2020 was a stressful year for so many of us in a multitude of ways. The new year gives us an opportunity to look back and reflect but also look forward and show ourselves a bit of kindness with some restorative techniques and foods to nourish body and mind.
The 'relaxation response' was a term first coined in the early 1970s by a Harvard professor and cardiologist to describe the physiologic response that is the exact opposite of the stress response. In the stress response, the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system dominates to protect against immediate danger, while in the relaxation response the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, controlling breathing, heart rate, and digestion. In the parasympathetic state, our bodies are deeply relaxed and primed for repair, maintenance, and restoration. It is believed that spending more time in the parasympathetic/relaxed state can alter our stress response over time, lowering blood pressure and relieving chronic pain. Your relaxation response might be triggered by meditation, yin yoga, breathing exercises (see below), reading a book, or even self-hypnosis. For long-term benefits practice for at least 10 minutes every day.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing is one of the easiest ways to get yourself out of your stress response and into a restorative, relaxed state. Relax your shoulders, place one hand on your stomach and the other on your ribcage, as you inhale feel your breath moving into your abdomen while your chest stays still, exhale and draw your stomach muscles in keeping your chest still, repeat. This type of breathing uses full lung capacity and encourages efficient gas exchange. It triggers your brain to release feel-good endorphins, reduces heart rate and blood pressure, improves mood and energy levels, and most importantly it switches on your relaxation response down-regulating your stress response.
Restore your body and mind by getting out into nature, whether it is the bottom of your back yard, a local park, or a beautiful west coast beach, kick off your shoes and reconnect to the earth. Time in nature has proven benefits for stress, mood, immunity, and inflammation.
To restore your body after times of stress, nutritional and herbal support will focus on supporting adrenal function. Long term stress can lead to an altered or dysfunctional adrenal response which exacerbates anxiety and fatigue and reduces immunity. Vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins all play a critical role in adrenal function.
Vitamin C in particular is excreted in higher amounts by the kidneys in times of stress, the excretion will increase if cigarette smoke, allergens, and other pollutants are present. Try increasing capsicum, citrus, berries, kiwifruit, kumara, and greens.
Equally important in those needing adrenal support is vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid). If this vitamin is lacking it can cause adrenal atrophy which results in fatigue, headaches, sleep disturbances, and nausea. Pantothenic acid is found in whole grains, legumes, cauliflower, broccoli, salmon, liver, and tomatoes.
Adaptogenic herbs are restorative herbs that strengthen neuroendocrine functions, balance hormones, enhance immunity, and improve our adaptation to stress. There are the more well known ashwagandha, Siberian and Korean ginsengs but not to be overlooked are a few of my favourites: oats, Holy basil, and Schisandra
Avena sativa or oat seed, when used as a decoction or tincture is an uplifting and mildly restoring nerve tonic that is beneficial in times of chronic fatigue when a more moderate/strong herb would be too stimulating. Oat seed has pain-relieving effects and when taken at night can help with disrupted sleep.
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) has been used medicinally in India for thousands of years but is a relatively recent addition to the Western materia medica, this herb is a heavy hitter, it is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and is useful for times when stress is affecting your immunity. Recent research suggests Holy basil is also beneficial for anxiety and poor memory, and it protects your liver.
Schisandra Sinensis has been used in traditional Chinese medicine throughout history. A liver-protecting adaptogen that has a restorative effect on the adrenals but also the brain and central nervous system. Schisandra is used for stress, fatigue, headaches and to increase endurance.
Medicinal mushrooms have hugely restorative actions for both body and mind, and none more than Ganoderma lucidem. This medicinal mushroom has been used in China for over two thousand years and is a symbol of health and longevity. In more recent times there is building research on the benefits of reishi when used by patients suffering from fatigue, immune deficiency, and even mild depression. The polysaccharides and protein complexes found in reishi have immune and cardiovascular benefits, it is also considered to calm the mind with its mildly sedating action so its great for anxiety and sleep trouble.
Part of restoring body and mind is being gentle with yourself, sometimes it feels like one step forwards and two steps back, but take it easy and break your day or week down into manageable chunks. What needs to happen right now? In the next 10 minutes?
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-Article by huckleberry Naturopath Alice Mastrovich