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Herbs for stress management

In Health and Nutrition by Dr Casey ConroyLeave a Comment

Are you feeling acutely stressed, or chronically exhausted from being too stressed out for too long? Powerful botanical herbs exist that can help your body adapt to stress, and recover from the negative effects of adrenal exhaustion – if you know how to use them correctly.


Forget asbestos, Roundup on our vegetables, and mercury fillings: by the year 2020 the most threatening health hazard known to humans is predicted to be stress. Already a major cause of disease, chronic stress sets off a cascade of long-term chemical changes that can spell disease and inflammation for your body, and disintegration of the spirit.

So what’s a human living in the 21st century to do? Aside from lifestyle interventions – such as healthy diet, regular movement, strong social support networks, mind-body practices, and adequate rest – there are certain herbs that can help us to manage the high levels of stress we inevitably face in this day and age.

Rather than indiscriminately throwing a bunch of herbal powders and potions down the hatch and hoping for the best, it is important to know about the three stages of stress adaptation your body experiences as different herbs are most effective at different stages.

The three stages of stress adaptation and suitable herbs

In order to maintain a state of homeostasis, the body responds to actual and perceived sources of stress in a predictable biological pattern, much in the same way your computer starts up in a systematic and predictable way when you press the ‘on’ button.

In 1936 Hans Selye, the father of stress research, proposed the General Adaptation Syndrome model demonstrating in three stages the effects of stress on the human animal. The first stage is alarm, followed by resistance, and finally, exhaustion (1).

1st Stage: Alarm – anxiolytics

You’re driving home after a long day at work when someone suddenly cuts you off, narrowly missing you by what seems like millimetres! The instant adrenaline rush and feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach are part of your fight or flight response, your initial hormonal reaction for handling stress very quickly.

While it’s not always practical to take herbs to help you deal with the situation (such as in the above example), there are some instances where herbal relief is possible and can help immensely. Say you have a fear of flying and later in the day you are to board a plane.

Anxiolytics such as kava (Piper methysticum)and passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) may offer temporary relief of anxiety and acute panic in this and similar short-term stress situations, and help you get to your destination in a calm and collected state of mind (2).

2nd Stage: Resistance – adaptogens

Normally, acutely stressful situations subside and the body’s hormonal function goes back to normal fairly quickly, but if a stressful condition persists – say your boss is abusive day in and day out to the point where you dread going to work – your body adapts by remaining in a continued state of arousal even when you’re not at work.

Health issues such as poor sleep, concentration problems, blood sugar issues, digestive symptoms, and raised blood pressure might manifest when you find yourself feeling a continuous undercurrent of stress. This is especially the case if you get little or no recovery. Ultimately this moves you into the final stage, exhaustion.

Adaptogens are a special class of herbs that have been used in Ayurveda and Tradition Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, to promote a sense of well-being. Adaptogens do just that – they help your body adapt to the ongoing stresses of daily life. They regulate the adrenal stress response, increase energy, and most of them are non-stimulating (with the exception of Korean ginseng) (2).  Adaptogens work best when they are taken for a minimum of three months.

Examples include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) – a soothing adaptogen that I use on and off to keep up with the demands of breastfeeding and being a new mum. Avoid with pharmaceutical sedatives and pain medications.
  • Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) – an anti-anxiety, immune-boosting adaptogen. Avoid if you have bipolar depression with manic tendencies.
  • Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) – the queen of women’s adaptogens. Avoid in pregnancy and lactation, or if you have oestrogen-receptor positive cancer.
  • Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) – a focus and performance enhancer. Avoid with high blood pressure; and if you’re prone to insomnia use a different adaptogen (2).

3rd Stage: Exhaustion – adrenal tonics

If ongoing stress has persisted for a long time, your adrenal glands’ capacity to produce the stress hormone cortisol has fallen through the floor and your body’s ability to resist is lost. This stage is also known as burnout, adrenal maladaption, fatigue or dysfunction. This stage of General Adaptation Syndrome is the most health damaging as it can rGo with the cosmic flow result in heart disease, nerve damage and auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Adrenal tonics are a group of herbs that improves the tone and function of the adrenal glands, especially the cortex (2). They include :

  • Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – helps the body to regulate cortisol and gives the adrenals a rest (3). Be careful not to take licorice long term without a break, and avoid completely if you have high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, oedema or hypokalaemia; caution in kidney or liver disease.
  • Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa) – an adrenal tonic from Traditional Chinese Medicine. Use with caution in pregnancy.
  • Bupleurum (Bupleurum falcatum) – another TCM herb that’s also a liver-protectant; so excellent if you have liver damage or hepatitis. Use with caution if you experience reflux (2).

Additionally, some of the adaptogens may be used since they work whether you are experiencing adrenal over-stimulation (2nd stage) or adrenal fatigue (3rdstage).\              Finally, if you were building a house from the foundations up, would you go for an experienced builder who works according to a logical plan, or a less organised builder who is lackadaisical about the whole thing? The former, I bet. Similarly, when it comes to building a resilient stress adaptation system, I highly recommend seeking the advice of a qualified health practitioner familiar with the use of botanicals in stress management, rather than ordering something online and self-medicating. Herbs are medicines – they are extremely powerful and can have negative side effects if taken along with certain medications or in the wrong doses.

Remember, there’s more to stress management than taking herbs – but these powerful botanicals can go a long way in helping you move through life with balance, poise and resilience.



(1) Murray, MT & Pizzorno, J (2012), The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 3rded, Atria Paperback, New York.

(2) Bone, K (2007), The Ultimate Herbal Compendium,1sted, Phytotherapy Press, Warwick.

(3) Al-Dujaili, EA, Kenyon, CJ, Nicol, MR, Mason JI (2011), Liquorice and glycyrrhetinic acid increase DHEA and deoxycorticosterone levels in vivo and in vitro by inhibiting adrenal SULT2A1 activity, Mol Cell Endocrinol, 336(1-2):102-9.

About the Author

Dr Casey Conroy

Dr Casey Conroy, MNutrDiet, BVSc, is a holistic dietitian and nutritionist, naturopath in training and yoga teacher who specialises in women's health, hormones, and the Health At Every Size approach to weight and body concern. She is the founder of Funky Forest Health & Wellbeing on the Gold Coast, and she loves chocolate and any yoga involving an eye pillow..

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