An integrative approach to healing ourselves and our world: honoring people, plants, planet

Posts tagged ‘stress’

Holy basil as an antistress adaptogen

The Restorative Peace Tea Formula: Holy Basil, Wood Betony, Skullcap, Passionflower, Hibiscus and Calendula

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), also called tulsi, has been used in India for over 3,000 years, and is rapidly increasing in popularity in America. Hindus grow the holy basil plant in a prominent place in their courtyard or home, and consider the herb to be sacred to the god Vishnu. During morning and evening prayers, holy basil, which is reputed to have cleansing energy, is used to bring health and spiritual purity to the one in prayer and his or her family.

When I lived in Maryland, I frequented an Indian grocery store where the owner grew a holy basil plant in his store for spiritual purposes. Being one who’s interested in people’s relationship to plants, I asked the owner about his plant. He told me it was for health and good luck.

Though some Americans carry on the Hindu spiritual tradition with holy basil, the herb’s medicinal popularity is mostly due to its qualities as an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens are a special class of herbs which, in addition to dietary and lifestyle practices, have the ability to help people cope with stress physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The individual herbs within the adaptogen class are not one-size-fits-all. Each herb has qualities suitable to certain individuals’ physical, emotional, mental and spiritual responses to stressors.

As an adaptogen, holy basil is being used internally for its antistress effects. Holy basil is used to protect neurons from the negative effects of stress, and also to reduce stress-related secretion of the hormone cortisol, which is a necessary hormone involved in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal cortex negative feedback loop, but sustained, high levels of cortisol release can cause health problems over time.

One of the responsibilities of cortisol is at the tail-end of an illness; cortisol levels will increase to signal to the immune system to “cease-fire”. During periods of stress, cortisol levels also go up. In the case of excess cortisol secretion during stressful times, the immune system is lowered, making one more susceptible to getting sick. Also, the reserves of energy we have to get us through stressful times becomes drained, or depleted, which needs to be restored in order to decelerate the aging process, and health problems associated with aging.

Holy basil has many other health-promoting uses. It contains antioxidants, and can protect against radiation. In a randomized placebo-controlled single blind clinical trial of people with non-insulin-dependent-diabetes-melitius (NIDDM), holy basil showed a hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) effect on fasting and postprandial (after eating) blood sugar levels, and suggests holy basil for adjunct therapy for NIDDM.

Holy basil has a wonderful, smooth flavor, and makes a really great tea, which is why it’s an ingredient in my Restorative Peace Tea formula. Though related to the culinary sweet basil and Thai basil, holy basil is less of a cooking herb–though you can cook with it, and there are recipes out there for it.

Last year I began growing holy basil from a couple of plants I bought. I saved the seeds over the winter, and sowed them this spring. Now I have 30 or 40 holy basil plants. It’s that easy. Hindus plant the the seeds in blessed soil, and water it with sacred water. I confess that I didn’t go through any added ritualistic measures with my holy basil plants, but I love them, and I think they know that. I sprinkle them with Espoma Plant-Tone fertilizer for organic gardening. They really respond to it.

A species of holy basil (Ocimum gratissium) is considered very invasive in some places, such as Hawaii, so be careful with which variety you get.

Passionflower eases stress-related sleeplessness and anxiety

Passiflora incarnata looking like it's designed to communicate with extraterrestrials.

Passionflower is an example of how we can lose an appreciation for the familiar. The exotically beautiful, though completely native, passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata) is one of the few Passiflora species which grows in our temperate climate, and for this we can be thankful. This backyard remedy is tremendously useful for stress-related conditions: sleeplessness, tension, muscle spasms, irritability, restlessness, teeth-grinding, headaches, high blood pressure, attention-deficit, and even for withdrawal symptoms from addictive substances.

Passionflower is a deciduous vine with three-lobed leaves that smell like peanut butter when crushed. Its highly complex flowers bloom from June-October, and look as if they’re designed to communicate with outer-space extraterrestrials – though the passionflower is actually named by imaginative 16th century Spaniards for its symbolic imagery of Christ’s passion.

Passionflower fruits of Passiflora incarnata.

Edible, sweet-tasting fruits form after the flowers are finished, and ripen from green to yellowish-orange two months after forming. The vine often crawls along the ground, and when you step on the fruits they may pop, giving passionflower its other popular name, ‘maypop’.

Although the passionflower vine will grow in clay, it is most happy sprawled out over your vegetables, taking advantage of loose, fertile soil. To introduce passionflower into your garden, prepare a sunny spot as you would for tomatoes, and plant the seeds from a dried passionflower fruit. Give it space and a trellis or fence to climb. Venturing young shoots and leaves can be eaten when boiled and then sautéed.

Medicinally, passionflower is traditionally indicated when someone cannot sleep due to repetitive, worry-filled thoughts circling all night. Passionflower stills the rambling, anxious thoughts, bringing a calm and relaxed sleep without any sleep-medication “hangover”.

Numerous pharmacological investigations have confirmed passionflower’s ability to relieve anxiety. In one clinical trial of 36 people with generalized anxiety disorder diagnosed by DSM-IV standards who were randomly given either passionflower or oxazepam, a benzodiazepine prescribed for anxiety and alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the results found that passionflower and the pharmaceutical relieved anxiety equally; however, passionflower affected the participants’ job performance far less than oxazepam. An additional difference is that passionflower is safe in moderate amounts and non-addictive.

Studies also report its efficacy in reducing drug withdrawal symptoms for nicotine, alcohol, and opiates, such as morphine by increasing the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter which calms the body’s response to stimuli.

Surprisingly the flowers hold little medicinal value, besides looking at them. The majority of the nerve-calming qualities come from a tea or extract made from the leaves and stems, either fresh or dried. Commercial sources of the live plant are few. It’s more common to find the South American blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea), which has five-lobed leaves, an edible fruit and is almost evergreen in Athens.

Old-timer herbalist Tommie Bass said that passionflower brings people together by helping them to relax. He suggested it for domestic partners who’ve grown annoyed with the little things over the years, losing appreciation for the familiar. Cherokee Indians similarly used passionflower as a social beverage. If fences make good neighbors, then maybe passionflower should grow along the fence.

This article appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald on July 4, 2010.

Pictures of other species of Passiflora:

Passionflower botanical (1902) Dodd, Mead & Company. This botanical print came from a book. I have it in a simple frame.

Princess Charlotte's Passionflower, Passiflora racemosa, at Druid Hill Park Victorian Conservatory, Baltimore, MD

Skullcap: One of the most useful herbs for your nerves

Skullcap on Daufusky Island, South Carolina (Scutellaria sp.)

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) has two funny common names. The most used name, skullcap, points to the affinity this herb has with calming the mind and central nervous system, and also to how the flower appears like a hood. The second name, mad-dog skullcap, comes from a historical use for rabies, which is not a good idea anymore. However, skullcap remains one of the most useful herbs to restore and calm the nerves. I use this beautiful plant for myself and others, often.

Skullcap is known as a slightly sedating nervine, neurotrophorestorative, anxiolytic, and spasmolytic. Let me explain what each of those words mean:

  • A nervine normalizes the functions of the nervous system, soothing and relieving tension.
  • A neuro-trophorestorative is something herbs can do which pharmaceutical drugs don’t. It restores optimal function and structure of an organ or tissue. In skullcap’s case, its attention is the restoration of the neurons.
  • An anxiolytic relieves anxiety. Not all anxiolytic herbs do this in the same way.
  • A spasmolytic relieves or decreases muscle spasms in smooth or skeletal muscle.

Skullcap is specifically called for when someone has nervous, emotional irritability. Nervous irritability might appear as spasms, tremors, restlessness (perhaps in the legs), skeletal muscle tension (neck and back), teeth-grinding, stress headaches and agitation, both emotionally and physically.

Two types of agitation skullcap is good for are Excess and Deficient Agitation.                        Excess agitation is like the Yosemite Sam character: agitated, forceful, fiery, turbulent, angry, irritable, or jealous. The kind of energy they give off makes you want to back away slowly from them. They have a louder voice and their eye contact is steady. They give the perception of alpha dog, but when a lot of things pile up, they just might blow. This person might have cranky tension in his or her muscles (wry neck, low-back pain, or teeth-grinding) because they need to be doing something more active, not sitting behind a desk. Some women have PMS symptoms that are like Yosemite Sam.                                                Dose: 2 grams of the leaf in tea, capsules, or equivalent of tincture three times a day.

Deficient agitation is in someone who is very sensitive and easily overwhelmed by too much noise, light, such as in a big city or a big party. Excessive stimuli, i.e. too much input, would easily lead to nervous agitation in such a person. This person might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), hypervigilance, physical hypersensitivity, heart palpitations, panic attacks/disorder, test anxiety or fear of public speaking.                     Dose: 2 grams of the leaf in tea, capsules, or equivalent of tincture three times a day. **Larger doses of the tincture in the moment of panic, having palpitations, or public speaking.

Skullcap demonstrates the complexity of working with herbs and the great capabilities herbs have, often not found in pharmaceuticals. This is why skullcap forms the backbone of my Peace Tea formula.

(If someone has nervous exhaustion, you’d choose wild oats, Avena sativa; and if it’s nerve damage, then St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum, would be best).


Many years ago, there was an adulteration of skullcap with germander (Teucrium), and people became sick. This hasn’t happened for a very long time—over a decade—since our standards have improved for herbs. Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) has different uses than the native American skullcap.

Skullcap is OK with kids, and is not addictive like valium or benzodiazepines.

Much of the above information has come from one of my great teachers, James Snow.

STRESS and 8 Practices for Self Care

Visit your favorite body of water. Chattooga River, South Carolina side

Stress is a double-edged sword. Stress can be a motivating force, and a paralyzing force. The stress in a moment can urge us to move courageously, responding to the stressor with a decisive action intended to stop or change the circumstance to somehow benefit us, which illustrates the positive aspect of the philosophy that within a crisis is danger and opportunity. Constant, unresolved stress from perceived immutable stressors such as a mortgage, a chronic illness, or being in an abusive situation, however, will wither our vitality, causing us to doubt our power to change circumstances and become resigned to dwell in a pit of worry and fear.

Both causing and relieving stress are fortune-producing industries based on principles of contraction and relaxation marketed to people the industry calls ‘consumers’. We live among stressors; it’s unavoidable. Plus, we are biologically designed to respond to stressors which we perceive to be a threat, or that claim our attention. To put this into perspective and emphasize how as long as we are breathing, we will fluctuate between contraction and relaxation, it’s important to note that simply waking up in the morning increases the hormone often associated with stress, cortisol, and the levels may fall and rise throughout the day. Cortisol has many important uses in normal/ideal/health living (What’s that?). When under significant stress, cortisol production increases-generally, up until the point where it can increase no further where then it declines from exhaustion, producing many negative consequences during either the out-of-balance increase or the exhausted decline. This is the point where we notice being “stressed out” or “under stress”.Typically, the stressed out feeling comes after a long duration of a stressful circumstance.

In other experiences, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the result is from a particular traumatic event, or intermittent traumatic events. The physiological and psychological manifestations of long-endured stress or post traumatic stress have similarities and differences, and then, of course, within individuals there are also differences. Describing each of them at length is beyond the focus of this entry; however, it’s important to mention that what gets classified as PTSD is somewhat controversial. Researchers are careful not to apply the disorder too widely. The degree of trauma is in question, which also needs to take into account the state of the individual prior to the trauma. The straw that broke the camel’s back didn’t seem very significant in itself, but added to the existing burden, it was too much to handle for the camel. Young, healthy soldiers who are quickly exposed to traumatic experiences are more easily diagnosed with PTSD, than a single mother of three children in inner-city Baltimore who is worried about her family’s safety after a police raid of her neighbor’s rowhouse resulting in gunfire (I didn’t have children, but I was living alone in Baltimore during a stressful time when this happened to me and my neighbor, which resulted in occasional flashbacks, leading me to realize the importance of self care to which end the flashbacks have disappeared.).

So, we know this: Unavoidable stressors are around us, the stress response is natural, and experiencing traumatic events is unpredictable. That being written, what we DO have control over is our perception and classification of what is or isn’t a stressor, which affects our response to it. Notice when you are feeling stress about something that is insignificant. If you can reevaluate the stressor, and create an appropriate decisive action for the stressor, chances are the stress response to the stressor you were experiencing will shift as the decisive action releases energy instead of absorbing energy.

To prevent the misperception of insignificant toil being a stressor, many practices exist, which we all know but few actually do.

To Do List:

  1. Be in the present: Each of the following are built upon being present. We can anticipate the future. We can regret the past. We can change our attitude and perception of the past and future if we act in the present.
  2. Exercise: This is the single-most lifestyle choice to increase one’s quality and length of life. My favorite form of exercise is walking.
  3. Meditate: Experiencing silence is a revolutionary act for our psyche in an age of stimulus overload. Mediation creates a stillness in the mind and body which has tremendous health effects, such as decreasing the activation of proteins activated by stress associated with Alzheimer Disease and dementia, plus healing the heart and immune system.
  4. Pray: The Serenity Prayer expresses how discernment between things within our control and outside of our control releases stress and brings serenity. When something is within our control, we can create a decisive action in response to it. When it is not in our control, we can release it to the universal creator. Developing a relationship with a power greater than your small sense of self can bring you great peace.
  5. Care for a plant: Being in nature and caring for a plant brings us to the present, connecting us in a primordial bond between plant and animal/human. The relationship communicates soothing chemical molecules between the plant and our human being. An enjoyable read is The Secret Life of Plants.
  6. Eat nutrient-dense whole food from humane farming practices: Food is made up of molecular compounds which carry energy and impact our body in positive, neutral, and negative ways. You are what you eat is true. What goes into making and preparing food is also what what we become. Think about this when it comes to in humane farming practices for farmworkers and animals, synthetic additives and preservatives, and pre-packaged for convenience. One of the glorious aspects of living is eating good food. Why do we willingly give that up for disgusting food? A slow manipulation is responsible, so twisted that we end of wanting our poison. Try an experiment. Choose to eat self-prepared whole foods for a month and document how you feel along the way. Notice any mood changes. They may get worse first before they get better, so you need to be committed. It’s a detoxification process. At the end of the month, you’ll be thinking clearly, which will allow you to discern what is stress-worthy better.
  7. Follow a diurnal and seasonal cycle: Though sometimes we are confused about what we are, we are diurnal creatures. We are not night owls. Our body and mind responds to light and dark in different ways. The light photons enter through the eyes, and interact with the pineal gland which stimulates the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands to increase energy for the day, or when absent decrease energy for nighttime sleeping. Studies of night-shift nurses show a lowered immune system, increased stress hormones, and increased occurrences of cancer. Following the seasons is like tending to yourself as if you are the garden. In winter you rest, being silent and still, allowing creativity to come from deep within. Seeds are planted in early spring, seeds of ideas, plans are made of how to develop these seeds. At summer we tend to each other, we dance, we experience great joy at the great growth. In late summer, we harvest and enjoy the abundance. The fall calls us to collect the seeds of the plants we want to save for springtime replanting. We let go of whatever will not serve us through the winter, composting it in the earth, where it will become a new, nourishing form. We come back to winter to rest, reflect, be silent, and go deep within ourselves, within the earth to become renewed for the coming spring.
  8. Form a friendship with someone who is choosing self care, too: If you are going this path alone, you may have a hard time picking yourself up when you stumble. Also, being around someone who CHOOSES the path of self care is different from instructing others who are not choosing self care. Convincing others who are into self destruction will not help your stress. In this relationship be authentic, genuine, humble, light-hearted, and allow for mistakes. Making changes in our life can develop a sense of taking ourselves too seriously, and being more “evolved” than another. When you begin to feel that way, watch out, it is right before a stressful stumble.

Don’t Do List:

  1. Do the To Do List and the Don’t Do List just might disappear.

What About the Author?

Certainly the reader suspects whether the author follows the To Do List. Admittedly off and on (there is no contest), which is how I know the effects from following the list and falling away from some of the practices. I also know that number 8 is very important. Following these 8 practices can have positive outcomes for one’s self, others, plants and the planet, which is the whole idea.

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