It seems barely a day goes by right now without something to make our hearts feel heavy.
And what I am also seeing a lot of in practice are the physical manifestations of sustained, long-term stress, emotional pain, deep seated trauma - whatever terminology fits for you. From a scientific point of view, we now know that ongoing or unresolved emotional distress can lead to elevated inflammation.
It raises pro-inflammatory signals in the body. Leading to raised levels of systemic inflammation, and this puts you at risk for other illnesses, disruptions in endocrine communication in the body. This typically manifests as gut problems, hormonal imbalances, immune issues, particularly those of an autoimmune nature.
Though there are many therapies one can turn to and I hope to add more of these to my arsenal in time (never stop learning), I consider myself an herbalist primarily, and in the past year have found myself increasingly interested and turning to this age-old wisdom to help resolve these problems for my clients, to use the tools already at my disposal that I know, love and use extensively for all manner of physical illnesses and symptoms; to help clients disrupt or break this emotional cycle that keeps them unwell.
Herbs can help to relieve pain and fear. They can also assist in a return to a state of calm, to build or restore resilience in us. Herbs can help you not be stuck in despair. Not be stuck in the feelings that are coming out of trauma, and what it is you’re experiencing personally.
Herbs can help you not be stuck in despair.
When we think about herbs we think about self-care and let’s be honest, a little bit of woo-woo magik. That’s the bit I really love, we need that faith in something else that isn’t always clinical, it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense from a modern perspective but just taking a herb innately feels good.
Yet we can utilise the latest, scientific knowledge of inflammatory cytokines and up to date herbal research and combine it with ancient plant wisdom and energetic traditions.
Of course, there are lifestyle factors too that we can utilise to resolve these problems, the basics are fundamental but essential – sleep, good plant-based food, protein for blood sugar balance, reducing pro-inflammatory food such as sugar and refined carbs. All of these seemingly innocuous lifestyle decisions can spiral the effects of ongoing pain and systemic trauma elevating inflammation. Food is foundational, herbs are an added bonus.
Establishing good circadian rhythm is also key – awake when sun is up and sleeping a little after sun goes down. Easier said than done but establishing a consistent rhythm is key to maintain normal fluctuations in hormones, including stress response hormones. Eating at set times daily is also important, and physical activity or exercise, getting outside in nature, avoiding too much caffeine. If your rhythm is constantly out of sync, you’ll find it difficult to maintain balance as a whole.
Herbal medicine as an emotional therapeutic tool
So, when I see a client in front of me, albeit unfortunately online right now, and they’re obviously dealing with something more than just chronic health symptoms, I assess the stage at which they’re at. In functional medicine we use a timeline and 99% of the time a trauma will readily be brought to the surface very quickly without prompt, even if sustained in childhood, as though it has just been waiting to be heard. However, it is the obvious physical manifestations that need dealing with first. Dealing with the obvious injuries induced by the emotional pain, leaky gut for example as a metaphor for poor boundaries.
Plantago is a perfect herb in this situation as it is key for mucous membranes, soothing and calming in the process. Likewise, a basic herb such a nettle can be useful alongside, plugging the nutritional gaps induced by the ‘leaking’. Full of minerals it helps to resolve the deficiencies caused by malabsorption and inflammation.
The next, second stage is to use the herbs that help with the long-term feelings of agitation. That icky underlying nervousness, the fight or flight response that is ready to let go at any moment. In the everyday busy-ness of life it is often suppressed as it is difficult to deal with, especially for those who thrive on perfection. Verbena is ideal here, it helps to break down defences and let go, calm down the nervous system. Skullcap and passionflower have similar effects, as does Motherwort for calming down a racing heart. Hawthorn is also useful in the heart healing capacity for dealing with stress.
For those experiencing physical pain or musculoskeletal issues induced by stress and held in the body, Wild lettuce – Californian Poppy, is a wonderful option as it calms all the nerves. It offers pain relief and has a useful sedating action for those whose minds are on overdrive and won’t let them relax and sleep.
Tulsi is an herb I may then use for longer term resilience. It is the TLC of the herbal world, it lifts the heart and the spirits, and that can aid recovery. It also balances blood sugar, lowers cortisol levels, and in this respect is a go to broad spectrum choice. It is particularly useful for emotional pain as by increasing cerebral circulation it can ease issues of memory and brain fog, acting on the hippocampus and amygdala to help with recovery. Since trauma can impair those parts of the brain, it is particularly helpful for getting one ‘unstuck’ - flashbacks, memories etc. shifting reactions, helping them to feel safe again. This used alongside rosemary is particularly effective as it has similar properties, so really allowing things to get up and out quickly.
Eleuthrococcus (Siberian ginseng) speeds up recovery from physical exertion including injury. Burn out, lack of sleep, poor diet, all manifestations of self-sabotaging behaviour, it can get you through these deficient periods short term. Rhodiola, works in a similar way though much more stimulating, helping you to stand up to physical stress, and improving endurance. Because of its stimulating effects however it should not be taken alongside medication with similar effects.
"St John's Wort lets the sunshine in"
St John’s wort, though a cliché, is my absolute favourite in these situations; it isn’t simply an antidepressant, it restores health and proper nerve function, whilst letting the sunshine in. It is getting harder to use in practice as it is contraindicated with most medications, but it is my go-to when a client is bogged down in their head and can’t see any light in front of them, though often highlighting clearly what needs to be dealt with. As an anti-inflammatory it also enables whole body and gut healing and through its effect on the liver, it helps to process the stress hormones.
Lastly, Yarrow works well in this respect too, and without the pharmacological issues, a great first aid herb - stopping bleeding but psychologically, it can make you feel as though you have an extra layer of armour and resilience. Protecting one from feeling vulnerable.
I could speak all day about the many other herbs available and their unique properties, most herbs have a place in facilitating adequate healing and deal with the ongoing ‘stuff’ life likes to challenge us with, but herbal medicine is personalised and I believe an art, and it is through the therapeutic encounter that we herbalists can discern what is truly right for the individual. Do get in contact today if you would like to find out more about my programs and bespoke remedies.