Adaptogens, which are plants traditionally used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to treat a number of conditions, may be the key to coping with stress. While scientific research on adaptogens is still scarce, small studies have begun to demonstrate that they exhibit neuroprotective, antidepressive, anxiolytic and anti-fatigue qualities.
The origin of stress
You can probably make an exhaustive list of all the stressors you’re facing right now in the blink of an eye. The origins of stress are varied, ranging from work problems to family problems to health problems and the list goes on and on. Regardless of the causes, the body’s response to chronic stress is very similar in everybody. Our bodies manufacture the hormone cortisol in response to stress. This produces the fight-or-flight response - a racing heartbeat, an increase in blood pressure, a slowdown in digestion, dilated pupils, etc. - which prepares us to react to stressors.
However, our bodies are not designed to live in fight-or-flight mode all the time. This response is meant to help us deal with short-term, imminent dangers that require immediate action, but when we face chronic stress, we experience this adrenaline rush more often than our bodies can handle, which affects every physiological system in our bodies, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that regulates the body’s stress response through the secretion of hormones. The hormonal imbalances that result from chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to what we often experience as burnout - exhaustion, depression, anxiety and a number of physical conditions like thyroid malfunction and adrenal fatigue.
Adaptogens as organism balancers
Studies have suggested that the stress-reducing effects of adaptogens are attributable to their role as organism balancers. In scientific terms, adaptogens are capable of promoting homeostasis in the HPA axis. Homeostasis simply refers to a state of healthy physical balance, meaning that adaptogens help restore hormone levels to their natural equilibrium. While certain antidepressants and anxiolytics either raise or lower certain target neurotransmitters like serotonin or norepinephrine, the action of adaptogens is much broader, targeting a number of hormones and restoring them to healthy levels regardless of whether they are too low or too high, which can benefit a wide range of people with different types of imbalances. This takes the guesswork out of the picture. Adaptogens are also natural, which means fewer side effects than prescription medication.
Most common adaptogens
Here are four of some of the most common adaptogens and the benefits they offer.
Also called panax ginseng or Asian ginseng, this adaptogen is widely known and considered to be among the most powerful. While studies demonstrate that it actually doesn’t directly impact cortisol levels, it does affect other stress-response systems. For example, it blocks ACTH, a hormone that produces glucocorticoid steroid hormones in the adrenal glands, and reduces serum corticosterone, another stress hormone, thus calming down the stress response over time. A study in mice demonstrated that ginseng cuts back on noradrenaline and serotonin secretion during the stress response. Due to its high levels of antioxidants, ginseng has even been proven to lower fasting blood sugar levels, improve mental performance and boost overall mood.
The cortisol-reducing effects of ashwaganda, also called Indian ginseng, have been studied for decades and are well-documented. Not only does it stabilize cortisol levels, but, according to a study in mice, this adaptogenic herb may prevent weight increase of the adrenal glands, which is a common sign of chronic stress, and reduce the probability of developing stress-related gastric ulcers. Studies in humans have demonstrated that participants who took ashwaganda reported a higher level of resistance to stress and this herb also regulated thyroid hormone levels in patients with subclinical, stress-related thyroid symptoms.
Maca is considered both an adaptogen and a superfood. It improves the function of the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland by regulating hormone production and restoring a healthy equilibrium, which balances adrenal function as a result. Maca has been used for centuries to treat a number of conditions, including hormone imbalances and adrenal fatigue. Essentially a root vegetable, maca is full of protein, fiber, magnesium, calcium and amino acids. With its delicious nutty flavor, it can easily be incorporated into recipes like smoothies for an extra boost of nutrition.
Reishi Mushr oom
The reishi mushroom, a staple in Eastern medicine, is another powerful adaptogen. Several studies have examined its effects on patients with depression, anxiety and fatigue, demonstrating an overall improvement in their participants’ symptoms after 1-2 months of treatment with reishi. It also boosts the immune system, contains cancer-fighting properties, promotes heart health, controls blood sugar and provides tons of antioxidants.
If you’re experiencing chronic stress and struggling to recover both physically and emotionally, remember that you’re not alone. Try incorporating adaptogens into your lifestyle, along with a healthy diet and exercise, and join those who have benefited from the powerful healing qualities of these superfood herbs.