5 best adaptogens for stress relief



By Dr. Sarika Arora, MD

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 levels.

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 and libido.

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 looking for.

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 08/10/2020