As you no doubt know all too well, we live in a chronically stressed culture. Many of us live day by day feeling constantly overworked, overwhelm, and rundown. And all this stress is taking a serious toll. An estimated 90% of all visits to primary care doctors are for stress-related complaints. 90%!
Cortisol is also known as the aging hormone. When cortisol gets too high, it puts you into a “fight or flight” response, which stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands. When this occurs, there is a decrease in your digestive secretions and an increase in blood pressure. This puts your body in a state of constant stress, which will burn out your adrenal glands, stress your digestive tract and cause you to age more rapidly.
You have more power over your stress than you may realize. Life isn’t only about what happens to you — it’s also about how you respond. The right herbs can be a potent tool to help you calm the stresses and enjoy more resiliency.
Herbs Fight Stress in the Human Body
An herb is a plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers that people use for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume. In the modern world, people also use the word “herb” to refer to a plant that’s used for healing or medicinal purposes. For many centuries, people in every culture around the world, have used a variety of herbs to fight sickness, disease, injury and stress. And, as you’ll see below, science is beginning to prove the remarkable powers of some of these plants.
Phytotherapy to the Rescue!
Phytotherapy refers to the use of plants for their healing abilities. What I am most interested in at the moment are what science calls adaptogens. Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants: They help balance, restore and protect the body. An adaptogen doesn’t have a specific action: It helps you respond to any influence or stressor, normalizing your physiological functions. Adaptogens promote balance in many systems of your body. Remarkably, they can calm you down and boost your energy at the same time, without over-stimulating you.
While some adaptogens work quickly, most work over time and have cumulative benefits. Some people take them daily for months before getting the full effects.
The term “adaptogen” comes from Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, a Russian scientist, who first coined the term in 1947, but Isreal Brekham, PhD and Dr. I. V. Darymovhe created the formal definition in 1968. The formal definitely includes the following criteria:
1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient.
2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body—an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.
In other words, adaptogens must be safe, work by reducing your body's stress response, and support overall health by helping the body achieve balance which is known as homeostasis.
Interestingly, adaptogens are mostly plants that have adapted to growing in very stressful conditions, which is what makes them so powerful. They give their strength and adaptability to us.
For example, maca (a relative of the radish family that tastes similar to butterscotch and is used to treat anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, stamina, athletic performance, and memory) grows in a harsh climate and at a high altitude, whereas rhodiola (also known as “golden root” is an adaptogen herb with tremendous fat burning, energy enhancing and brain boosting power) flourishes in harsh and mountainous climates of Asia. So, these plants have innate abilities to adapt to stress that they in turn transfer to us when we consume them. This then works to help us deal with our harsh conditions in a healthier manner.
Which brings us to a good point about sourcing adaptogens. As with essential oils, I think that it is important to source adaptogens grown in indigenous locations (where they grow naturally), and to source them organically and sustainably grown when possible. So remember that if you source adaptogens outside of their indigenous location, you might, or might not be getting the same ingrown quality that you would get otherwise.
In today’s post I want to talk about one of my favorite Adaptogens, and one many of us are familiar with, Lemon Balm.
Sometimes, the most beneficial natural health remedies are the ones that have been around the longest. That’s certainly the case with lemon balm, a fast-growing herb that’s been studied for its effects on everything from insomnia to cancer.
Used in teas, cooking and to make essential oil, lemon balm has been prescribed by doctors since the Middle Ages as a natural remedy to improve sleep, reduce anxiety, heal wounds and promote longevity. Today, its benefits have been widely studied, especially in Europe and the Middle East, where the plant originated.
Once you realize how many ways you can benefit from the many uses of lemon balm, I’m sure you’ll be itching to grow some in your own garden.
The most useful parts of the plant (and the way it found its name) are the leaves. You can use the lemon-scented leaves to make tea, flavor dishes, create perfume oil and to repel insects. Some people even use it to make homemade toothpaste.
Various lemon balm uses have been employed in traditional medicine, especially in European countries such as Austria. In fact, lemon balm is an ingredient in Carmelite water, an alcoholic extract beverage formulated in the 14th century that’s still for sale in Germany. It’s said to be useful in treating headaches and nerve pain.
Common Lemon Balm Uses:
- Calms the mind - Lemon balm has been used for centuries to care for wounds and quell sleeplessness. Some attest that the pure, sweet aroma of the oil promotes a feeling of relaxation. Most sweet oils are said to provide the same benefit.
- Encourages Restful Slumber - Lemon balm encourages restful sleep, especially for those who have trouble falling asleep. In one study, parents reported their children slept more peacefully throughout the night with lemon balm supplementation. It doesn’t only benefit restless children and their sleep-deprived parents. A placebo-controlled trial found that menopausal women suffering from interrupted sleep reported much better rest after taking a lemon balm and valerian extract.
- Improves Skin - The first cosmetic use of lemon balm goes back to the 14th century when the Queen of Hungary reportedly used it to erase years from her face by softening wrinkles. Today, it’s still recommended for boosting the appearance of skin and reducing the appearance of fine lines. Lemon balm also contains volatile components, such as caffeic acid, p-coumaric acid, and rosmarinic acid, that work together to support the body’s natural response to the harmful organisms that cause lip blemishes.
- Boosts Alertness - Although lemon balm calms the mind, it certainly doesn’t dull the mind. In the right serving, it does the exact opposite. An Australian study reported improved alertness in participants who took the herb. The reported side effects, if you can call them that, included calm feelings and a positive mood.
- Aids in Problem Solving and Sharpens Memory - Studies like the one above observed improved memory and problem-solving in test subjects, regardless of age, after taking lemon balm. Young or old, those taking lemon balm supplements displayed improvement in problem-solving skills and recall. Though preliminary, some studies have examined lemon balm and its relation to brain health. When combined with acupuncture, eugenol, a powerful antioxidant in lemon balm, helped test subjects recover memory-related functions. Another study showed participants had significant improvements in brain function after 16 weeks of administration of a lemon balm extract containing 500 mcg of citral—a component of lemon balm oil. Another study reported that lemon balm helps stimulate memory and enhance mood. A phytochemical found in lemon balm suppresses the enzymes that break down the neurotransmitter responsible for memory and thought.
- Super Antioxidant - Lemon balm is loaded with antioxidants that protect cells from free radicals. Studies on eugenol and rosmarinic acid show they support healthy brain aging. The list of powerful antioxidants includes ferulic acid, caffeic acid, and quercetin.
- Liver Support - The liver detoxifies dangerous compounds from the body and, over time, can become tired and sluggish, especially if you follow an unhealthy diet. Animal studies have found that lemon balm is effective at protecting the liver from some of the negative effects of an unhealthy diet. Lemon balm also supports the liver’s production of two important antioxidants—glutathione and superoxide dismutase.
- Great for Diabetics - Many herbs that provide antioxidants also promote balanced blood sugar. Although preliminary, research suggests that lemon balm may encourage normal blood sugar levels.
- Wonderful for Your Brain Cells - Beyond the positive effects on memory, thinking, and mood, research suggests lemon balm supports brain health. Antioxidants like eugenol detain free radicals before they can attack brain cells. Rosmarinic acid, a key compound in lemon balm, is beneficial in this regard. If the brain doesn’t get enough blood, it can quickly become an emergency that affects brain function. Animal models show that, when provided shortly after such an episode, lemon balm appears to protect the brain.
There are several ways to use lemon balm. Many people do what I do and make lemon balm part of their diet in the form of tea. Lemon balm essential oil has amazing aromatherapy applications.
Regardless of your preferred use, organic lemon balm is always the best choice. Because of its soothing properties, lemon balm is an essential ingredient in many types of popular skin care and beauty products.
Do you have a favorite use for lemon balm? Why not leave a comment below and share your thoughts. I'd love to know what you think!
Next week I’ll be talking about another of my favorite adaptogenic herbs, Ashwagandha.