The adaptogens represent a category of herbs that is almost commonplace for those individuals seeking to be healthier in today’s stressful environment. These remarkable herbs focus on helping the body resist the complex biological reactions that arise from the stressful events we daily encounter.
Adaptogens work to increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors while promoting a return to normal physiologic function. Stress-related disorders have become one of the major health concerns so that practitioners need preventive concepts and new medicines.
Used by healers for thousands of years, current practitioners are reviving adaptogen use to modulate individual responses to stress.
One of the first herbs to be studied and the most commonly used is Asian ginseng or Panax ginseng. With its stimulating property it improves the body’s general performance under stress and prevents fatigue. As a tonic, Panax can be used in energy deficient situations where there is a state of exhaustion. Research has shown energy improvement in conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple sclerosis. The herb has a sparing action on the adrenal cortex, modulating the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) to be more efficient and normalizing glucocorticoid levels more rapidly when stress decreases. In addition Panax has neuroprotective and immune modulating actions.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is not considered a true ginseng. Belonging to the same Arailacea family as Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius has some of the same constituents but is not as stimulating. American ginseng is useful for mild to moderate depletion of adrenal function and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis impairment. It can also be of benefit for allergies, worsened by a depleted state, for jet lag, and has been shown to help control hyperinsulinemia (metabolic syndrome) and type 2-diabetes.
These herbs aid in normalizing many physiologic mechanisms such as regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, cellular energy production and immune alterations in the day-to-day management of stress.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is becoming one of the most popular adaptogenic herbs. Although it has an energizing effect, it possesses a more calming action than other adaptogens. This makes it useful for anxiety, stress-induced insomnia and nervous exhaustion. As an anti-proliferative herb it’s been used in the treatment of cancer. Ashwagandha contains a significant amount of iron supporting its benefit in treating iron deficient anemia.
Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng) was one of the first adaptogens to be researched. The herb's ability to withstand the hardship of a cold climate symbolizes its actions. Russian scientists used it in numerous clinical trials to increase physical endurance and performance in Russian athletes and military personnel, hence the common name Siberian ginseng. Increasing endurance and stamina, enhancing mitochondrial activity and improving recovery from overtraining make Eleutherococcus an attractive adaptogen for athletes. In the general adaptation syndrome, Eleutherococcus exerts a sparing effect on the adrenal cortex allowing the body to better resist prolonged stress.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is an herb that has undergone serious scientific study and has been shown to have a significant benefit for the nervous system. Helping to calm anxiety and aid with insomnia Rhodiola also enhances alertness and improves memory. The herb protects the cardiopulmonary system influencing catecholamine levels that affect the heart. It works to prevent damage to the heart from stress induced arrhythmias and strengthens the heart muscle. Rhodiola acts on the body to prevent injury from excessive physical training and balances blood sugar.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has a wide range of clinical uses. It’s considered an effective adaptogen, but is also an excellent antiviral, expectorant and gastrointestinal remedy. Commonly given for gastritis and peptic ulcers it reduces irritation and inflammation of the GI tract. Licorice has also been found useful in adrenal insufficiency and works synergistically with prescribed cortisone. A specific indication for licorice may be “general fatigue, especially with difficulty waking up in the morning.” Through its constituent glycyrrhizinic acid, licorice inhibits the enzyme 11-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11B-HSD) type 2 that converts cortisol to its inactive metabolite cortisone. This effectively increases circulating cortisol which binds to mineralcorticoid receptors in the kidneys with an effect similar to aldosterone. Through this action, licorice, in large doses can contribute to sodium and water retention and excretion of potassium resulting in elevated blood pressure. Consequently, caution should be used when considering licorice for susceptible individuals.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is another herb that has been extensively studied. Besides the normal adaptogen properties holy basil can protect against the damaging effects of ionizing radiation. It reduces cortisol levels when elevated by stress and lowers blood sugar in type 2-diabetes. With its neuroprotective properties it enhances circulation to the brain helping with memory and foggy thinking. Combined with ginkgo, holy basil is indicated for mental cloudiness and poor memory during the menopausal transition.
These herbs are representative of the more commonly used adaptogenic herbs. In response to perceived stress, adaptogens balance the HPA axis as well as influence other body systems including the immune, neurologic and reproductive systems. Research shows adaptogens also have antioxidant activity, protecting the body from oxidative stress and free radical formation. These herbs aid in normalizing many physiologic mechanisms such as regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, cellular energy production and immune alterations in the day-to-day management of stress. Augmenting the body’s own physiologic processes, adaptogens function to maintain homeostasis.
- Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, by David Winston and Steven Maimes
- Principals and Practice of Phytotherapy, by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- “Nutrients and Botanicals for Treatment of Stress: Adrenal Fatigue, Neurotransmitter Imbalance, Anxiety, and Restless Sleep,” Kathleen A. Head, ND and Gregory S Kelly, ND, Alternative Medicine Review, Volume 14, No 2, 2009