Adaptogens, just like they sound, help our metabolic pathways adapt to the physical, chemical, or emotional stressors in life. Giving you a little boost without over stimulating or helping to calm the nerves and lower circulating stress hormones like cortisol or epinephrine (adrenaline).
To be considered a true adaptogen, an herb must meet these three requirements:
- It must be safe and non toxic.
- It must work by reducing your body’s stress response.
- It must support overall health by helping the body achieve a state of balance known as homeostasis.
Amazingly, adaptogenic herbs work regardless of the underlying cause of your stress.
It doesn’t matter whether your stress is caused by a demanding boss, a hectic schedule, a noisy workplace, or environmental toxins, emotional stress, adaptogens can help.
Besides lowering cortisol and supporting adrenals, here are some other ways adaptogens help your body deal with stress:
- They are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant in nature.
- They help normalize the immune system, the nervous system, and blood sugar metabolism.
- They are natural mood enhancers being both anti-anxiety and antidepressant.
- They improve energy, stamina, muscle tone and strength.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Research suggests that adaptogens relieve stress by modulating the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands. They do this by affecting the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (or HPA axis for short).
The HPA axis works as follows. When the brain perceives danger (stress) it signals the hypothalamus to release the hormone CRH. CRH travels to the pituitary where it stimulates the release of ACTH. ACTH travels through the blood stream to the adrenal cortex where it stimulates the release of cortisol and other glucocorticoid hormones. At the same time, the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) triggers the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine (adrenaline). When cortisol levels rise in the blood, they inhibit the release of CRH and ACTH from the hypothalamus and pituitary, thus shutting down the stress response.
This is where adaptogens can help. They inhibit the production of CRH and ACTH from the hypothalamus and pituitary, reducing the overall output of stress hormones. This means that the stress hormones don’t ramp up with each stressful event, allowing you to meet life’s challenges with less tension and anxiety, more energy and greater mental clarity.
How does this happen? If you look at it from a clinical view it looks like this;
The key point of action of phytoadaptogens appears to be their up-regulating and stress-mimetic effects on the "stress-sensor" protein Hsp70, which plays an important role in cell survival and apoptosis. Hsp70 inhibits the expression of NO synthase II gene and interacts with glucocorticoid receptors directly and via the JNK pathway, thus affecting the levels of circulating cortisol and NO. Prevention of stress-induced increase in NO, and the associated decrease in ATP production, results in increased performance and endurance. Adaptogen-induced up-regulation of Hsp70 triggers stress-induced JNK-1 and DAF-16-mediated pathways regulating the resistance to stress and resulting in enhanced mental and physical performance and, possibly, increased longevity. (1)
Okay..Okay.. So how does that happen?? The differing plant species that fall into the category of an adaptogen have their own struggles in life, found in extreme climates and harsh conditions they have evolved an efficient ability to adapt for survival. As we have evolved along side the plant world over hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years, using and utilizing them, we have developed the metabolic abilities to utilize these very special traits for our own good.
Cue in; So which one is the best for me??
While some are good for boosting energy without over stimulating (like coffee does), or balancing hormones, and others are for calming effects, better sleep, and better mood, some are excellent anti inflammatories while not suppressing the healing effects of acute inflammation, (big difference between acute and chronic that I will discuss in another post) some are good for boosting immunity, and some effect and help balance the nervous system.
Picking the right one for you can be a bit overwhelming, but just remember to be a true adaptogen; It must be safe and non toxic, it must work by reducing your body’s stress response, it must support overall health by helping the body achieve a state of balance known as homeostasis.
Bushy plants that are native to India, has been used safely in Ayervedic medicine for thousands of years. The plant and its components; leaves, roots and berries, constitute some of best known and most frequently used products on the herbal market today. While all adaptogens reduce cortisol, ashwagandha’s ability to do so stands above the rest. A great anti inflammatory, Ashwagandha is an excellent choice if you’re looking for relief from anxiety, insomnia, or stress-related depression. (2)This can be found in teas, tablets, tinctures, and other loose preparations.
Holy Basil or Tulsi
An important adaptogenic herb in India that helps restore vitality and promotes overall health and a softened reaction to stress. One study, published in 1991 in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology, compared holy basil to Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and found that holy basil was the most potent anti-stress agent of the three, and also had the highest margin of safety. Multiple models of studies have been conducted concluding the Tulsi is a superior adaptogen that mediates stress. (3) This can be found in teas, tinctures, bulk, and make a lovely soothing drink, warm or cold.
Improves the brain's ability to analyze, evaluate, calculate, and plan. Normalizes the heart rate after exercise or a stressful event. Stimulates release of dopamine and serotonin. Supports healthy immune system functioning. (4) Again this is found in varying forms in your local health food store or online in many forms.
As always, to thrive I'll bring it back around to a stable baseline of healthy whole foods, good sleep hygiene, and adequate hydration. Then, and only then, is there room for herbs, supplements, and healing modalities.
There are many different adaptogens and many cross over their intended uses so it might be a path to navigate with your health professional circle. Although adaptogens are considered safe and non toxic the temptation in our busy lives would be to just take adaptogens and keep pushing through. That might work in the short run, but you need to always listen to your body. If you end up using adaptogens as a way to keep going when your body wants you to slow down, you might end up in serious burnout.
It would be best to use adaptogens as a short term support and look at the route cause of the stressors in your life and how you can better balance these.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: There is mixed information about using adaptogens during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Until there are more studies stick with whole foods, a healthy environment, and calming breathing techniques for stress reduction.
Ashwagandha is part of the nightshade family; people with sensitives to these should use caution.
Always take care when taking herbs, supplements, and medication, discussing these with your health care provider.
Have a happy, healthy, stressless summer!