Ask someone how they are doing and you’ll often get a stock answer of ‘I’m so busy”; we almost wear the expression like a badge of honour to convince ourselves and others that we’re valuable, that we, and our expertise or viewpoint, are in high demand.
Consider it the new status symbol of the 21st century. This idea is not new and as been written about extensively by others.
Don’t get me wrong, as a society we are busier than ever before. More and more things tug at our attention and of course technology increases the expectation of instant gratification and results but at what cost?
As people become more and more stressed, seeking out stress reducing ‘hacks’ (God I hate that word) is the natural response whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Some stress-busting activities are healthier than others like massage, meditation, yoga, gardening, moderate exercise, knitting etc while others less so such as alcohol (the number one non-prescription ‘go to’ for stress-related anxiety), overeating or undereating, benzo use, smoking and drug use.
In the wellness world, some have turned to so-called natural alternatives to help support the body during times of stress; using plant-based products called adaptogens but what are they and more importantly, do they even work?
A misunderstood concept, stress is neither good or bad, it just is. It’s the response all biological beings have to a stressor (stimulus) in order to meet the demands that are being placed upon it.
The stress response primarily involves the brain, the central nervous system and the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys). The body uses a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters to manage the impact that stress has on all tissues and organ systems.
Stress can be physical (exercise, trauma, ingested chemicals, infections) or psychological – real or imagined – fear, insecurity, deadlines, worrying about the future (anxiety) or dwelling on the past (remorse/regret).
All of these stressors can activate the stress response pathway: the HPA or hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis.
Short term stress/reaction to a stressor is helpful; it improves physical and mental performance, increases our ‘biological response/defenses’ against the demands on the body, can promote motivation to change, and improves chances of survival.
Long term though it ain’t so pretty; think of ongoing, low-grade chronic or intense stress like smoldering embers in the fireplace or revving an engine in neutral – something is going to burnout in the long run (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
Chronic stress’s detrimental effects include:
- Insomnia & irritability (Tips to improve sleep without drugs)
- Anxiety, depression & increased fatigue
- Impaired/weakened immunity & increased inflammation
- Metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes
- Weight gain & shortened telomeres
- Elevated adrenalin and cortisol [stress hormones]
- Emotional disorders, increased risk for substance use to cope (alcohol, drugs, prescription meds, smoking)
- Increased bone & muscle breakdown
What are adaptogens?
Never heard of adaptogens? You’re definitely not alone – not because they’re the latest new fad or new supplement – but because they’re not well known outside of traditional healing circles. Adaptogens, a term coined in 1947, are plant based foods/products that have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for 1000s of years.
Today, their ingredients can be found in supplemental form and unlike their free form leaves, roots, and powdered counterparts, you can buy supplements that are standardized to guarantee that they contain a therapeutic amount of active ingredients.
How do adaptogens reduce stress?
Adaptogens help the body to counteract the effects of stress in the body. Long term stress causes very real physical changes to the body including negatively affecting the neurological (brain, nerves), endocrine (hormones), and immune systems.
In simplest terms, adaptogens help to regulate the activity of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands by tempering the 3rd phase of the stress response. There are 3 stages/phases in response to stress that we go through:
- Alarm phase [reaction to the situation/demands]
- Resistance phase [continued reaction resulting in prolonged release of adrenalin & cortisol]
- Exhaustion phase [inability to cope/respond biologically to the stress – risk of negative physical impact]
It’s during the the resistance phase that the body is in the sweet zone where it is responding to the trigger/stress appropriately. The body is responding so that it can ‘rise to the occasion’ and allow us to perform our best but if the resistance phase isn’t given the change to shut off, we run into trouble over the long run & our physical & mental health pay the price.
Adaptogens essentially help to stretch out the ‘sweet spot’ so we can physically handle the stress a little longer while mitigating/reducing the impact of stress’s effect on us.
Adaptogens have been studied fairly well with respect to their ability to help off-set some of the effects stress has on our bodies. They have been shown to lower stress hormones, increase stamina, improve stress-related cognitive impairment.
They also reduce inflammation and temper some of the metabolic impact that stress has. They have a safe track record and like any herbal products there are some situations where they shouldn’t be used so be sure to do your homework. Are adaptogens safe? Yes.
Some adaptogens to consider if you’re thinking of trying them out are:
Studies have shown it lowers the stress hormone cortisol, as well as, the negative impact that elevated cortisol has. Controlled studies saw a 30% reduction in cortisol levels in those supplemented with the highest dose of ashwagandha compared to the lowest intake (6, 7, 8, 9). Ashwagandha has been demonstrated to improve parameters of anxiety, inflammation, depression (10, 11), fatigue (12) and improve endocrine markers such as blood pressure (13, 14), elevated blood sugar and cholesterol (15).
Like ginseng, rhodiola has been used to fight fatigue (16, 17, 18, 19) and it appears to reduce the effects of prolonged physical exhaustion that causes fatigue. It seems to help reduce “burn out”, improve cognition and mental clarity & reduce exhaustion (20).
Maca is a member of the broccoli family and historically is native to Peru. It has traditionally been used as an aphrodisiac due to it’s purported effective on the sex hormones but it’s ability to enhance the levels and function of testosterone and estrogen have not been supported. It has been shown to improve parameters of mental stress related to depression and anxiety (21, 22).
Probably the best known berb for stress. Panax ginseng has been shown to improve cognition & sense of well-being (23, 24, 25, 26). It has been shown to improve antioxidant status which can help to reduce stress related oxidation and damage (27, 28)
Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng)
Also known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero has traditionally been used to fight fatigue . Most the research is of poor quality but there is some with respect to improving cognition (29), reducing oxidative DNA damage (30), fighting fatigue (31, 32).
Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.