What are adaptogenic herbs? This class of herbs increase the adaptive energy of the organism and increase resistance to stress. In essence they help us to adapt to the various stresses we encounter in life, whether they be stress from work deadlines or the physical stresses of running on a treadmill- adaptogens help the body adapt to and overcome environmental challenges. The term was originally coined by a Russian pharmacologist, and adaptogens are well known for their ability to help the body overcome “adrenal fatigue”- that nebulous term that likely refers to HPA axis dysregulation.
The HPA axis is crucial in how our bodies respond to stress, and dysfunction in this system have far ranging effects. The HPA axis refers to the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. This system is how your brain communicates to your adrenals and how stress hormones communicate back to keep us ready for whatever the environment demands. Chronic stress is a common reason why the HPA axis gets out of whack, and while cortisol is not inherently bad, when it is over-secreted by the adrenals and is released when we don’t truly need it the effects can be quite disastrous on our well being.
Some common symptoms of adrenal fatigue, or HPA axis dysregulation as we will more accurately refer to it are: fatigue, poor sleep, poor concentration, depression, weight gain and a general malaise and immune deficiency. So how does the HPA axis get out of regulation, isn’t this wonderful body capable of overcoming and stress? Yes, but also no, when stress is extreme or prolonged the body simply can’t adjust anymore. Here’s how chronic stress leads to complete exhaustion.
1. Constant stress leads to secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) and inflammatory cytokines (chemicals released from immune cells that cause inflammation and also affect our mood interestingly). Ever notice when you have the flu you feel like absolute crap, your mind is fuzzy and you’re just overall depressed? Well that’s the inflammatory cytokines, NOT the virus or bacteria that is causing that response.
There are a variety of theories as to why we these chemicals effect our mood so negatively, but I think the simplest explanation is best here. When we are sick our body wants us to rest, sleep, and avoid going into dangerous environments like the outdoors and contacting other people- what better way to convince us of this than flooding our bodies with tons of inflammatory chemicals that not only activate our immune cells, but also make us feel like absolute garbage-grasping at our blankets and snoozing away daylight hours.
2. Over long periods of stress, whether from physical stresses like disease or psychological stresses like a boss that just won’t give us a break our HPA axis just can’t keep up with the constant signals to release more stress hormones. Stress hormones in higher amounts suppress the release of stress hormones, yet the stressors keep piling up so we get caught in a vicious cycle- a 24/7 fight or flight response that is at a slow-burn. This leads to circadian rhythm disturbance so we get less sleep, and it is less restorative, our hormones get out of whack and cortisol dysregulation leads to blood sugar imbalances so basically we spiral into the 3rd and final state of adrenal fatigue- adrenal exhaustion.
3. In the state of adrenal exhaustion, the HPA axis is sending signals to the adrenal to make cortisol but no one’s home. The adrenals simply can’t pump out any more cortisol, and are just functioning to keep us alive, they simply ignore stress signals and in essence give up. In this state the immune system cannot function well and we get sick from all sorts of sources very easily, and have a hard time clearing any bugs, we get chronic pain from inflammation, and our blood pressure is dysregulated. This state is where tonifying adaptogens are very beneficial, to kick start the HPA axis back into gear, increase our resistance to stress, and restore our adrenals over time. There are a variety of ways to address this kind of adrenal fatigue, ranging from simply removing the stresses, getting lots of rest, mindfulness practices such as meditation, exercising and many more.
In this article we will focus on 5 Key Botanicals for Chronic Stress, these are largely found in the adaptogen class.
Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus Senticoccus)
This wonderful plant is a sedative adaptogen, meaning it helps us adapt AND it is calming. This means it is particularly useful in stage 2 of adrenal fatigue when you simply feel anxious, overstimulated and stressed out all the time. Siberian Ginseng helps with hormone balance, and its effects are more neutral than the other ginsengs. Panax ginseng for example is much more stimulating, so can exacerbate anxiety or disrupt sleep if used in high quantities for too long or at night. Panax ginseng is more suited for Stage 3 when you need a kick start or Stage 1 when you just need to power through the stress. Siberian ginseng helps us adapt to stress- it is best when we feel weak, tired and feel a decreased physical and mental capability. To some this is a general feeling of chronic fatigue or brain fog of a milder kind. If Siberian Ginseng were a person, it would be a very stoic father who keeps his cool and is well grounded, dealing with stress calmly and never letting it get the best of him. He’s a well-balanced view towards stress, that allows us to react appropriately and to keep our calm.
Rhodiola stands on its own in the class of adaptogens as it is very fast acting and well suited for when we need a boost of energy before physical activity or a stressful mental activity. Rhodiola is best for those that are just serious burnt out in stage 3 or an athlete seeking to get a boost in endurance, strength, stamina and mental focus before training or a game. Rhodiola has research showing that is decreases fatigue, increases physical endurance, sharpens the mind and helps with focus. I love this adaptogenic herb as a way to give a boost before exercising. It is very stimulating compared to the other adaptogens and goes well in adaptogenic formulas. If Rhodiola were a person, it would be a like a drill sergeant that kicks you into action and gets you ready for war! It has a long history of use for boosting athletic performance and as the others helps the body adapt to stress, especially when it is sudden.
Ashwaganda (Withania Somnifera)
This is one of the most well-known of the adaptogens and has found its way into supplement cabinets around the world from its humble beginnings in India as a key herb used in Ayurveda.
Ashwagandha is an overall nerve tonic that is vitalizing, reduces cortisol levels, is helpful for mental wellness, helps the immune system and even with pesky allergies. It is a great herb to be used for longer periods of time to help adapt to stress and is more sedative in nature than the other adaptogens. Taking ashwagandha is higher doses via powder can even make you sleepy, and certainly very calm, therefore this is most useful to be taken either at night or if you wake up mornings and just can’t go back to sleep (indicating high awakening cortisol response).
A great little tip from the Ayurveda tradition is to mix a teaspoon of the powder into some hot milk and sip away! It also pairs well with Turmeric powder in a golden milk for a nice calm and sedating beverage (don’t forget that raw honey for an extra deliciousness factor). This mixture is great when stress has you up at night unable to sleep. If Ashwagandha was a person it would be like a wise guru, who chills you out, gets you calm and helps you deal with stress. He is best seen often and consistently to see the total effects of his spiritual wisdom of “just chill, it’s all good”.
This fruit has a long history of use in Chinese medicine as an overall health tonic and has a delicious sour taste. Research has shown that Schisandra enhances cognitive performance, is neuroregenerative and has a host of other organ tonifying properties. It supports weakened or deficient organ systems, strengthens the body overall and even protects the liver and heart from toxins. Overall Schisandra is more sedative in quality and is often used for anxiety, insomnia, impotence and other conditions related to chronic stress. It is a specific remedy for a rundown spirit and helps boost the mental state of those suffering from stress. If Schisandra was a person, it would be like a VIP bodyguard that protects you from outside threats. It is very well suited as being a general tonic against stresses of all kinds, especially those that effect the organ systems negatively.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza Glabra)
This is an adaptogenic herb that most do not know of for this usage! It is often used in Chinese herbal formulas as a synergist that helps the functioning of the other herbs, is a supreme remedy for cough but in this context, it has an amazing ability to regulate the adrenals and the cortisol response. It is very sweet in its natural form, but it doesn’t mess with your blood sugar. In fact, licorice helps blood sugar regulation through balancing sugar spikes that come along with meals and sweet snacks. Who knew such a sweet plant could have such sweet effects!
Licorice serves well alongside other herbs and is another great adaptogenic herb that has tonifying effects on the body and helps us to adapt to the stresses of life. This plant has an amazing amount of research with use in boosting the immune system, having benefit for digestion so I recommend doing a quick search on Pubmed and having your mind blown. If licorice were a person, it would be like a Daoist sage that is in harmony with nature and balances you. It is a key herb to be used in any adaptogenic formula or on its own!
You can even chew on a stick of it to get those benefits and to cut cravings for sugar or cigarettes, which are typically what people reach for when stressed. These herbs are some of favorite adaptogens and are generally well tolerated and gentle in their actions, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they are not very effective for overcoming stress, combating adrenal fatigue and just overall helping our bodies and minds adapt to stress. Let’s face it stress is inevitable and a life without stress would not even be interesting, so it is all in how we react to stress.
Some stresses should be avoided as they lead to nothing good, but researchers have found that eustress, or good stress, is actually necessary for being healthy and happy. Stress is largely based on perception, so if we perceive a stressor as harmful that is what our body recognizes, and we suffer from the ill effects of that. However, if we find meaning in the stress and consider it good for our growth, our body perceives that stress completely differently and instead of being debilitated it is actually empowered by that stress. As with other things, stress is all about perception.
That is why a gnarly workout usually leaves you feeling good, even though there’s all sorts of physical damage and microtears to the muscles. Because we know that the exercise is helpful, we view it as a positive and it helps our body and leaves us in a happy state. So, I will leave you with this nugget of wisdom, consider the stresses of your life as a challenge that you will grow from overcoming, and weed out the stresses in your life that really have no growth potential in them! (Also, our green friends from the adaptogen herbs can be allies here).