Feeling stressed? You’re not alone. In a 2017 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 80 percent of Americans reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress in the last month. Stress can affect anyone at any time—it transcends wealth, age, class, job titles, and much more.
Increasingly, individuals are becoming more aware of their stress symptoms with 36 percent of Americans identifying stress reduction as a personal priority. Decades of research confirm that chronic stress is associated with inflammation in the body, leading to a myriad of health issues. Some people turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to combat stress. But what if there was a better way? Adaptogenic herbs (or adaptogens) are a group of herbal compounds that are known for boosting immunity and helping people respond to stress more effectively. Additionally, adaptogens aid individuals in recovering from the physical and psychological symptoms of stress. Read on to learn more about these potent herbs and how you can use them to stress less and fight other symptoms like fatigue.
The Stages of Stress
Austrian endocrinologist, Hans Selye, developed the concept of adaptogens based on his stress theory. This theory is known as general adaptation syndrome and is characterized by the following three stages of stress:
- The body prepares for the fight or flight response.
- The body adapts to the source of stress.
- The body becomes exhausted when stress symptoms continue over a long period of time.
Think of adaptogens as restorative tonics for your body, helping to offset the effects of stress, normalize body functions, and promote healing.
Health Benefits of Adaptogens
Stress affects your mental, emotional, and physical health, and may even impact your normal behaviors, making it more difficult to concentrate and make decisions. Long-term stress has been linked to the following health conditions:
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune diseases
- Mental health problems
- Neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and dementia
Adaptogenic herbs target the stress hormones in your body and work to restore normal function. Specifically, they act on cortisol and nitric oxide levels. Adaptogens are able to modify your stress response by increasing your resistance to stress, boosting your chances of effectively adapting to stressful situations at home, at work, and in other areas of your life. Several adaptogens have been associated with reduced inflammation in the body, mitigating one’s risk for the health problems listed above.
In today’s hurry-up world, adaptogens are commonly used to help treat stress-induced fatigue. In fact, a number of adaptogens have been shown to be effective in increasing individuals’ mental work capacity—now that’s great news for all of us who suffer from the dreaded 2:00 PM slump. If you are in the habit of downing coffee, energy drinks, and caffeinated sugary sodas to get through your workday, adaptogenic herbs may be a healthier (and less caloric) alternative.
In addition to their fatigue-fighting properties, some adaptogens are also used for their role in brain health, alleviating the symptoms of depression and anxiety and stimulating activity in the central nervous system. Adaptogens have also shown promise in treating the following health issues:
- High cholesterol
- Low sex drive
- Attention difficulties
- Poor immune function
Animal studies indicate that adaptogenic herbs have the capacity to expand the lifespan of various species. Researchers have determined that increasing an organism’s stress tolerance through the use of adaptogens contributes to a longer, healthier life.
Types of Adaptogens
Eastern medicine has used adaptogens for millennia—they are a key part of Ayurvedic medicine and the Ayurveda diet. If you’re not familiar with them yet, don’t worry. In this section, we’ll explore some popular and safer adaptogenic herbs, and fill you in on how they act on your body to promote wellness.
Uses: Vitality, strength, and stress reduction
Also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, this herb is named for its strong odor. In fact, its Sanskrit name translates to “like a horse.” The ashwagandha root emits a pungent order very similar to the smell of a horse.
Ashwagandha contains properties that reduce inflammation and protect the brain. It is thought to help the body in the following ways:
- Boosts immunity
- Regulates blood sugar
- Curbs the growth of cancer cells
- Improves sexual function
In women, ashwagandha has been shown to increase arousal and contribute to orgasms compared to a placebo. In men, this root has been shown to increase testosterone levels and reduce body fat. In addition to its effects on vitality and sexual health, ashwagandha also reduces cortisol levels (stress hormones) and stress in those who took the root extract twice a day for two months.
Uses: Immunity, sleep, fatigue, and depression
Also called Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is renowned for its immune-boosting properties. Over 35 studies have examined the effects of eleuthero in sick patients suffering from health conditions like atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), diabetes, high blood pressure, insomnia, trauma, and cancer. In a majority of these studies, patients who used eleuthero saw moderate improvements in their symptoms.
The potent properties of this small shrub may also help people better manage the effects of job stress. In a small 2015 study published in the Journal of International Medical Research, people suffering from job-related stress who took eleuthero for 12 weeks experienced better sleep, less fatigue, and fewer symptoms of depression compared to those taking a placebo.
Caution: Eleuthero should not be used by pregnant women, those with serious mental illness (like mania or schizophrenia), people with high blood pressure or heart disease, or individuals suffering from liver or kidney disease.
Uses: Inflammation, immunity, blood pressure, and blood sugar
Ginseng has long been revered for its potent active compounds, ginsenosides. There are more than 40 ginsenosides in ginseng. Lab studies show these compounds have promise in fighting cancer, reducing inflammation, and promoting healthy antioxidant levels in the body.
Some small studies have shown that ginseng may help control blood sugar by boosting insulin production in the body and activating other mechanisms. This finding is wonderful news for all those living with diabetes or caring for a loved one managing this chronic health condition. But because ginseng might change insulin levels in your body, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before you begin using this herb.
Other studies suggest that ginseng use may reduce the frequency and severity of colds.
Caution: Ginseng should not be used by people taking blood-thinning medications or women who are pregnant.
Uses: Immunity, cholesterol, stress reduction, and digestion
Considered one of the safer herbs to try, holy basil is known as the ‘elixir of life’ in Ayurvedic medicine. This peppery-tasting adaptogen is often incorporated into spicy soups and stir-fry dishes. It is known for treating the following health conditions:
- Indigestion and diarrhea
Holy basil might be especially beneficial for those suffering from digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome. This herb has also been found to cut cholesterol levels and regulate blood sugar and blood pressure.
Like most other adaptogens, holy basil is also touted for its immune-boosting properties. In one study, people who took the herb for four weeks experienced a significant increase in the immune proteins found in their blood samples, indicating that this adept adaptogen really is a bonafide immune booster.
Caution: It is typically recommended that holy basil be used for a short period of time only (six weeks or less). Holy basil should not be used by pregnant or lactating women.
Uses: Depression, fatigue, and concentration
Commonly referred to as golden root, this herb grows at high altitudes in cold climates throughout Asia and Europe. It uses in Scandinavia and Russia date back thousands of years. It is thought to help treat the following health conditions:
The properties in rhodiola may be especially beneficial for those suffering from depression or dementia. A special enzyme in this adaptogen stops the break down of neurotransmitters in the brain, suggesting it may be effective in combatting depression and neurodegenerative disorders.
One study showed that repeated administration of rhodiola over a four-week period reduced symptoms of fatigue and increased attention spans in participants. Researchers suggest the way in which rhodiola affects corticosteroids in the body contributes to these impressive findings. When corticosteroids are at optimal levels, cognitive function significantly improves. During times of stress, the levels of corticosteroids in your body rise and drop regularly. When this happens, it’s like a roller coaster ride for your physical and mental health. Left unchecked, the upregulation and downregulation of corticosteroids in your body can cause poor brain function and extreme fatigue. Scientists believe rhodiola can combat the symptoms of stress, resulting in better brain health and overall mood.
Uses: Inflammation, immunity, strength, depression, and mental illness
Also known as the five-flavor fruit—with a punch of sour, salty, pungent, sweet, and bitter flavors all at once—this bright, red berry has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine since ancient times. It is thought to have the following health benefits:
- Speeds up metabolism
- Boosts immunity
- Increases strength and endurance
- Improves concentration
- Protects the liver
- Helps fight cancer cells
Schisandra is an adaptogenic herb that may be especially helpful for people with nervous system disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. In a study of 200 people suffering from nervous system disorders, schisandra was found to improve general well-being and increase work capacity. Participants taking this herb also benefitted from fewer symptoms of sleepiness and exhaustion.
How to Prepare Adaptogens
Adaptogenic herbs come in a variety of forms. From pills, capsules, and tablets to tinctures, liquid extracts, and teas—choosing how to take your adaptogens is almost as difficult as choosing which ones are best-suited for you. Here are some good rules of thumb to follow when preparing adaptogens:
- Use a dropper to add the desired amount of liquid extract to a beverage. For instance, you might find that adding 5–10 drops of the liquid extract, schisandra, to some lemon water in the morning improves your concentration and helps you work faster. You can add tinctures and liquid extracts to pretty much any type of beverage. But you may want to avoid adding them to carbonated drinks.
- To make herbal teas, add one to two heaping tablespoons of the desired adaptogen to one cup of boiling water. Steep for 10–15 minutes (roots like ginger may need longer).
For best results, consult with an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner before using adaptogens. He or she will give you advice on the combination of adaptogens that will most benefit you, as well as instructions on how to prepare them.
Side Effects of Adaptogens
An important thing to consider before using adaptogens is that some increase your risk of bleeding. Because of this, adaptogenic herbs are not recommended for people with bleeding disorders or those taking anti-clotting medications. Additionally, several adaptogens reduce blood sugar levels. Although this is generally considered a positive effect of adaptogens, it can be dangerous for people with diabetes taking insulin and other medications as it may lead to extremely low blood sugar levels.
People with high blood pressure and autoimmune disorders should always consult with their doctor before they begin taking adaptogenic herbs. And pregnant and breastfeeding women should steer clear of adaptogens entirely, especially ashwagandha, schisandra, and holy basil.
Final Insights on Adaptogenic Herbs
Emerging research suggests that some adaptogens offer additional health benefits when they are used in combination with other medications, particularly prescribed antidepressants. This finding points to the value of merging Eastern medicine with Western medicine in the hustle and bustle of today’s society. More and more research is being done to identify therapies that can be used in tandem to promote wellness. And we have a strong feeling adaptogenic herbs will be a key part of this ongoing research effort.
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