Foundations of health during Covid

As we as a society/culture/world enter into, and possibly out of, quarantine, the idea of “new normal” is being batted around. What was normal before the arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 virus may be replaced in the short or long term with new ways of living in the world. Our routines are being shifted, if not upended, and that has important ramifications for our health and wellbeing. Some level of uneasiness and anxiety about these changes is the rule, not the exception, and as a integrative medicine physician I find myself reviewing the foundations of health as they related to individuals and their health challenges, home life, and goals for wellness.

Although it is difficult to generalize, most people I have been talking to mention stress, anxiety, and disordered sleep as particular challenges right now. Ensuring adequate support from one’s family, community and health care team (the latter probably via video platforms!), I then make sure that someone is thinking about mind-body connections and practices, achieving basic movement/exercise goals, and optimizing nutrition. Once I’ve checked those health boxes, so to speak, I like to muse about dietary supplements and herbals that can have a role in these turbulent times.

The neurotransmitter GABA

For fear of reducing the tragedies and paradigm shifts in covid-19 times down to a single chemical, I do think that it’s interesting that many of the herbals I find useful now seem to have some predilection for affecting the neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the brain. I think about valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), a well-known sedative, anxiolytic, and sleep aid, which promotes the release of GABA from neurons and causes a calming effect in the brain.

Many people prefer capsules of valerian due to the odor from a root decoction, but I have been surprised by the number of people that don’t mind its off scent. As with all of these treatments, it is extremely important to check in with your health care provider to avoid untoward effects or plant-pharmaceutical interactions. Valerian will also, as a sedative, add to the calming effects of sedative pharmaceuticals and alcohol, also a central nervous system depressant. If an herb has an effect, it may also have an adverse effect, so know what you’re doing and seek expert opinion as you begin your regimen.

Valerian and GABA, and other herbal medicines

Valerian is not your only GABA-affecting plant that falls into the category of calming, or relaxing nervines (herbalism terminology). Add to that list, with plant parts and form of administration detailed, aromatherapy with lavender flowers (Lavandula angustifolia), infusion or tincture of lemon balm leaves (Melissa officinalis), tincture or decoction of kava kava rhizomes (Piper methysticum), tincture or infusion of hops strobiles (seed cones) (Humulus lupulus; by the way, one my favorite botanical names to pronounce! Try it!), infusion of above-ground parts of passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), and tincture or infusion of above-ground parts of skullcap (Scuttelaria laterifolia). Again, fascinating to think that these plants all lead to calming of the central nervous system via some effects on GABA.

Consult your herbal expert

They may, in some cases, have other physiological effects on other brain chemicals or body systems, which lends a uniqueness to their clinical use. That is to say, your herbal expert can work with you to find the correct herb or herbs to help nudge you toward calmness, to promote better sleep, and/or to take the edge of the otherwise sharp sting we are feeling from the life changes, and societal stresses. On that note, I wish you all well in your pursuit of wellness and stillness, and may the information about these plants add to that healing journey for you.