5 best adaptogens for stress relief
If you’re stressed, fatigued, forgetful, and feeling like you’re sustaining yourself
with 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). And
I often tell my patients that some of the best natural solutions to help you support
your 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 — whether
it’s physical, emotional, or environmental. Scientists have been quietly studying
the properties of plants used in traditional medicine to ease fatigue and increase
stamina since the early 1900s, so a great deal of research has accumulated around
some 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’t
one. Let’s face it, stress itself isn’t a simple, one-step process, so there’s no
real 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 balloon
that we hold on a string. To a certain extent, we all have stress happening in our
lives 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 bad
day at work, a fight with a loved one), it’s like letting go of the string — and
the 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 back
down to ground level. What adaptogens do, in effect, is “lower the ceiling” — so
when your stress balloon floats up, it can’t go quite as high, making it a lot easier
for you to get that stress balloon “grounded” after an acutely stressful episode.
Adaptogenic herbs have phytochemicals that interact in complicated ways with the
central nervous system, the endocrine system, and even the immune system — all of
which 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 stress
challenge. 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 effects
are 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 called
C-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), which acts as a “booster” for the stress hormone
cortisol. This is how adaptogens limit the amount of cortisol in your system when
you’re experiencing stress — the “lower ceiling” I talked about earlier.
2. They stimulate and tone the central nervous system, without the potential
for addiction or tolerance that occur with sympathomimetic stimulants like ephedra
or caffeine, and the effects are enhanced under experienced stress or fatigue. What’s
important about this is that it means the stimulant effect is more powerful when
it comes in someone who is under stress — so if you take an adaptogen and you’re
not stressed or tired, you won’t become “wired” the way you might if you drank caffeinated
soda or coffee.
3. They are generally safe, and with a few rare exceptions, they don’t usually interact
with standard medications. This is important because not all sources of
stress are emotional — sometimes, illness or disease can initiate a stress cascade!
There are some key interactions when it comes to blood thinners like warfarin and
certain antidepressants and psychotropic medications, so it’s important to check
with your practitioner to make sure there are no drug interactions.
Specific herbs’ benefits
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) reduces anxiety
by acting on the HPA axis and has neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory
effects. It also has effects on sex hormone production.
Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus) bolsters
the immune system, reduces inflammation, and helps to regulate normal blood sugar
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), formerly
called Siberian ginseng, helps shorten recovery from acute stress and decreases
fatigue, 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. It
also has potential anti-aging and neuroprotective effects.
Maca root (Lepidium meyenii) enhances energy and
stamina, and may improve cognitive function and memory. It may also improve mood
Because they work by altering molecular responses during stress, adaptogenic herbs
don’t behave like standard medications — you may not see an effect right away, as
they often require several weeks of regular use to produce the adaptation you’re
So many options!
Many of these herbs are available in supplement formulations, but there are other
ways to get their benefits if you’d rather not take them in pill form. They can
be found as teas or powders that you can add to smoothies or yogurt, and some of
them — astragalus, for instance — can be used in soups or stews. If you’re not sure
how to use them, talk to an herbalist or naturopath for guidance.
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Last updated on 01/16/2020