By Amber Belt, ND
The stress over the past 18 months has been enormous for many people and I have certainly seen a lot more anxiety in my patients. Prescriptions for anti-anxiety and insomnia have increased over the course of the pandemic and, as we know, it’s easy for people to develop a dependence on these types of medications. The long-term effects of taking anti-anxiety and insomnia medications can be detrimental to our overall health, so they should be taken short-term. But the reality is that people often take these medications long-term.
This leads us to the question, how can we handle our stress and anxiety without developing a dependence on medications? It can’t be overstated that proper diet and lifestyle habits set us up to handle stress better when it does happen. Eating a healthy diet, hydrating, exercising, creating good sleep habits, consuming minimal media, and maintaining healthy social relationships all equip us to handle stress better. You can’t out-medicate or out-supplement a poor diet and lifestyle. If you have a healthy diet and lifestyle, you set yourself up to handle stress better and you give supplements and medications their best chance to work if they are needed.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, stress can get the best of any of us and begin to cause panic and anxiety. I wanted to share some of my go-to natural remedies that I use for both myself and my patients when help is needed.
Box breathing is a great technique to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic, fight or flight part of our nervous system. Box breathing has been associated with better mood, decreased anxiety, and better sleep. I find that if I practice box breathing during non-stressful times, the technique works much better when I am stressed. Practice makes perfect! There are a lot of resources online to demonstrate box breathing so that you can integrate this simple technique.
Aconitum napellum is a homeopathic remedy that I use frequently with patients in moments when they are feeling very panicked or having a panic attack. If someone needs aconite in the midst of panic, this remedy works very quickly to help bring their panic down.
Rescue Remedy is a blend of flower essences that promote a calm mood and mind. I tend to have patients use this when their overall stress is high with even more stressful moments sprinkled throughout their day. I also use it with patients who tend to are prone to fainting when they get an IV or injection. There are several versions of this supplement available, including a formulation to help with sleep!
Avena (oat) and skullcap is my personal go-to combination of herbs when I am feeling overly anxious. Both of these herbs are nervine herbs, which means they soothe and nurture the nervous system. This combination works well for people who are mentally overworked, who feel stressed to the point where they feel that they can’t bounce back from the stress, and who feel like they can’t focus due to their stress level. I usually take avena and skullcap as a tincture, but it’s also very enjoyable as a tea.
L-theanine is an amino acid that promotes calm and focus without causing drowsiness. It has been shown to increase the neurotransmitters serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. I really like to use a chewable form of this for people who are having a stressful moment in life and I also like to use it for students with test anxiety.
Ashwaganda is another one of my favorite herbs for stress and it is both a nervine and adaptogenic herb. And adaptogenic herb is one that helps your body have a healthy stress response. Ashwaganda is great to use for people who are stressed because they are juggling a lot in their lives such as children, work, ageing parents, etc. They will often get ‘tired and wired’ and feel anxious a lot. Ashwaganda helps with resilience, clear thinking, and proper cortisol output. I also like the positive impact that ashwaganda can have on sleep.
The modalities I have mentioned here are what I use for myself and for my patients when it’s appropriate for them. If you need a recommendation specific to you, your best bet is to speak with your naturopathic physician or other healthcare provider who has specific training in natural medicine. And, as I mentioned before, don’t neglect the basics of a healthy diet and lifestyle. No supplement or medication will work as well if those pieces aren’t in place.