Self-care tips for managing stress and taking care of your psycho and emotional health from a herbal medicine perspective.

Firstly, Know yourself!

If you are reading this and you are researching for yourself, and even if you are not, before you get on to the bit about physiology, mood and herbs, try this exercise. List, without judgement, the strategies that you have used to get you through times of pain, fear, stress or distress in the past.

What is it, that you do to get through?

Consider the things that you have done in the past that you know really help you be at your best and work through difficult times. Bearing in mind, strategies that can work for you in some situations, may sabotage your power to function optimally in others. Which of those things that help are available to you at the moment?

From my clinical experience, that things folk have found helpful, in no particular order, include: talking to friends; exercising; taking medication; not taking medication; talking therapies or other skilled therapeutic help; being in nature; helping others; purposeful activity; discipline in diet; structure and routine; holidays; rest; dancing; music; creative activity; gardening; meditating; sleeping; sleeping less; getting drunk; not getting drunk.

Are any of these available to you at the moment?

Pick something – it could be one of these, or it could be something else, and resolve to practice actively for a specific amount of time, while you also explore the impact or herbs and nutrition. True herbal medicine is a holistic approach. Remember, hone your connection with tools that help keep you grounded, sane and balanced. And then consider the following tips in relation to diet, to general physical well being, and to some beautiful helpful plants.


Food, Diet and nutrition

We tend not to think of ourselves as having nutritional deficiencies unless they have reached certain measurable pathological levels. In the past someone was only considered to be lacking in Vitamin D if they had Rickets – but consider that the presence of any nutrient will be on a continuum that ranges through too much, to optimum, to critically absent. There is so much evidence that the is a relationship between a poor diet and poor mental health and clearly eating well consistently is the ideal aim - but in the immediate term, consider topping up some of these nutrients.

B12 and Folic acid

B12 Helps to build the myelin sheath, the insulating layer for nerve transmission. B12 deficiency has been associated with depression and even psychosis, but classically leads to symptoms associated with the old fashioned expression ‘nerves’ - over-sensitivity to sensory stimulation, noise, smell, etc; being overwhelmed with situations that would normally be manageable; timidity; tearfulness; a sense of ‘not coping’.

B12 is made by bacteria. This is why meat is a good source, because B12 would have been made in the gut of the animal. It is why fermented foods are a good non-meat source. It is also why some medications – some antibiotics, anti-acids, metformin, for example, can lead to depletion.

Vitamin C

Helps to make the hormones adrenaline and cortisone and the neurotransmitter noradrenaline. Neurotransmitters are critical for proper brain function and mood. Vitamin C aids proper adrenal and thyroid function. Plant sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, kiwi fruit and rose-hips. High sugar diets can inhibit the body’s use of vitamin C and can affect both our immune responses and mood.

Vitamin D

Known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ as it can be created in the body directly from sunlight. As a generation we probably access less of this than most previous humans, although this may have been true since the industrial revolution. I have never known anyone who has been sent for blood tests come back with sufficient vitamin D levels. Also available from saturated fats, it is an important anti-viral, but would also appear to have some impact on mood (see PDF) If you are someone who tends to ‘go down’ in winter a little, consider taking a supplement. Alternatively be try to get plenty daylight hours in the outdoors. Japanese studies suggest that being somewhere beautiful in nature (in these instance, in forests) can bring further added benefits including reduction of cortisol levels and lowering of blood pressure.

EFAs

There has been criticism of the size and methodology of studies relating to essential fatty acids and brain function but there is a clear association with depression and low dietary intake of particularly omega 3s in a modern diet, and a significant enough evidence base to consider supplementation does exist. Sources of EFAs oily fish eg. sardines, mackerel, herring, salmon, avocados, nuts and seeds – but the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 may be crucial, and desired high ratio of omega 3s are mainly found in oily fish. Vegetarians could consider a vegan omega 3 algae supplement.


Physiology: a Holistic perspective

The 20th century narrative for understanding the biological basis for mood in the west has been to assume it is all about brain chemistry. In fact there are many aspects of physiology that impact on mood. The best herb to support your mood, might be one that for you might be one that works on the liver or the gut.

Fluctuating sugar levels

Our sugar levels play a significant part in mood swings. There is evidence of association between Diabetes and depression, and the relationship may well be chicken and egg like in nature. Eating high glycaemic index (high GI) foods such as refined carbohydrates (most bread, pastries and flaked breakfast cereals, pasta, white rice, sugar itself, of course, etc) creating blood sugar ‘spikes’, or highs, which, because of our body’s automatic impetus towards homeostasis (the body’s habit of always bringing things back into balance), leads to sudden blood sugar dips, which can - in some people more than others – lead to various emotions, including depression, irritability and anger. The trick is to attempt to keep our sugar levels even all day by eating slow release, low G.I is foods – fats, protein and complex carbohydrates. Herbs to help regulate sugar levels include Goat’s rue (galega officionalis) and cinnamon.

The liver

The liver plays an important part in mood - think how a hangover feels. The liver’s role is to eliminate toxins, process and clear chemicals that your body no longer needs (e.g. hormones) and regulate blood sugar levels. Tips to support you’re your liver include the obvious - (reduce your alcohol and other recreational drug intake!) and consider taking milk thistle silybum marianus seeds (as a supplement, or just chewed directly) or dandelion root taraxacom officionale root (as a tea or a tincture).

Viruses

Viruses can bring you down, not just because you feel ill, but at an emotional or chemical mood level too. Don’t forget powerful culinary sources of anti-vitals – for example, garlic, ginger, turmeric etc.

Digestion

A large proportion of the neurotransmitter serotonin is made in the gut. A well-balanced digestive system optimally absorbs all the necessary nutrients available and eliminates unnecessary products effectively. The evidence the key role of the gut - even our gut flora to emotional wellbeing is increasingly stacking up. Sometimes treating digestive disturbances - from constipation to IBS - can deliver a (seemingly) indirect route to promoting better emotional well being. The importance of ‘keeping yourself regular’ may have gone out of fashion but is still very relevant (psyllium husks deliver this service very effectively). Soothing digestive teas with herbs like marshmallow, Althea officionalis and meadowsweet filipendula ulmaria can help with hyperacidity and inflammation, which in turn will help with absorption.

Sleep

Sleep is crucial to a positive outlook and perspective, as well as body repair. So is quality dreaming time, to allow you to process the issues and feelings you deal with in your waking world. Especially make sure to nourish yourself with good sleep and dreaming time in winter.

Exercise

It may be the last thing you feel like doing but there is plenty of evidence that regular exercise has a positive impact on mental health. Plan your exercise regime correctly and it could also bring you the benefits associated with vitamin D and/or being in Nature. It might be as simple as taking a walk in your local park every day…


Herbs to improve mood

There are so many, and in a home remedy context, the trick is, to know a few, perhaps just one or two, well. Here is a brief introduction to examples of herbs to help with mood. Pick one or two you like the sound of and do your own research; the history and folklore may tell you as much as the science. Consider consuming them as teas or tinctures – but also in other ways – in brandy, in cider vinegar, in smoothies etc. If you are taking medication, some herbal medicines may not be a problem at all, but they could be, so please take skilled advice from a herbalist.

Borage
Borago officinalis

Used by the Vikings apparently, this herb has a reputation for cheerfulness and as a tonic for the adrenals, which govern the stress response. There is an expression ‘Borage for courage!’


Chamomile
Matricaria recutita

Relaxes the digestive system, gently stimulates the liver; soothes the nervous system while relieving muscle tension. It is also anti-allergenic, making it a useful remedy in hay fever and asthma.


Chili, cayenne
Capsicum minimum

Herbalists used to add a pinch to every prescription to stimulate circulation and accelerate oxygenation of cells. It is ‘rubifacient’, stimulating blood flow to the local area, and vitimin C rich.


Cocoa
Theobroma cacao

This ancient food/medicine of the Mayans and Aztecs is relatively unknown in the European medicinal tradition, but it contains potentially useful constituents including flavonoids, theobromine, serotonin and phenylethylamine. It is good for cardiovascular health; the bitterness is stimulating to the digestive system; and it may have a positive impact on mood.


Dandelion
Taraxacum officinale

The root gently stimulates the liver, supporting clearance of toxins. It may also help regulate blood sugar levels. Gentle and solid, unlikely to cause interactions with pharmaceutical medicines.


Lavender
Lavandula officinalis

Traditionally used for stress, insomnia, headaches, depression, anxiety. Also to calm the digestion and as a breath freshener.


Lemon Balm
Melissa officinalis

Has a reputation as a tonic for anxiety and depression. It is a valuable remedy for heart palpitations of nervous origin. Also digestive problems associated with over-anxiety. C17th herbalist Culpepper said ‘it causeth the mind and heart to be merry…And driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind arising from melancholy and black choler’. Will grow easily and abundantly in most European gardens.


Milk thistle
Silybum marianum

Previously known as ‘Holy thistle’, it became fashionable when research highlighted that it stimulated the regeneration of liver cells. By supporting the liver, it supports brain and nervous system function.


Mugwort
Artemisia vulgaris

Traditionally sewn into pillows to help with remembering dreams, mugwort plays an important part in the European tradition as a liver herb and maybe used for promoting menstruation. Culpepper used it in C17th Hackney to help with opium addiction.


Oatstraw
Avena sativa

Think of oat-straw as providing that nourishing ready brek advert protective glow around the edges of frayed nerves.


Passionflower
Passiflora incantarta

I think of Passiflora as an anxiolytic, a calming herb to give a little distance from heightened emotion or intense pressure.


Rosemary
Rosmarinus officinalis

Is ‘for remembrance’, to quote an old expression. It stimulates the flow of blood to the head, improving concentration and memory. It can ease headaches and migraines and improve hair growth. A good uplifting remedy for those dull, sluggish and depressive feelings. And useful for those who need a sense of clarity to alleviate their anxiety.


Skullcap
Scultilaria lactiflora

It may be the association of the name, but I always think of this herb for calming circular thoughts and over-thinking


St John’s wort
Hypericum perforatum

Shown to be effective against depression in clinical trials, the herb has a long history of use for the liver, the nervous system and mood. It is photosensitive, anti-inflammatory, especially to nerve tissue, and antiviral. It will interact with some medications.


Valarian
Valariana officionalis

For most this is a very useful calming sedative. Depending on dose, it can be used at night to promote sleep, or during the day to alleviate fear and alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Although be warned for a very small number of people it can behave as a stimulant.


Vervain
Verbena officionalis

Rich in folklore and sacred association, I think of Vervain as a strengthening and protective nervine. It has a bitter quality and is useful for supporting women where there are hormonal issues.