Jamie Sculley, ND
Using Adaptogens for Stress Management
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
In my last post here I wrote about ways to manage chronic stress and using adaptogenic herbs was one way to do that. I like to use botanical medicine in my naturopathic medical practice so I thought I'd use this post to go into more detail about what they are, how you use them and how to choose ones that are right for you.
What Is An Adaptogen?
Adaptogens have been around for a long time, used in traditional herbal medicine for centuries and first studied in WWII when they were given to pilots and submarine crews to improve physical and mental performance.
Although we may think of stress as a bad thing, a small amount of stress can be a good thing because it gets us energized and ready to act. The stress response can be divided into 3 phases: the alarm phase, resistance phase and exhaustion phase. When we first perceive something to be stressful our bodies pump out adrenaline during the "alarm phase", which makes us feel alert, focused and energetic. In the "resistance phase" we are able to deal with the stressor and can maintain this state for a while, but if it's prolonged for weeks or years, our bodies enter the "exhaustion phase" and we feel fatigued among other symptoms.
When we are under stress our bodies secrete a number of hormones, proteins and enzymes that slow down cellular energy production, increase cortisol secretion, impair protein activities, and suppress the immune system. Adaptogens address all of these by increasing cellular energy production, normalizing cortisol levels, repairing cell proteins, and balancing the immune system. Adaptogens act like tiny stressors to our body, just enough that our cells have to put up some resistance to them, but not enough to overwhelm them. You get that "sweet spot" of physical and mental energy, concentration, focus and improved mood.
In general, adaptogens provide these benefits:
protect our nervous system
decrease anxiety and depression, improve feelings of wellbeing
increase mental focus and concentration
improve our capacity for mentally stimulating work
reduce cortisol production
support the immune system
Which Herbs Are Adaptogens?
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) - Eleuthero is one of the most well researched adaptogens. It improves mental focus, concentration and energy. It also prevents breakdown of muscle as we age and promotes muscle building. Due to it's mild stimulant effects, you may want to take this herb in the morning or early afternoon to prevent worsening insomnia. Do not use with stimulants, alcohol or anti-psychotic medications and use caution if you have high blood pressure.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) - This adaptogen is most helpful for those who need mental stamina such as students. It reduces mental fatigue, improves short term memory, focus and concentration. It's also good for stress headaches, reduces anxiety and irritability and is immune supportive. Avoid use of this herb if you have bipolar disorder.
Five Flavor Berry (Schisandra chinensis) - This is a general nervous system tonic, beneficial for improving physical and mental exhaustion, improving memory, balancing blood sugar and supports liver function and detoxification.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) - I like this calming adaptogen because it can improve sleep quality, hence its name "somnifera" which comes from the Latin root "somnus" meaning "sleep." It's for those who have difficulty sleeping due to anxiety, for those suffering from inflammation, pain, and achy joints, and can also modulate blood sugar and thyroid function. This plant is in the nightshade family (includes potatoes, peppers, cayenne, tomatoes) so use caution if you are intolerant to these foods.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) - Medicinal mushrooms are also great adaptogens and have an affinity for the immune system. Reishi can be used when you feel like you need extra immune support and experience chronic or recurrent infections. Use caution with blood thinning medications.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)- If you're a tea drinker you may know this one by it's other name: Tulsi. It's a gentle, calming tonic herb and supports healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and can relieve low mood and mild depression.
Devil's Club (Oplopanax horridus) - I wanted to throw this in the list because it's a local herb found here in the Pacific Northwest in the ginseng family. If you've gone out hiking you may have seen this fierce-looking plant covered in spines. Devil's club has an affinity for the musculoskeletal system and can help with achy joint or muscle pain. It also modulates the immune system and can balance blood sugar. Energetically it can be used for those who feel insecure and need help setting boundaries with others.
Always consult with your doctor if you are managing a chronic condition or taking pharmaceutical medications before starting any herbal medicine regimen.
If you are dealing with stress adaptogens can be a way to help your body deal with it in a healthy way. They can relieve fatigue, increase mental focus and concentration and improve mood. Besides benefiting the adrenals and decreasing cortisol, they can also help with immune function, blood sugar, thyroid function and joint and muscle pain.
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This website is not intended for the purpose of providing medical advice. All information, content, and material of this website is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider.
Adaptogens: Ancient Medicine for 21st Century Stress. (2017, December 29). Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2Q82D1u
Brusie, C. (2017, June 28). Adaptogenic Herbs: List, Effectiveness, and Health Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/adaptogenic-herbs
Oplopanax horridus. (2011, November 23). Retrieved from https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/herbs/m-o/oplopanax-horridus/
Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 3(1), 188-224. doi:10.3390/ph3010188