Adaptogens: Retraining the Way Your Body Responds to Stress

What Is Stress?

Stress is an incredibly pervasive, yet often vague, concept. Stress can be visual, cognitive, physical, or emotional – essentially anything an individual perceives as upsetting or disruptive to their unique homeostasis. During the stress response, we perceive something that initiates an alarm response—what many people know as fight or flight—and then exist in a state of neural and endocrine (hormonal) hyper-arousal until the perceived stressor is gone.

In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, author Robert Zapolsky expertly details the difference in the stress response between humans and animals. Animals, unlike humans, don’t stress about the potential of a future predator attack; animals only switch into fight or flight mode when they are actually being hunted by a predator. The rest of the time, animals are content in their parasympathetic (rest or digest) mode, which allows them to maintain a healthy state of being.

Unfortunately for the human race, most of us have lost the ability to switch out of the hyper-aroused fight or flight state; we are constantly worried about potential future threats, such as work deadlines, and our perceived stressor rarely goes away. Whether it’s struggling to pay the bills on time, a taxing personal relationship, working a 60-hour work week, eating a heavily processed diet, or living with chronic disease, we are living in a state of constant stress that has a profoundly negative impact on our well-being.

How Does Stress Affect Our Bodies?

In today’s fast-paced, production-oriented society, we live in a constant, sub-acute, hyper-aroused state known as chronic stress. Life in a state of chronic stress means we have lost the balance between negotiating the environment and maintaining the life response; our energy goes into self-preservation rather than health and thriving.

The good news is that certain herbs, foods, and lifestyle changes can help to rebuild your adrenal reserve.

On the most basic level, the human nervous system has two states of stress response: sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). We should be able to move with ease between these two dimensions of the nervous system, much like animals in the wild. However, when we get stuck in the chronic stress mode, our body compensates by shutting down functions that are deemed “non-essential” for immediate survival, including digestive function, immune system health, reproductive health, and more.

The HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal), is the body’s communication system primarily responsible for responding to stress. It is also involved in almost every disease process that can manifest in our physiology. When we perceive a stressor, the signal goes through the HPA axis and causes the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Initially, this is a very health-positive effect, as we need both adrenaline and cortisol to outrun a predator. Adrenaline increases heart rate, and cortisol (the primary stress hormone) increases the sugars, or glucose, in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose to function, and stimulates tissue repair. The long term effects of this constant release of adrenaline and cortisol, however, are no longer healthy and can lead to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, insulin deregulation, chronic fatigue, increased fat synthesis and storage (weight gain), digestive problems, and compromised immune function.

Another negative side effect of chronic stress is adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands can no longer adequately handle the every day stress response. Much like when the pancreas overworks to produce insulin due to a high-sugar diet, the adrenal glands overwork to exhaustion trying to keep up with cortisol production demands of chronic stress. Eventually, the adrenal glands struggle to produce enough of the hormones we need to maintain our health and wellness, such as DHEA. Sub-clinical symptoms of adrenal fatigue include exhaustion, general malaise or feeling unwell, brain fog, and difficulty sleeping.

Rebuilding Adrenal Reserves with Adaptogens

The good news is that certain herbs, foods, and lifestyle changes can help to rebuild your adrenal reserve. A particular category of herbs known as adaptogens is the primary herbal approach for restoring optimal adrenal function. According to Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, adaptogens are herbs that help the body to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stress responses by raising non-specific resistance toward such stress, enabling the body to better adapt to stressful circumstances. By definition, adaptogenic herbs are non-toxic, produce a normalizing effect on the human body, and exert influence over the HPA axis and thus the production of cortisol. Historically, adaptogens were referred to as tonics due to their ability to restore and increase energy. Many contemporary herbalists refer to adaptogens as “amphoterics”, meaning a food for a specific organ or tissue.

Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb that has been used for thousands of years and is reputed in traditional literature to give its users the stamina and strength of a stallion. It is considered to be a Rasayana, meaning a tonic for prolonging life, promoting cognitive function, and increasing energy by rebuilding adrenal function. While most adaptogens are stimulating, Ashwagandha is actually a calming herb, making it perfect for those who are so stressed they feel “fried” or constantly on edge. Ashwagandha helps regulate endocrine function, restoring normal function to the thyroid, adrenal glands, and reproductive organs.

Eleuthero: Eleuthero, also known as Siberian Ginseng, is an herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat people with wind or damp conditions, meaning either frequent spasms or swelling and edema. TCM practitioners also believe this herb endows its users with longevity, vitality, and health for the rest of their lives. Eleuthero is a building and energizing adaptogen that is perfect for those who need to keep pushing through difficult times with little sleep or a less than optimal diet without crashing completely (such as doctors or nurses on swing shifts). Modern research shows that Eleuthero can help to lower serum triglyceride levels and help promote a healthier HDL to LDL cholesterol ratio. Athletes also benefit greatly from taking Eleuthero because of this herb’s ability to enhance stamina and endurance, as well as mediate effects from over-training.

Holy Basil: Holy Basil (also knowns as Tulsi) is a sacred herb in Ayurvedic healing believed to provide health, spiritual growth, and, when grown around the home, family well-being. Much like Ashwagandha, holy basil is classified as a Rasayana, making it a tonic for longevity and vitality. Modern research confirms holy basil as an adaptogen, and further demonstrates its antioxidant and radio-protective effects. Holy basil is a perfect herb for individuals whose stress has taken a toll on their cognitive function and memory, leaving them in a state of “brain fog”, as well as for those who are in a diabetic or pre-diabetic state (as holy basil has demonstrated the ability to lower blood sugar).

Adaptogen Blends: In many cases, herbs are more effective when used together. Because adrenal fatigue is so common, several companies have designed comprehensive adrenal-restorative formulas that combine several adaptogens into a single product. Adrenal Health by Gaia Herbs combines holy basil and Ashwagandha, along with several other adaptogenic herbs, to create a wonderfully restoring adrenal tonic. Schisandra Adrenal Complex by Planetary Herbals is a blend of herbs used in TCM to restore adrenal health and function.

Rebuilding Adrenal Reserves with Diet Choices

There are dietary steps one can take—in addition to taking adaptogens—to reduce the negative effects of stress and start rebuilding good adrenal health.

The food we eat can either increase or relieve the physical effects of stress on our bodies. Diets that are high in processed foods, refined sugar, processed meats, and fried foods all create an inflammatory response within the body. This chronic, low-grade inflammation is interpreted by the body as a physical stressor, and the body’s response is to increase cortisol secretion in an effort to repair damaged tissue. Additionally, living with undiagnosed food intolerances can increase the level of inflammation in the body and contribute to overall stress responses.

The food we eat can either increase or relieve the physical effects of stress on our bodies.

Begin reducing physical stress on the body by following as clean a diet as possible. Start by reducing sugar consumption and foods that fall under the standard American diet (fast foods, fried foods, soda, etc.), and increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables. Six servings of vegetables and 2-3 servings of fruit per day is a healthy goal. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables—especially a diverse and colorful selection of fruits and veggies—will help reduce the body’s inflammatory response. Additionally, eating organic/grass-fed/free-range animal products help reduce exposure to hormones and toxins that disrupt internal homeostasis.

Rebuilding Adrenal Reserves with Lifestyle Choices

Adaptogenic herbs and healthy food can work wonders on rewiring the way your body responds to stress, but they will not take away the external source of our stress. Eliminating whatever stressors we can, such as toxic relationships or clutter in our house, is an important step towards re-establishing adrenal health. While we may not be able to eliminate every single source of stress in our lives, there are practices that can help us cultivate healthier stress responses. The key is not in the control of stress, but in shifting our perception of, and reaction to, that stress.

Deep Breathing: Deep breathing has profound healing effects on the body, especially when it comes to the nervous system. Shallow breathing sends our body the message that we are rushed, in danger, or afraid, keeping us in sympathetic (fight or flight) mode. When we practice deep breathing, we actually send our bodies the message that we are living in a safe world, and physically shifts us into parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode.

Try practicing this simple breathing exercise several times throughout the day: Inhale deeply through both nostrils to a slow count of four, hold your breath in to a count of four, exhale slowly through both nostrils to a count of four, and hold the breath out completely to a count of four. Repeat at least four times in a single sitting.

Nature: Numerous studies show that spending at least 30 minutes outside per day can drastically reduce our stress response. Making a point to take a short walk several times per day helps keep you in parasympathetic mode. Even listening to nature sounds as you work plays a role in helping you feel calm and relaxed. A calm body and a calm mind plays a vital role in minimizing your response to stressors.

Activity: Physical activity is another important aspect of managing stress. That doesn’t mean hitting the gym six days a week (and depending on your physical state, this could actually make your inflammation and stress load worse!), but incorporating some form of movement into your day is a crucial piece of stress management. Try taking short walks throughout the day. Stand up to move every hour that you sit. Yoga, going for a swim, or taking a hike are all great ways to relieve stress, reduce inflammation, and help take care of your body.

Sleep: Lastly, and arguably the most important: Make sleep a priority. Are you getting less than 7-8 hours of sleep a night? You are guaranteed to be living in a state of adrenal fatigue. Sleep is the time our body uses to repair and recharge. Think of it as stopping at the gas station to refill your tank, only you are refilling your adrenals with the nourishment they need to function optimally. Being chronically under-slept and reaching for caffeine the next day—which equates to pushing the gas pedal harder without enough gas in the tank—is a perfect recipe for adrenal depletion and all the long-term health detriments that come with it.

If you struggle to sleep, try turning off all electronics at least two hours before bed to give your brain time to quiet down and prepare for rest. If your sleep is restless, and you struggle staying asleep, SleepThru by Gaia Herbs is a great product to help retrain your ability to sleep. This formula combines some of the adaptogens mentioned earlier with herbs that promote a restful sleep experience.

Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness

Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.

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