Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could simply add something to your diet and make your stress go away? Good news… you can! Even though they have been around for thousands of years, adaptogens are now becoming more popular to help alleviate symptoms and conditions associated with stress.
We are faced with stress every single day. Whether it is physical, emotional, or mental stress, our body responds the same way. Our bodies are built to handle stress in short bursts. This came in very useful when our ancestors were being chased by and fighting off lions, but it isn’t as helpful nowadays.
The difference between the world back then and the world now is that stress is much more constant in our lives. We aren’t just battling stress once a day or a couple times a week anymore. Now we go from work to school to home and around again, all the time being faced with extra challenges from crying children, to angry bosses, to more bills to pay, to chronic illnesses.
Being in this constant state of stress puts our adrenal system into overdrive. Your adrenal glands are a hormone-producing gland located on top of each of your kidneys. When your body is put under stress, your adrenal glands secrete different hormones to help bring your body back to neutral. Because our bodies are made to deal with stress in short bursts, if your adrenal glands are constantly working, eventually they will tire out. When this happens we experience symptoms like fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, low blood pressure, skin rashes as well as sugar and salt cravings.
There are three phases to the stress response. Let’s use our previous example of encountering a lion to explain them. The first phase is the alarm phase; this is when you see the lion close by.
During this phase, your body starts producing hormones, like adrenaline, to help you either fight the lion or run from it. Next, your body enters the resistance phase.
The hormones our body produced are now put to work to increase muscle performance and our ability to concentrate. This adrenaline rush gives us energy, stamina, and a clear head to increase our chances of fighting off or fleeing from the lion.
Finally, our bodies enter the exhaustion phase.
Adaptogens are naturally occurring herbs that help regulate the bodies stress levels. While adaptogens aren’t a magic pill for stress, they do work at a molecular level to help regulate the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands. When used regularly and consistently, adaptogens can increase the amount of time our body stays in the resistance phase of stress.
This causes us to have reduced stress levels, more energy, increased physical endurance, and better concentration. You can relate the way adaptogens work to that of a thermometer; when the room gets too cold, the heat kicks in and when it gets too hot, the air conditioner kicks in.
Adaptogens help calm us and give us energy, while evening out the imbalances in our body. By supporting our adrenal glands, they help our bodies combat stress. They also help our cells utilize oxygen more effectively and eliminate waste products, helping to access more energy and maintain balance.
Because adaptogens are naturally occurring herbs, it is easy to add them into your daily routine. You can buy them in loose form to add to meals or make tea, and many natural health stores sell them in capsule form as well. You can find them individually or in a combination formula. Which adaptogens you should take depends on your symptoms and other health conditions. Here are some of the most common adaptogens used today:
Ancient ginseng: Ginseng is one of the most valued medicinal plants in the world. Western herbalists believe that ginseng restores and strengthens the body’s immune response, promotes longevity, and enhances the growth of normal cells by influencing the metabolism of the individual cell. Research studies have shown that it promotes an overall sense of well-being and may even help fight off certain types of cancer.
- Eleuthero: This herb is used all over the world for many different reasons. In Germany, it is approved for use in combating chronic fatigue and improving memory. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to alleviate muscle spasms, joint pain, insomnia, and fatigue. In our Western culture, it is mostly used to combat mild depression and improve memory.
- Ashwagandha: Similar to ginseng, Ashwagandha is used to strengthen the immune system and promote longevity. It has been used for thousands of years to treat exhaustion brought on by both physical and mental stress. Today it is often recommended to those suffering from high blood pressure, insomnia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Rhodiola Rosea: This herb is especially crucial for helping to balance cortisol levels. It has been shown to directly affect cortisol by either raising it or lowering it based on what your body needs at that time. By supporting cellular metabolism, it also has a positive affect on brain function, depression, and heart health.
While adaptogens can be very beneficial and are generally safe, there are also risks and side effects associated with taking them.
High doses of Asian ginseng and Eleuthero can increase symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and agitation. They should be used with caution in individuals with cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure to avoid increased blood pressure and palpitations.
Ashwagandha should be avoided in those with sensitivity to the nightshade group of plants and Rhodiola Rosea should be avoided in those with manic depression or bipolar disorder.
Adaptogens as a group are usually not recommended for pregnant or breast-feeding women. Before starting any new supplements, make sure to check with your primary care provider to make sure there are no interactions with your current medications or health conditions.