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Support a Healthy Stress Response with Botanicals

by Dr. Tori Hudson, N.D.

Stress is so much a part our daily lives that most of us don’t take it seriously. Yet while common, stress can have serious effects on your health. It can impair your ability to make good decisions, sleep, maintain a healthy weight, and recover from illness. It can even disrupt your hormones and accelerate the aging process. Fortunately, there are a number of botanicals that can support your body as it responds to stress in a healthy way.

The Three Phases of Stress

There are three phase of stress. The first two phases are acute, meaning short-lived, while the third phase is chronic, meaning persisting over a prolonged period of time.

1. Acute, non-recurring and mild response
This is the mildest form of stress. In this phase, you may suffer from stress for a short time, but you are not incapacitated by it. You need support, but you are able to function normally.

2. Acute, recurring and poor recovery
In the second phase, your stress is recurring and you may take longer to recover. Your sleep can become affected and you may be feeling nervous and uneasy. If this is the case, ask your doctor for lab tests to evaluate your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

3. Chronic, prominent symptoms and poor recovery
By the third stage, your stress has become chronic. Your symptoms are prominent and it takes you a long time to recover because your adrenal glands are most likely exhausted. You may also have unusual sleep patterns, sleep apnea, and excessive fatigue. Chronic stress can also impair your short-term memory.

Since chronic stress can lead to serious diseases — including heart disease and depression — it is best that you consult your healthcare practitioner on methods of coping if you are feeling continually overwhelmed and debilitated by it. However, everyone suffers from acute stress (both phase 1 and phase 2) now and again.

Botanicals for Acute Stress

Herbs have been used for centuries by cultures all over the world to relieve acute stress. For phase 1, ashwagandha and rhodiola are good choices. For phase 2, consider these two herbs plus passionflower and holy basil.


Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which means it can help the body to adapt to stress by increasing or decreasing biochemicals as needed to produce a state of balance.* A 2008 clinical trial showed ashwagandha helped reduce people’s subjective perceptions of stress, as well as their physical symptoms.* For example, it decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol; maintained pulse, blood pressure, and blood sugar already within normal limits; and improved markers of liver and heart health.*

Ashwagandha is recommended in the following dosages:

• 3 to 6 grams of the dried root per day
• 6 to 15 ml of a 1:2 fluid extract per day
• 300 to 500 mg of an extract standardized to contain 1.5% withanolides per day


Rhodiola is another adaptogen that can help your body adapt to occasional stress.* In the 1960s, the Soviet Union researched rhodiola in secret as a way to improve the performance of their Olympic athletes and cosmonauts.*

Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human trials have demonstrated rhodiola’s ability to elevate mood, counter stress-induced fatigue, increase mental performance and concentration, and support healthy sleep.* This may be because rhodiola decreases levels of cortisol.*

Rhodiola is recommended in the following dosages:

To support a positive mood: 170 mg or 340 mg twice per day for six weeks
To energize: 200 mg three times per day
To promote healthy sleep: 600 mg per day


Native American healers and 19th century herbalists traditionally used passionflower to gently induce sleep.* New research indicates it also has daytime benefits. A double-blind, randomized clinical trial found passionflower was effective at reducing feelings of nervousness and tension, with fewer side effects than other treatments.*

Passionflower is recommended in the following dosages:

• Dried herb: 2 grams, three to four times per day
• Infusion: 2 grams in 150 ml of water, three to four times per day
• Fluid extract, 1:1 or 1:2 (g/ml): 2 ml, three to four times per day
• Liquid Phyto-Cap form: Two capsules, three to four times per day
• Tincture 1:5 (g/ml) extract, three to four times per day

Holy Basil

Considered a sacred herb by Hindus, holy basil is often planted around Hindu temples. Another adaptogen, it is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to relieve occasional stress.*

A clinical study of several active compounds found in holy basil demonstrated the herb combats stress by maintaining blood sugar levels already within normal limits, balancing corticosterone (a hormone involved in stress response) and creatine kinase (a marker of heart health), and regulating the growth of the adrenal glands (which secrete steroid hormones).*

Holy basil is recommended in the following dosage:

300 to 600 mg per day in divided doses (does not need to be taken with food)

Ease Your Stress Naturally

Stress — even your everyday, garden-variety stress — can have so many deleterious effects on your health, it just doesn’t make sense to try to tough it out without help. There are many safe and effective botanicals you can take to alleviate the effects of acute stress. And that’s good news, because a less stressed you will be a healthier, happier you.