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Herbal Health: Fighting Stress

Herbs can help in the treatment of stress related illnesses and can even protect us against heart disease and cancer. Rachael Hannan investigates.

Psychological or physiological stress is known to play a part in the development of life-threatening diseases such as cancer and heart disease, auto-immune conditions and psychiatric disorders. Other conditions worsened or even initiated by stress include panic attacks, insomnia, irregular periods, infertility, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hot flushes, migraines, eczema, psoriasis and depression.

Stress also puts immense pressure on our immune systems. If the stress is severe enough, for long enough, you can find yourself picking up viral, bacterial, fungal or other infections that never seem to go away. As soon as you begin to recover from one, the next one strikes.

So what is stress and how can we protect ourselves against its ill effects?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that our bodies can cope with – and even need – a certain amount of stimulation and excitement. For most people, problems only start to occur when the level of stimulation is too high and is maintained for too long. It’s true that some people appear to be ‘stress-junkies’ – loving every minute of the thrills and spills and seeming to remain healthy throughout. But for most of us, body and mind start to complain after too long, and if we don’t listen to our bodies, they can get pretty sick.

Crucially, protecting against stress needs a long hard look at what can be changed for the better in your life-style and diet. Significant changes can be achieved in even the most restricted lives. Medical herbalists have a lot of wise advice up their sleeves for tackling the root cause of stress-related illness at source, and then there are literally hundreds of herbs that a medical herbalist can choose from when drawing up an individualised prescription. From herbs to support adrenal function and keep blood sugar levels balanced, to calming herbs for the nervous system and those that ease muscle tension, your medical herbalist creates a bespoke prescription that’s optimal for your personal body and mind.

Treating Infections

Ms Cruikshank, aged 31, had a busy job as PA to the Director of a large charity and was also mother to three-year-old James. She consulted a medical herbalist because over the past 18 months she’d suffered from six long-lasting colds, and had gone down with flu twice in the last year. She also seemed to suffer from more or less permanent thrush. She felt exhausted and demoralised and had almost forgotten what it felt like to be normal.

Her GP prescribed antibiotics for a couple of the infections and anti-viral treatment. Whilst this helped short-term, it had not provided a long-term permanent solution.

After taking a full case history, the medical herbalist was able to offer some useful advice on diet, supplementation and lifestyle. This included Vitamin C and zinc supplements to help boost the immune system, together with beetroot juice to encourage the production of Natural Killer Cells that help destroy germs. She was also advised to ease back on early morning swimming, as strenuous exercise in the morning can put a strain on the immune system. To help lessen the thrush, she was advised to take a probiotic with each meal for a month to ensure her digestive tract contained enough beneficial bacteria, and was advised to reduce sugary foods in her diet.

The medical herbalist decided on a prescription that would help boost Ms Cruikshank’s immune system, together with anti-viral and anti-fungal herbs to directly attack the microbes causing her many problems. Last, but not least, the prescription worked on her adrenal and nervous systems to help lesson the damaging impact of stress on her body. Herbs given to Ms Cruikshank included St John’s Wort and Marigold (anti-virals); Pau D’arco and Thuja (anti-fungals); Echinacea and Myrrh (immune enhancing); Liquorice (anti-viral and an adrenal enhancer); Passion flower and Skullcap (calming to the nervous system).

Ms Cruickshank came for regular follow-up appointments and the prescription was fine-tuned over the following three months. Her energy and mood improved visibly over the first six weeks, and the thrush disappeared within three weeks. She continues to come for treatment and to date has had no further thrush outbreaks.

Herbal Medicine & Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Mrs Partington, aged 52, had recently had a major upheaval in her life; her husband had died and she had sold their family home and moved to a new area. She went to see a medical herbalist as she had recently been suffering from bloating, alternating diarrhoea and constipation, a feeling of not evacuating properly and cramping abdominal pains.

The medical herbalist took a comprehensive history and formulated a herbal prescription, which included nervine tonics to help with the increased stress load, carminatives to remove bloating and anti-spasmodics to relieve the cramping pain. The herbs prescribed were Valerian (smooth muscle relaxant and nervine tonic), Skullcap (for the nervous system), Lobelia and Wild Yam (anti-spasmodics), and Meadowsweet and Fennel (carminatives).

She also prescribed Slippery Elm tablets to help with the diarrhoea and constipation as well as herbal teas such as chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm to help with feelings of anxiety and to support the gastrointestinal tract. Advice on diet consisted of cutting out tea, coffee and alcohol, reducing gluten-containing products and eating more lightly cooked or steamed fruit and vegetables. Lifestyle advice included adding in daily walks and yoga classes to help with the stress levels.

Mrs Partington adhered to the advice very closely and found that the bloating slowly reduced and her bowel movements became more regular. She came for regular check-ups when the herbal prescription was changed slightly in accordance with her progress. After six months of treatment she is virtually symptom free provided that she watches her diet, drinks her prescribed herbal teas and takes regular exercise.

Treating Anxiety

Mr Richards is one of the healthiest people. At 75 he has the blood pressure of a 30-year-old, uses his pedometer to its limit and manages to consume more than his five-a-day target for fruit and vegetables. Mr Richards is a good example of a person using herbal medicine to keep him well and prevent health loss. Save for the odd viral infection and mild arthritic pain he maintains good physical and emotional wellbeing. However, he did have a period of time when things were very different for him.

This period followed the loss of his wife. The effects and long-term influence of bereavement can be profound and in some cases devastating. Mr Richards did not recognise the impact of his loss and the huge change in life had on his physical and emotional wellbeing for some time. He experienced pains shifting around his body, sleep disturbance, not feeling able to get out of bed in the morning to get on with his day. Day-to-day variants in his body patterns and activities transformed themselves (in his thinking) to angina, cancer...anything other than distress.

Over a period of time Mr Richards had to rebuild and redirect aspects of his life (and continues to do this). Herbs were used to enhance his sleep quality (such as Passion flower and Lavender), support his immune system and hormonal system (Ginseng) and maintain a healthy cardiovascular system (Hawthorn and Cramp Bark). Mr Richards has worked hard to maintain his wellbeing and after declining diazepam from his GP he continues to work through his bereavement positively.

Treating Tension Headaches

Miss James, a 32-year-old single mother working in a stressful job in the advertising industry, consulted with a medical herbalist as she was suffering from frequent headaches which appeared to start with a stiff, sore neck and shoulders and resulted in a headache. She found they were particularly bad when she felt stressed at work especially when having to meet deadlines as well as trying to arrange care for her child.

A comprehensive history was taken by the medical herbalist to ensure that there were no other causes of the headaches apart from stress. A herbal prescription was formulated consisting of Ashawagandha (for anxiety and exhausted states), Betony (specific for tension headaches), Skullcap (nervine tonic), Yellow jasmine (to help with the pain) and a small amount of Ginger. She was also given a cream with peppermint essential oil to massage into her neck and shoulders, especially after a hot bath or shower. It was suggested that she should exercise regularly in order to work some of the stress out of her body.

Miss James took the herbal prescription for three weeks and then found that she was able to reduce the dosage by half for a further two weeks. She then only took the mix and used the massage cream when she found that she was getting particularly tense before the headache had actually manifested. By using the herbs and cream at the right time and exercising as instructed she found that she could avoid the headaches.

By Rachael Hannan.

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From T. Rotheram
Articles very informative and accessable

From anonymous
I thought this was a very moving article.


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