With over 9 years as a practicing acupuncturist, I can say that probably 85% of what people come in to acupuncture for is stress and anxiety-related. Stress and anxiety often present as different symptoms—cystic acne, weight gain, depression, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, menstrual pains and even loss of menstruation, autoimmune disease—but when I do some digging and look at what else is going on in a patient’s life—which, as a holistic practitioner, I always do—I often find that behind these symptoms is acute or chronic stress. Of course, some stress is good.
The purpose of stress is to alert our bodies to danger, allowing our amygdala, the “primitive” part of our brain responsible for much emotional processing, to take over from the cerebral cortex, the “newer” part of our brain that governs rational thought and behavior. The problem is, many of us misinterpret danger, reacting with stress responses when it is not appropriate, and thus triggering stress hormones. Many of us also may be holding onto a situation in which we were endangered and playing it over and over in our minds—or even subconsciously acting it out in our lives, and in this way, still holding our bodies hostage. Even stress that someone in your family generations back experienced can be baked into our DNA, according to Mark Wolynn in his astonishing book, It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle
But not that long ago, stress and anxiety were waved off as harmful maybe to your psychological wellbeing, but as basically stopping there: a psychological problem, rather than a physical one. Thankfully, Western medicine is waking up to the deleterious effects that stress can have on the body, from damaging the respiratory system and the immune system, hampering our body’s ability to fight infection and heal wounds, to raising blood pressure, which can lead to hypertension, kidney failure and stroke.
As an acupuncturist, I have a number of stress- and anxiety-reducing solutions in my toolbox, from meditation and qigong to regular acupuncture and other holistic and Chinese medicine treatments including cupping and gua sha. Usually recovering from stress requires a combination solution, incorporating changes in diet and exercise, perhaps adding therapy and acupuncture into your routine, and making a commitment to mindfulness, among many other changes. One of the easiest ways to reduce stress is to start adding certain herbs into your self-care routine. That’s it! Start small. Maybe add one of these herbs into your routine a week. Monitor your body and its reactions. See what’s working.
The reishi mushroom, also known as Ling Zhi in Chinese herbal medicine, is in a category of herbs called adaptogens. Adaptogens help our bodies to gently adapt and regulate imbalances in our bodies including stress and anxiety. In Chinese herbal medicine, reishi is found in the Substances that Calm the Spirit Category of the Materia Medica, it is a particularly powerful herb for calming the mind and spirit. This herb is highly recommended if you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or insomnia caused by stress.
Reishi cannot be consumed raw, so if a product is advertising raw reishi, do not bother with it. Look for reishi products that have been “extracted,” but make sure there is a high reishi percentage. I recommend Mushroom Science, Reishi, Super Strength, 400 mg, 90 Veggie Caps or Reishi Mushroom Powder by Sun Potion. You can add it to hot water, tea, or a smoothie. Reishi is safe during breastfeeding.
Ashwagandha has a soothing or calming effect and has been used to treat stress, sleeplessness and insomnia. In fact, in multiple studies conducted on rats, ashwagandha had the same calming, anxiety-reducing effect as the prescription sedative Lorazepam, as well as antidepressant effects similar to that of the prescription antidepressant imipramine. The effects of these findings are powerful, since many people taking prescription drugs to treat anxiety, depression and other illnesses experience addiction and crippling side effects. With ashwagandha, there is no risk of these!
The more you dig into this herb, the more incredible things you will find about it; ashwagandha will adapt to your body, your specific needs and deficits, and respond in the best way possible to make sure you are in balance. Ashwagandha is used extensively in Ayurveda, the traditional Hindu system of medicine based on the idea of bodily balance. Many concepts in Ayurveda translates to Chinese medicine, so we can think about ashwagandha as restoring Jing (vital essence) to the body, increasing your overall well-being and rejuvenating you from the inside out. That being said, it’s important to understand that in herbal medicine, not all herbs are good for everybody–even adaptogens. Ashwagandha is a warming and nourishing herb and is best for people with cooler and dryer constitutions and not those with excessively hot constitutions. If you’re not sure whether ashwagandha is right for you, ask your acupuncturist or herbalist and they will be able to guide you in the right direction.
I love Sun Potion’s Organic Ashwagandha Powder or Anima Mundi Apothecary’s Ashwagandha Powder. You can simply steep the powder in boiling water for approximately 5 minutes and then filter it out when you are ready to drink. Personally, I find ashwagandha best mixed with a small amount of water and drunk quickly or added to a smoothie, as it has a bitter taste.
Lavender is a very lovely herb that is highly popular and easy to use. The properties and scent are highly effective at reducing stress. I personally find it very effective when used as aromatherapy in an essential oil diffuser, applied topically to certain acupuncture points on the body, added to a bath, or applied to a pillow or eye mask. I love Mountain Rose Herbs Lavender Roll-On and Doterra’s Essential Oil. Dab some on your temples and wrists when you start to feel stressed and breathe in.