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Integrative Medicine

HOLY BASIL
Herbal Stress-Control

By RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR

It all sounds like regular workaday stuff. But, stress sure drives us mad; sometimes wild. Beyond the surface, stress carries a hidden threat: high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, ulcers, and neck, or back, pain. What to do? Try nature; try holy basil.

Here’s a typical routine for a working mother. She reaches home from office and, when she opens the door, it is bedlam -- the kids are screaming, the house is in a state of mess. In the midst of chaos, all she hears are just three words: “What’s for supper?”

It is, sometimes, double-trouble too -- confusion at home, worsened by the boss not being happy for some reason, and you think your career is on the firing line.

The routine does not end here. It begins afresh. As you wake up at 6.30, in the morning, you get your kids dressed up for school, pack their lunch box, and drop them at the bus stop. Or, you buzz off to leave your tiny tot at the baby-sitter. You are through with everything -- and, when you leave home shortly, you are stuck in a major traffic jam. You reach your office, or meeting, a wee bit late. As you mumble a few words, which nobody is waiting to hear, you are pushed to the wall. It’s a call from the school, or baby-sitter -- your child is sick, and needs to be taken home.

You never thought this was stress. It sure is. And, it happens day-after-day. When you can’t take it any longer, or get totally worked up, you are lost with yourself. To bring some sort of balance to a routine gone haywire, you just gobble a pill, or gulp a refreshing cup of steaming coffee -- to bring tranquillity to yourself, not to the stress that has overtaken you.

You may think of a host of other scenarios; they all relate themselves to stress.

We are sure a stressed society. The more we try to do too much, the more we know we have not done enough. Your boss may sound you: “Well, the project is coming up okay, but not in the manner we’d expected.” This is just the trigger your stress wants to blow your top.

As stress builds up within you, there is not much you can do -- stress has already become destructively chronic. This is not a pleasant feeling -- it is distressing. As a matter of fact, studies at the National Institutes of Health, US, approximate 90 per cent of all illnesses -- mental and physical -- are caused, or provoked, by stress.

Contemporary Stress: Hidden Dangers

In today’s scenario, stress has become more invasive, unrelenting and menacing -- mainly because it emanates principally from psychological factors, not so much from physical fear. It corresponds to our immediate reaction on which we have no power. This was, in the past, thought to be beneficial to the body. The idea that facilitated primitive man’s ability to deal with physical challenges may still remain viable, but the face of stress has changed in our situation, determined as our conditions are with new stressors.

Stress Response

  • Stressful responses allow the heart rate and blood pressure to mount. This results in an increased flow of blood to the brain, which also improves decision-making.
  • Stress leads to increased blood sugar levels; this helps deliver more fuel for energy, thanks to the breakdown of glycogen, fat and protein depots in the body.
  • As blood is thrust away from the gut – because, it is not immediately needed for digestion -- to the large muscles of the arms and legs, it provides us more power to steer ourselves out of danger.
  • Stress also prevents blood loss from internal bleeding, because it helps clotting to follow more quickly.

In our tizzy world, our nature of stress is not related to facing a lion, or an enemy attack on our fort, or defences, as it happened during mediaeval times. We are today confronted by any number of emotional threats. To take a peek at a handful of commonplace stress situations: traffic jams, verbal, if not fist, fights with an errant neighbour, or at the workplace, or even within the family.

But, the fact remains: our bodies continue to respond as our ancestors did in ancient times. This is called the “fight-or-flight” response. Curiously, they are not as helpful as they once were. They are, in our times, potentially dangerous and risky. When we go through a range of stresses, day-in and day-out, on an unrelenting basis, the resultant effects are also not too difficult to identify: high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, ulcers, and neck, or low back, pain. You name it -- and, they are all there within us, not outside.

Defining Stress

From the time Hans Seyle, a pioneering stress researcher, defined stress as a “psycho-physiological [mind-body] event that takes place when our system is overwhelmed by any experience: physical, mental or emotional,” stress has only intensified. Put simply, stress is a completely internal phenomenon -- a reaction by our mind and body to an event. In other words, it reflects how we see and deduce events.

Trigger Surplus

Stress-related ailments are triggered by cortisol, the stress hormone. Our mind and body are engineered to respond to stress by producing a gush of chemicals and hormones. When stress hormones -- cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine -- are instantly launched into production by the adrenal glands, the pituitary gland responds. It pumps out other hormones and stirs up the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This is the “fight-or-flight” response we referred to earlier. It is, indeed, a beneficial response, because this is what gives us the facility to swiftly respond to serious threats -- like getting out of the way of a speeding car, or holding your kids back at the last instant before they contemplate to run across the road.

Getting all this done day-in and day-out can lead to a full-blown stress response, because we don’t need the “fight-or-flight” response for just about every event in life. For instance, you’re late for work, and you can’t find your desk key, or your boss is in a bad mood, or you find your wallet gone -- they are not life-threatening events.

Long, continual stress reactions lead to a psycho-physiological response-equation. This triggers chronic and excess cortisol levels -- a response that can trigger high blood pressure, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, tension, frustration and anger. It can also slow down the immune system and increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stomach ulcer.

New research has found that cortisol can also lead to obesity -- the first symptom of cortisol surplus. Other signs include a tired, fatigued feeling, or irritation, not to speak of high blood pressure. Cortisol can be extremely toxic to brain cells, and can even cause brain cells to die, especially in the wake of long, continued spells of extreme stress. When we grow old, our natural ability to switch off the cortisol “reaction” slows down. This is the basis for its elevated levels, which won’t do us any good.

Cortisol is not a bad agent, though -- it is, like cholesterol, an important component of our body, performing important functions. It plays a keyl role in the maintenance of adequate blood pressure; it also helps release blood sugar for increased responsiveness during stress. When it is continually elevated, cortisol can cause damaging effects on the body -- these include thinning of bones, diabetes, inflammation, cancer, fat deposits around our waist, even in the presence of a good dietary regimen. Finally, it can lead to a weakened immune system, which can shake the foundations of our body’s defence mechanisms.

What Increases Cortisol

  • Smoking, coffee, and alcohol.
  • Lack of exercise, and insufficient sleep.
  • Sedentary lifestyle habits. This can lead to continued stress, and the creation of free radicals, which can cause chronic degenerative disorders such as heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, aging, and cancer.

What do you do in the face of stress? Try a new way out. The common practice of reaching for a steaming cup of coffee is no relief -- in reality, it is an invite for trouble. A cup of coffee can trigger cortisol levels to rise to above normal levels. The escalation is sustained for almost 48 hours. When cortisol goes up, blood sugar levels rise, and inflammation levels also shoot up -- enough reason for cortisol to be linked with increased risk of high blood pressure, cancer, premature aging, and diabetes, all leading maladies of our time.

Bravo, Holy Basil!

There are several ways for one to keep cortisol on hold. Naturally. Exercise, meditation, relaxation techniques, and visualisation are extremely useful methods. However, there is something Mother Nature has that no other remedy can offer. Holy basil, or “tulsi” [in Sanskrit] can help bring down your cortisol levels -- without the adverse side-effects of prescription medications.

Holy basil, research evidences, modulates our body’s physiological and also psychological responses to stress. Revered in ayurveda, the ancient system of Indian medicine, for over 5,000 years, holy basil has also been praised in several ancient systems of medicine such as Greek, Roman, Siddha and Unani. It is today prescribed mainly because of its many impressive medicinal properties.

It goes without saying that chronic anxiety and depression sufferers experience more stress than normal healthy individuals. The two severely hinder normal coping skills and even unimportant problems can appear too large, or difficult to handle. When people are better able to cope with stress, their stress-dictated conditions also improve. Life becomes less stressful. Research has demonstrated that holy basil can radically and speedily improve anxiety and depression in many individuals. Research has also shown that holy basil decreases the amount of cortisol released during stress.

How It Works

Holy basil, studies suggest, reduces stress and cortisol levels better than any other herbal or nutritional remedy, and also without harmful side-effects. It works by inhibiting COX-2 inflammatory enzymes -- enzymes which play an active role in inflammatory states. Besides this, holy basil has the capacity to increase physical and emotional endurance. As already mentioned, it lowers blood sugar levels, which, in turn, reduces your fondness for sweets. By reducing cortisol, it also helps in weight loss.

While chronically high cortisol levels are extremely dangerous and affect our physiological and psychological response to stress, holy basil is able to offset many of these effects. As you know, chronic stress does not allow us to use glucose. When this happens, it is natural that excess glucose may get stored as fat, around our waistline. Obesity is a significant risk factor for a large number of diseases. It is rightly said -- the longer the belt, the shorter the life. This is not all. High blood glucose levels can significantly enhance the risk of Type-2 diabetes.

Researchers have found that inflammation plays a key role in the development of heart disease and many other chronic disorders including cancer. Holy basil helps fight inflammation since it contains powerful anti-inflammatory agents called COX-2 inhibitors, which inhibit COX-2 inflammatory enzymes, as already cited. Another reason why inflammation can be so destructive is due to the upsurge of oxygen free radicals. Holy basil counters the problem by providing a rich supply of anti-oxidants.

Awareness Expanded

Holy basil, according to ayurveda, facilitates expanded states of awareness. It, on this score alone, is quite unlike other herbs that improve mood or tranquillise [e.g., kava and passion flower]. It promotes internal balance, and brings into focus a comprehensive perspective that characterises higher states of our consciousness. Stress, as it is rightly said, is fashioned or side-stepped by our inner reaction to a given situation. Holy basil nurtures and quietens the cause of stress at its roots -- in our mind. In so doing, it helps us to prevent stress before it gets the better of us.

Dose

Two tablets/capsules [Himalaya Pure Herbs; 500 mg], daily, best taken in the midst of a meal with a glass of water. Speak to your therapist for correct dosages, best suited to your individual needs or requirements.

Coping With Pressure

Nobody is exempt from stress. Stress is a feeling of tension. It can be both emotional and physical. The former usually occurs when situations are considered difficult or insurmountable. However, not everyone responds to stress in the same manner -- also, different people judge different situations as stressful.

Physical stress, on the other hand, refers to a physiological, or functional, reaction of the body to various triggers. Post-operative surgical pain is an example of physical stress. However, this type of stress can also lead to emotional stress, frequently experienced as physical discomfort [e.g., stomach pain].

How one manages stress, or is advised to, relates to various efforts being used to control and reduce tension -- the outcome of a stressful situation. This can also be fine-tuned to suit individual needs. The programme below has been formulated with such an idea in mind -- you could use it as a base and/or adapt it differently, if you so wish. Either way, you will be able to deal with stress better.

“Stress” To Relax

  • Try to develop a positive attitude, or thinking.
  • Try to refocus on the negative to bring positive thoughts.
  • You ought to make a determined effort to reduce negative feelings.
  • Try to bring in some enjoyment in your activity, or take a break.
  • Exercise is one of the best remedies available to reduce stress. Introduce yourself to an individualised programme of 20-25 minutes of aerobic activity, 3-4 times a week. It would be good idea if you have a regular slot, or time devoted, for the activity, including the type, frequency, and level of physical activity. You need to make it a habit. If you find it boring to go through your physical exercise, enrol a friend or a buddy. Also, remember: aerobic exercises are easy to do; you do not have to join a gym. If you find time a major constraint, a twenty-minute brisk walk will also do the trick.
  • Nutrition is just as important: eat a well-balanced diet. Also, increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat. Eat appropriately, and on a regular schedule. Take vitamin C [500-1,000 mg, daily]; also, vitamin E [200 mg].
  • Try to interact socially with people, if you don’t. Because, even when you are extremely stressed out, you will feel quite relaxed talking to friends.
  • Reach out to people, exchange a smile. A smile takes you a mile!
  • Nurture yourself, amuse yourself, seek yourself, and also others. Take time for personal interests and hobbies. Also, your family.
  • Use relaxation/meditation techniques. Alternatively, you can use guided imagery, visualisation, music etc., Explore if you are not sure; something is going to work for you.
  • You need to know yourself; only then you will know the “Real You.”
  • Read a humorous book, or watch a slap-stick comedy [Oliver-Hardy, Charlie Chaplin et al].
  • Just laugh your stresses away.

 

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