Aromatics, adaptogens, and mindful self-care
Many of us are very lucky: we feel safe in our homes, have access to a reliable food supply (in some cases even delicious, locally-produced fare), and can count on friends and family to provide support and companionship. On the other hand, many of us may lack one or more of these key elements of safe shelter, food, and connection--and this past year, with its relentless, unthinkable challenges, has increased daily stress to unsustainable levels in many cases. The feelings that accompany prolonged or severe stress--both of which are sources of trauma--can be disabling and certainly warrant our collective attention and compassion.
We want to take some time during the darkest days of the year to talk about the soothing effects that medicinal herbs can have on the mind and spirit, and express gratitude for these botanical allies (sort of how we light candles during the long nights to remind us of warmth, hearth and home). But in no way does that imply herbs are the one-stop solution for long-term stress, or that one might fix food insecurity and social isolation by taking an herbal tincture, or that the chronic stress of unequal access to health care and support will somehow vanish if you drink lemon balm tea.
Living with anxiety and mental health challenges daily is serious, and more widespread than many realize: if you feel you are struggling, or in any way unsafe, the first thing to do is to reach out for help. Trained professionals who can help support your mental health, as well as help navigate your options for finding safe shelter and food, are available 24/7 via services such as the Crisis Text Line (text “home” to 741741), and lifelines listed at the American Psychological Association’s website. Please consider these resources or share them with a friend in need.
When, on the other hand, we experience occasional stress, herbs really can shine and provide some much-needed soothing relief. Furthermore, herbs are often an accessible and low-cost source of support for our mental well-being. They can help buffer the intense feelings (such as anxiety, sadness, lack of focus, and fatigue) that come up once in a while, when the challenges of life outstrip our resources for coping. These herbal remedies fall into two broad classes, each addressing complementary pieces of our mental and emotional responses: first, the aromatic herbs seem to shift the way we perceive external stressors, perhaps by reducing feelings of tension coming from inside our bodies (have you ever noticed how the same event can seem stressful, or no big deal, depending on your baseline level of tension?).
Second, adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms can shift the way our mind and body respond, increasing our tolerance for occasional stress and helping us feel less fatigued and defeated. To help illustrate these two cases, consider two scenarios: a person on a meditation retreat, and a fourth-year medical student. The former talks about responsibilities and concerns from life occasionally intruding into his daily thinking, causing worry and anxiety, and interfering with his ability to focus on the practice of meditation. The latter mentions that, during times of increased workload, she feels tired and scattered, which interferes with her ability to focus on school and causes anxiety. In both cases, the picture is similar: occasional anxiety and difficulty focusing. But in the first case, we turn to aromatic herbs to shift the way intrusive thoughts impact our perception. In the second case, we rely on adaptogens to help manage the effects of increased physical and mental demands when they come up on occasion. Let’s take a look at a few favorites.*
Herbalists often refer to aromatic herbs that can impact our perception of stress as “nervine”, though not all nervine herbs are aromatic (think of oats and passionflower, examples we’ll come back to). But the aromatic quality of some plants is often an indicator that key chemical constituents--known as terpenoids--are present, and these terpenoids seem able to provide a certain degree of relaxation to our internal physiology. Following the work of Bruce McEwen and others, we can see occasional anxiety as a manifestation that something--either from the world around us or the world inside us--just became the “last straw” and triggered the shift in thought pattern and mood1. While we can’t immediately change the external world, we can use aromatic herbs, and the terpenoids they provide, to gently soothe and relax tension levels inside our bodies. This in essence removes some of the “straw” from the camel’s back and makes the external stressor less impactful.*
During winter, we shouldn’t overlook evergreens as sources of terpenes. A tea made from fresh pine needles or spruce or fir tips can help gently shift the mood to a place of greater presence, and is a widely available option. Using about a tablespoon (3-4 g) of fresh, chopped pine needles, steep covered in 10-12 ounces of hot water just off the boil, straining after 5-10 minutes. Many folks like this tea in the morning, but it can be enjoyed any time of day. Note: not all evergreens make a good nervine tea. Avoid internal use of juniper (Juniperus species) or cedar (Thuja species) without checking with your herbalist first, and be aware that some folks are allergic to evergreens in general.*
Leafy and floral aromatics
Some of our most beloved herbal allies are from this category. Think of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), linden (Tilia species), lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora), or rose (Rosa species) flowers. They are gentle nervines, offering support for occasional anxiety or dark moods, and generally seem to be able to help us move through our days carrying a little less tension. Rose flowers and petals are somewhat astringent and difficult to take as a tea on their own, but do blend well with other nervines and lend a lovely floral quality to the final brew. Making tea from these herbs, you can use similar doses: one teaspoon (about 2 grams) per cup, prepared like the pine needles, up to three or four times a day.*
Fragrant bitter herbs
Certain aromatic herbs have a decidedly bitter note to them, which often means they are more pleasant to take as a tincture or liquid extract than as a tea. Some, like skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) are mild enough in flavor that, when blended with a little cinnamon or fennel seed, they still make a delicious cup of tea much the same way as lemon balm. But others, like lavender (Lavandula angustifolia and other species), blue vervain (Verbena officinalis, V. hastata), or motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), are just too bitter to enjoy a mugful. A tincture blended from one or more of these fragrant, bitter nervines makes a convenient travel remedy, or one you can have on hand when you need to take the edge off anxious feelings, or relieve occasional stress-related tension. The doses for each are similar: start with 2 droppers (2 mL, or about 60 drops) mixed with a little water, three or four times a day.
You will note that in most cases, aromatics are helpful when you take repeated doses throughout the day. This may partly be due to their perception-modulating effects, as noted above: while they can reliably relax occasional tension, they work in the moment. For true support for mind, spirit, and mood, experiencing the aromatic herbs more than once a day is the best bet.*
The more tonic approach to the way our physiology handles occasional stress comes from the use of adaptogens. These honored plants and mushrooms are usually taken consistently, as a foundation to support the way we respond to the demands of mental or physical work that exceeds our normal baseline. That way, on the occasions when stress levels rise, we can keep going with more calm and focus, and less fatigue. Often, folks become more sensitive when tired. Demands can seem more overwhelming. It can feel difficult to cope. While adaptogens aren’t stimulants, and won’t perk you up the way a cup of coffee could, they do help you keep going with less fatigue and stay relaxed when the workload--mental or physical--increases. This is an important difference, and underlines two key points to remember when using adaptogens: they’re best when taken regularly, for periods up to 8 weeks or so. And while stimulants may not be the best idea for folks who get worried and anxious in the face of occasional stress, adaptogens are often a great choice, as they provide energy support and encourage a calm, focused disposition.*
Many adaptogenic plants are valued for their underground organs: roots and rhizomes that store nutrients, polysaccharides, and phytochemicals which, when taken as a whole, contribute to their benefits. Classically known is ginseng (Panax species), of course. But two more sustainable (and affordable) choices include ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Both can support energy levels and help us work relaxed. But traditional herbal medicine (especially Ayurveda, a tradition that deeply values this plant) often talks about ashwagandha being more calming, and especially suited in the afternoon to encourage restorative sleep (this quality is even reflected in its botanical Latin species name, which means “sleep-bringer”). Eleuthero is a good all-around adaptogen to consider for a healthy response to occasional stress any time of day. You can use a similar dose for both roots: one to three teaspoons (about 2-6 grams) daily for a powder, and about twice that for liquid extracts (2 teaspoons a day is a good place to start).*
The fruits of schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), a red berry that grows on a beautiful climbing vine, is considered another balanced adaptogen with some gentle calmative qualities. It has a tangy and complex flavor which is enlivening all on its own, and combines well in tea with just a little honey. The starting dose is similar to that of the roots: about a teaspoon (2 grams) of dried, crushed berries steeped in a cupful of hot water.*
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum, G. tsugae, G. oregonensis and others) is a temperate and tropical shelf fungus with beautiful red “fans” that develop during the humid, warm months. Like many mushrooms, it benefits from some processing to soften the tough layer of chitin that surrounds its cells. Traditionally, this has meant boiling for two hours or more, so for many herbalists, adding slices of reishi to a simmering soup stock is an easy way to get the benefits of this mushroom (use about one cup, or close to 100 grams, of loosely packed slices per gallon of stock). Once the broth is ready and strained, you can freeze it into ice cube trays: use 3-4 cubes per day (3-4 fluid ounces of broth) in soup, sauces, or just warmed up on its own. Taken regularly, reishi supports a healthy immune system, and helps keep the mind and spirit calm and focused.*
Beyond aromatic and adaptogenic remedies, there are a few others to consider if you’re feeling these darker days of the year, or when work or family life get too hectic, or simply as support for good mental health. The first is a gentle tonic meant for long-term use: either as a tea or as a liquid extract, unripe (“milky”) oat seed (Avena sativa, A. fatua) can help relieve occasional mental stress, at doses of about 3 grams daily (about 2 teaspoons brewed into tea, or one teaspoon of liquid extract).
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) reliably calms the mind, so herbalists turn to it for better sleep on the occasional sleepless night, or, at slightly lower doses, for reducing occasional anxiety during the day. Try starting at 30-45 drops of a liquid extract once or twice a day, doubling the dose before bed if desired. Or brew tea using about 1/2 teaspoon of passionflower leaf (about 1 gram) for daytime support, or a full teaspoon (about 2 grams) for a tea meant to support good sleep. Both of these herbs are helpful, and they also remind us that herbalists love using a two-tiered strategy to encourage mental health and harmony any time of the year: a tonic (like oats, or the adaptogens), and an effective remedy to turn to when you need it most (like passionflower, or the aromatics). Experiment a little with the combinations you like. Share a cup of tea with a friend--even if it’s over a quick phone call. And may the herbs remind you, even if just for a moment, that we’re all in this together and can be there for each other as long as we take a mindful moment of self-care every once in a while, too.*
- Juster RP, McEwen BS, Lupien SJ. Allostatic load biomarkers of chronic stress and impact on health and cognition. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2010 Sep 1;35(1):2-16.