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Stress Busters: Relaxing Naturally

Relaxing Naturally With Herbs
Nature has provided us with a number of safe, effective, and nonaddictive compounds that relax body and mind. These herbs are readily available and inexpensive, and most have passed the true test of time. In fact, most of our pharmaceuticals are actually plant-based compounds that have been modified and refined for more specific actions. Unlike drugs that simply attack symptoms, herbs work more subtly to promote the body's natural functions. Still, herbs can have powerful effects on the body, so if you are pregnant or nursing, always consult with a physician before taking any herb.

Herbs are most effective when used as close to their natural form as possible. Extracts of herbs are "standardized" for the so-called "active ingredients." However, herbs contain a variety of compounds that work together synergistically, so utilizing the whole plant is often more effective. When we separate out the "active ingredient," as in the pharmaceutical model, we may be losing a significant portion of the plant's action.

A case in point is kava. Studies of this plant repeatedly find that the best effects are derived from a whole extract, containing not only a combination of the active fat-soluble compounds kavalactones but also other supporting factors that are yet to be studied. The same is true for St. John's wort. Hypericin, long believed to be the active antidepressant ingredient, has recently been upstaged by hyperforin. The whole plant extract may work better than either of these isolated compounds, indicating an internal synergy. Lastly, concentrating a substance often removes its protective compounds, thus increasing the possibility of side effects, as is the case with the herb ephedra. Another remarkable aspect of herbs is that they combine several different healing properties that may act simultaneously on different systems of the body. Thus, kava can both relax muscles and relieve topical pain, while St. John's wort can ease depression while enhancing the immune system.

In Germany, where doctors can prescribe herbal as well as synthetic products, they frequently choose the more benign – and equally effective – herbs to do the job.

The most popular and effective natural relaxants are listed below.


  • Kava
  • Valerian
  • Hops
  • Passionflower
Amino Acids
  • GABA
  • Taurine
Let's explore how these substances work and why they are not only effective but also much better for you than alcohol, tranquilizers, or cannabis.

Kava: The Pacific Herb
Kava, or Piper methysticum, which means "intoxicating pepper," has been consumed as a social and ceremonial drink by Pacific Islanders for more than 3,000 years. The first description of this tall, lush plant with heart-shaped leaves came to the West from Captain Cook, on his celebrated voyages through the South Seas. To this day, when village elders or others come together for significant meetings, they begin with an elaborate kava ceremony. Kava also is used to welcome visiting dignitaries: Pope Paul, Queen Elizabeth II, and President Lyndon B. Johnson all were treated to a ceremonial drink at one time. A perfect icebreaker, kava eases tension and allows freer communication. It makes you warm and friendly, and as one early writer put so well, "You cannot hate with kava in you." Less formally, it is drunk daily as a mild after-work inebriant in the islands' ubiquitous kava bars or "nakamals." For some colorful kava stories, see Chris Kilham's book Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise.

The root is used both for the drink and, in dried form, for a relaxing herbal supplement, mostly for export. Currently, kava is used in Europe and increasingly in the United States to counteract stress, anxiety, and insomnia. But kava is turning out to be increasingly popular, as in the South Pacific, simply as a natural high.

Research shows that kava often works just as well as the benzodiazepines. Unlike these prescription drugs, however, you don't need to keep increasing the dose to get the same effect, there are no withdrawal problems when you stop taking it, and a low daytime dose will relax you without making you sleepy. In fact, kava can actually enhance concentration. Research shows that, on a word recognition test, it improves reaction time and performance.

This makes it easy to use for specific anxiety-producing situations such as a job interview or a final exam, where you want to be both calm and alert. In higher doses, kava is a natural sleep enhancer. Unlike benzodiazepines, though, it does not suppress REM (rapid eye movement, which occurs during dreaming) sleep, essential to our emotional, mental, and physical well-being. And there's no morning hangover, either.


From NATURAL HIGHS: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind/Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good by Hyla Cass and Patrick Holford. Copyright Hyla Cass, M.D., and Patrick Holford. Used by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit www.penguin.com. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.

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