Archive for Stress

The importance of recuperation: my own bad example.

I’m not a very good patient. That is, I’m not very patient.

When someone else is sick, I make them a nest in front of the fire, bring them chicken soup and tea, and make sure they have everything they need so they don’t have to get up or do anything.

When I’m sick, well, I get antsy. And it doesn’t do me any good.

So last week when I was getting over that last-gasp-of-winter virus, I should have been taking it easy. But Monday night I stayed up late doing research, and Tuesday morning I skipped breakfast and ran out the door to a meeting. As it happened my meeting was at a cafe that served nothing but awful, spongy muffins and “scones.” I didn’t eat any real food until maybe 2pm.

By that evening, I was already coming down with a second cold, worse than the first. So did I cancel my dinner plans on Wednesday so I could rest? Of course not. Was I even sicker on Thursday? You betcha.

Thursday I tried to take my own good advice: I drank tea all afternoon and went to bed early. Friday I felt so much better that I went to dinner at a friend’s house. Which turned out to be too much. This morning I felt awful.

And would you believe I almost didn’t cancel my trip to Montreal this weekend? Ridiculous.

So here I am, in front of the fire, drinking homemade lamb broth and remembering that most basic of old-fashioned cures: convalescence.

Our great-grandmothers knew the power of rest. So many of us these days just want to swallow our pills and get right back at it. But that’s not how the human ecosystem works. If we’re depleted by an illness (or some other stress) we need time to recuperate. And we need to be slow and careful as we “get back at it.”

On that note, I’m off to bed. Goodnight!

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Insomnia is not insomnia is not insomnia.

Difficulty sleeping comes in many forms.

Trouble Falling Asleep can be associated with tension, excess nervous energy (“heat”) or a depleted nervous system (“cold”). My favorite herbs for falling asleep are kava (Piper methysticum) for tension, hops (Humulus lupulus) for heat and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for cold. (Detailed indications for these herbs.)

Trouble Staying Asleep is usually associated with tension or excess nervous energy (heat), but it can sometimes be related to depletion (cold) as well. My favorite herbs for staying asleep are passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for tension, peach leaf (Prunus persica) for heat and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) for cold. (Detailed indications for these herbs.)

Trouble Waking Up (aka waking up with that run-over-by-a-truck feeling) is common in people whose bodies are sluggish or depleted overall. Lymphatic and liver-supporting herbs are the thing to use here. Some of my favorites are cleavers (Galium aparine) and all heal (Prunella vulgaris) for sluggishness and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and oats (Avena sativa) for depletion. (I haven’t posted detailed indications for these herbs yet. Some of them are in Matt Wood’s book, listed below.)

Basic sleep hygiene applies in every case of sleep trouble: Dark and quiet bedroom (no TV), no caffeine/stimulants in the afternoon (or at all), good exercise (but not in the evening), good relaxing and good food.

Important: It is always best to choose herbs carefully, based on an individual’s constitution. Don’t think “valerian is good for insomnia.” Ask “Is valerian good for this person?” There is no insomnia, only a person. (If you give valerian to someone who has a hot constitution, it can have a stimulant effect; if you give hops to someone with a cold constitution, it can be depressing.) I never like to recommend herbs for anyone without seeing them and talking to them first. Again: herbs are for people, not for conditions.

N.B.: Heat/Cold and Tension/Sluggishness are part of a system of “energetics” that many herbalists use to understand human bodies and match them with appropriate herbs. Someday I will blog about energetics, but in the meantime the best introductory discussion of western-style herbal energetics that I know of is in Matthew Wood’s book The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism.

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Hop pillows are lovely.

Making hop pillows.

One of the most common questions people ask me as an herbalist is “What can I take to help me sleep?” Since the underlying cause of insomnia is usually stress, working with the appropriate calming and comforting herbs is a good place to start.

In my post on comforting herbs, I mentioned that hops can be taken as tea or tincture to help with stress and insomnia—but my favorite way to use hops to encourage sleep is with hop pillows. The aroma of good quality hops is a gentle, effective soporific (so effective that people who pick hops all day sometimes get sleepy on the job).

Here’s how to make a hop pillow:

Make or find a small cloth bag. I generally make mine out of two 3×5 inch pieces of quilting cotton, but a large muslin teabag works well.

Fill the bag with good quality hops. Good hops should be fresh, more green than brown, and very aromatic. If you have trouble finding good hops, try a brewing supply store. Most bulk dried hops you find in herb stores are old and sad. (Herb stores often don’t take very good care of their bulk dried herbs, but that’s a topic for another post.)

After you’ve filled the bag with hops, sew or fasten it closed—tight enough so that if you roll over on it at night, you won’t wake up to a bed full of hops.

Sleep with the pillow close enough to smell it. (I like to give mine a few good squeezes to release the aroma when I get in bed.)

Sweet dreams!

(N.B. Most herbalists consider hops to be contraindicated in cases of depression. I think this is less of an issue with hop pillows, but it’s definitely something to consider. Always pay close attention to your reactions to any herb—if your instinct says something isn’t good for you, don’t use it!)

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Comforting herbs.

Most of us are ready for some comfort right about now. Holiday chaos is behind us, we’ve more or less survived, and it’s time to get quiet and cozy and rebuild our reserves.

Here are indications or “symptom pictures” for some calming and comforting herbs. A symptom picture is a great way to get to know an herb better—it describes the characteristics of a person who fits a particular herb. All of these herbs could be considered nervines that are good for “stress,” but you get the best results with plants if you pay close attention to details.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa): Nervous stomach, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” someone who is passionate and intense but holding back. [Tincture or tea.]

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica): Agitation and insomnia with pain. [Tincture or tea.]

Catnip (Nepeta cataria): Stress stomachaches, cold headaches, overstimulation and colic in children. [Tincture or tea.]

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita or Chamaemelum nobile): Irritability, petulance, complaining, impatience, “acting like a baby.” [Tea.]

Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum and O. gratissimum): Tension with fear underneath, running on adrenaline, trying to control things. [Tincture or tea.]

Hops (Humulus lupulus): Anxiety, muscle twitching, muscle and digestive tension, insomnia. [Tincture or tea.]

Kava (Piper methysticum): Muscle pain and tension, worry, “wrapped up in knots.” [Tincture.]

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Nervous excitement, giddiness, headache. Culpeper says: “tremblings and passions of the heart.” [Tea.]

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): Speedy feeling, racing heart, can’t calm down. [Tincture or tea.]

Linden (Tilia x europaea or T. americana): Heartache, sadness, palpitations, nervous nausea and vomiting. [Tea.]

Milky Oats (Avena sativa): Run down and weak, drained nerves and body. Hildegard suggests oat water in a sauna for “a divided mind and crazy thoughts.” [Tincture or tea.]

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): Heartbreak, grief, emotions feel out of control. [Tincture or tea.]

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus): Raw, in need of soothing. Hildegard: “one whose heart is weak and sad.” [Tincture or tea.]

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): Racing thoughts, tremors, irritation. Tommie Bass used it to restore peace in relationships where people get irritated with each other over little things. [Tincture or tea.]

Peach Leaf (Prunus persica): Sensitivity, overstimulation, overheated, nervous nausea and vomiting. [Tincture or tea.]

Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): Fear, anger, nightmares, physical spasms. [Tincture or tea.]

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata): Anger, headache from heat. Hildegard: “a discontented mind.” [Tincture.]

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): Pale, cold, weak, spacy, agitated, can’t sleep, can’t catch breath. [Tincture.]

Vervain (Verbena officinalis and V. hastata): Driven, perfectionist, striving, tense neck muscles. [Tincture.]

Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa and L. canadensis): Been through trauma, deadened, cold, feel numb, stiff muscles. [Tincture.]

If you’re interested in learning to relate to herbs in terms of symptom pictures, Matthew Wood’s books are a great place to start. But really it’s just a question of getting to know the plants personally.

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We’re all sensitive.

More notes on allergies and sensitivities:

1. We’re all sensitive to the barrage of toxic crap we breathe, eat and drink.

2. Dealing with the barrage of toxic crap increases our sensitivity to potential allergens and irritants.

3. Allergy and sensitivity are directly related to overall health and stress levels.

Some people seem to think that immune reactions are as fundamental and unchanging as eye or skin color. Not so. Our bodies are much more interesting than that. Our immune reactions are often mediated by stress—psychological or physical.

It’s possible to be allergic to something only when you’re stressed out. I see this often in people who have been diagnosed with “Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”
They can eat a trigger food with no problem most of the time, but if they’re tired or stressed out, the food triggers an IBS attack. So the real trigger is the interaction between the food and the stress. Knowing this, people can learn their triggers and take care of their health much more easily. They can say “I’ve had a long day, and wheat is a stress-related trigger for me, so let’s have rice for dinner instead of pasta.”

It makes sense to me that our nervous systems and our immune systems are so closely connected. If we’re feeling threatened in one sphere, why shouldn’t all our systems be up in arms?

Here’s a funny, geeky bit about stress and immune reactions:

“Psychological stress may be conceptualized as a social pollutant that, when ‘breathed’ into the body, may disrupt biological systems related to inflammation through mechanisms potentially overlapping with those altered by physical pollutants and toxicants.” From The impact of stress on the development and expression of atopy. Current Opinion in Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 5(1):23-29, February 2005. Wright, Rosalind J a; Cohen, Robyn T b; Cohen, Sheldon c

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