We’re all in a bit of a state of “high alert” these days. Given the current situation all over the world, it’s completely understandable that we’re feeling more anxious and likely finding it difficult to relax. I find myself waking every morning and thinking “was that a dream?” and then realize that, nope, it’s actually happening. I feel a little like we’re living in a Harry Potter movie where everyone is afraid to run into “He Who Shall Not Be Named”…
…but instead of Voldemort, it’s Caronavirus we’re afraid to run into!
Living in a heightened state of worry and anxiety is not good for anyone, but it’s especially problematic right now because of how it affects the immune system. When we’re stressed or worried, we activate out sympathetic nervous system – our “fight or flight” response. A simple explanation of a rather complex system, activating our sympathetic nervous system stimulates the release of cortisol and suppresses the immune system – definitely not what we want during a pandemic! Another problem with having this mode activated is that our bodies cannot heal when we’re in “fight or flight”. The sympathetic nervous system is all about saving us from immediate doom… for example, if we were being chased by a tiger, that system kicks in to make sure the only systems operating in the body are those that will save us from the tiger – i.e. anything we need to run! It’s great security system to have in the event of something catastrophic and life threatening, but the trouble is that our body switches into that mode even when we’re stressed by something not catastrophic…it can’t decipher between mild or major stress, so the response is the same. When we’re stressed or anxious (fight or flight), the body shuts down functions like healing and digestion because they’re not needed if we’re in danger of being eaten. However, those functions are extremely important for our immune system, which is why it’s so important for us to be able to switch off our sympathetic nervous system and instead, activate our parasympathetic nervous system – to allow the body to focus on “rest and restore”.
As much as possible, we want to be mindful of which nervous system is activated and focus our efforts on activating our parasympathetic nervous system as much as we can and being in this “rest and restore” mode. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system allows proper function of digestion, healing, and detoxification – all things we need to support our immune system. When we’re feeling anxious or worried, we might feel like it’s impossible to calm down, but it’s actually very easy to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic and you can’t have both nervous systems activated at once. Deep breathing, laughing, meditation, dancing, and forest bathing (or just being outside) are all ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and get into rest and restore mode. Let me just say, I’ve put them all to good use during the past 11 days of our
house arrest quarantine! () Another thing I find especially helpful for relaxation is drinking herbal tea.
Just the act of drinking tea is relaxing and peaceful. Curling up with a warm drink is perfect for warming the soul during the damp spring weather we tend to get here in Nova Scotia. Beyond the soothing effects of the warm liquid, there are many herbal teas that are excellent for physically (and mentally) relaxaing the body, helping to activate our parasympathetic nervous system and getting the body into rest and restore mode quite easily – exactly what we need during this crazy time of uncertainty. Here are five of my favourite herbal teas:
- Chamomile: Most of us are aware of the calming effects of a warm cup of chamomile tea – it’s often the “point of entry” into the world of herbalism for many folks. Made from dried chamomile flowers, this herbal tea is used to relieve feelings of anxiety and can often be helpful for easing insomnia. Chamomile has become one of the most trusted plants in herbalism, for good reason!
- Peppermint: Although I tend to think of peppermint as a more uplifting herb, its menthol content is a natural muscle relaxer. It’s also an excellent digestive herb, making it an good tea to brew after dinner to help you digest, relax, and unwind in the evening to set you up for a restful sleep.
- Marshmallow Root: This herb is widely used to help with gut healing, but I added it to this list because of the close connection between gut health and anxiety. Many people find when they regularly drink marshmallow root tea, they see a noticeable improvement in their anxiety (coincidence…? I think not!). I’ve been finding the mild flavour of this tea to be especially soothing during the time we’ve been on quarantine. I highly recommend making this a staple in your tea stash – it will help strengthen gut health, which is key to a strong immune system and mental health.
- Skullcap: The nerve-calming powers of this herb makes it a favourite herbal tea for easing anxiety and helping to calm the body. Although there are many herbs that have similar effects, skullcap is especially useful because it promotes relaxation without making you sleepy – it’s perfect to have before a big meeting or presentation! Skullcap tea has been my go-to during the day whenever I’m starting to feel antsy or “stuck” (which has happened more than a few times over the past two weeks!). I also love that it’s a caffeine-free hot drink option.
- Tulsi: I saved my favourite for last! Also known as “holy basil”, tulsi is an Ayurvedic herb native to India that is loved for its ability to help the body adapt to stress…HELLO! It enhances the body’s protective function, increasing its resistance to physical, emotional, or environmental stress. We’ve been drinking tulsi tea in our house for several years – my kids have found it especially useful when they’re writing exams/midterms at school. Lately, just to change things up a bit, we’ve been buying tulsi teas that also include other healing herbs like lemon, ginger, and lavender.
(*Be sure to read the ingredient list of any herbal tea you try and check with your healthcare provider if you’re taking any medications for any possible contraindications between the herbs and your meds.*)
At the risk of sounding like a broken record with these posts, I’m going to say it again…we need to do everything we can to keep our immune system strong – now more than ever. Stress suppresses the immune system, but it’s impossible to avoid it, so we have to find ways to control and counter the stress response in our body. We need to keep our stress response in check and maintain balanse within the body and herbal teas provide an easy, relatively inexpensive, and oh-so-soothing way to do that.
What are your favourite herbal you drink to help you relax?