Herbs to support patients through the holidays
The holidays can be an emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing time for patients, which makes it an ideal time of year to turn to herbal allies for support.
Nervine tonics and adaptogens can help patients prevent or treat overwhelm, sleep more deeply, calm their minds, reduce social anxiety, or heal emotionally, said Jessica Baker, RH, LAc, herbalist, and acupuncturist in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Additionally, certain herbal allies can also help patients who suffer from the winter blues or who feel down in the dumps during this emotionally intense period, according to Joan Tylecki, MS, CNS, LDN, clinical herbalist and nutritionist in Lewes, Del.
During the colder months, people naturally gravitate towards going inward, said Tylecki. This might look like staying at home, having more downtime, and being more introspective, alongside eating the heavier foods that go with the season. When these tendencies get too extreme, they can lead to an overall feeling of stagnation, for which mugwort is an ideal remedy.
“Mugwort is great for helping people shift stuckness — stuck mood, stuck menses, stuck bowels, anything that's hanging out in the belly or womb that you kind of want to let go of,” she said.
According to Tylecki, Mugwort is a bitter, aromatic herb that’s high in volatile oils, stimulates digestive secretions, can allay constipation, and can act as a carminative to relieve gas and bloating.
“Mugwort takes what's solid, insurmountable, and immoveable and helps to break it down into manageable digestible bits,” she said. “Physiologically that can translate as helping people with constipation, especially if that constipation is due to overconsumption of greasy foods.”
She said it’s great for “someone who feels foggy and heavy, [whose] heart is broken, or who [has] a tendency to get stuck in their mind and hibernate when things get tough.”
It can also bring back an appetite in depressed patients and help induce menstruation for women who experience stress-related changes to their cycle, she said.
Since it contains thujone and has emmenagogue properties, mugwort should not be used for pregnant or nursing women, she said.
The nervine skullcap is an excellent ally for stressed, panicked, and agitated patients during the holiday season, according to Baker.
She said it relaxes both the mind and the muscles, lowers pain and inflammation, eases tension, and relaxes a strained, overactive nervous system. This may, in part, be why it's excellent for patients who are trying to avoid substances at holiday gatherings, such as alcohol, sugar, or narcotics.
In a 2013 study in Natural Product Communications, researchers discussed skullcap’s anxiolytic properties and its potential to protect against oxidative stress-related mental disorders like anxiety and depression.
According to Tylecki, Skullcap works well for acute stress as it acts quickly and is a hypnotic in high doses, unlike herbs like Milky Oats, which have a mild effect and work best over time. As such, Skullcap can work well in emergency situations or when someone is feeling a strong sense of overwhelm and burnout.
“If people describe being overstimulated and feeling they want to just crawl into a cave, like the world is too much, that's an indication that you want to grab skullcap as a nervous system ally,” she said.
She said that Skullcap can also help when stress leads to physical tension, especially between the shoulders, as it's an anti-spasmodic. Since it relaxes both body and mind, it's useful for patients who lie awake tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep, she said
A staple in Chinese medicine, reishi mushroom can be helpful for patients who experience tension, unease, and emotional discomfort, as can easily happen during the busy time of year, said Baker.
“I find it’s great for people who have an overall sense of anxiety but don't quite know what's going on, or when there’s just this sense of disease in mind and spirit,” she said.
According to Baker, reishi is tonifying to Shen, an energetic property that’s defined as consciousness or spirit in Chinese medicine. It also has adaptogenic properties, is calming to the nervous system, and nourishes the heart.
Its cardioprotective effects are well known. In a 2019 study in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, researchers found that reishi could potentially reduce cardiovascular disease risk caused by multiple risk factors and conditions.
Besides the physical heart, Baker said reishi can be emotionally healing, especially when combined with rose, which is considered by herbalists to be the ideal remedy for grief, heartbreak, or feelings of low self-worth.
While evidence of rose’s emotional healing potential is largely anecdotal, reishi has been shown to relieve depression. In a 2021 study in Brain Research Bulletin, it alleviated depression-like behaviors in rats both immediately and for five days after, leading researchers to assert its potential as an antidepressant.
Making herbal medicine convenient for patients
During the busy time of year when patients are already overwhelmed, it’s important to encourage patients to take herbs in whatever form is most convenient for them, said Tylecki.
“Whenever anyone's feeling overwrought, stressed out, or just like life is too much, the preparation I offer is usually the one that feels most accessible to them,” said Tylecki. “If they're so busy that the most they can manage is to put a dropper of tincture in their mouth, then I'm definitely going to suggest doing that.”
Baker noted that while some preparations, like decoctions and tinctures, are more effective than others, taking something mild is better than doing nothing.
“I’ve never discouraged people from getting chamomile tea bags from the grocery store, because so often that's what people have access to,” she said. “It's inexpensive, and they may only have to go a few blocks to find it, and it's there. The acupuncturist side of me says there's absolutely a right way to take your herbal medicine for it to be as therapeutically effective as possible. The herbalist in me says that any form or way in which someone is engaging in a ritual of helping themselves can be beneficial.”