Politics and Stress (part 1)

Four weeks ago, I hoped that the election stress was about to go away and that I could avoid writing this series of posts. I admit that I was fairly caught up in the drama of the situation and experienced the stress it created first-hand, as well as second-hand through my clients. But I thought it would end by November 9, and we could go back to life as usual.

Unfortunately, the stress caused by the elections has not gone away. For many of us, it has increased. With stress come various physical and emotional symptoms that I am witnessing in clients, friends, and family. The symptoms vary, but there’s a lot of overlap.

Many people are experiencing sleep trouble. For some people, the problem is in letting go, going to bed on time, and / or falling asleep promptly. For others, the challenge is to sleep through the night, or to get truly restful, restorative sleep.

There are numerous herbs that can help with this, and, of course, the choice depends on the specifics of the person and the full complex of symptoms. Shiatsu can help enormously. I also have a few favorite qigong practices for sleep.

One of my favorite ways to address sleep trouble is with an herbal foot bath. Herbal foot baths can help the entire person, not just the feet. The can address chronic health problems and emotional issues. To make an herbal foot bath, first choose a vessel, preferably made of an inert material, such as steel. Many of my clients use pots or steel mixing bowls.

Put a handful of dried linden leaves or flowers into the vessel together with a handful of Epsom salts. Put enough water to cover your feet into your kettle and bring it to the boil, and then let it cool for a couple of minutes. Pour it over the herbs and salts, and then cover for 30 minutes if you can, or less if you can’t.

When it cools off enough to be tolerable to the touch, start soaking your feet. Keep them in the bath until it cools too much for comfort, and then either reheat or pour into a jar to store in the fridge. Keep the herbs in the foot bath; they will let the bath grow stronger. You can keep reusing your foot bath for up to a week.

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Holistic Ways to Address the Stress of the Election Cycle

The presidential election is coming up soon, and many of us are stressing out about it. There’s a good reason for that, under the circumstances, but the consequences may interfere with our ability to sleep, make sound decisions, or feel comfortable in our bodies. We can address that with herbs, exercise, and lifestyle choices.image

Getting enough sleep helps us to take more in stride. Most people assume we need less sleep than we really need. If you wake up needing caffeine to get going, chances are that you’re not getting enough sleep.

Try going to bed half an hour earlier and see whether your morning gets better. Try using darker curtains over your windows to help yourself sleep late. Before going to bed, try bathing your feet in a footbath with half a cup of Epsom salts and half a cup of linden leaves and flowers before bed to help you fall asleep more easily. You can refrigerate the footbath when you’re done and reheat it again for a week.

If you still can’t fall asleep, try taking half a dropperful of valerian tincture before bed. If that doesn’t work for you, try taking some skullcap tincture instead; first try a few drops to make sure you don’t have a strange reaction, and then increase to a dropperful. You may need up to three droppersful, and you may even need to combine that with the valerian. If you find yourself waking up earlier than feels good for you, try using a dropperful of ashwaghanda tincture before bed, or try taping a lentil or a grain of rice to the center of your heel before you head for bed.

Exercise can help to release stress. When we feel anxious or worried, we go into the fight or flight mode and our bodies produce the adrenaline we would need to run from a hungry grizzly. When we flee, we use up the adrenaline, and then feel better. When we do relatively hard or fast forms of exercise, we release the adrenaline also. When we do more meditative forms of exercise, such as qigong, yoga, or tai chi, we reset the body from the sympathetic, adrenaline-producing mode to calmer parasympathetic mode. Both forms of exercise help us handle stress, as do meditation and shiatsu. While many advocate for a regular practice, which helps to build skills and endurance, it’s also fine to practice meditation one day, do yoga the next, have a shiatsu session the following day, and the day after that, go for a run the next. Qigong, of course, helps most when you do it daily, but once you know a few forms, you may rotate them on days when you  don’t have time to do them all. (Daily meditation and yoga help too,  of course.)

If you wind up missing a day, forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness also helps to reduce stress, and serves as an important model for our relationships with other people, too.

Adequate nutrition is also essential for handling stress well. Certain nutrients, such as B vitamins and vitamin D (which is rarely adequate among northerners), help us handle stress directly, while we need others to maintain wellness more generally. A deficiency that causes physical stress will also ultimately add to our emotional stress. Exactly how much we need of what and what diet works best is fairly personal, but we all need an abundance of vitamins and minerals, a significant amount of protein, and healthy fat. For most people, a plant-based diet with copious cooked vegetables will be the best way to achieve this.

While there may be many variations on a plant-based diet, some more suitable for any given person than others, nobody benefits from a diet featuring mostly fast foods, junk foods, or sugar, and very few people will benefit from a diet consisting primarily of grains. Most people will also benefit greatly from including seaweed and cooked mushrooms in the diet. (N.b. Always cook mushrooms before eating them.) More about nutrition, diet, seaweed, and mushrooms will have to await another post.

Most people enjoy warm tasty beverages, and herbal teas easily meet the bill. A strong cup of catnip tea with a little honey can work wonders for one’s state of mind. I have seen a toddler go from throwing sticks at his brother while screaming his little lungs out to cuddling with his mother on entering a kitchen where catnip was brewing; his drink helped preserve the calmer state. I have yet to see anyone dislike this delightful drink, and many of my students demand it whenever we meet.

Chamomile also helps, of course, and for people without hypothyroidism, lemon balm is another excellent choice, also improved by a little honey.

If your stress continues unabated even after a few cups of strong catnip or lemon balm, then you may want to try a stronger nervine herb, such as motherwort or skullcap, both of which I find easiest to take in tincture form.

Doses are highly individual; some people respond to only a few drops, while others may require a few droppersful. Both are safe herbs with a broad spectrum of use, but any time you try anything for the first time, it’s best to use only a minute amount and make sure that you don’t have any adverse reactions. People can be allergic to just about anything, so it’s always best to test first.

Nervines, Acetaminophen, and Empathy

There’s an article circulating about a study showing that acetaminophen interferes with feeling empathy. The article is summarizing a scientific study that does indeed indicate that people experience less empathy after taking acetaminophen; this may be cause for concern, but the study begins with an even more interesting question.

According to the abstract, current theories about empathy “hypothesize that empathizing with others’ pain shares some overlapping psychological computations with the processing of one’s own pain. Support for this perspective has largely relied on functional neuroimaging evidence of an overlap between activations during the experience of physical pain and empathy for other people’s pain.” The double-blind study sets out to test this hypothesis by administering acetaminophen to one group of participants and then testing their empathetic response.

The traditional Western herbalists classify herbs for physical pain together with herbs for emotional support and for sleep; all fall under the heading of “nervines.” This classification exists because so many nervines do all three of these things well; motherwort, skullcap, and St. John’s wort (a.k.a. St. Joan’s wort) are examples. (Motherwort and SJW have other uses as well.) So the information from experience with plants seems to support the current theories about empathy.

The acetaminophen study set out to apply a neurochemical test to these theories via acetaminophen. This should lead us to another question: Do nervines and their pharmaceutical equivalents, including medications designed to help with sleep as well as pain meds, also interfere with feeling empathy? Presumably, acetaminophen is not the only medication that has this effect. To what extent? Just enough to take the edge off and make our empathy bearable, or enough to make us less compassionate? Should this influence titration? And how do the various herbs and pharmaceuticals compare in this regard?

Here’s the link to the abstract of the scientific study: http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/05/02/scan.nsw057

And here’s the link to the article popularizing it: http://sciencebulletin.org/archives/896.html