Ancient Herbs like Turmeric Can perhaps Cure Modern Stress
Modern life is so demanding that everybody of military age is highly stressed. We are stressed because we struggle with demands that may be related to finances, work, relationship between wife and husbands and so on. Most stresses are not caused by life-threatening situations. Trying to keep up with the Joneses in the society also causes a lot of stress.
By modern stress or modern pressure, I mean the stress caused by modern style of working and living. It’s an emotional response that causes physical symptoms. ‘Modern stresses’ could be translated in Manipuri as matamgi pukning langna taksinba – long-winded words that would break the teeth of most modern Manipuris. There are no suitable words. It’s a bit like ‘train’ translated in Hindi as loha patha gamani.
A recent study published in Pharmaceutical science journal, has demonstrated the beneficial effect of ancient herbs, such as turmeric through ginseng to maca in treating fatigue caused by stress, and in increasing mental attention, endurance and capacity for work (energy) – all against a background of stress. They help to energise someone who says: “Ah, I couldn’t be bothered”.
These plants are called “adaptogens” – a new suspiciously-sounding name; probably meaning plants containing hormone-like substances that can help the body to adapt. Names include turmeric, Haldi in Hindi, yaingang in Manipuri, native to India; ginseng available in East Asia and North America; while maca is a plant cultivated in the Andes of Peruvian mountains. For hundreds of years these plants have traditionally been used there, to balance several important body systems. They knew by experience that they were beneficial.
Adaptogens are a group of herbs whose ingredients help to improve your well-being by stimulating the adrenal gland in our body. Doctors know that Adrenal gland manipulates hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that gives us the energy for “fight or flight” reactions at times of emergency. This is when you have to choose to fight your enemy or run away to save your life.
I recall a scholarly lesson in vernacular in my secondary school. A skinny Meitei man finding his house on fire, ran into the house and brought out a large gunny bag of paddy, which normally he couldn’t lift.
Researchers in this scientific study believe that adaptogens trigger the adrenal gland to discharge hormones in response to stress. Traditionally, Meitei, Chinese and ancient Indians, for centuries, have used herbs to treat a variety of minor illnesses.
Turmeric, among a caboodle of indigenous herbs, has been used for donkey years in India for colouring and flavouring food to make it appetising, and for some unknown health benefits, such as helping the digestive system. It has also been used very effectively as a herbal antiseptic/ antibacterial medicine when applied topically over scratches and wounds. At my ear-piercing ceremony at the age of five, I remember the mayang barber rubbing freshly cut yaingang on my ear lobes before he pierced them with a needle and a black thread.
Thirty years ago, I had writer’s cramp in my right hand and couldn’t even write prescriptions. With all the medicines that I had at my disposal, I couldn’t ease it in any way. An Indian woman patient of mine, put a poultice of turmeric and some other herbs on the back of my hand and bandaged it.
Overnight it relieved the pain and cramp that never returned.
Turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine, mostly for skin diseases, though it has been claimed that it purifies body and mind, and helps lungs to expel kafa (phlegm) as an expectorant.
In 1991, as the President of the British Medical Association (BMA) of my city, I chose the subject of ‘Ancient Indian treatise on Medicine’ as my customary presidential lecture. The following is an extract:
The Ayurvedic system of medicine deals with ‘Dosha’ (fault or disease), ‘Dhatu’(tissue) and ‘Mala’(waste products). These are known as 3 “humors” that I can only translate as functional entities (bio-energy centres). The 4th humor is said to be “rakta” (blood).
The basic philosophy of Ayurveda is based on ‘panchabhoota (five elements)theory’. The theory states that the universe as well as the human body are made up of five elements: (1) air (vayu); (2) space (akash); (3) Earth (prithvi); (4) fire (agni); and (5) water (jal). These elements combine to form the controlling forces or biological humours called Doshas
These doshas are responsible for sustaining the living body in its normal state and are of three types: vat (air & spacer), pit (bile) and kaph (phlegm). They act on the tissues of the body known as the dhatu, and help in body’s physiological functions. The waste products of the metabolism in the body are known as mala.
According to Ayurvedists, the medicinal value of turmeric is often mixed with Hindu mythology. It helps to balance vat, pit, and kaph. It improves the circulatory system known as rakta dhatu. Believers often carve a likeness of Ganesh on a whole turmeric root to invoke his blessings to overcome life’s pitfalls and lead to prosperity. In popular yogic traditions, it is taken to cleanse the various chakras and to strengthen body ligaments of joints.
Customarily, Indian brides are rubbed on their face and body, by her family, a paste of turmeric to make the skin glow [like that of goddess Durga] two days before the wedding, and washed it one day before the wedding – a fun-filled pre-wedding ritual, known as Haldi ceremony.
A number of studies have also demonstrated that adaptogens can provide a rationale for this anti-fatigue effect at a molecular level. The herbs are said to work by naturally regulating the body’s release of stress hormone cortisol, bringing up and down depending on whether the adrenal gland is overproducing or underproducing it. That is, these herbs can balance body’s responses to stress, and thus allow you to sleep better and be more active in the mornings, and regulate your mood.
As a doctor, I’m sure there is a grain of truth in it. Doctors know that if a person is given cortisol or steroids in enough dosage, his or her moods become elevated, known as euphoria. Researchers say the adaptogens affect adrenal pathways of stress response and make you adapt to whatever you are struggling with.
As is always, there are people who disagree. The ‘Clean Eating brigade’ is dismissive of health foods and supplements like vitamins. They think about them in terms of ‘inflammation’ within the body and how certain food can affect your body’s pH (acid). They encourage gluten-free diet and avoidance of food that cause acidity. There are other food-faddists. A couple of years ago in Mumbai, there was a craze by the ‘clean eating brigade’, advocating eating kale from Pune, quinoa from Uttarakhand. Quinoa (pronounced keenwah is used as rice substitute -gluten-free), and cacao beans (basis of cocoa and chocolate) from Mexico.
Many adaptogens can be found in their plant forms and are readily available in supermarkets or as supplements, such as Korean ginseng that was very popular a few years ago. I used to take them, climbing on the bandwagon.
A recent systemic view by the Cochrane Collaboration, has assessed the effects of adaptogens like ginseng supplements. It concluded that, “it appears to have some beneficial effects on cognition, behaviour, and quality of life” but “more vigorously designed studies are needed for conclusive proof of effectiveness”.
Currently, the craze is for adaptogens-rich ginseng and turmeric blended powders, which are lionised as gate-away to relieving modern stress. They are selling like hot dogs. They are easily available and can be infused in hot water or, blended in smoothies (drinks made from pureed fruit, yoghurt, or cream).
In India, some other adaptogens ie ashgwandha (Indian ginseng) was available as a popular Ayurvedic herb medicine. It was thought to have a soothing effect on body and mind. Maca (a root similar to ginger) native to Andes, known to increase energy, strength and libido was available in Peru. Cordyceps is an energy-boosting mushroom, traditionally grown in China on the bodies of caterpillars, now cultured the lab, is available.
Well! How would you know you are stressed? To start with, before you buy and take these herbs? You don’t. You can have all kinds of symptoms. You need a doctor, who you trust. They are trained to tell you, if you do have stress. You might be having stress for months and years, without you realising it. ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome’ (IBS) is a very common stress-related gut problem. IBS ie simply ‘irritable gut’ doesn’t mean anything to anybody. It’s so named because doctor researchers can’t find a single physical cause to name it.
However, there are some common signs and symptoms of stress, one or a few of which, you could be familiar with. They are insomnia, tension headache that cannot be eased with painkillers, lack of attention span (trouble in concentrating), persistent tiredness, and being irritable for no reason. Your head hairs may begin to fall out.
Behind the scene inside your body, stress for any reason, causes the adrenal glands (two) to produce cortisol (also adrenaline), which normally give you energy to deal with the ‘fight or flight’ response. But, if cortisol is overproduced due to constant stress, it causes many harmful effects in the body, including severe fatigue, muscle weakness, headache, low mood and depression. This is the situation where the researchers claim that, taking adaptogens would help to balance your cortisol level.
Remember we are talking of science. One should take with a pinch of salt, until their findings are reproduced over and over again and proven to be really effective. However, to give the benefit of doubt, there is no harm in having a go, if you feel ‘stressed’.