Monday, January 9, 2012

The Season To Worry? How 3 (Wise) Herbs Can Help You

Christmas is over. Thank goodness some may sigh.

It is said that the festive season counts as one of the more stressful times of year for people. Going back to normality in January may not provide relief - we look forward to facing the bills incurred in the excesses of the previous month. And this is before we face the thrills of the New Year sales.

So for people prone to stress, January can be a challenging month. The gloomy British weather does not help our mood either - we could all do with a bit of sunshine to increase the happy chemicals in our brains and cheer us up.

So what can you do to sustain yourself until spring arrives? Well, many people prone to stress and worry find that there are 3 herbs that can help them get through these last months of winter.

The first is also one of the most commonly found herbs on our high streets. Valerian is a key ingredient in many herbal products licensed for stress relief. However, as it is usually combined with other herbs such as passiflora or hops, many people using stress relieving herbal products may not realise they are taking valerian.

Valerian based products are useful for those prone to stress, worry or people suffering from mild anxiety. This is a good example of ‘complementary’ medicine in action – if you went to your doctor complaining of stress or anxiety, the choice he or she will have to make is whether or not to prescribe conventional sedatives or tranquillers. As these have well-known side effects including dependency (remember the infamous valium?), doctors would not generally use this option unless symptoms were severe.

Enlightened GPs will advise their patients suffering from stress or anxiety to try an ‘over-the-counter’ valerian based product first, to see if herbal medicine can help. In most cases of mild anxiety or stress, it does – and without the same chance of side effects seen with prescribed medication.

The second useful herb for this time of year is St. John’s wort. It is sometimes also referred to as Hypericum and is well established in clinical research, being just as effective as standard anti-depressants for mild depression or low mood. As St. John’s wort does not have the same side effects as conventional anti-depressants, it is another great example of how herbs can be used to complement the offerings of orthodox medicine.

However, if you are thinking of using St. John’s wort, please take extra care if you are already on medicines prescribed by your doctor, including the pill. The reason is this - one of the pharmacological effects of St. John’s wort is that it makes the liver more efficient in the way it works, causing some prescribed medicines to be deactivated more quickly.

The list of medicines affected in this way can be found listed in the leaflet of licensed St. John’s wort products in UK – so look for licensed products in high street chains or better still, your local health food store. You can tell if a product is licensed as it will have a ‘THR number’ on the packaging. If you are not sure, ask the store for advice.

The third of our useful herbs for this time of the year is not an obvious one. Many people are familiar with Arnica used in homoeopathic (highly diluted) form for bruising. However, Arnica in the form of a gel has other uses – it has been shown in research to be a good anti-inflammatory and pain-killer. So why should Arnica be useful in those prone to stress and anxiety?

Apart from the psychological aspects, one of the most common consequences of stress is that it causes muscle tension. This may lead to a variety of muscular pains, especially tension in the upper body giving rise to a stiff neck and shoulders. The cold weather can make people more prone to these problems as can a busy desk job, an unforgiving boss and hours spent in front of a computer.

Arnica gel has been shown in research to be as effective a pain-killer as ibuprofen gel – not bad considering that it originates from a simple, yellow-coloured flower found growing in the wild, in the mountains of Central Europe.

Alison has worked in the health industry since 1987.  Alison lectures & trains on health issues, and is often to be found quoted in health magazines.