Written by Sebastian Pole
We all need to relax sometimes. Modern living is stressful and our adrenal glands are constantly under pressure to perform. Here we discuss how you can ‘take a chill pill’ naturally.
Thankfully, we all live under stress. The grounding stress of gravity keeps us on the earth. The force of the sun’s gravitational stress holds the earth in an ellipse so perfectly placed that our planet can flourish in an atmosphere ideal for life. However too much stress pushes any object to its limit. Stress is implicated in many health problems from insomnia to dermatitis to IBS to overt anxiety. Ayurveda perceives this as ‘living beyond our threshold’ or ‘living beyond our means’. So, if we are living in the red we need to recredit our reserves so that we can process, absorb and purify the stresses we encounter. Nature holds many gifts for helping us to manage our daily stresses from simple breathing exercises, to soothing massage, to a spectrum of healing plants that can sedate, stimulate, nourish, feed and/or relax the nervous system.
Herbs for relaxation
I hardly ever treat anyone without including some herbs for nourishing and supporting their nervous system. Any imbalance causes there to be stress in the system. According to Ayurveda, ‘stress’ can disturb the quality of vata which can upset or obstruct the other doshas, pitta and kapha. This leads to chronic stress being implicated in most degenerative diseases from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. Vata is the quality associated with change, movement and lightness. All stress involves some change, and severe stress usually involves some form of ‘shock’ to the system. To find balance means you have to digest the shock and adapt to the stress. Along with teaching basic breathing exercises and recommending self-massage I find plants to be supreme stress alleviators. I usually make a tailor-made prescription to suit each individual’s needs:
Ashwagandha: Withania somnifera’s incredible nourishing abilities to help our body cope with stress makes it my favourite plant to prescribe for modulating stress. I normally dose at 3-5g/day as a powder (capsule) or 10-25% of a liquid tincture prescription. I use it whenever there is any sign of deficiency, coldness or weakness leading to tiredness or debility. This makes Ashwagandha the herb of choice when there is any chronic imbalance that results in depletion and convalescence. Its grounding and stabilising effects help in insomnia, palpitations and anxiety. Its nourishing properties help stabilise weight and enhance vitality. As one of Ayurveda’s premier rejuvenating rasayana plants it gives deep and enduring energy to the immune, reproductive, structural and nervous systems. By helping to tonify thyroid, brain, pancreatic and heart function it brings strength to the organs responsible for the foundation of our health.
Brahmi: Bacopa monniera is a wonderful cooling herb for the nervous system and mind. Named after ‘Brahman’ or ‘Universal Consciousness’ it is renowned for influencing the quality of consciousness and it balances all three dosha. Clinical studies have shown that Brahmi can help increase cognition, memory and concentration whilst also greatly improving anxiety. I normally dose it at 2-3g/day as a powder or 10-15% of a liquid tincture prescription. I use it whenever there is any signs of mental or emotional imbalance resulting in nervous anxiety or debility. I specifically think of using it whenver there is nerevousness depletion resulting from mental attachment to a redundant and non-health inducing pattern of behaviour. Addiction is a good example or where someone is just ‘stuck’ in a repetitive cycle of destructive habits be these dietary, social or emotional. This is because Brahmi brings clarity, which is why it is used in Alzheimer’s, ADHD and autism, but also in any form of mental illness from depression to eating disorders. It is also a useful addition to formulas used to heal hot skin conditions from acne, eczema to psoriasis.
Gotu Kola: Centella asiatica’s greatest asset is its ability to penetrate deeply into the circulatory system and carry its consciousness enhancing properties into the brain. I dose it at 3-10g/day as a powder (capsules or infusion) or 10-25% of a liquid tincture prescription. Whenever a client needs relaxing in order to think clearly I will consider Gotu Kola. It relaxes the channels of circulation, allowing more blood to flow whether this is needed for nutrition or wound healing. Either way, it reduces the stress of ’trauma’ caused by a wound, shock, skin disease, inflammation or mental fog. As it balances all three dosha it removes the ‘shock’ of doshic imbalance. I use it in Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, spasmodic disorders, skin inflammations associated with stress and joint inflammations. It is also used to help prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis. By normalising the cell adhesion molecule function it enhances cellular communication and promotes cellular intelligence. Gotu Kola is true food for the mind.
Shankapushpi: Evolvulus alsinoides is a less well known plant with superior mind settling properties. It has a special affinity for the nervous system helping to alleviate pain from spasms and cramps. This little creeping plant works deeply into the body helping to raise consciousness, settle anxiety as well as stop bleeding and nourish fertility. I dose it at 3-5g (powder) or 10-15% of a liquid tincture prescription. I use it whenever I think that an unsettled nervous system is destabilising the skin, digestion or fertility.
Tulsi: Ocimum sanctum or Holy Basil has recently become one of my favourite nervines. Its light aromatic scent is wonderful for lifting the spirits and alleviating depression. I include it in a mix as 3-7g powder per day or as 5-15% of a liquid tincture prescription. It is packed with essential oils that help to open the lungs, remove grief and relax tension. It is very useful for tension headaches, allergic irritation, nervous digestion and the physical ache associated with ‘flu and colds.
Vacha: Acorus calamus is one of my favourite plants for opening the mind and bringing clarity whenever there is sluggishness and mental fog. Its pungent and bitter flavour helps it penetrate its healing potential deep into the mind. This warming quality ‘cooks’ and scrapes accumulations that are obstructing clear thinking. I dose it at 1-3g/day (powder) or 5-7.5% of a liquid tincture prescription. It has a strong acrid taste and so should be used at a low dose. Its ability to aromatically awaken digestion and clear mucus from the body indicates it whenever there is ‘stuck’ behaviour leading to depression, speech impediments and emotional stagnation with a heavy kapha type or cold vata type person.
A 43 year old woman presents with anxiety, palpitations and poor sleep following a bout of intense stress. Her appetite is good but her digestion is poor resulting in bloating, constipation and general abdominal discomfort. She can’t stop her mind dwelling on the recent stress and is anxious about its impact on her health as she is continually fatigued and has developed restless legs at night. She has a rapid, thin and thready pulse high in vata quality with a pale tongue with teeth marks. Diagnosis is vata imbalance with nervous system (majja dhatu) involved with vata. The digestion is erratic. So I decided to calm vata, strengthen the nervous system and nourish digestion:
- Relax tea with chamomile, fennel seed, gotu kola, licorice and ashwagandha
- Relax oil massage 3 times per week made with sesame oil, olive oil, ashwagandha, shatavari, valerian, holy basil, bhringaraj, passion flower and jasmine flower
- Daily breathing practice
- Diet of warm foods including almonds, nutmeg, hemp seed oil, ghee, rice pudding and saffron.
- Tincture (but it could have been a powder mix) 1-2 tsp 3x/day in warm water
Gotu kola 10
1-2 tsp 3x/day before food in warm water
The ashwagandha, gotu, kola, brahmi, vacha and shankapushpi all help to settle anxiety and calm tension. Vacha’s moving pungency is a specific for enkindling digestion and opening consciousness. Gotu kola and brahmi help with repetitive thoughts. Arjuna, rose and ashwagandha are good for palpitations. They are also excellent for healing emotional trauma with vata aggravation. The triphala, vacha, fennel and ginger strengthen and warm digestion and help to move the aggravated rising vata energy downwards. Sweet licorice builds endurance and combines very well with ashwagandha as a tonic to reduce vata anxiety.
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Ayurvedic Medicine: Pole
Ayurvedic Pharmacology: Gogte
Database on Medicinal Plants Used in Ayurveda
Major Herbs of Ayurveda: Williamson
The Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India