The Teacup Chronicles

Category: Rhodiola

Surviving the holiday stress

Brigitte over at My Herb Corner is hosting an herbal blog party this month called “No Time for Stress”, and I just couldn’t resist joining in. I admit, my reasons might be slightly selfish – I have been a bit stressed lately with all the hustle and bustle of holiday parties, travel plans, and classes to teach – and in writing this blog I am hoping to remind myself of all the strategies I should be using to cope with the added stress. In other words, I need a great big dose of my own medicine.

It’s just such a conundrum this time of year. The darkness beckons us inwards, begs us to rest and dream as the earth herself is doing, and yet, our social and work lives seem to ask just the opposite. While the sense of festivity and the bringing together of friends and family is a wonderful thing to warm our spirits during the darkest part of the year – I do find myself getting worn thin by resisting that call for rest and introspection.

Of course, the obvious answer to this problem is to seek a balance.  Make time for resting and putting the feet up by the ol’ fire by letting some of the party obligations go, maybe even deciding to spend a bit less on holiday presents this year so you can spend more time with your family and yourself. But I know that is easier said than done, so I am sharing a few tips with you for remaining sane throughout the holiday chaos, if (and only if)  you promise that you will at least try to find some down time. Do you really promise? (I’ll know if you’re crossing your fingers….). Ok, if you promise, then read on:

Tip #1: Have a nice cup of tea

I’m not sure if my grandmother ever actually made me a cup of tea, but for some reason I always imagine her offering me one when I’m in a tizzy. Her voice, tinkly as a bell and worn as an old shoe, pops into my head and says, “Now, now dear. Why not sit down and have a nice cup of tea?”

I’m not sure if she’s coming through from the other world, or if my mind has just chosen her as the most effective messenger, but I always listen when I hear the advice, and it always works its magic. You’ll know that tea drinking is my preferred method of experiencing herbs – you can read pages and pages about it here – but suffice it to say that there is some magic in the process of preparing a steaming cup of fragrant, herb infused liquid. The preparation in and of itself is part of the medicine. It tricks you into slowing down, just a little, and finding a moment to catch up with yourself.

I like to use herbs that are nourishing and strengthening in my daily stress blend, herbs known traditionally as nerve tonics:

Milky Oats: The very same type of oats you put in your breakfast pot, milky oats are just harvested earlier in the season with the groat is still green and exudes a delicious milky sap. Full of B vitamins and minerals that nourish and strengthen the nervous system, great for those who are depleted from chronic stress, anxiety, and over-work.

Skullcap: Skullcap helps to calm the nervous system and quiet the mind – putting a cap all those thoughts flying in and out of the brain. Skullcap, like oats, is best used before, during and after stressful events, because it works by rebuilding and strengthening – rather than having a strong acute action. Good for those who get tension headaches and tight muscles when stressed.

Tulsi: Also known as Holy Basil, tulsi is revered in India. They love it so much that almost every household keeps a plant in their courtyard, lovingly tended and worshiped by the woman of the house.  It reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, modulates blood sugar, calms anxiety and alleviates depression, while also boosting immune function and acting as a strong antioxidant. Whew!  All that, and it also tastes divine.

Lemon Balm: Calming, uplifting, and soothing to the digestive tract, as well as deliciously lemony tasting. Great for anyone who experiences digestive upset when stressed, or for those who feel a little blue this time of year.

Hawthorn leaf and flower: Traditionally known as a heart tonic, hawthorn also supports and soothes the nervous system – working on that mysterious intersection of heart and mind. Energetically, it fortifies the heart and provides a sense of protection and strength during stressful and emotionally trying times. Especially good for those with stress related high blood pressure.

Lavender: Incredibly soothing to the nervous system – helping to reduce anxiety and quiet the mind. Especially helpful for insomnia.

Linden: The delicious smelling June flowers from an ancient and noble tree, the linden flowers are soothing and sedative, helping to promote sleep and quiet an anxious, worried mind. Also good for those whose blood pressure spikes during stressful times.

Tip #2: Adapt with “Adaptogens”

Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help normalize the stress response and enhance resistance to a wide range of stressors on the body. They bring the body back to a place of balance, no matter what the direction of imbalance might be (which is amazing and profound) , while nourishing and enhancing the vitality of the body.

Here are some of my favorites:

Ashwagandha: Adaptogenic, building and calming to the nervous system, a perfect remedy for those who are anxious, have trouble sleeping, and are also weakened and fatigued by chronic stress. Take a teaspoon of the powder in warm milk at bedtime to promote restful sleep.

Eleuthero: Also known as Siberian ginseng, Eleuthero has been long studied by the Russians for its ability to enhance physical and mental endurance and strengthen the immune system. Great for those who tend to get sick when worn down, or for those who get fatigued easily when stressed.

Reishi: Known as the mushroom of immortality, reishi is said in Chinese medicine to, “calm disturbed shen.” Shen roughly translates as spirit – and symptoms of its disturbance include insomnia, heart palpitations, mental agitation, and sadness. Balances the immune system – whether deficient or over-active, protects the liver from damage, and normalizes the cardiovascular system.

Rhodiola: A rosy smelling root that improves memory and enhances alertness, reduces anxiety and symptoms of depression, protects from radiation and improves immunity. Read more about it in my rhodiola post.

Schisandra: Known as the 5-flavored fruit, the bright red berries are something straight out of Harry Potter – tasting first sour, then sweet, and progressing through salty and astringent with a distinctive ending of bitter. Protects the liver (great for all those holiday cocktails), strengthens the immune system, and enhances alertness and concentration while relieving anxiety, heart palpitations and insomnia.

Tip #3: Don’t forget to breathe

I once read that when taking deep breaths, it is nearly impossible physiologically to experience anxiety. Try it for yourself: take a breath, and pull the air all the way into your abdomen – hold it there a moment – and then slowly, slowly exhale the air through your nose. How do you feel?

When we are stressed, we tend to breathe shallowly, which predisposes us to heart palpitations, foggy thinking and fatigue when our blood is not properly oxygenated. Simply remembering to breathe fully can go a long way to remedying these symptoms – and automatically moves our nervous system out of sympathetic fight or flight mode – and into a calm state.

Exercising is also an important part of breathing deeply, oxygenating the blood and helps to diffuse the impact of stress hormones on the body. So while it is all to easy to nix your exercise routine when schedules become hectic and time seems scarce, try to at least get out for 15 – 20 minutes of brisk walking each day. Sacrificing those 15 minutes will enhance your energy, uplift your mood, reduce stress and increase mental concentration – well worth it, I should say.

Tip #4: Nourish your body

While sweet treats and glasses of wine may temporarily give you a lift and ease the stress – they will only worsen the problem in the long run by further depleting and stressing the nervous system. Instead, choose foods that are packed with the nutrients your nervous system and body needs to function optimally.

B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and vitamin C are all important for nervous system and adrenal health, as are omega 3 fatty acids. Complex carbohydrates and high quality proteins support energy levels, and prevent blood sugar dips that further stress your body, cause fatigue, and de-stabilize mood.

To ensure your body is receiving proper nutrition, include these foods in your daily diet:

  • High quality proteins such as cold water fish, pasture raised poultry and eggs, pasture raised meats, and legumes combined with nuts, seeds, or whole grains.
  • Dark leafy greens such as kale, collards, chard, parsley, turnip greens, pok choi and broccoli.
  • B vitamin rich whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, millet, amaranth, barley, brown rice and buckwheat.
  • 5-7 servings of brightly colored fruits and vegetables for antioxidant phytonutrients that protect against the effects of stress.
  • Calcium and magnesium rich foods such as and  sesame, almond, and pumpkin seeds, cultured dairy, and seaweeds.
  • Omega 3 rich foods such as salmon, sardines, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.

And, lastly, don’t forget your promise to make some time for yourself to rest and go inwards, as the season requires. Otherwise, you are only bandaging up the problem rather than healing the root.

May you all have a wonderful, joyful, rejuvenating and relaxing holiday! And while stress is inevitable, may you adapt and move through it with ease and grace.



This is the time of year that I start resembling an insane person. I’m not kidding.  I walk into a room and forget where I was going and what I was doing – people looking at my questioningly as I stand there scratching my head. Or, worse,  I end up walking in circles, starting and stopping like a malfunctioning robot (should I do this? No, that needs doing. Waite, what about that other thing?)

I’ve also been caught mumbling to myself on several instances.  I exclaim things I’m thinking  out loud as though people have  somehow been following the thought dialogue in my head  ( yes I should put paprika in the potatoes, shouldn’t I!).  And I have developed a terrible habit of not listening to what anybody is saying to me, because I’m so caught up in my personal world of worry  (like last night, when I looked up at my husband and realized he was waiting for me to reply to something he had just said, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what he’d been talking about – poor man!).

In addition to feeling like a circus is being conducted in my head at all times, I also paradoxically feel exhausted, which is hard to describe. It’s as though you feel incredibly motivated to go somewhere, but then you find your legs are stuck in quicksand, or you can’t quite remember where it is you’re supposed to go. I think there is a phrase for this…let’s see….oh yes! Wired and tired. Fair to say, I am wired and tired.

Fortunately, there is a little voice of sanity that snaps on at some point – a warning light alerting the pilot to imminent danger – and I remember to start taking care of myself  just in time to avert me  from plowing my body right into the ground. Amongst other things, like taking deep breaths, going for long walks and eating vegetables, the voice reminds me to take my rhodiola.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is a small succulent plant in the Sedum family. It grows in Northern arctic regions including Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia, as well as the Alps, Pyrenees and Carpathian mountain chains in Europe. If ever there was a plant made for helping us withstand stress, this was it.  It prefers (yes prefers) growing in areas of high elevation, where the radiation from the sun is strong, the oxygen quality is low, and the soil sandy, dry and rocky. That is pretty hard-core for a tender little plant of 10 cm.

As you might expect, rhodiola is just brimming with antioxidant plant compounds to help it withstand all that solar radiation, and it is extremely radioprotective/ antioxidant when used as a medicine.  I always carry it with me when I fly or expose myself to sun at higher elevations for protection from the radiation, where it’s immune stimulating properties also come in handy.  And, as the plant thrives in areas of very low oxygen, it can be used to help us do the same, being a great remedy for hypoxia (lack of oxygen) associated with elevation changes.

Because rhodiola is such a great antioxidant, it is, of course,  neuroprotective and cardioprotective as well, helping to protect our nerves and blood vessels from the damaging effects of stress (ie free radicals) from daily life.

But my main reason for using rhodiola, and the thing I find most remarkable about it, is what it does to the central nervous system – where it acts as an antidepressantstimulant and an anxiolytic. When people under stressful situations are given rhiodiola, they report feeling less mental and physical fatigue; perform better on cognitive tasks;  exhibit improved physical endurance;  and report greater feelings of well-being (all demonstrated in double-blind, randomized placebo controlled trials – the gold standard for clinical research). Unlike other adaptogenic (stress buffering) plants, rhodiola does all of this after just one dose, rather than the 2-3 weeks required by most plants with these effects.

Based on research done so far, there a few theories in place about just how Rhodiola works. The main theory explains rhodiola’s actions by its impact on a part of the brain called The Reticular Activating System, which is involved in arousal and wakefulness.  Studies show that rhodiola increases the concentrations of all three neurotransmitters (dopamine, seratonin and norepinephrine) used in nerve transmission for this area of the brain. Other research shows that rhodiola impacts opioid receptors and enhances the release of endorphins involved in reducing the perception of pain and fatigue and enhancing mood (the same that are releases when exercising). It has also been found to enhance ATP and creatine phosphate (sources of usable energy) in brain and muscle tissue – which may also contribute to its anti-fatiguing effects. If that isn’t enough, it also seems to modulate the effects of the sympathetic nervous system (involved in the fight or flight stress response), protecting the body from the impact of stress.

But however it works, it really does work, and it works quickly. That’s what I love about it. This time of year, when stress and holiday chaos are upon us, it’s just so lovely to have something other than caffeine or chocolate to give you a little burst and get you through the day. It’s like having a little bit of Zen in a bottle.

I find that rhodiola is most beneficial to these constitutional types:

  • people who become very depressed and sluggish with the cold weather, who can’t think at all and have no energy, and who exhibit accumulations of damp and cold (the kapha in Ayurvedic medicine), or
  • people who become extremely unfocused and frazzled under stress (ADD types), who fluctuate between anxiety with restlessness and bouts of fatigue with some depression, and who tend to burn the candle at both ends when they do have energy (the vata constitution in Ayurveda). These people exhibit accumulations of wind and cold.

Because rhodiola is warm and dry, it is perfect for a person of the first description as is. For a more windy and dry vata constitution, however, it needs to be combined with a moist and nutritive herb such as oats (a nervous system tonic) or licorice (an endocrine tonic).

The dosage is typically 1/2 teaspoon of an alcohol extract morning and noon, avoiding usage in the afternoon and evening as it is somewhat stimulating. As I’ve said above, this is great to bring along when you’re traveling for the holidays – not only protecting you from the radiation and reducing your stress, but enhancing your immunity as well. Just perfect.

As a note, I especially like combining it with kava for acute stress. This may sound odd, as though they would cancel each other out – but they seem to actually combine quite nicely. The kava calms and quiets the nervous system, while the rhodiola focuses the mind and enhances mental performance. For someone like me, who tends to shut down when stressed and find my tongue tied in a knot, it’s just perfect. Gets me through all those holiday parties like a breeze.

Start taking some rhodiola and stay tuned for my next post, part of the blog party hosted by Brigitte over at My Herb Corner on coping with holiday stress, where rhodiola is sure to feature again.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to start running in circles again…