Stress, cognition and herbal therapy

WORDS: Tamara Welsh | Western Herbal Medicine

What comes to mind when you think about stress and its impact on cognition?

Interestingly, short-term episodes of stress can actually increase cognitive function allowing us to react in an appropriate way, quickly and concisely to the stressor. I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response whereby a stressful event (or perceived event) sets off a cascade of ‘stress hormones’ in the body that work to increase heart rate and respiratory rate, dilate the pupils, send blood to the muscles etc. This increase in sympathetic activity in the brain increases attention and arousal and thus probably intensifies memory (1).

Conversely, exposure to long-term, chronic stress can impair cognitive function reducing our ability to create and retrieve memories and making it difficult for us to deal with complex or flexible reasoning (2). I’m sure many of you reading can relate! Personally, I went through a period of chronic sleep deprivation with my children (hello chronic stress!) which led to an obvious decline in my cognitive ability… I just couldn’t think straight! My sentences often went unfinished and performing a simple maths equation sent me into a spin. Signs of cognitive stress can show up as constant worrying, racing thoughts, forgetfulness and an inability to focus. It can also lead to low motivation and low mood.  Our stress response system becomes overwhelmed and we feel ‘tired and wired’, burnt out or just not ourselves.

So, what to do? Like all thing’s health, awareness is key. We have to be able to stop and understand that our cognitive function has shifted and not ignore the signs of cognitive decline. Optimising our lifestyle and nutrition is essential as often avoiding the stressor(s) altogether is not possible. Fortunately, we can also turn to herbal medicine for extra support for our cognition and nervous system- this can truly make all the difference during times of chronic stress.

The beauty of herbal medicine in these chronic and often complex health conditions is that a formula can be created uniquely to each individual. Sometimes, all that is required is an herb to relax the nervous system such as Kava or Passionflower. Some individuals may also benefit from a nutritive tonic to feed nervous tissue such as Green Oats or Skullcap.

Many herbs have adaptogenic properties meaning they help the body to better adapt to stress. If you are feeling run down from constant stress then Astragalus could benefit. If you struggle to calm down with an anxious mind then Withania (or Ashwaganda) might be the adaptogen for you. If stress has left you depleted and exhausted Siberian ginseng may help to slowly bring your energy back.

When it comes specifically to our cognition we turn to herbs with neuroprotective and nootropic actions. These herbs protect the brain from cognitive decline and help to enhance cognition, improving concentration, memory and motivation. Traditionally, popular nootropic herbs include the Saffron, Ginkgo, Bacopa and Rosemary to name a few but many herbs can assist with brain function due to their high antioxidant and/or essential trace mineral status and their adaptogenic properties.

Remember, stress itself, cannot be treated as it is a natural response to our current environment, but we can aid the body to better cope and respond to stress and this can prevent us reaching a point of burn out and that frustrating feeling of literally ‘losing our minds’.


  1. Porth C, Pathophysiology; Concepts of altered health states, 9th ed. Lippincott-Raven Publishers 2017, Philadelphia, USA. 
  2. Sousa, N. The dynamics of the stress neuromatrix. Mol Psychiatry 21, 302–312 (2016).

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