Adaptogens, Stress Management and Health
By Venus Ramos, MD
We hear it time and time again. Stress can be harmful to our health. Thus, advice about how to manage stress is abundant, ranging from meditation and breathing exercises to social support and physical activity.
There is another option for stress management that is gaining wider recognition. Adaptogens are natural, plant-derived substances that can neutralize the adverse effects of stress, like fatigue, insomnia, depressed mood, and high blood pressure. Appropriately named for their ability to help our bodies adapt to stressors, adaptogens can support us through the strain of illness, work demands, or physical challenges.
What are Adaptogens?
Perhaps lesser known in conventional medicine, adaptogens have been used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries—and not just for stress relief. Holistic practitioners find certain adaptogens helpful for stamina, longevity, and immune support.
Through more than a half-century of research, the concept of an adaptogen has been refined and modified. A general consensus of the criteria for a true adaptogen includes the following:
- It is safe (i.e., non-toxic) with no major side effects or contraindications.
- It enhances the general resistance of the body, decreasing the sensitivity to stressors.
- It maintains the body’s homeostasis, a constant and balanced internal environment.
- It acts in a non-specific way to “normalize” bodily functions, regardless of the direction of change from the norm caused by the stressor. So it must be neither a stimulant nor a sedative.
Adaptogens have been further segregated into two categories—primary and secondary.
A primary adaptogen exerts its function by affecting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to external stress. The HPA axis is a key component of the stress response that involves, as its name implies, the hypothalamus, the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. These three endocrine glands act in a coordinated manner to regulate cortisol levels and maintain homeostasis in the body.
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that responds to stress by releasing corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). CRF then triggers the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland. Subsequently, ACTH signals the adrenal glands to produce and secrete cortisol. Once in the bloodstream, cortisol can perform its many roles in the body’s stress response including the management of blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation.
After cortisol reaches a certain level of concentration in the blood, a negative feedback mechanism is triggered. Through this mechanism, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland receives signals to inhibit the production of CRF and ACTH, respectively.
While the actual pathways are a bit more complex, the above-mentioned description of the HPA axis does provide a basic outline of various points at which a primary adaptogen might act to affect the stress response. Here is where secondary adaptogens differ from primary ones. Secondary adaptogens do not impact the HPA axis directly. While they similarly have a normalizing effect on the body, they do so by influencing the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. So secondary adaptogens may exhibit non-specific protective effects on various organ systems, thereby providing benefits beyond that of primary adaptogens alone.
Adaptogens generally come in the form of herbs, roots, or mushrooms. They can be taken in a variety of ways as a supplement—in capsule form, blended into protein smoothies, brewed in tea or coffee, or simply cut up for adding to a meal.
Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea): A primary adaptogen that can support energy levels and help people feel revitalized after minor ailments like headaches and flu syndromes.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus): A primary adaptogenic herb that may help combat stress, fatigue, and depression.
Schisandra berry (Schisandra chinensis): A primary adaptogen that has been used to promote liver health and mental clarity.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): A primary adaptogen, also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng, that can help ward off fatigue and keep the mind focused.
Cordyceps mushrooms (Cordyceps sinensis): A secondary adaptogen that has been used by athletes to increase energy and endurance.