Tag Archives: stress

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.

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Spring is in the Air!

Go outside and see if you can feel spring in the air. I was outside the other evening shortly before dark and was amazed at the subtle changes I could notice that helped let me know it was really spring. And along with this, I felt a sense of hope and renewal.

I believe that engaging our senses and connecting with nature can have profound benefits for our wellbeing. With all of the stress and toxins in our lives, a good breath of fresh spring air can be the little thing that helps keep us going.
So step out into the spring air and see how many changes you can notice.

I tried to notice what all of my senses were telling me. I noticed the light, brighter than it has been, and the color of the clouds in the distance. I saw the bright emerald green color of the grass starting to grow after winter’s cold.

I smelled the air. It had rained recently, and there was slight sharp smell in the air that I associate with damp earth and leaves. I could also feel a hint of the moisture in the air from the recent rain. There was a light breeze mixing a little cool air with the warmth left from the sun that day.

My ears were delighted to hear the song of spring peepers, a small frog that starts calling at this time of year. It seemed like the birdsong was also different. Maybe the birds are changing their tune to attract mates. Speaking of birds, I was amazed to see a male cardinal trying to impress a female by hopping back and forth over her three times where she was perched on my garden fence.

Spring Peeper

Spring Peeper

I got to taste spring also. To honor the first day of spring, we harvested some of our first crops from our garden.

All of these spring sensations lifted up my mood. And I felt calm from taking a minute to enjoy the season and pay attention to the world around me. I have often noticed that spring has this effect on me. I have even lived in places like New Orleans and Seattle that don’t really have four seasons. I missed the transition from winter to spring and the positive effect it can have on my mood.

So step outside and see what spring has to say to you. It will likely be different sensations and emotions that I felt, but hopefully it will remind you that you are alive and connected to so much more around you.

P.S. I know for some of us spring in the air also means troublesome pollen. To help you enjoy springtime more, try some of my favorite herbs for allergy season like nettles. Butterbur is another great choice for allergy season that performed as well as one popular allergy medication in a comparison study.

Brighten Your Day with Lemonbalm!

Meet lemonbalm. She could be your new best friend especially if you are dealing with a lot of stress. Many of us push ourselves so hard everyday, and this can contribute to mood issues. So we need an herbal best friend to bring a little sunshine to our days.

Lemonbalm

Lemonbalm is just such a friend. Her bright lemon taste sums up her personality. Lemonbalm can work to both lift low spirits and help calm us when the stress just gets to be too much. And then when you hear her scientific name, Melissa officinalis, you will definitely want to invite her over for a cup of tea (a cup of lemonbalm tea that is). Her name Melissa means honeybee because bees love lemonbalm so much, and I hope you will too.

Lemonbalm can help calm the nerves and is used for anxiety, nervousness, and irritability. Lemonbalm is wonderful for digestive problems and headaches, especially when they are caused by nervousness. Lemonbalm also mildly reduces blood pressure that is elevated due to stress. Some cases of mild insomnia respond well to lemonbalm. Lemonbalm is also a mild anti-depressive, making it a good choice for people who have a mixture of anxiety and depression. Lemonbalm is a nootropic herb meaning it can enhance memory and cognitive functioning. So, lemonbalm is for both brighter mind and brighter mood.

I feel that we can get more out of our herbs when we taste them. We learn more about their nature than if we are taking capsules of herbs. Try lemonbalm and you will see how the flavor really matches her uplifting nature. You can also taste and smell the essential oil in lemonbalm that help ease an upset stomach.

You can make a tea out of the dried or fresh leaves. I also like to add a few dropperfuls of lemonbalm tincture to a whole glass of water when I don’t have time to make tea. I prefer the brands like Herb Pharm that use both alcohol and glycerin to make their tinctures because this improves the taste significantly or you can add a few drops of stevia to sweeten it a little. Lemonbalm has such a delicious taste that is often used to improve the flavor of herbal blends.

Lemonbalm is a gentle herb that requires either large doses for acute issues or long-term use for optimal results. You can use it either way but since you have just found a new herbal best friend, I bet you are going to want to hang out everyday. Lemonbalm has no side effects except for possibly very rare cases of allergic reaction. Theoretically, lemonbalm could suppress the thyroid, but no cases have been reported of worsening symptoms with hypothyroidism.

So try a little lemonbalm, and make your brain and taste buds happy.

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!

Maca Smoothies for More Vibrant Days

On hot summer days, I tend to have more smoothies for breakfast. Though there are many ingredients I love, the maca I am adding seems to contribute to my sense of wellbeing. This is probably because maca is an adaptogen and a hormone balancer.

By adaptogen, I am referring to maca’s ability to reduce the negative impact stress has on our bodies. We might still experience the stress, but it is not as harmful on our overall health. A recent study showed that women who experienced more stress burned fewer calories after eating a high fat meal compared to the women with fewer stressors. The study showed that the higher stress levels correlated with higher insulin levels, which can contribute to belly fat. The study didn’t address adaptogens like maca, but in theory, these types of herbs might improve insulin levels and therefore help our metabolism. I also find that adaptogens give me more stamina to get through long days.

Maca powder

Maca powder

The other popular benefit of maca is as a hormone balancer for both women and men. It is maybe most widely known as a libido enhancer. It isn’t going to necessarily help everyone since not all libido issues are related hormones, but for those cases, it can be a great choice. Consuming maca might also help conditions like prostate issues, PMS, hot flashes, acne, and even some types of depression.

Because maca is traditionally used in fairly large quantities, it is a perfect item to add to a smoothie or other food. I usually put 1-2 teaspoon in each smoothie. When I added 3 teaspoons I noticed a bit of a spicy radish-like taste that I didn’t like.

Here is my current smoothie recipe:

1 scoop Sunwarrior Chocolate Warrior Blend or other protein powder

1-2 tsp Barley grass or other greens powder

1-2 Maca powder

2 Tbs Almond butter or other nut butter or nuts

1 tsp Cacoa powder

1-2 Tbs ground Flaxseeds and or chia seeds

1 Tbs Coconut oil

1 to 1 ½ cups water

Blend in a blender until smooth with any of these other ingredients I might want that day:

Fresh or frozen fruits or veggies like avocado, baby greens, or sprouts

Coconut water to replace some of the water

¼ tsp Turmeric with a pinch of black pepper

1/2 tsp Cinnamon

½ -1 tsp of the turmeric paste I made for my Bulletproof Turmeric #2 recipe

You can also empty the contents of supplement capsules into the smoothie such as probiotics, amino acids, and herbal supplements. Basically any that doesn’t make the smoothie taste strange.

Make it something delicious that you love to drink and enjoy some vibrant days this summer.

A Connection between Depression and Heart Disease

In popular culture, the heart is often considered to be the seat of our emotions. We love and grieve with our hearts. From a biological point of view, we understand the heart as the organ that pumps blood through our bodies. But there is something more than that to the heart. I know I am not the only one who has experienced chest pain due to a stressful situation. I was too young to really worry that it was heart disease, but did still consider that possibility because of my family history. Ultimately, I made some changes in my life and the chest pains went away completely. The reason for this phenomenon is that stress changes the signals that the heart gets from the brain. While theses signals might be useful if we need to run from a bear, they can be detrimental when we are sitting at a desk.

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Not only can stress affect our hearts, but depression can too. A large study examining English civil servants showed found participants that showed signs of depression were more likely to have heart attacks. Another study demonstrated that using therapy to depression helped prevent the development of heart disease. In fact, the participants who did not have heart disease at the beginning of the study and received counseling where 47% less likely to have a major cardiovascular event compared to those who didn’t get the same treatment for depression.

This connection between heart disease and depression might explain why some supplements are good for both the brain and the heart. A prime example is fish oil, which is probably one of the most popular cardiovascular health supplements. Countries that consume more fish and have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids have lower rates of coronary artery disease. Another major use of fish oil is to help treat mood issues and depression. Could this last benefit contributing to the cardiovascular advantages of taking fish oil? And to learn more about one possible genetic contribution to both depression and heart disease, check out my recent blog on methylfolate.

An important consideration for depression is that not everyone manifests the same symptoms. Generally the signs to look for are feeling sad, hopeless, anxious and sleeping or eating too much or too little, but some people’s depression manifests as tiredness, irritability or even angry. While there are different causes of depression from situational issues like loss of a loved one to genetic and brain chemistry variations, some of these symptoms seem to be connected to lack of fulfillment in life. It can be hard to find truly fulfilling roles and careers in our modern world and too many people end up working at a job just because that is the one available. I am not saying quit your job, but if you can, weigh these possible long term health concerns when choosing a career. And know that counseling and learning stress coping skills can be genuinely useful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Save American Ginseng: Save Yourself

A new show on the History channel, Appalachian Outlaws, highlights the politics of one of this region’s most valuable herbs, American ginseng. Many of us here in the Ozarks also have a personal attachment to this medicinal plant. A good friend of mine had the ginseng patch he had nurtured for over 20 years decimated by poachers looking to make quick cash by illegally harvesting his ginseng out of season. On top of trespassing and stealing, poachers like these are endangering future ginseng harvests. There is a ginseng season, legally mandated by the state, to ensure the ginseng plants have mature seeds that can be planted in place of the roots that are harvested. My husband’s great uncle, Lloyd Brisco, taught my husband how to ethically hunt ginseng or as he called it “sang.” Since we use the roots of ginseng, the plant is killed during harvest so either the smaller roots need to be replanted or the seeds placed in the hole left by pulling the roots. Ethical wildcrafters also don’t take every single plant. Ideally, you only harvest 1 out of every 20 plants.

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt "sang"

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt “sang”

American ginseng is in such demand because it is one of the true longevity herbs. American and Korean ginseng are both known to compensate for the impact of stress on the body. They do this by modulating our cortisol levels. Ginseng can reduce elevated cortisol, which is implicated in many chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. By reducing the impact of stress, American ginseng can improve digestion and immune function. American ginseng can also help symptoms related to insufficient cortisol due to prolonged stress like fatigue and some types of depression. I find that it gives me more stamina and helps me work long days in the office and on the farm.  American ginseng is also a nootropic herb that helps enhances cognitive function and memory.

American ginseng is so monetarily valuable because it has these amazing medicinal benefits but takes a long time to grow and grows best in the wild. A lot of our American ginseng is exported to China and wholesale prices are on the rise, but people looking to make quick cash off the high demand for ginseng are putting this native treasure at risk. Local herb enthusiast, Madison Woods, has published a short book on Sustainable Ginseng available online as a paperback or ebook that can help people who want to grow wild-simulated ginseng on their own property. She also offers ginseng habit consultations where she personally helps you find the right wooded areas to plant ginseng for future harvest or preservation purposes. So let’s do what we can to protect this local jewel so we can continue to benefit from it for generations.

American Ginseng

American Ginseng

Natural Flu Prevention

This seems to be shaping up to be a particularly bad flu season. So far, nearly forty people have died of influenza here in Arkansas. My husband recently had a mild case himself, and it made me think I should share what I did to prevent myself from getting it. These interventions can also help prevent colds and other upper respiratory infections and reduce the severity of a cold or flu if you come down with one.

Astragalus

Astragalus

When the cold and flu season starts, I begin taking astragalus, which has been shown to boost the immune system especially when taken long term. That is why I start it at the beginning of flu season, so I get the full immune benefits. But it is worth starting at anytime since astragalus also has a mild antiviral activity. Astragalus also helps with the body compensate for stress and reduces cortisol, which has been shown to suppress immune function. In addition, astragalus can help increase stamina. Because of this combination of immune and energy benefits, I choose astragalus over Echinacea for the flu season. I still use Echinacea sometimes, especially if my preventative strategies haven’t been enough and I start to feel a cold or flu coming on.

Another lesser-known immune booster is larch arabinogalactan. These are polysaccharides derived from the larch tree. Polysaccharides are the immune stimulating compounds in many of the best-known immune herbs like Echinacea and aloe. In addition to supporting the immune system, larch arabinogalactan can help with inflammation and joint pain. I also like larch arabinogalactan because it is a mild tasting powder that is safe to for children.

In addition to an immune booster, I take my daily fish oil and vitamin D. Fish oil and vitamin D are again obvious choices because of their multiple health benefits. The polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish oil help with optimal immune function, while also supporting mood, fighting inflammation and helping prevent heart disease. Vitamin D has been shown in numerous studies to help reduce rates of influenza. People who are deficient in vitamin D are much more likely to get the flu. In fact, lack of vitamin D production from sunlight is possibly one of the reasons the flu season is at this time of the year. If you already have adequate vitamin D levels, taking more vitamin D isn’t necessarily helpful. In fact, excess vitamin D might slightly increase the rate of influenza.

Elderberry

Elderberry

I always keep elderberry syrup in my house, and when my husband or I start feeling sick, this what we reach for. Elderberries have been shown in test tube studies to reduce the rate of influenza virus replication. Studies have also shown it to reduce the severity and duration of flu symptoms. In one study, 87% of the people taking elderberry had nearly complete resolution of symptoms in 3 days, while only 33% of those given the placebo felt as good at that point.

There are many other herbs and supplements that I could write about to help fight the flu, but lifestyle considerations are even more important. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to reduce stress, get adequate sleep, and allow yourself extra rest when you feel like you need it. When our stress goes up, so does our cortisol, which as I mentioned suppresses the immune system. Additionally, inadequate sleep hampers our immune system partially through causing elevated cortisol output. So get 8-9 hours of sleep a night and establish stress management techniques like deep breathing, exercise, yoga or meditation so that every day stress won’t leave you more susceptible to the flu.

Healthy Hints for Holiday Happiness

The holidays can be a time to relax and enjoy time with your family. And they can be a time to run yourself ragged trying to make holiday magic happen for others. On top of this, some struggle with seasonal depression from reduced sunlight and fewer opportunities to exercise. While winter can be an enchanting time, the additional stress to take a toll on our health. Stress reduces our ability to fight off infections making us more susceptible to winter colds and flu. In addition, long-term stress can increase the risk for diabetes, ulcers, osteoporosis, certain cancers, heart attack, stroke and coronary artery disease. Stress can also contribute to mood issues such as anxiety and depression.

So as the holiday season gets into full swing, it is time to come up with a plan to reduce the negative impact so you can enjoy the good parts of the season.

First, give yourself some “me” time. As I mentioned in my last blog, you deserve the time to be healthy.

Practice your stress coping skills. Choose what works for you and make some time for it. Laughter, journaling, reading, prayer, meditation, imagery, writing, exercise, deep breathing, cultivating positive attitudes, and physical expressions of emotions are some of the more common techniques people have found to creatively manage their stress.

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Try calming herbs. Herbs taken as supplements or teas can help calm the mind. Popular calming herbs like kava, skullcap, and California poppy can be found in capsules or liquid tinctures. Or make your own tea blends from relaxing herbs like lemon balm, catnip, passionflower, lavender, st. john’s wort, and chamomile.

Here is my recipe:

¼ cup chamomile flowers

¼ cup lemon balm leaves

¼ cup passionflower leaves

2 Tbs catnip leaves

2 Tbs lavender leaves

Mixes these together. To make the tea, place 1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon of the blend in one cup of water that was just boiling. Steep for 5-10 minutes, preferably covered. Strain the tea, or remove the tea ball if you were using one. Sweeten with honey or stevia if desired.

You can also try your own creation. You might like it so much that you decide to share it with someone on your gift list. Include a tea ball or strainer and a recipe card so they can make more for themselves.

If all else fails, buy yourself a present.