region, by buying American ginseng from organically grown or ethically wild harvested sources.

American ginseng is so invaluable because it helps relieve stress and soothes the digestion. Its actions on the digestive tract are partially through direct action, but many of ginseng’s effects are due to the stress reduction. When we are stressed out, our ability to digest food is diminished. By calming the impact of stress on the body, American ginseng may help many cases of indigestion. Use of American ginseng has also been shown to reduce the incidence of colds. Again, the immune system is suppressed by stress through excess production of cortisol, the stress hormone. American ginseng can also be useful for diabetes, because, you guessed it, stress contributes to insulin resistance. It is also a good herb for fatigue, especially tiredness due to over work. American ginseng probably also shares the ability of its close cousin Asian ginseng to help prevent cancer. In the regions where the most Asian ginseng is consumed, cancer rates are significantly lower.

Don’t expect these fabulous benefits overnight. American ginseng is used long term since it may take weeks or months for the full effect to be noticed. This is a very safe herb that most people can use, but it is a little bit stimulating and, in some people, could contribute to insomnia. Taken early in the day, most people have no issue with American ginseng, and it may even improve their sleep.

 

Sleep and Stress

My blog last week was about the connection between sleep deprivation and blood sugar issues. My goal was to encourage people to sleep more to help improve their overall health, but some people know they need more sleep but are struggling with insomnia. There are two different patterns of insomnia. Some people have trouble falling asleep. For others, the issue is staying asleep. Today I am focusing on this second type of insomnia known as sleep fragmentation. As I mentioned in my blog last week, insufficient sleep can lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but sleep fragmentation can in turn be due to increased levels of cortisol. Stress can increase cortisol levels and shift peak cortisol production to later in the day, which may interfere with sleep. Our cortisol level is supposed to decline throughout the day so it doesn’t keep us awake at night. In addition, stress and worry can contribute to the sleep disturbance by keeping people up if they wake in the night.

Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and low blood sugar. Herbs known as adaptogens can help balance adrenal output of cortisol. Examples of these herbs are ashwagandha, rhodiola, and astragalus just to name a few. Some people benefit from including these herbs to their sleep protocol. These herbs don’t necessarily have an immediate effect. They are taken during the day on a regular basis to help tone the adrenal glands and compensate for the effects of long-term stress. They may even increase energy during the day.

Another related issue that can interfere with a good night’s sleep is blood sugar. If blood sugar drops during the night, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to help raise it. Then these stimulating hormones can wake us up. For this issue, a healthy, balanced snack before bed may help us sleep through the night.

Using healthy food choices to maintain a steady blood sugar is important because of the relationship between blood sugar and cortisol. Low blood sugar can cause cortisol release. This cortisol can interferes with sleep, which leads to further increases in cortisol. Cortisol has several effects on the body including interfering with sleep and contributing to insulin resistance so it can throw off our blood sugar further. This is yet another reason we all need to continue to focus on healthy foods, good sleep, and stress reduction. I hope you get some of all of these this weekend.