Resilience in stressful times: How herbal medicine can help

02/27/2019

Is it more stressful now than at any other time in human history? To most people I speak with, it feels that way. But in fact, stress has been a part of our lives in extreme ways for as long as we have been a part of this planet. What I wonder is whether we have fewer tools now to deal with stressors than we had in the past. 

To many, our times feel like a breaking point. We are at a point in political and social history that is challenging our deepest energy reserves and core beliefs. How can we feel whole every day of our lives, in a world that is often fast-paced and overloaded? Where do we locate ourselves amidst environmental, political and social upheaval, and how do we respond? 

Resilience is not something we find alone. We each have our own reserves, but they are filled and sustained by our relationships—both with one another and with the natural world. This sustenance may come from the surging waves, or from loud family dinners, or from the quiet light glinting through the redwoods. No matter what refreshes us, resilience is built through reciprocal care and attention. 

Many people have come to West Marin because of these relationships, or a desire for them. Our understanding of the landscape, of plants as medicine, of communal grieving, and of mutual aid may feel buried in our ancestral lineage, yet we continuously seek to pull them into the light of day. This is why we are here. 

I have been working with medicinal plants for many years, growing them, wildcrafting them, observing them, honoring them, and turning them into medicine for myself and others. There is a subtle, deep and lasting shift every time a person begins working with plant medicine. And because the world of plants is so diverse, each of us can find the unique relationships and support we are seeking. 

One class of plants that helps us deal directly with stress are adaptogens. These are defined by three main characteristics. First, they operate in a non-organ-specific way, addressing the whole body. Second, they affect the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, the principle system involved in communicating with and stabilizing the nervous and endocrine systems. Third, they are safe and non-toxic. 

Adaptogens are considered “intelligent plants” (although I’d argue that all forms of life are intelligent) because when interacting with the body, they can identify an organ system that is operating in excess or deficiency, and help adjust accordingly. How does this happen? Adaptogens work with how we manage and respond to stress. In a busy time, we can often burn through our reserves and arrive at adrenal fatigue, or burnout, requiring rebuilding and sometimes convalescence. 

Adaptogens help us build lasting energy reserves. They also focus on repair of the oxidative damage from a stress response in overdrive. With the use of adaptogens, we can have greater tolerance to stressors, increased immunity, better rest and more energy. Some examples of adaptogens that I use a lot in my practice are rhodiola, eleuthro, astragalus, schisandra and holy basil. Each of these plants have their own personality, and their own qualities of relating to the body, whether in states of disorder or homeostasis (balanced vitality). 

When I returned to California as an adult, I was reminded of the tenuous nature of my home state’s epic grandeur and beauty. Earthquakes, wildfires and floods are a high cost to pay, but I think the price is worth it, as long as we have tools for resilience, tread lightly and give back to this immensely powerful place. 

There are botanical medicines for so many things: to prevent illness, for daily maintenance, for strength and focus, for energy and clarity, and to address dysfunction. There are dozens of herbs to rebuild aching and inflamed mucous membranes in the lungs from smoke exposure, there are metabolic building herbs to remediate the body’s response to mold. There are herbs for deep dreaming, our main way to integrate and digest our days, experiences and memories. 

There are also essences and energies in the plants around us, with which we are always in relationship, whether we realize it or not. Everyone can cultivate this relationship; we can learn how to make plant medicine or seek guidance from a professional herbalist. We can all listen more deeply to the complex relationships around us. All that is required is to simply begin. 

 

Anne Louise Burdett is a clinical Western herbalist, a biomagnetist, a sex educator and an artist. An Inverness resident, she has a clinical practice in Point Reyes Station. Her website is healingzell.com.