Adaptogens to Protect Against Stress
In my last blog post I talked about stress, your health, and how you can better manage the stressors in your life. In this post I want to discuss an ally that can actually help build resilience and protect your body from the ravages of stress.
First, let’s talk a little about how your body reacts to stress. Your body has a stress response system that is hardwired into your physiology and has been working for millions of years to keep humans safe from immediate danger. It begins with the adrenal glands, tiny organs that sit on top of your kidneys and are responsible for many different factors of your health, from blood sugar to hormones to mood. When the adrenals are called into action they first release adrenaline and cortisol, which ramp up your blood sugar and blood pressure so you can run away from the saber-toothed tiger. They also stimulate your immune system and the release of insulin to help your body clean up the sugar and any injury after the crisis is over. Your body has perfectly evolved to quickly recover from this cascade of events.
The problem however, as you can probably guess, is when the saber-toothed tiger becomes a series of chronic stress events. Your stress response stays “on” and your body never has a chance to recover. This can lead to a multitude of health issues. Here’s a list of some of the more common problems that arise:
- Insulin Resistance and blood sugar imbalances
- Difficulty falling asleep and/or restless sleep
- Brain fog and difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue and/or waking up tired
- Frequent colds and/or infections
- Hormonal imbalances – PMS, fertility issues, low sex drive, etc.
- Chronic inflammation
- Irritability, anxiety, depression
- Food cravings – especially for foods that will give us energy (sugar, caffeine, etc)
- Weight gain
If you have any of the above symptoms, especially in combination with high stress, either currently or in the recent past, there’s a high likelihood that you are dealing with an over-worked stress response system which over time depletes the adrenals and leads to adrenal fatigue. This condition is much more common than you may think and can often be at the root of stubborn health issues that just don’t seem to go away.
Your first course of action is to deal with the stress itself and apply strategies to help you better manage the stress. While you're doing this you can also take advantage of the stress balancing benefit of adaptogens. The term adaptogen simply refers to its ability to help you adapt to the stress of life; physical (heat, cold, exertion), chemical (toxins, heavy metals), biological (bacteria, viruses), mental. They have been used for thousands of years in healing traditions such as Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. They support health, build stamina, vitality and immunity. The chemicals found within adaptogens help to normalize adrenal function. They can be calming and energizing at the same time.
There are many different adaptogens out there and different ways of taking them. Although sometimes people can feel their effect within a matter of days, it is generally recommended you take adaptogens for a minimum of 3 months and up to a year to fully reap their benefit. And for those of you under ongoing stress it probably makes sense to just keep taking them until the stress shifts. Here are some of my favorite ones:
Ashwagandha has been used for over 4000 years in India. It is considered both a food and tonic medicine. It is calming and an anti-inflammatory; good for sleep, memory, and reducing anxiety. The root can easily be added to soups or stews and taken as a hot tea. It can also be taken as a dried herb in capsule form or as a tincture. Avoid with sedatives or pain medications
Rhodiola extract helps to promote a calm emotional state, supports immune function, hormonal balance, and mental performance. It is also an anti-inflammatory, supports sleep, and increases stamina. Take as a dried herb in capsule or tablet form or as a tincture.
Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Holy Basil has also been used in India for thousands of years. It is used to improve energy and relieve fatigue. It also calms the mind and spirit. Holy basil can be taken as a tincture or in tea form.
Eluthero is probably the most well researched adaptogen. It is used to increase mental alertness and performance, energy and stamina, and to improve sleep. It is also used to reduce stress and fatigue. Take as a dried root or as a tincture.
Reishi mushrooms are highly regarded in Chinese Medicine to nourish and support the adrenals. It is also known for its ability to improve immune function and reduce inflammation. Reishi also calms the nervous system and can improve sleep. You can cook with Reishi or take the dried mushroom in capsule or tablet form, as a tea, or as a tincture.
Cordyceps is a unique medicinal mushroom that grows on various insects and arthropods. It is known for its ability to nourish and support the adrenals, reduce inflammation, increase resistance to stress, and support immune function. It has also been used to enhance athletic performance because of it’s ability to improve stamina and endurance. You can take the dried mushroom in capsule or tablet form or as a tincture.
Panax comes from the same Greek root as our word panacea, meaning all-healing. Ginseng can increase athletic performance and reduce fatigue, reduce the secretion of stress-response hormones, improves immune function, it can also help normalize blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It’s also thought to improve memory. You can take the dried root in capsule or tablet form, as a tea, or as a tincture.
Take Home Message
There are a lot of good products out there that combine multiple adaptogens. They tend to work synergistically so it might actually be best to take a combination of 2 or 3. You can also easily start with the tea and food forms and then add in from there. Let me know if you want some guidance regarding which one(s) might be most appropriate for you. The good thing is that they’re all considered tonics, which means they can be taken for a long period of time and have very low risk for contra-indications.
Most of us are dealing with far more stress in our life than ideal. And we know that chronic stress has very real and serious consequences on our health. Take steps to reduce what stressors you can and build your resilience to stress with the help of adaptogens.