The Holiday Season can often leave us feeling depressed and depleted. How would you like to have some extra tools to get through it all this year?
Here are some simple steps to help you manage the stress of the Holidays, or any day, a little more effectively.
Simple Step #1 — Deep Breathing
You may think this is an airy-fairy kind of tip and I urge you to re-think it if that is the case! Deep breathing is an ancient practice, most highly revered within the practice of yoga and Eastern philosophies. Modern science is confirming a physiologic connection between deep breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the rest and restore part of the nervous response that we want to encourage.
The great Andrew Weil starts and ends his days with a series of 4-8 deep breaths. He uses the technique with his patients, encouraging them to use deep breathing as a tool to better handle stressful situations that may arise, manage cravings, and generally improve mood. He claims excellent results for anxiety with this technique. The breathing exercises can change how a person responds to stress. I especially like this option because it is absolutely free to anyone who wants to use it!
Deep breathing has no known side-effects or contraindications. No chance it will interfere with your medications. It can be done anywhere and anytime. Quietly and discreetly.
Whether you develop a daily practice or not, it might be wise to develop a habit of using a few deep breaths during times of great stress. I feel a difference when I do.
Simple Step #2 — Herbal Nervine Teas
Nervine is a term used by herbalists to describe plants with a soothing and often nourishing action to the nerves.
There is something deeply enriching about sipping aromatic herbals in a hot water extract, commonly known as tea. For the following herbal nervine teas we are more specifically making an infusion.
The act of making a pot of tea in itself has inherent healing power. When you inhale the aroma as it steeps, take in the cozy warmth and all the while keep a mind to your wellness, you invite calm and reflection into your moment. While any tea may be comforting or even nourishing, there are particular herbals that are renown for helping us unwind.
Four Nervine Tea Options that are Relatively Easy to Find
1. Holy Basil || Ocimum sanctum
Also known as Tulsi, this delicious tea is especially useful in managing stress. Holy Basil or Tulsi is commonly found in groceries and is even more commonly found throughout India where it is sacred and often consumed fresh. We mostly consume it dried in the US, though I encourage you to grow Tulsi if you have a little sunny space, to enjoy your own fresh supply. Holy Basil is known to normalize and strengthen adrenal function, evidenced by its ability to reduce cortisol levels and stabilize blood sugar. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is associated with all types of health problems so reducing levels can be really helpful to overall health.
2. Chamomile || Matricaria chamomilla
I believe chamomile is one of the most underrated herbs. Perhaps because it is so commonly available at restaurants and grocery stores, we tend to dismiss it as insignificant. And while Chamomile is mild, and therefore safe for almost everyone, it is also effective for a number of common challenges. Herbalists classify Chamomile as a mild nervine relaxant, meaning it will calm and soothe your nerves. It can help with sleep, but it usually takes several cups to do so. More importantly, and in smaller amounts (1-2 cups), Chamomile lends a gentle and supportive boost to the nerves. Chamomile is traditionally used as to soothe an upset tummy. Chamomile is especially helpful to dispel gas, making it perfect for digestive upset associated with stress.
For a review of some of the research on Chamomile check out this pubmed reference.
3. Lemon Balm || Melissa officinalis
Classically thought of as a children’s herb, Lemon Balm is a traditional favorite for cold and flu. Lemon Balm is used to reduce symptoms, reduce the duration, and simultaneously lift the spirits. The lemony smell and gentle nature of Lemon Balm makes a wonderful bath for children and adults. Like Chamomile, Lemon Balm is used traditionally as a carminative, making it great for cold or flu with digestive symptoms. More modern research shows that the feel good qualities of Lemon Balm are likely linked to an inhibition of the enzyme that breaks down GABA, or GABA-transaminase. GABA is the feel good neuro-transmitter that our bodies make. Lemon Balm’s inhibition of the enzyme results in higher levels of feel good GABA. We believe this impact on GABA is linked with the uplifting quality of this beloved plant.
More information on Lemon Balm and GABA-transaminase.
4. Wild Oatstraw || Avena sativa
The very same plant that gives us oats for breakfast, also gives us milky seed pods and wild oatstraw, all very nutritious and all with a mild strengthening effect on the nerves. The infusion of wild oatstraw is one of the gentlest and most nourishing herbal teas for the nervous system, working best over time. Eating whole (steel cut) oats for breakfast can provide some support to the nervous system. For even greater effect use the wild oatstraw as a tea or the young milky oat seed as tincture. Herbalists generally tout the milky seed for acute stress and the infused oatstraw for building strength over time. Every part of the Avena sativa plant is rich in vitamins and minerals including calcium and magnesium.
Other notable herbal nervines include:
Skullcap, Passionflower, California Poppy, Lavender, Linden, Hops, Verbena, Valerian
For most of us, herbal nervine teas make a great alternative to caffeine and sugar-laden drinks, for the whole family! Make a big pot to refrigerate and enjoy for up to 2 days. For variety, try adding fun herbal or food flavorings like organic orange peel, a cinnamon stick, and/or a touch of local wildflower honey to make it interesting. Enjoy your soothing tea hot or iced!
Please Note: Each of the featured herbals are on the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list of approved supplements by the FDA, meaning generally safe for both children and adults. Of course, always check with your medical practitioner or pharmacist about contraindications with any medication you might be taking.
With any food, spice or herb, there is a slim chance for allergic reaction. Whenever you add a new food or herb into your diet, best to start with a small amount and make sure it is working for you.
Simple Step #3 — Add Adaptogens
The term Adaptogen was coined in 1947 to describe a plant with ability to increase overall resistance to stress.
Anyone under stress may benefit by the nutritive and tonic effect adaptogens provide. Adaptogens support adrenal health, which means Holy Basil is in this class (although, most adaptogens are roots). Since stress can often lead to compromises in immune response, it is great that Adaptogens are also shown to improve our overall immune system health. The broad actions on multiple systems contributes to Adaptogen’s stress-busting activity on physical, microbial, mental, or emotional stresses.
To make a tea with adaptogenic plants that are roots (or any root, rhizome, seed or bark) be sure to use the decoction method.
If all this tea making is just too much for you, herbal nervines and adaptogens can be found in liquid extract or capsule form. Look for products with whole plant extraction methods to get the broadest nutrients and activity. Or consider buying powders to add into food. (See Ashwaganda below).
Eleuthero || Eleutherococcus senticossus
This root has an affinity with those under constant stress and makes a wonderful rich tea. One of the first studied for its ability to help workers perform better, even under dire circumstances, with several large human trials held in Russia during the 20th Century.
Renown as a plant of the Vikings beloved for its strengthening action and its ability to promote endurance. Rhodiola might be a favorite because it tends to give a notable energy boost. Excellent overview published in the leading herbal journal Herbalgram. If the Herbalgram post is more science than you care for, you might check out this shorter overview focused on Rhodiola's role in improving cognition.
Ashwaganda || Withania somnifera
A wonder plant with a growing body of research! Ashwaganda is a favorite tonic herb or food of India and recommended by many experts for help in managing a host of chronic illness. It is safe, has a very long history of use and plenty of supportive evidence to both safety and effectiveness. Most anybody can benefit from Ashwanda. According to the Chopra Center’s Jenna Saunders “Ashwagandha is classically taken as a fine powder mixed in honey or ghee.” More information here.
Another herbal option that is also food! Who doesn’t want a little tonic/food/medicine mixed in a honey ball? And if you are going no carb, try ashwanda in almond butter or in your favorite energy ball recipe. Also, experiment with the other root powders like Eleuthero or Ginseng.
Other notable adaptogens include:
Holy Basil, Schisandra chinensis, Chinese, Korean and American Ginsengs (Panax spp.) Bacopa monnieri, and most medicinal mushrooms including but not limited to: Reishi, Shitake, Maitake, Lions Mane, Chaga, Turkey Tail, and Poria.
Simple Step #4 — Exercise
An obvious addition to any stress management list is exercise, and you already know this so I will not belabor the point. Here are some reasons I think exercise cannot be overlooked!
- A mere 10 min of aerobic exercise will increase your metabolism for several hours.
- Benefits of exercise are measurable against countless health measures: improved mental clarity and parasympathetic responses included.
- Many people find that consistent exercise is their very best tool for handling stress, depression and anxiety.
- Sex could be called a form of exercise and stress release, and probably deserves its own category in this article. I will suffice to mention it as one stress relief option for healthy adults, either with a consenting partner or on your own.
- Exercise impacts the body as a whole, including the nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory and hormone systems; all must integrate to coordinate exertion. This makes exercise, in a way, a manifestation of wholeness.
If exercise is not yet a part of your daily routine, consider a simple start! Commit to just 10 minutes of brisk walking each day.
You can even walk in place, at home, if this is your best or only option to move. Put on some favorite upbeat music and move your arms and legs. You can dance or add exercises such as knee lifts, low kicks, calf raises, and squats for even better results. 10 minutes a day can begin to make changes in how you feel pretty quickly. Before you know it, you’ll want to do more!
Simple Step #5 — Essential Oils and Aromatherapy
Essential oils are the distilled volatile oils taken from plants typically by steam distillation. They are extremely concentrated, the scented part of plants that we easily recognize by smell. Many of them have calming effects on our nerves.
Because essential oils work through the sense of smell, they can have profound impact on our emotions and our nervous system which is intimately tied into smell. Essential oils are not taken internally. Instead, you simply need to smell them! The aroma itself triggers a physiologic effect. If you use essential oils in a room diffuser, everyone who smells it can benefit by the relaxing and often uplifting properties. In addition to diffusers and nebulizers, there are some more affordable options such as small aroma lamps (heated by candle), room sprays or simply putting 1-3 drops on a tissue and inhaling. If you are out and about, and you know you might be under undue stress, take your bottle with you and simply open and inhale! That might be a good time to practice your deep breathing too.
Essential Oils with calming effects: Lavender, Blue Chamomile, Roman Chamomile, Rose, Jasmine, Bergamot, Geranium, Neroli and Basil
This is not an exhaustive list, but a good place to start on oils that are easy to find. With the exception of Neroli, these are affordable options. Neroli can be found in Jojoba or some other carrier oil to make it more affordable. Please try ours.
NOTE: Be sure to buy a therapeutic-grade true essential oil, not a cheap synthetic version. Essential oils are for external use only.
I hope you are inspired to set aside some time each day for self-care. You deserve a few minutes to exercise, to make a pot of tea, or just to breathe. Maybe even treat yourself to an aroma lamp on your desk at work! Perhaps you can choose a couple of Simple Steps that work with your life. After all, you know better than anyone else what will work best in your day.