An intro on adaptogens for stress

by | Nov 12, 2023 | chronic fatigue, general health

Modern life is inherently stressful. The funny thing is that we don’t all respond to stress in the same way. Of course there are situations that we all might struggle to cope with, like the death of a loved one. But in the day to day hurdles of life, it is often the case that what might distress us, someone else may see as a challenge or opportunity. 

This is why stress management techniques can sometimes really help. And I’ve talked about these before. It’s not that deep breathing exercises or doing yoga daily is going to make everything easy, but it can certainly help to change your perception. And it is often the case that how we perceive our stress that affects our body’s response to a stressor. 

Make no mistake, stress can be very tough on the body. Especially when the stress goes on and on. Chronic stress can cause inflammation in the body, and inflammation is at the root of almost every chronic disease. 

Stress and cortisol

In a stressful situation the body reacts as if it is in danger. In response to perceived danger adrenaline is released from nerve endings which creates an ability to respond rapidly, commonly called the fight or flight response. Within minutes the hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands. In the short term, cortisol can have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. And in fact it is used this way as the medicine hydrocortisone. 

However, in the longer term, when the stress goes on and on, and cortisol is continually pumped into the blood stream by the adrenals we can lose the beneficial effects of cortisol as the body stops responding to its effects. This situation is described as being cortisol resistant. And, instead of being anti-inflammatory the effect of long term cortisol on the body is pro-inflammatory, meaning it promotes inflammation.

You might be aware of a situation where you have been under stress and then succumbed to a cold or flu for example. In fact, there are many health conditions that are associated with increased levels of stress. From headaches and insomnia to heart disease and autoimmunity.

So if you find yourself in a situation that involves ongoing stress my first recommendation would be to find some ways to manage your stress. See my previous post on this subject. 

But… what if self-help stress management techniques are just not enough. Are there any other natural options?

Stress and acupuncture

Acupuncture is a great way to manage your stress. I have found that weekly treatments can help to restore balance in the body and reduce that feeling of overwhelm. And once you are back in control the acupuncture treatments can be continued at a maintenance level of around once a month.

Stress and herbal medicine

I think of healthy foods and herbal medicines as being on a continuum. Both can support health and improve how the body functions. I think that along with a healthy diet and lifestyle, if more people knew how to use simple herbal remedies there would be a lot less need to seek the help of doctors.

When it comes to chronic stress, herbal medicines have a whole class of herbs that can help. These herbal remedies are the adaptogen herbs. The adaptogens are basically tonic herbs that help to reduce the effects of stress, and particularly the damaging effects of cortisol on the body.

Adaptogens have four general properties:

  • Adaptogens are considered harmless
  • Adaptogens have general effects on health
  • Adaptogens increase the resistance to a variety of physical, chemical or biological stresses
  • Adaptogens have stabiliser or normalising actions

Adaptogens work by reducing the amount of cortisol that the body needs to release. In effect this lowers cortisol resistance. So that when a stressful situation does occur the person taking an adaptogen herb can respond appropriately to the cortisol they release, and they don’t have the pro-inflammatory effects.

As I said there are a large number of adaptogen herbs. While they all could be described as tonics they can also be quite different. So, it is best to choose wisely rather than just take any adaptogen herb, since the adaptogen that suits one person may be inappropriate for someone else. A good herbalist can help with this.

But, briefly here are some adaptogen herbs:

Panax ginseng

Probably the best known adaptogen herb and one of the most widely studied. Panax ginseng is commonly known as ginseng or red ginseng. Research shows an enhanced response to physical or chemical stress, especially when taken in conjunction with a multivitamin-multimineral preparation.

Eleutherococcus senticosus

This herb used to be called Siberian ginseng, but now it has been renamed as Eleuthero. It is another herb with lots of research, carried out mainly in Russia, and especially in relation to endurance exercise. The research indicates that Eleuthero increases the ability to accommodate adverse physical conditions, and improves mental performance and quality of work under stressful conditions.

Withania somnifera

Also known as Ashwagandha, this herb is probably the most well known adaptogen from the Ayurvedic system of medicine. Though it has shown similar anti-stress effects to Panax ginseng I think of it as a milder tonic herb that can help someone to relax. Animal studies have shown that it may help in depression and anxiety. It also appears to improve red and white blood cell counts and platelets.

Rhodiola rosea

This another herb that has been the subject of quite a bit of research. Rhodiola also known as rose root can influence the levels and activity of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain. In trials, people with generalised anxiety disorder showed a significant reduction in their anxiety over 10 weeks, while using Rhodiola. In another trial that studied people with stress-related fatigue, Rhodiola lowered cortisol levels and improved concentration. In another study on doctors working the night shift, Rhodiola favourably influenced fatigue and mental performance. And, yet another study found that students taking Rhodiola reported reductions in mental fatigue, improved sleep, reduced need for sleep and greater mood stability.  These students also did better other exams that the placebo group!


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