If you’re stressed, fatigued, forgetful, and feeling like you’re sustaining yourselfwith coffee and sugar day after day — well, first of all, you’re not alone in that,and second, there are better ways to restore your energy (but you knew that). AndI often tell my patients that some of the best natural solutions to help you supportyour body’s stress-response systems are adaptogens.
This is where I can sometimes get funny looks and the question: What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are herbs that help improve the body’s ability to adapt to stress — whetherit’s physical, emotional, or environmental. Scientists have been quietly studyingthe properties of plants used in traditional medicine to ease fatigue and increasestamina since the early 1900s, so a great deal of research has accumulated aroundsome of the best-known adaptogenic herbs. These include golden root (Rhodiola rosea),maca root (Lepidium meyenii), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Astragalus,and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus).
How do adaptogens help with stress?
I would love to be able to give a simple answer to this question — but there isn’tone. Let’s face it, stress itself isn’t a simple, one-step process, so there’s noreal reason to imagine we could find a simple, one-step explanation for it.
The best way to summarize what adaptogens do is to envision stress as a helium balloonthat we hold on a string. To a certain extent, we all have stress happening in ourlives at any given moment — so our balloon floats on a string just above our head.But if something happens to abruptly challenge our stress levels (illness, a badday at work, a fight with a loved one), it’s like letting go of the string — andthe stress balloon floats up to the ceiling. If your ceilings are very high — say,10 or 11 feet from the floor — you might have trouble getting that balloon backdown to ground level. What adaptogens do, in effect, is “lower the ceiling” — sowhen your stress balloon floats up, it can’t go quite as high, making it a lot easierfor you to get that stress balloon “grounded” after an acutely stressful episode.
Adaptogenic herbs have phytochemicals that interact in complicated ways with thecentral nervous system, the endocrine system, and even the immune system — all ofwhich are contributing partners in producing the body’s overall response to stress— to “lower the ceiling” and make it easier to return to equilibrium after a stresschallenge. Although a lot of research has been done to try to identify the source(s)of these herbs’ benefits, for most of them, the specific compounds and their effectsare still elusive. But there are a few things we can say with confidence:
1. Adaptogens produce stress-protective effects targeting the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal(HPA) axis. Golden root and eleuthero, for instance, inhibit an enzyme calledC-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), which acts as a “booster” for the stress hormonecortisol. This is how adaptogens limit the amount of cortisol in your system whenyou’re experiencing stress — the “lower ceiling” I talked about earlier.
2. They stimulate and tone the central nervous system, without the potentialfor addiction or tolerance that occur with sympathomimetic stimulants like ephedraor caffeine, and the effects are enhanced under experienced stress or fatigue. What’simportant about this is that it means the stimulant effect is more powerful whenit comes in someone who is under stress — so if you take an adaptogen and you’renot stressed or tired, you won’t become “wired” the way you might if you drank caffeinatedsoda or coffee.
3. They are generally safe, and with a few rare exceptions, they don’t usually interactwith standard medications. This is important because not all sources ofstress are emotional — sometimes, illness or disease can initiate a stress cascade!There are some key interactions when it comes to blood thinners like warfarin andcertain antidepressants and psychotropic medications, so it’s important to checkwith your practitioner to make sure there are no drug interactions.
Specific herbs’ benefits
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) reduces anxietyby acting on the HPA axis and has neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatoryeffects. It also has effects on sex hormone production.
Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus) bolstersthe immune system, reduces inflammation, and helps to regulate normal blood sugarlevels.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), formerlycalled Siberian ginseng, helps shorten recovery from acute stress and decreasesfatigue, improves stamina, and helps regulate blood sugar.
Golden root (Rhodiola rosea) reduces fatigue, anxiety,stress, confusion, and depression, and offers immune and blood sugar support. Italso has potential anti-aging and neuroprotective effects.
Maca root (Lepidium meyenii) enhances energy andstamina, and may improve cognitive function and memory. It may also improve moodand libido.
Because they work by altering molecular responses during stress, adaptogenic herbsdon’t behave like standard medications — you may not see an effect right away, asthey often require several weeks of regular use to produce the adaptation you’relooking for.
So many options!
Many of these herbs are available in supplement formulations, but there are otherways to get their benefits if you’d rather not take them in pill form. They canbe found as teas or powders that you can add to smoothies or yogurt, and some ofthem — astragalus, for instance — can be used in soups or stews. If you’re not surehow to use them, talk to an herbalist or naturopath for guidance.
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