Nearly all of us experience stress occasionally, like those days where everything seems to go wrong. For instance, the mornings where your coffee maker has suddenly stopped brewing so you stop for your beverage on the way to work. You get back on the freeway only to find traffic has come to a complete halt. Your boss is frustrated because you're late, and you've got a voicemail from your child's school telling you that your son is running a temperature. These are the types of scenarios we are often faced with, and can inevitably cause our stress levels to spike.
A 2017 Gallup poll revealed that about eight in 10 Americans either frequently or sometimes encounter stress. Some stress can be a good thing by motivating us to perform our best, improving our ability to accomplish tasks more efficiently, and boosting memory. But most of the time, such as when we’re struggling to pay the bills or having an argument with a family member, stress can be a negative force. (1)
When experiencing extreme stress over a prolonged period without relief, it can seriously detract from the quality of life, which is why keeping our adrenal glands in good shape is essential. These glands play a vital role in helping us manage our stress. They are also helpful in supporting the immune system, providing better mental focus and endurance, and encouraging a more balanced mood. (2)
Managing stress can support your health in the long term while helping you feel better now. Exercising, meditation and laughing with friends can all soothe stress, but there’s another approach to consider—adaptogens.
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a select group of plants and roots primarily, and some mushrooms, which support the body’s natural ability to handle stress. While each one does something a little different, as a whole they are known to help bring us back to our center while managing stress levels. They have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, known to support the body during stressors, whether biological, chemical, or physical.
These substances are called adaptogens due to their unique ability to “adapt” the way they function according to the body’s specific needs. They’re similar to a thermostat in that they can moderate the body’s stress response, kind of like how a thermostat controls temperature.
How Adaptogens Help Us Cope with Stress
While researchers aren’t entirely sure as to how adaptogens can help the body cope with stress better, we do know that they are quite intelligent. Cortisol is the hormone responsible for managing stress, sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone.” If cortisol levels are too high or too low, they can help get them back in balance. For example, when the “fight or flight” response is invoked, the reaction that occurs when we perceive a threat, they may help us to attain equilibrium, supporting a more desirable response to stress. (3)
Adaptogens also have the potential to support digestive health, immune function, hormonal balance, and cognition within the body.
A More In-Depth Understanding of Stress and the Role of Adaptogens
As noted, adaptogens may help to support a more balanced response to ongoing stress by lowering cortisol levels in the body. Even if you're not in "fight or flight" mode, perhaps, if you’re feeling low on energy, have trouble sleeping or feel exhausted, your cortisol levels may be out of balance. Adaptogens may impede the release of cortisol, acting like a thermostat to balance levels of the hormone in the body to help us feel calmer while boosting energy and focus.
Although more research is needed, proponents believe that adaptogens may do for the adrenal glands what working out does for the muscles. That’s because when we exercise, it’s a stress on the body, but when we continue to do it, the body becomes better able to deal with that stress, so we don’t get as tired. Adaptogens can help train the body to manage the feelings of stress.
Types of Adaptogens
There are many types of adaptogens, but some of the most well-researched and potentially effective include Panax or Asian ginseng, Ashwagandha, Holy basil, Rhodiola, Astragalus, Reishi and Schisandra.
Asian Ginseng. Also referred to as Panax ginseng, Asian ginseng is the most well-known adaptogen. It may promote heart health by maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Additionally, it is known for supporting a healthy inflammatory response, and boosting the immune system. (4,5)
Ashwagandha. Ayurveda considersashwagandha to be an especially powerful herb. It’s been a part of Eastern medicine for thousands of years to encourage longevity along with more energy and more endurance. This herb is often used today for supporting general anxiety as it’s been found to balance levels of cortisol. (6)
Holy basil. Also referred to as tulsi, holy basil has been used for centuries to support health and wellness. In Ayurvedic medicine it is often used for its potential to support energy levels and enhance the body’s natural response to stress. (7)
Rhodiola. Also referred to as golden root, rhodiola is an herb that acts like a thermostat for the hormones, particularly cortisol. As cortisol dissipates, a calming effect is often the result while bringing greater alertness at the same time. There has also been some research that shows it may support a normal pattern of sleeping. It’s also believed to promote heart health and brain functioning. (8)
Astragalus. While this root is primarily used for bolstering the immune system, herbalists have also used it to support heart health and promote longevity. (9)
Reishi. Reishi is an edible type of mushroom that’s been used for thousands of years. It is known for supporting a healthy inflammatory response and promoting proper immune function. (10)
Schisandra. Chinese tradition considers the Schisandra berry to be a balancing herb, popular for promoting longevity and supporting the natural process of aging. It’s also known as a powerful adaptogenic herb traditionally used to help support the body’s ability to manage stress, and sustain concentration. (3)
The Bottom Line
Adaptogens may provide a number of benefits for those who are seeking a natural way to manage stress while enhancing health and wellness. Talk to your health practitioner about how taking an adaptogen supplement might benefit you.
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