Suzanne Norman

Enlightened Living Articles

Foods that Help Fight Stress

Friday, November 01, 2013

Just the other day I was asked what the hardest thing I’d ever done was. Without hesitation, and without thinking about it, I responded, "the year 2013!"

For me, this year provided a lifetime of challenges and can be defined with one word, loss. This emotionally stressful year has challenged me in many ways. One of the most troubling of these has been to my physical health. I began to feel depressed and had trouble sleeping. I gained weight, despite the fact that I couldn't eat.  I suffered digestive problems, agitation and migraine headaches. My road back to balanced health will take time and patience.

I am luckier than most in that I am educated in and teach an array of stress reduction techniques and healthy lifestyle choices. Yet my daily yoga and meditation practice and knowledge of how stress works weren't enough to fully protect me.  

A body under too much stress for too long starts to exhibit the signs of adrenal exhaustion: fatigue, depression, skin problems, sleeplessness, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, lightheadedness, poor memory, blood sugar fluctuations, among other symptoms. And at this point, relaxation and yoga are not enough. We have to also nourish the body with foods and supplements if we hope to find balance again.


We all deal with stress every day, and our bodies strive to adapt and keep balanced and healthy. Can foods help you with stress? Most certainly. There is a category of herbs called adaptogens that help the body adapt to stress, restore balance, and support normal metabolic processes. They help increase the body’s resistance to emotional, environmental, biological, and physical stressors and promote normal physiologic function.

There is ample research to prove many of these herbs  are important medicines that can be used for the prevention and treatment of a variety of common ailments. Adaptogens are superior healing herbs that have a long tradition of use and benefits. They are remarkable natural substances that help the body adapt to stress and provide a defense response to acute or chronic stress. They are unique from other substances in their ability to restore the balance of endocrine, hormones, modulate the immune system, and allow the body to maintain a state of homeostasis.


An adaptogenic substance is defined as an agent that allows the body to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stressors by raising nonspecific resistance toward such stress, thus allowing the organism to “adapt” to the stressful circumstances. Some researchers contend that adaptogens enhance the body’s natural bipolar homeostatic balancing capacity and help return stressed physiological systems to normal. Adaptogens produce changes in the body because they stimulate and balance several body systems, including the immune and neuroendocrine systems.


The traditional systems Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine from India, Tibetan medicine, and kampo from Japan, have long histories of success with herbal medicine. 


Traditional herbal medicine differs in both theory and practice from Western medicine. In traditional herbal medical systems, herbs (medicines) are seen as correcting internal disharmony rather than simply targeting symptoms as in western medicine. There appear to be active constituents found in herbal adaptogens that work to stimulate the neuroendocrine and immune systems via multiple metabolic pathways. They affect the brain, nerves, endocrine glands (pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, thymus, pineal, pancreas, ovaries, and testes), and immune system by helping to normalize and enhance function.


 Adaptogens also modulate our responses to stress and help regulate and support the immune system. Adaptogenic herbs support the entire neuroendocrine system, in particular adrenal function, helping to counteract the adverse effects of stress.


I suggest adaptogens to my clients for an array of health challenges and I encourage you to research them. My favorite adaptogenic herb is ashwagandha. Ashwagandha is an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune amphoteric, antitumor, nervine, antispasmodic, mild astringent, and diuretic.

Ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen. It enhances endocrine function, especially helping to re-regulate the thyroid and adrenal glands. Few herbs have a direct effect on thyroid function, but in animal and human studies, ashwagandha root was found to stimulate the thyroid, making it useful for hypothyroidism. Because of its nervine functions, it is very effective for anxiety, fatigue, cloudy thinking, stress-induced insomnia, and nervous exhaustion. This herb is a key player in my nutrition arsenal these days and I believe it should be considered as a daily tonic against normal, every-day stressors and not just when you feel overwhelmed with stress. It’s the every-day stress that simmers and eventually boils over.

Cautions: avoid using this herb if you are sensitive to nightshade plants. Avoid using this herb if you have hyperthyroidism. It is probably best to avoid its use during pregnancy.
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