The fight-or-flight response to danger evolved from our ancient ancestors who were trying to survive in a harsh world. We no longer fear being eaten by predatory animals as our ancestors once did, but we still carry within us the same reaction to danger or perceived danger. The heart races, blood pressure rises, a headache appears, or the stomach churns when the mind detects a threat.
Fast-forward thousands of centuries and the same response occurs in humans though most of us rarely face life-threatening hazards. In modern times, something as mundane as being stuck in traffic can generate the same physical symptoms of stress those ancient humans experienced when facing a saber-toothed cat.
There are 2 consistent observations about stress: Stress is rife in modern society, and stress doesn’t need to come from life’s big-ticket stressors, such as the death of a loved one, to be detrimental to the body. Technology is supposed to make life easier, and it does. However, there’s a downside: Research shows one of the mains reasons stress is on the rise is due to technology.
More to the point, its how we use it and don’t disconnect from it. Added to this are the other things people worry about, such as finances, health, and family. Evidence points to the detrimental effect on health from these everyday kinds of stress, especially if it’s a constant.
The Body’s Response to Stress
The body responds to stress by releasing hormones and other substances. This combination influences everything from the brain to the immune system. For example, when the hormone cortisol is over-produced and released, it negatively impacts the immune system. The results of a study completed at Carnegie Mellon University showed that 90% of the participants who identified as being stressed developed a cold when exposed to a cold virus. It’s hard to escape stress. So, what can be done?
Adaptogens to the Rescue
If the body could have a hero, it would be adaptogens. Herbs and other body supporting plants are classified by the function they perform in the body. As the name indicates, adaptogens adapt to the body’s need, specifically the body’s response to stress. Adaptogenic plants work to bring the body to homeostasis, the body’s natural state where it functions optimally.
Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director at the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, says adaptogens are to the adrenal glands what exercise is to the body. She uses the analogy of exercise stressing the body in a good way, so it can build endurance to explain adaptogens’ effect on the body. Exercise strains the body but done regularly the body adapts to the physical effort it takes. Adaptogens teach the body to deal with stress.
Plant adaptogens work with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The HPA is thought to be the body’s command center for responding to stress. While there is little research on the function of adaptogens, Dr. Powell thinks they fine-tune hormone production and balance the biological response from mind to the immune system to energy systems during stress.
A Few Adaptogens Beneficial for Stress
Here are a few well-known adaptogens that can help with managing tension. Although, taking herbs need to be a part of an overall strategy to mitigate the effects of stress. Exercise, healthy eating, meditation, staying connected with others, and seeing a therapist if necessary are other healthy measures to help with life’s pressures.
Asian ginseng is one of the most effective herbs for long-term stress and balancing hormones disturbed by stress. Asian ginseng is said to strengthen the immune system, which is important since stress weakens the immune system. Asian ginseng is usually taken as a pill or capsule. Dried ginseng root can also be made into tea. Be sure to take it at recommended doses because in high doses ginseng can cause nervousness or insomnia.
Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is a sacred Indian herb used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. For stress-related issues, it’s said to work quickly. “According to the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, holy basil has antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties….” Holy basil is usually drunk as a tea. The tea is readily available at natural grocery stores.
Rhodiola rosea is always mentioned in texts for treating stress with adaptogens. It contains the compound rosavin, which is said to balance levels of cortisol. As mentioned earlier, cortisol is a stress hormone that negatively impacts the body if over-produced. Rhodiola is widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s usually taken in the form of a supplement. A tea can also be made from the root that has been dried and ground.
Astragalus is native to China and is part of the pea family. It is also known as huang qi and has many health benefits. The adaptogen properties of astragalus help the body with stress by supporting the adrenal glands by balancing hormone levels. Astragalus can be drunk as a tea, taken as a supplement, or bought fresh and used in recipes.
Adaptogenic herbs have been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It’s timely that at one of the most if not the most stressful period in human history the interest in adaptogens to treat stress is gaining notice worldwide.
As with all herbs, be sure to contact your healthcare provider before taking them. Herbs can affect medicines. Pregnant and women who are breastfeeding also need to check with their doctor before taking supplements and herbs.
- Carpi, John. Stress: It’s Worse Than You Think. (June 9, 2016). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199601/stress-its-worse-you-think.
- Ducharme, Jamie. What Are Adaptogens and Why Are People Taking Them? (February 28, 2018). Retrieved from http://time.com/5025278/adaptogens-herbs-stress-anxiety/.
- Krans, Brian and Gotter, Ana. The Health Benefits of Holy Basil (August 30, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/basil-benefits.
- Lipman, Frank, Dr. Adaptogens: Nature’s Miracle Anti-Stress and Fatigue Fighters (Nov. 13, 2012). Retrieved from https://www.bewell.com/blog/adaptogens-natures-miracle-anti-stress-and-fatigue-fighters/.
- Rhodiola Benefits: Burning Fat for Energy, Beating Depression & More. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/rhodiola-benefits-burning-fat-for-energy-and-beating-depression/.