Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Your health: Plant medicine for stress support

3 comments
University can be a stressful time, try drinking at least two cups of herbal tea a day. Photo / iStock
University can be a stressful time, try drinking at least two cups of herbal tea a day. Photo / iStock

I'm a psychology student and I recently had a class where we talked about suicide and depression in men, and how it is a lot more common than people think because men so rarely want to talk about it. This made me think of my friends, as university is such a stressful time. I'd like to put together a 'self-care' pack for them - do you have any tips on what to include?

Thank you for your question - what a kind thing to do. Unfortunately, often talking about our feelings can be frowned upon or ridiculed (especially for men), so it is a lovely thing to offer your friends and let them know you're there to listen.

Plant medicine offers a variety of options to help support people through stress, low mood and also the associated fatigue.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) can help by reducing stress, anxiety and insomnia for those that are suffering from stress. This is important as these three things can lead to low mood or depression.

A 2010 study using lemon balm extract on those suffering from moderate anxiety and sleep related disorders found that there was a reduction in anxiety symptoms by 15%, insomnia by 42%, with 95% of subjects responding positively to the treatment.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) has been used traditionally to help with anxiety, mild depression and sleep disturbances. A double blind randomised cross over study showed that a combination of Passionflower, St John's Wort and Valerian helped with sleep, mood and also supported the central nervous system.

The main use of St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) has often been to help with depression; its properties also make it a great option to assist with mood and anxiety. A 2010 study found that St John's Wort was actually enhanced by the inclusion of Passionflower. Low doses of St John's Wort provided an anti-depressive effect alongside Passionflower which made this a great combination to try for mild low mood.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has a powerful effect on human steroid hormone function and it can help the body to adapt to physical and mental stress as it modulates cortisol. Licorice helps people who have low cortisol, which often causes exhaustion. Exhaustion occurs because the adrenal glands in the body have been overworked in response to chronic and unrelenting stress, which university students often experience, particularly when they have a high workload or during an examination period. It is beneficial for chronic fatigue syndrome too, which affects mood and stress levels.

What I would suggest you do for a 'stress pack' would be to include a medicinal tea that incorporates all of the above herbs, and ask your friends to have at least 2 cups a day. They could make up a thermos and take that to University to drink throughout the day. Another option could be to talk to them about the benefits of deep breathing; there are great apps out there that they can download and use daily on their way to University or before they go to sleep. Deep breathing can help to calm anxious people and can also calm an overactive mind that may be contributing to low mood.

Eating well by including a wide range of fruits and vegetables will ensure that your friends get optimum nutrition and antioxidants through their diet to support their mood and immunity. Also making sure that they are doing some form of exercise, which can be as easy as walking to University with friends or going to the park to kick a ball around, is important as getting the circulation moving helps to support a stable mood.

Lastly, encouraging your friends to talk about stress and low mood can be difficult but it is important to make sure that people know that they have someone to talk to and that they know that they are cared for.

As with all medical conditions, it is important that if any of your friends feel that they are not coping and need assistance that they seek medical attention and support. Mental health can be complex and it is essential the right professionals are informed.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

June is Men's Health Month, an international awareness month that aims to raise the awareness of preventable health problems and encourage early detection and treatment. Supported by the not-for-profit Men's Health Trust, the theme for men's health month 2016 is #MenStartTalking. Visit www.menshealthmonth.co.nz for more information.

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Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Read more by Sandra Clair

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