“Adaptogens.” As the word suggest, these little guys help our bodies adapt to life's doozies. Quite similar to a transformer in the way that these look like normal herbs, mushrooms and roots, yet when eaten turn into something so much more powerful. These herbs when taken in times of increased stress, normalise the physiological process of the body and help the body adapt to changes.(4)You might even already be eating some of these and perhaps you've even heard the word adaptogen, but not truly knew what it meant.
So what is an adaptogen and why is it far superior to normal plants and mushrooms? Research tells us that adaptogens can transform us into people who are less affected by stress.(1)And, in the modern world, being less stressed is something we could all do with.
A recent definition of an adaptogen is, “a … class of metabolic regulators which increase the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and avoid damage from such factors.” Ideally, an adaptogen should: a) decrease stress-induced damage, b) be safe and produce a beneficial effect even if the number of administrations is more than required, c) be devoid of any negative effects such as withdrawal syndromes and d) not influence the normal body functions more than necessary.(4)
Stress arises from external physical of mental overload, often leaving us feeling embattled, nervous, anxious or otherwise less capable of full and normal response to environmental demands. It can arise from all sorts of daily occurrence, such as a never ending to do list, work deadlines, traffic jams, fighting off an illness, or just simply a work-life balance issue. In any of these situations, adaptogens can help reduce cortisol levels, balance your hormones, and leave you feeling calmer.
Adaptogens help with stress reduction simply by increasing your tolerance for stress.The reason adaptogens can assist with a broad range of stressors has to do with the mechanism by which they reduce stress. They do this by going to work on the hypothalamus, adrenal and pituitary glands. That is they go right to the source of where the we signal our response to stress. As a result of this interaction, our overall cortisol levels are less likely to elevate in response to our modern day stresses, which in translation means that our “fight or flight” response is less likely to be triggered by every little thing that is happening in our day. This is a big win indeed, as I remind you that the bodies fight or flight response is actually only suppose to be activated for life threatening situations, such as running away from immediate danger, as opposed to meeting a work deadline or dealing wth rush hour traffic. Yet, as many of us know, our daily stressors amp up this response and overload our system all to easily and unfortunately the body doesn't know the difference between a real and perceived danger What happens next is that this constant feeling of immediate danger actually creates chronically high stress levels which result in chronically high cortisol which in turn can lead to adrenal fatigue, digestive issues, and even premature aging. So, the fact that adaptogens can reduce how effected we are by stress is important on a physical level, not just an emotional one and reducing stress can thereby aid in keeping us younger and healthier. (2)
Ok so which Adaptogens will Help You with Stress Reduction??
Whilst all adaptogens will reduce your body’s stress response, each of them have their own special qualities and methods for attacking stress. Here is a list of 4 adaptogens that you have most likely heard of, are easily available and may be a great addition to help reduce overall levels of stress in certain individuals.
1. Ashwagandha: is an evergreen shrub that grows in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. Its roots and orange-red fruit have been used for hundreds of years for medicinal purposes. The herb is also called Indian Ginseng or winter cherry. (3) While this root has long been prescribed in India for a wide range of issues—everything from inflammation to insomnia—modern science does indeed back up ashwagandha’s claims to positively impact our stress level.
Being the most commonly used and extensively studied adaptogen, a large volume of literature is available for for this herb. It has been studied as adaptogenic, antioxidant, anticancer, anxiolytic, antidepressant, cardio-protective, thyroid modulating, immuno-modulating, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, neuro-protective, cognitive enhancing and hematopoietic agent. Ashwagandha contains a range of constituents like withanolides, sitoindosides and other alkaloids that are pharmacologically and medicinally important. These chemicals protect cells from oxidative damage and disease. Taken short term this herb could have some benefits in reducing stress levels, however not much is known about the long term benefits (4). Therefore, if you are considering taking Ashwaganda be sure to check with your Doctor or health care professional that it is safe for you and do not take it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
2. Chaga Mushroom Chaga has been used for hundreds of years. It is extremely high in antioxidants and is therefore known for its anti-aging properties. Chaga was traditionally used in cancer treatment, however, it's ability to boost the immune system (3) also means it has the benefit of stress reduction. Just like Ashwaganda, chaga is generally tolerated in healthy populations, but there are some instances where Chaga may not be beneficial. Thus you should always seek the advice of your health care professional, before starting any new herb.
3. Ginseng This root is one of the adaptogens you’re more likely to already be familiar with. It has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a powerful tool for reducing stress, anxiety, and mental fatigue. Recent studies demonstrate that ginseng’s is one of the most powerful adaptogens for stress reduction. Here are just a few:A 2010 study on a group of thirty human volunteers showed ginseng improved calmness.(5) and a 2013 meta-analysis of both human and animal studies found ginseng to be an effective “actoprotector,” which means it can increase mental and physical performance. (6)
4. Reishi Mushroom In China, reishi mushrooms are considered to symbolize “success, well-being, divine power, and longevity.” (7) Reishi mushrooms have been used therapeutically for over two thousand years and impart an array of benefits. Reishi mushrooms are a good source of all nine essential amino acids, which indicates they can assist with muscle growth and recovery, hormonal balance, antibody production, and more (8)—all things that can help us recover from stress and fight it off to begin with. Reishi has also proven effective in fighting fatigue from various sources. A 2005 study conducted on a condition that results in chronic fatigue, irritability, headaches, and more, found consuming reishi resulted in a significant improvement in their symptoms. (9)
Adaptogens are not simple substances, however, one thing is for sure, by improving our immune system, reducing our cortisol, boosting our brain function, and reducing our anxiety, these seemingly “normal” herbs, roots, and mushrooms may drastically reduce everyday stress levels in otherwise healthy individuals. As always though, seek the advice of a health professional first before incorporating anything new into your diet.