By Makai Allbert
Oftentimes, when the going gets tough, we stress. It’s natural and essential for survival, but not all stress is good. Finding the balance between experiencing harmful and beneficial stress is essential for our long-term well-being. So how can we modulate our stress response and have it work for us?
Summary of Key Points
- Stress and anxiety are natural responses to demanding situations, but when they become overwhelming, they can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health.
- Adaptogens are compounds used for centuries in traditional medicine to help the body adapt to stress and restore balance. They are known for reducing the harmful effects of stress on the body and mind.
- Adaptogenic herbs, including ashwagandha, Rhodiola rosea, ginseng, holy basil, and licorice root, contain compounds that modulate the body’s stress response and regulate cortisol levels.
- Stress is a holistic mind-body condition. Adaptogenic herbs work via multiple layers and mechanisms spanning from mind to body.
Everyone is familiar with stress and anxiety in one way or another, as they are commonplace in daily life. We all know what stress feels like, even though it can be hard to articulate. Students feel stressed when a homework deadline is approaching; parents feel it when taking care of their children and paying for rent; workers feel stressed when bearing too much responsibility, and so on.
The good news is that the human body is designed to cope with stress when troubles come. Stress is commonly defined as the body’s reaction to a perceived internal or external threat or pressure.
Often coupled with stress is the feeling of anxiety, a feeling of uneasiness or fear about a future event or situation. While stress and anxiety are natural responses, they can become overwhelming and negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health.
Therefore, managing stress and anxiety is essential for maintaining overall health and longevity, especially in our fast-paced world where productivity and industry are prioritized. While many people have heard of ways to naturally manage stress and anxiety, such as lifestyle changes and mind-body techniques, there is a stress antidote many don’t know about: adaptogens.
Adaptogens constitute anything that helps buffer or remove stress, hence the name: “gen” meaning “that which produces,” and “adapt” being the ability to adjust to new conditions. Therefore, broadly speaking, adaptogens are anything that can prompt the body to adapt to new or difficult conditions. Examples include exercise, meditation, sleep, and anything that can reduce stress and improve mood.
Yet nowadays, the term adaptogen usually refers to a class of compounds, herbs, and mushrooms that help the body adapt to stress and restore balance.
So how do plants act as adaptogens, and how can you implement them into your daily life to buffer stress and anxiety?
How Do Our Bodies React to Stress?
When we encounter a perceived threat or challenge, our bodies respond with a stress response, a complex set of physiological and psychological changes that help us cope with the situation. In short, this set of changes is designed to prepare the body for action. This response is modulated by two central systems in the body: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system.
When faced with a threat, the hypothalamus in the brain releases a hormone called the corticotropin-releasing hormone; this hormone later stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone. This then stimulates the adrenal glands, which release cortisol and other stress hormones into the bloodstream. This interplay between the different glands is what constitutes the HPA axis.
Amid this cascade and interaction of glands and hormones, one hormone steals much of the spotlight. Perhaps the most famous hormone when people think of stress is cortisol, often called the “stress hormone.” And of course, there is a reason behind it, as cortisol has several powerful effects on the body.
Cortisol increases glucose availability in the bloodstream, providing readily available energy for the body to respond to a perceived threat. Additionally, cortisol suppresses nonessential bodily functions, such as digestion and reproduction, to conserve energy for dealing with a perceived threat.
While cortisol is released, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. Accordingly, the activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to a release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, also called norepinephrine. These hormones increase the heart rate and blood pressure, dilate the airways to improve oxygen uptake, and stimulate the release of glucose from the liver. All of this is for one purpose: to increase alertness and prepare the body for action.
The interaction of the HPA axis and the sympathetic nervous system is part of what makes up the stress response; this is what we can observe objectively and what scientists use to measure stress in the lab.
While the stress response is important in dealing with stressors, prolonged activation of these systems can negatively affect the body.
Chronic Stress Harms the Body
In a meta-analytic review from Carnegie Mellon University, researchers conducted a comprehensive review of the relationship between stress and immunity in humans. Their meta-analysis included over 293 studies analyzing the effects of acute and chronic stress on immune parameters such as natural killer cell activity, lymphocyte proliferation, and antibody responses.
The authors found that acute stressors, such as public speaking or exams, were associated with a temporary enhancement of immune function, including increased natural killer cell activity and lymphocyte proliferation. In contrast, chronic stressors, such as caring for a spouse with dementia or job strain, were associated with more prolonged suppression of immune function.
Apart from suppressing the immune system, chronic stress naturally has serious implications regarding mental health and cardiovascular disease.
However, we can alleviate these negative side effects by using adaptogens. Adaptogenic herbs contain a variety of compounds that are thought to contribute to their beneficial effects on the body, including polysaccharides, alkaloids, and triterpenoids. These compounds are believed to modulate the body’s stress response by influencing the HPA axis and other systems involved in stress regulation.
In addition to cortisol, adaptogens have been shown to influence other stress hormones, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, helping to support a healthy stress response.
Chronic stress can contribute to inflammation in the body, which in turn can lead to a range of health problems. Adaptogens have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, helping to reduce inflammation and promote overall health.
Common Herbs Used as Adaptogens and Their Effectiveness
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is a popular adaptogenic herb used traditionally in Ayurvedic medicine.
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine (pdf), ashwagandha was administered to a cohort of 64 subjects who self-reported mental stress. The participants were generally healthy, free of any psychiatric conditions other than stress, and aged between 18 and 54 years.
The researchers sought to measure the effect of ashwagandha across numerous metrics. The study assessed levels of perceived stress, depression, anxiety, and general well-being by using stress scales and biochemical markers such as serum cortisol levels.
The findings demonstrated the power of ashwagandha. Researchers found that taking 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract twice daily for 60 days significantly reduced perceived stress, serum cortisol levels, and anxiety levels in adults relative to placebo. Perceived stress, serum cortisol levels, and anxiety levels were measured in adults who received a treatment relative to those who received a placebo, with p-values of p<0.0001, p=0.0006, and p<0.0001, respectively.
The results are expressed in p-values, which indicate the probability of the observed differences being due to chance. A p-value of less than 0.05 is generally considered statistically significant, meaning the results are unlikely to have occurred by chance alone. In this case, the values for perceived stress and anxiety levels are both less than 0.0001, while the value for serum cortisol is 0.0006. These very low p-values suggest that the observed differences are unlikely due to chance and are therefore considered highly statistically significant.
The group that took ashwagandha experienced significant reductions in the four measures of perceived stress scale (PSS), general health questionnaire-28 (GHQ-28), depression anxiety stress scale (DASS), and serum cortisol levels (S. Cortisol), with percentage reductions of 44 percent, 72.3 percent, 71.6 percent, and 27.9 percent, respectively. On the other hand, the placebo group saw reductions of only 5.5 percent, 2.3 percent, 5 percent, and 7.9 percent for the same measures. These differences are statistically significant, indicating that ashwagandha has a considerable impact on improving the well-being of individuals with regard to these focal aspects of stress.
Another study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (pdf) looked at 62 research papers to conduct a systematic review of the effect of ashwagandha. Researchers found that among the literature, ashwagandha supplementation reduced anxiety and stress levels while bearing no significant adverse effects.
Rhodiola rosea is another adaptogenic herb that in addition to helping people cope with stress, has been shown to improve cognitive function and physical performance.
Additionally, a study has shed light on the efficacy of Rhodiola rosea extract in treating patients with burnout symptoms. The open-label, multicenter, single-arm trial involved administering 400 milligrams of the extract to patients over 12 weeks. The study’s outcome measures, which included alertness, calmness, and positive mood, showed marked improvements over time. Interestingly, the effects of the treatment were noticeable even after just one week of administration.
Ginseng is a well-known adaptogenic herb used traditionally in Chinese medicine to promote overall health and vitality.
In a small, randomized, double-blind experiment, patients were given 200 milligrams of Panax ginseng for up to eight weeks. After four weeks of therapy, higher scores in social functioning (p=0.014), mental health (p=0.075), and the mental component summary (p=0.019) scales were observed in patients randomized to Panax ginseng. However, it is worth noting that the study was done on a small population, and the effects did not continue past the eight-week mark, suggesting that ginseng should only be used temporarily and not long-term.
Holy Basil and Licorice Root
Holy basil and licorice root are other adaptogenic herbs that have been shown to have a range of beneficial effects on the body, including reducing stress and anxiety, improving cognitive function, and enhancing immune function.
The studies on adaptogens for stress and anxiety suggest that adaptogens can effectively manage stress and anxiety symptoms. While more research is needed, the existing studies provide promising results. Adaptogens positively affect the nervous system and cortisol levels, both involved in the stress response.
However, it’s important to note that the effectiveness of adaptogens may vary depending on the individual and the specific adaptogen being used. It’s also important to use adaptogens as part of a holistic approach to managing stress and anxiety rather than relying solely on them as a treatment.
Overall, the research on adaptogens for stress and anxiety provides a strong foundation for further investigation and use in integrative health care.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Even though stress is a psychological term often defined by the type of strain we experience, the nature of stress can be extended to both our minds and body. Stress is actually a mind-body holistic condition.
We often feel stress when our internal organs and mind equilibrium are disrupted and our body lacks homeostasis. Our body constantly communicates with our brain, influencing our consciousness and emotions. A telling case in a recent Nature study reported that when our heart beats faster, anxiety and stress will be generated. The mind-body connection is very powerful and can impact us in many ways.
In the context of adaptogenic herbs, particularly ashwagandha, stress and anxiety relief may be modulated by multiple mechanisms, as suggested by the findings below:
- Most of these adaptogenic herbs have an attenuating effect on HPA axis activity, according to a 2019 study in the journal Medicine, thus reducing cortisol levels and lowering the emotional level of stress in subjects.
- Inflammation and oxidative stress are increased when experiencing high stress levels; according to the same study, adaptogens, therefore, may help reduce stress through their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
- As discovered in preclinical trials, ashwagandha can also influence GABAergic and serotonin activity, which modulate antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects. GABAergic signaling dysfunction is associated with general anxiety disorders, muscle spasms, sleep disturbances, and seizures.
- Ashwagandha improves energy levels and promotes mitochondrial health.
Our minds and bodies are holistic systems composed of countless and diverse molecules, cells, proteins, tissues, and organs. They don’t exist independently or operate on a whim; these systems are in continuous contact and coordinate meticulously to keep you healthy and alive.
It is conceivable that the interaction of all the mechanisms listed above, as well as other unrevealed ones, may be responsible for the positive, mood-enhancing effects of these adaptogenic herbs to relieve stress.
How to Use Adaptogens
Adaptogens are obtainable in various forms, such as capsules, powders, teas, and tinctures. Each form has its benefits and drawbacks. Capsules and powders provide a concentrated form of adaptogens. At the same time, teas and tinctures may offer a more gentle and soothing effect.
It’s important to follow dosage recommendations and use adaptogens under the guidance of a health care provider. Here are some tips on how to use adaptogens for stress and anxiety:
- The recommended dosages of ashwagandha root extract based on studies range from 250 to 600 mg/day. The standard dosing protocol involves taking 600 mg/day divided into two dosages; one taken with breakfast in the morning and the other in the evening.
- Research indicates that 600 mg/day is more effective than lower dosages in improving sleep, and dosages ranging from 600 to 1,000 mg/day may be more beneficial for athletes undergoing intense exercise. However, further studies are required to verify whether dosages exceeding 600 mg/day result in greater benefits.
- The impact of the long-term daily usage of ashwagandha on its potency remains unknown. However, it is recommended to use ashwagandha for only one to two months, when experiencing moderate to severe stress.
- Daily consumption of Rhodiola rosea as a preventative measure against fatigue has been proven effective at low dosages of 50 mg.
- For immediate relief from fatigue and stress, Rhodiola rosea is commonly taken in dosages ranging from 288 to 680 mg.
- Rhodiola’s response has been observed to follow a bell-curve pattern. Therefore, it is advisable to refrain from exceeding the 680 mg dosage, as higher dosages may not be beneficial.
- The recommended dose of holy basil for neurological and adaptogenic effects is 500 mg of leaf extract taken twice a day.
- Studies show that dosages of 100 to 200 mg/kg and 500 mg/kg may provide health benefits and boost testosterone, respectively.
While adaptogens are generally considered safe, they may cause side effects in some individuals. Common side effects may include digestive upset, headaches, and insomnia. Talking to a health care provider before using adaptogens is important, especially if you have a medical condition or take prescription medications.
As we have discovered, stress is part of a holistic mind-body condition; anything that makes the body’s natural healing process stronger could, in theory, help us release stress.
Implementing and maintaining the following life changes can also help reduce stress and anxiety levels:
- Getting regular exercise
- Practicing good sleep hygiene
- Eating a healthy diet
- Cultivating plants or flowers; gardening
- Practicing meditation
- Being mindful in your work and routines
- Keeping your room tidy and clean
- Helping others
- Being optimistic and thinking positively
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