Updated: May 7, 2020
It can be assumed that every human, at some stage in life will experience signs and symptoms of anxiety: Fast breathing, heart palpitations, restlessness, clenching of the stomach and bowels, insomnia and the list continues. And that is ok! Occasional anxiety is a helpful mechanism that allows us to increase our alertness and our chances of survival in a potential situation of danger. In physiological terms, anxiety often translates as the switching on of the ‘fight or flight’ response mediated by the involuntary part of your central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) (1). Specifically, the nervous fibres of the ANS responsible for this survival mechanism belong to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which duty is to release our ‘activation’ hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline and directing the blood flow from the digestive and metabolic organs to muscles and brain. (2) Alongside the SNS activation, an hormonal cascade gets triggered by the cerebral cortex (the hypothalamus, pituitary adrenal axis or HPA) which results in increased blood cortisol which is responsible for shutting down all the ongoing superfluous-to-survival inflammatory processes in the body and increase the blood concentration of our muscle’s and brain favourite food, glucose. Such wonderful processes enable us to take fast decisions, fight our danger or quickly run away from it.
CHRONIC ANXIETY AND THE PSYCHOANALYSIS
What happens if we perceive everyday life as dangerous? In my opinion, there are two answers to this question: If we perceive to have enough resources to face the perils of life, we are very likely to experience excitement and engagement. On the other hand, if we see ourselves as weak and dis-empowered, there are high chances to develop chronic anxiety or what psychology calls General Anxiety Disorder or GAD. According to the NHS, GAD has the following definition: “A long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. As soon as one anxious thought is resolved, another may appear about a different issue” (3). In the research for the cause of chronic anxiety, conventional medicine identified few factors which may play a role in its aetiology such as genetics, stress, nutritional deficiencies, chronic pain and brain chemistry imbalance.
A key point that conventional medicine still mostly ignores despite the mounting evidence though is the deep connection between mind and body (see my previous blog entry for more info). As it is true that biochemical factors influence the mind, so is the opposite: A recurrent activation of the fight or flight response has devastating consequence on the body, mostly manifesting as damages to the nervous, immune, endocrine, cardiovascular and digestive system (2). In this regard, self-limiting patterns of thoughts, self-sabotaging beliefs and emotional repression are elements as important as diet and genetics in the development of chronic anxiety. As we perceive ourselves as weak, powerless and without adequate resources, we start building up the fear that an event out of our control will strike us in an unpredictable manner, resulting in an over-activation of our ‘fight or flight’ response. Such negative and self-limiting patterns of thought often arise from lack of self-belief, self-appreciation and self-esteem and most of cases have often their root in the childhood of the individual (4). Decades of psychoanalytical studies in fact showed us that the influence that the family nucleus exerts on the belief system of the young individual gets crystallised into the subconscious mind and has remarkable consequences on the behavioural pattern of the adult. One of the psychoanalysts to best explain us this concept is Carl Jung. He in his famous book ‘The psychology of the Unconscious’ presents us the concept of the libido, or life force, which he defines as the will to live intrinsic to every living creature (5). In Jung’s opinion the nature of the life force is to strive towards wholeness and realisation, which he defines as the manifestation of one’s higher or true self. Nevertheless, in modern society, the life force of the individual is rarely expressed unhindered and barriers and obstacles are extremely common. Is then up to the individual to face and overcome such obstacles in order to progress: every struggle we face, for how hard it may seem, can take us a step forward towards wholeness and wisdom. With his famous metaphor of the Journey of the Hero, Jung attempts to encourage the individual to find his inner strength to face and defeat the ‘dragon’, which embodies our subconscious self-limiting beliefs in order to achieve mental freedom and personal realisation. Summarising the content of this paragraph, the most genuine way to address chronic anxiety is to find our inner sense of empowerment and face life with courage and compassion.
GET EMPOWERED WITH HERBS
Empowerment and achieving wholeness can be (and usually it is) a relatively tough path. Fortunately, Mother Nature had provided us with some help: adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogenic herbs, also known as adaptogens or tonics (depending on which herbal medicinal tradition you are referring to) are by definition a class of medicinal plants that when ingested increase in the ability of the organism to adapt to non-specific stressors (6). In other words, adaptogens enhance our ability to regain inner balance after changes in our life at both mental and biochemical level. A great number of adaptogens are herbs, shrubs, trees or mushrooms that live in harsh conditions where nutrients are scarce and most forms of life struggles to thrive. Scientists who widely studied these plants theorise that the medicinal properties of some adaptogens are due to their exceptional survival mechanism which lead them to manufacture biochemical compounds necessary to to thrive in a challenging environment. Examples of this theory include Rhodiola, which grows on cliffs around the arctic circle at high altitude (7) and Cordyceps, a parasitic mushroom native to Himalaya that uses silkworms as substrate to grow. In the human body, most adaptogens work by strengthening the nervous system, immune system and endocrine system; As result, they enable us to enjoy the improvement of physical strength, cognition, memory and focus, immunity, libido, sleep pattern and the list goes on and on. Adaptogens, in brief, improve our quality of life and their regular consumption will without any doubt have a positive impact in our quest for personal empowerment. Each adaptogen has its own qualities and affinity for a specific organ or system; In the following paragraph I listed and briefly described 7 adaptogenic herbs that I commonly use in my practice:
SCHISANDRA (Schisandra sinensis)
Schisandra berries are native to central Asia. In Traditional Chinese Medicine they are believed to help the individual to maintain beauty and strength, purify the blood, sharpen the mind, improve memory and replenish sexual energy (8). Scientific studies on Schisandra berries showed protective effect on the nervous system, adrenal glands, liver, eyes and lungs. They make an ideal herb for whoever is suffering from low libido and low energy levels caused by excessive stress and suppressed anger.
GOTU KOLA (Centella asiatica)
Gotu kola is also native to Central – Southern Asia. The leaves and stems of this herb have the reputation to improve memory and brain function (9). It increases intelligence, longevity, fortifies the immune system and strengthen the adrenals (10). Additionally, it is a strong blood purifier with specific indications for skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
RHODIOLA (Rhodiola rosea)
Probably my favourite adaptogen, Rhodiola is a succulent found throughout the Artic regions of the globe. In ancient China emperors use to send gatherers to Siberia to collect this wonderful root to ensure their longevity. Rhodiola aids mental clarity, memory, energy production, mood, immune system, altitude sickness and strengthen the heart muscle (6). The perfect herb for anyone who feels ‘stuck in a rut’ and is experiencing low energy, low mood, physical weakness and mental fog.
ASHWAGANDHA (Withania somnifera)
One of the most known adaptogen, Ashwagandha has been quoted in several text of Ayurvedic literature. In India It’s believed to give to its users the stamina and strength of a stallion; in fact it is considered one of the best remedies to enhance vigour and sexual prowess. It is unique among he adaptogens because it is a calming tonic, being very effective for anxiety, fatigue, stress-induced insomnia and nervous exhaustion (6). Ideal for over-stressed people who struggle to relax.
RED GINSENG (Panax ginseng)
Ginseng can be defined as the king of the tonics. In the last decades its fame has reached the entire world and products containing Ginseng are found on the shelf of every health food shop. Ginseng is a remarkably improves energy levels, physical endurance and promotes physical and mental resistance to physical, chemical or biological stressors (8). The special feature of ginseng is that it has a balancing action on the endocrine, immune and nervous system; this means that whenever such systems are overstimulated, ginseng decreases their activation while if they are underactive, it enhances them.
CORDYCEPS (Cordyceps sinensis)
Few paragraphs above I described the bizarre mechanism of growth of Cordyceps. Once the mycelium of this mushroom fully colonises the silkworm, the fruiting body appears and releases its spores. The first to have noticed the medicinal properties of Cordyceps were shepherd in the Himalaya, who noticed that yak eating these mushrooms were more resistant to diseases and lived longer. Nowadays we know that Cordyceps is a powerful tonic for the respiratory system, cardiovascular system and reproductive system. It strengthens the lungs and enhances aerobic capacities, increase oxygenation of the heart and boosts libido in both men and women (6). Additionally, Cordyceps gains a privileged place among the adaptogens because it nourishes the kidneys and improves the glomerular (excretory) functions.
REISHI (Ganoderma lucidum)
Last, but not least, one of the adaptogen that I mostly use is Reishi mushroom. In the Chinese Materia Medica Reishi has been known for millennia as the ‘mushroom of the spirit’ or the ‘mushroom of immortality’ (6). Reishi is a powerful antioxidant and studies have shown that it restores liver function, lowers oxidised cholesterol in the cardiovascular system, calms and clarifies the mind and sharpen concentration and focus (8). The peculiar properties of Reishi though concern the immune system: the active compounds in the fruiting body of the mushroom, called polysaccharides, have shown to have the remarkable property to restore equilibrium in the immune system. In other words, Reishi not only strengthens a weak immune system but balances an overactive one as well. These properties make Reishi the best supportive medicine for autoimmune diseases, allergies (especially hayfever) or any circumstances of lowered immunity as often is seen in people undergoing chemotherapy.
1) AnxietyCareUk. 2017. The biological effects and consequences of Anxiety. Available at: http://anxietycare.org.uk/the-biological-effects-and-consequences-of-anxiety/
2) Tortora, B; Derrickson, G. 2011. The Principles of Anatomy and Physiology
3) NHS. 2018. Generalised anxiety disorder in adults. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/
4) Lipton, B. 2005, The Biology of Belief
5) Jung, CG. 1912. The Psychology of Unconscious
6) Winston,D; Maimes, S. 2007. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief
7) Plants for a future. 2012. Rhodiola rosea. Available at https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Rhodiola+rosea
8) Teeguarden R. 2000. The Ancient Wisdom Of Chinese Tonic Herbs
9) Horne, S; Easley, T. 2016. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory
10) Lad, V; Frawley, D. 2001. The Yoga of Herbs. Lotus press