Did you know that 60%-90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints? (2) That number is HUGE! And yet, there isn’t that much focus placed on stress-management in the medical world. Growing bodies of research are proving that stress can play a part in problems such as hormone imbalance, headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, auto-immune disease, thyroid issues, depression, and anxiety. Stress impacts the body so strongly that, if left unchecked, it can imbalance pretty much ALL of your body systems including your hormones, heart, brain, gut and sex organs.
In fact, the more I research stress (in particular chronic stress), the more I realize that it might the *single most important* health metric to pay attention to if you want to really move the needle in your health. Because stress hormones (like cortisol) create such strong physiological reactions in the body, chronic stress has a way of derailing all of your other valiant health efforts.
It’s like the “king of the castle” game you played when you were a kid- you would try to jump up onto the bed so you could become the king (or queen!) of Bed Kingdom, but your big brother or sister was already on the bed and they just kept pushing you off the minute you got back up. Stress is the “king of the castle” and will successfully push away all of your health efforts, one at a time.
The good news is the herbal world has some powerful herbs to help beat the effects of stress, and these herbs are famously (and fondly) known as adaptogens.
What Are Adaptogens?
Simply put, adaptogens are herbs that help to minimize the impacts of stress in the body. They’ve been used for thousands of years in traditional medical systems like Ayurveda (Traditional Medicine of India) and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to improve longevity and vitality. However, the cool thing is now modern science is catching up with what these traditions have long known. More recently they were heavily researched by Russian scientists. You see, in the 1950s and 60s, Russia wanted their Olympic athletes to be the best in the world, so they got to work researching what herbs might help their athletes have an edge. Much to their delight, they found that a certain group of herbs helped their athletes have fewer injuries, build muscle faster, train harder with less need for rest, and kept their mental acuity sharp so their focus and concentration improved. What is this category of herbs, you might ask? Enter adaptogens!
Russian scientists concluded that adaptogenic herbs normalize function and increase resistance within the body to a wide range of stressors, including mental, emotional AND physical stressors. Adaptogens don’t only work for Russian athletes though! They help anyone with a human body cope more effectively with ANY kind of stress. Good thing, cause I don't know about you, but I'm no Russian athlete ;)
Why Are Certain Herbs Considered Adaptogens (While Others Aren’t)?
Not all herbs are adaptogens by any stretch! In fact, there’s a pretty well-established list of herbs that are officially considered to be adaptogens. But before we get to the list, let’s talk about what makes a herb an adaptogen.
In order for a herb to be considered an adaptogen, it must meet the following criteria (1):
- An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient- this means generally speaking they cause minimal side effects on physical or mental health.*
- An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body- an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical or biological agents. Adaptogens tend to affect multiple organ systems all at once, which increases overall energetic reserves that keep the body more balanced when exposed to stress.
- An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on the physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor. This speaks to the ability for adaptogens to either calm an overactive response, or increase an underactive response, depending on what the body needs. In this way adaptogenic herbs have “intelligence” when it comes to being able to normalize body imbalances.
* Of course, all herbs have cautions and contraindications to be aware of, so always consult with a herbalist and/or trusted practitioner before taking herbs, especially if you're on medication as there may be some potential interactions to consider.
In their book Adaptogens, Winston & Maimes give the example of Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) to demonstrate this “intelligence”. One of the active ingredients found in this plant are substances called ginsenosides. The authors state: “The herb contains ginsenoside Rg1, which can stimulate the nervous system, and ginsenoside Rb1, which calms it.” How cool is that?!
How Do Adaptogens Work, Exactly?
The body has two main pathways that it uses to cope with stress. These are the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS)(1). The systems will pump out hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to create a cascade known as the “stress response”. The stress response involves mobilizing glucose into the bloodstream, increasing your heart rate, shutting down your digestive and reproductive systems and moving blood into the big muscle groups (in case you need run for your life, literally). And this response, if continued chronically over a long period of time, wreaks havoc on EVERY SINGLE body system.
When your body is stressed, it uses up a ton of nutrients to keep up with the increased demands, which over time leads to deep fatigue and a lack of energy. Winston & Maimes add: “ Another effect of normal metabolism is the creation of free radicals. If the concentration of free radicals exceeds the body’s capacity to neutralize them, then cells can be harmed- especially mitochondria, the cell’s energy powerhouse.” (1)
And guess what neutralizes free radicals and toxins? Antioxidants! Now, guess what herbs typically have a lot of antioxidants? You guessed it, adaptogens.
Science is now backing up what herbalists have known for thousands of years- adaptogens help the body to be more resilient in the face of stress. Adaptogens work to curb the impacts of stress by affecting the nervous system and immune system. They’ve been shown to positively “affect the brain, nerves, endocrine glands (pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, thymus, pineal, pancreas, ovaries and testes), and immune system by helping to re-regulate, normalize and enhance function” when under stress. (1)
To sum it up, incorporating adaptogens is an incredible tool (alongside other stress-management strategies of course!) to help minimize the negative impacts stress is having on your organ systems on a daily basis.
Alright, Give Them To Me! Which Herbs Are Adaptogens?
Ok, so now that we know just how powerful these herbs are for supporting the stress-response in the body, let’s talk about what herbs are adaptogens!
Here are some of my all time favorite adaptogenic herbs and what makes them each unique:
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus)- a reproductive tonic, this amazing plant can gently help balance hormones throughout all the phases of a woman’s life. It can increase fertility and help with threatened miscarriage. It can also be useful to build moisture and nourishment in the body through menopause, which can help with common symptoms like decreased libido and vaginal dryness.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)- particularly powerful when it comes to modulating the immune system and preventing illness such as colds, flus and recurrent infections. One of my favorites to take in the winter for keeping illness at bay.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)- this herb works on the GABA receptors which helps to calm the anxiety and stress response in the body. It can be helpful with insomnia, disturbed sleep patterns of any kind and modulates the immune system. It can help to build the blood (anemia) and will support healthy thyroid function as well!
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)- a powerful liver herb that promotes both phase 1 & 2 liver detox, Schisandra is useful for supporting any condition exacerbated by a sluggish liver. Digestive problems, hormone imbalances and skin conditions can all be benefited from the extra liver support. Schisandra is also calming to the nervous system and is traditionally used in Chinese Medicine for disturbed “shen”, which manifests as nightmares, anxiety, stress, irritability and insomnia.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)- this herb is particularly beneficial for the heart and lungs. It balances blood sugar, reduces blood pressure and keeps harmful cholesterol in check. As an antiviral herb, it helps fight off lung infections, colds and flus. It can lift heavy moods to lighten the spirit, so it can be a great ally for mild depression, and also sharpens the mind. In Ayurveda, it’s been used for thousands of years to bring lightness and spiritual clarity to one’s being.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)- honestly, what does Reishi NOT do? This mushroom is a powerhouse. It’s immunomodulating properties work to keep your immune system healthy, and can even help balance auto-immune reactions in the body. It’s antiviral, anti-inflammatory and has been shown to have anti-cancer effects. Reishi can protect the liver from damaging toxins, balances blood sugar levels, reduces high blood pressure and calms the nervous system to promote a calm state of mind.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)- An excellent adrenal tonic, licorice can be helpful in reducing the impacts of stress on the adrenal glands, especially when someone has elevated cortisol or blood sugar levels, with fatigue and tiredness upon waking up in the morning (all signs of adrenal burnout). As an immunomodulator, licorice can help to calm excessive immune response (autoimmune diseases) and can increase immunity when someone is frequently ill, for example. It’s soothing and anti-inflammatory properties make it fantastic for digestive issues, including ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease. It’s also antiviral and soothing the lungs!
Gotu kola (Centella asiactica)- I LOVE this plant. Gotu kola comes to us from Ayurveda and has been used for thousands of years to promote mental clarity by revitalizing nerve and brain cells. It can also support blood vessel strength and integrity, making it useful to support varicose veins and cardiovascular health. It heals tissue, so can be useful in minimizing scarring and supporting healthy, beautiful skin both inside the body (i.e. heals the gut lining) and out!
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)- As one of the classic adaptogenic herbs researched for athletes, eleuthero has been proven to enhance immune function, energy, vitality, endurance, stamina and improves mental clarity. Helps to calm stress and anxiety, while providing gentle energy to counter the effects of fatigue.
So there you have it my friends! I hope you’re inspired to get to know some of these plants more personally and incorporate them into your life. If you want to take a deep dive, I HIGHLY recommend the Adaptogens book by David Winston and Steven Maimes.
As always: Consult a herbalist and/or knowledgeable health practitioner before taking any herbs, especially if you’re on medication to make sure there are no interactions or contraindications.
1) Winston, D. & Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press.