Sunday, January 4, 2015

Decompressing with Ancient Medicine

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In recent posts, I have been looking at the body's stress response and the role excess cortisol production plays in poor health and bigger waistlines. Sadly, as technology improves, our health is on the decline. Our high-paced, eternally connected lives put our bodies into a state of constant stress and our fast food, processed diets perpetuate this crisis. Diets high in chemicals and preservatives and low in nutrients do nothing to counteract the stress response our fast paced lives put us in. This stress response, includes excess production of cortisol, which wreaks havoc on our bodies, minds and souls.
As we seek diets that deliver power, energy and health, scientists and nutritionists alike are rediscovering ancient medicines and nutritional beliefs. The use of traditional medicine like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is often considered part of the holistic approach to modern medicine and nutrition.

While researching different ways to reduce stress in my life and eliminate or reduce the negative impact of increased cortisol production in the body, I could not ignore looking to these ancient practices as a way of finding some answers.

The concept of adaptogens is thousands of years old and an important feature of these ancient practices. An adaptogen has the ability to increase resistance against a multitude of stresses, including physical, chemical or biological agents. Adaptogens also help the body to maintain youthful function, regardless of the stressor, and the ability to normalize bodily functions beyond what is required to gain resistance to stress naturally. They exert a normalizing effect, allowing the increase of healthy functions that are impaired by stress and decrease unhealthy responses that are triggered by stress. Simply put, they enhance the body's natural ability to maintain homeostasis and fight age-inducing stress. By this definition, how can we afford to ignore looking at ancient medicine to assist in the battle against stress and its negative impact on the body?

Naturopaths have long prescribed Phytotherapy (the use of plants in healing) with adaptogens, for their ability to balance, restore and protect the body. They help the body respond to any influence or stressor and normalize physiological function. Naturopath Marcelle Pick, of Women to Women reports that adaptogenic herbs can recharge your adrenal glands and help your body respond to stress. Several adaptogens, which continually showed up in my research include Ashwaganda, Astragalus, ginseng, licorice root, holy basil some mushrooms and Rhodiola.

Unlike any other compound, adaptogens condition your body to respond favorably to stress at the physiological level through a unique mechanism. Much like modern immunizations adaptogens deliver minute shocks of mild stress to the body and condition your physiology to respond more favorably to major stresses. Adaptogenic herbs do not alter mood, but rather, they help the body function optimally during times of stress.
Ashwagandha- Ashwagandha, which literally means “the earthy strength of a stallion." Also known as Indian Ginseng, this antioxidant and adaptogen, from Ayurvedic or Indian Medicine, reportedly has some powerful stress relieving properties which include reducing cortisol production. It has been shown to improve energy, enhance performance and improve recovery for the exercise-induced stress. One study shows Ashwagandha root produced a 28% reduction in cortisol. Herbalists have long prescribed Ashwagandha for high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic fatigue and anxiety-induced impotence. It enhances endocrine function, especially the adrenals and thyroid by boosting the conversion of T4 (the thyroid's storage hormone) to T3 (the active thyroid hormone). Ayurvedic healers have long prescribed the herb to treat exhaustion brought on by both physical and mental strain. Of all the Ayurvedic herbs used in India, Ashwagandha is among the most prized.

Astralgus - Used in Chinese medicine for centuries, this adaptogenic and tonic root boosts immunity, energy and immunity by increasing the amount of anti-stress compounds our bodies use to repair and prevent stress-related damage. It may also reduce the ability of stress hormones, like cortisol to bind receptors.

Ginseng- For thousands of years, Asian Ginseng has been one of the most popular and valued medicinal plants in the world. This well-known adaptogen is also considered the most potent. Western herbalists say that it restores and strengthens the body’s immune response, promotes longevity, and enhances the growth of normal cells. Research indicates that it promotes a sense of well-being and may protect against some kinds of cancer. Research has also validated its ability to improve mental performance and help the body deal with stress. It has also reportedly lowered blood pressure, improve depression and lower blood sugar. It is believed to affect the body by influencing cell metabolism and has been studied for its ability to help the body withstand stress.

American Ginseng is Asian Ginseng's less-stimulating cousin. Like other adaptogens, it corrects imbalances in the endocrine system, including the adrenal glands, where cortisol is produced. Because it also helps improve the pancreatic function, it is also beneficial for people with metabolic syndrome.

Korean Ginseng is very useful for adrenal exhaustion and has a synergistic effect when combined with licorice root.

Licorice root can increase energy and endurance, boost the immune system and protect the thymus from being damaged by cortisol but its use requires professional supervision because of how it may affect blood pressure.

Holy Basil - Also known as Tulsi, has been used in India as the "elixir of anti-aging," for centuries. Preliminary studies suggest it can help the body fight stress, boost the immune system and regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and hormone levels. Studies have also shown this mild adaptogen has the ability to enhance health due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It may also strengthen memory and concentration, improve digestion and reinforce the body's ability to control blood-sugar. Due to its ability to support healthy metabolism, it is considered one of the most useful adaptogens.

Cordycep Mushrooms- Reishi, Shiitake, and Maitake mushrooms are funguses with antioxidant properties. They may not be adaptogens in the classic sense, but each has adaptogenic, antitumor, and immune-enhancing properties.

Reishi (Ganoderma) Mushrooms- These antioxidant-medicinal mushrooms have been shown to enhance immunity, relax muscles, improve sleep, ease chronic pain and reduce cholesterol.

Rhodiola - This herb is another form of ginseng, often used for its ability to lower cortisol. Studies show it can balance cortisol levels, reduce fatigue and stress as well as improve cognition and feelings of well-being. Rhodiola has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to support metabolism, improve brain function, heart health, depression and reduce stress. Rhodiola defends the body overall, and protects general health and well-being. Its anti-stress and fatigue-fighting properties make it one of the most popular botanicals in all of Siberia.

Other herbs to consider trying:

Amalaki-One of the most used herbs in the world, Amalaki is thought to support the body during all three stages of stress that supports emotional and cognitive wellness. Amalaki is believed to reduce stressful agitation reactions during the initial phases of the stress response, support the physiological resistance of the second phase of stress and finally prevent or delay fatigue and exhaustion found during the final stage of the stress response, protecting against the long-term impact of sustained stress and systemic decay.

Brahmi- This age-defying Indian adaptogen assists in the regeneration of nerve tissue supporting mental stress and improving mental acuity.

Dong Quai - Said to be the queen of balancing herbs for female hormones and improved prostate health, this herb creates energy but is still calming to the body.

Gingko Biloba- Popular for its excellent cognitive effects, such as focus and concentratiion, this herb also reduces cortisol levels and provides improved glucose biosyntehises.

Schisandra: Schisandra is a potent general tonic and berry, decreasing fatigue, enhancing physical performance, and promoting endurance and reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body.

Gynostemma- Popular the world over for its ability to control weight, this powerful antioxidant also normalizes blood sugar levels, remove harmful blood fat and increases metabolic function. It relieves stress, relaxes the nervous system. It is also used for depression, stress and anxiety. In China, it is used to reduce fatigue and restore mental well-being.

To qualify as an adaptogen, an herb must be non-toxic and safe. It must have broad uses for health and reduce both mental and physical stress. They greatly improve the body's ability to handle stress and reduce the harmful effects that sustained stress can have on the body.In many parts of the world, they are used extensively for their ability to increase strength, energy, stamina and endurance as well as improving mental clarity during times of stress and appear to normalize the production of stress hormones.

With todays modern, stressful, ever-connected society, continual stress and poor diets are wreaking havoc on our bodies. With so many years of utilization to minimize these negative effects in other cultures, Modern western culture could possibly benefit from looking to these ancient remedies for solutions. I for one intend to look at these as possible remedies as I try to hack my way to better health and weight loss.

I am not a physician or practitioner and provide these suggestions from my research towards improving my own health and well being. Please consult your practitioner before using any of the medicines, supplements or herbs suggested in this blog.

Read more about stress and the negative impact it has on your body and other ways to improve your reaction to stress and lessen its impact on your health:

Stress is killing me
Conquering Cortisol
How to Eat the stress away
Supplementing your Stress Response


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