What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are natural substances, including herbs, that help the body cope with both mental and physical stress. They can have a wide variety of effects, including supporting healthy function of the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands are small organs about the size of a walnut that sit on top of the kidneys. They are responsible for releasing stress hormones such as cortisol in response to physical and mental stress. Healthy adrenal function is essential for good stress management. Poor adrenal gland health can contribute to the negative effects of stress, including high blood pressure, metabolic disorders, and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
How do adaptogens work?
Adaptogens work by protecting the body against the effects of mental and physical stress on the body. They boost our tolerance for physical and mental exhaustion and help support mental focus by regulating the activity of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands.
For instance, the adaptogenic herb rhodiola supports the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, including adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. The herb appears to prevent enzymes, including monoamine oxidase, from breaking down these neurotransmitters. This means that the neurotransmitters stick around longer to support mood regulation. Rhodiola also seems to prevent stress-induced increases in the stress hormone cortisol, which can adversely affect blood pressure and blood sugar regulation.
Other adaptogenic herbs work in different ways. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), for example, contains active ingredients called withanolides. These substances, which are naturally occurring steroids, inhibit overactive cells in the brain  and help to bring excess levels of cortisone in the brain back into the normal range. Ashwagandha also has antioxidant properties and supports immune function. All in all, this herb helps to settle nerves and encourage good sleep and mood.
Do adaptogens work?
According to the research, yes!
In one 2014 review, researchers examined the results of five high-quality human trials involving ashwagandha. They found that the adaptogenic herb was more effective than placebo for reducing feelings of anxiousness and/or stress. Participants in two of the studies were assessed using the Hamilton Anxiety Scale, and ashwagandha led to reductions in scores for both. In another study, researchers noted a 56.5% decrease in scores on the Beck Anxiety Inventory, while participants undergoing psychotherapy had just a 30.5% decrease. Another study used Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) scores to measure the effectiveness of ashwagandha. Participants taking the herb had a 44% reduction in scores compared to just a 5.5% reduction in those taking a placebo.
More recently, researchers examined the effect of ashwagandha on both stress levels and serum cortisol. In a 60-day trial, people with a history of chronic stress took either a placebo or 300 mg of an ashwagandha root extract. Those in the herb group had a 27.9% decrease in serum cortisol levels compared to those taking the placebo, and enjoyed significant reductions in stress.
How about rhodiola? Again, multiple studies have shown the herb to support stress management. In one study, a single dose of rhodiola taken just before an anticipated stressful event was found to prevent stress-induced performance issues. In a longer-term study, people taking 400 mg of rhodiola daily were found to have less fatigue; improvements in mental performance; lower burnout; improvements in irritability, concentration, and zest for life; and fewer feelings of anxiousness.
Most clinical trials look at the effects of single herbs, such as rhodiola or ashwagandha. In one placebo-controlled trial, however, researchers looked at the effects of a daily dose of Schizandra, Siberian ginseng, and roseroot (rhodiola). They found that this combination enhanced the volunteers’ ability to focus and process information quickly. It also improved their accuracry when carrying out tasks within two hours of taking the herbal formula.
Do apaptogens have side effects?
Adaptogens have an effect on numerous systems in the body, including hormones. As a result, these types of herbal products are typically not recommended for use while pregnant or breastfeeding, nor for anyone with hormone-related health issues. Adaptogenic herbs may also interact with a range of health issues. As with any natural product, it’s important to check with your health care practitioner before use, especially if you have pre-existing health concerns.
How are adaptogens beneficial to my health?
Whether you’re looking for short-term support to help manage a stressful event such as an exam, interview, or moving house, or have a generally stressful lifestyle and could use a boost longer-term, adaptogens might be the answer. Adaptogenic herbs are especially helpful for people who are perimenopausal, when hormone upheaval can worsen the negative effects of stress.
Herbs such as ashwagandha and rhodiola, as well as licorice, Siberian ginseng, and schisandra, can support recovery and relieve general debility. They’re a great way to naturally improve mental and physical performance and support mind and body after physical exertion.
Other top tips to help your body and brain better manage stress include:
- Getting regular exercise and avoiding being sedentary
- Limiting your caffeine and alcohol intake
- Keeping sugar intake to a minimum (avoid comfort eating of sugary snacks!)
- Getting enough sleep
- Pracitising meditation and mindfulness
- Doing yoga and acupuncture
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress and these remedies aren’t quite cutting it, it’s important to ask for help. Friends, family, neighbours, and co-workers will likely be more than happy to help out when you need it. If you are First Nations and/or Inuit, you can contact the free Hope for Wellness helpline at 1-855-242-3310. Find the contact information for your nearest crisis centre here.
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