Adaptogens are a category of herbs best known for their ability to reduce stress, increase stamina, endurance and mental performance. What is it about Adaptogens that make them a popular option for stress?
First we need to understand the stress response
Stress is the sudden increase of hormones that prepare the body to fight or escape a real or perceived danger. When stress is triggered, the body releases cortisol, adrenaline and glucose into the bloodstream. Physical strength, reaction speed and mental alertness are all temporarily optimised by the body to enable it to either fight or escape the stressor.
This stress response is essential for survival. Stress is a physical response mechanism that will help a swimmer swim away from a shark, and the response that will make us leap out of bed in the mornings to get to work on time. This stress response is referred to by researchers as Generalised Adaptation Syndrome: the general adjustment of the whole body in response to a stressor for the purpose of ensuring survival.
Throughout human history, this stress response would have been triggered only when there was a serious danger to life. In modern times, the stressors that trigger the stress response are more regular and more frequent. Modern life is spent in greater periods of stress both real and imagined. Long term and ongoing stress will (over time) reduce the body’s capacity to meet the requirements of life and slowly deplete the body’s resources. Staying in this state of chronic long term stress can lead to depression anxiety, insomnia, restlessness and fatigue.
What have Adaptogens got to do with all of this stress?
Adaptogens are a category of herbs that have been shown to increase stamina, endurance, and resilience during physical and emotional stress. Adaptogens will speed recovery from a stressful episode, and bring the body back to a normal state more quickly.
How the Adaptogen got its name
The term “Adaptogen” was coined by Professor Israel Brekham, a Russian pharmacologist who was researching botanical substances for the treatment of General Adaptation Syndrome – the flight or fight response (GAD).
Professor Brekham noticed soldiers and athletes who were given stimulants would have only momentary increases in energy. He began searching for a better way to improve performance, and looked to botanicals for the answer.
He found Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and noticed that administration of Ginseng to soldiers and athletes generated an improved response to physical stress, enabled the body to run faster for longer and that subjects recovered quickly a stressful event. Subjects on Ginseng also reported less emotional stress and fatigue. Excited about his discovery, he embarked on multiple arms of research to assess the impact of Siberian Ginseng on mine workers, athletes, solders: everybody! He concluded that Siberian Ginseng helps the body to “adapt” and was therefore an “Adaptogen” – a substance that generates an adaptation of the body in response to stress, it changed the way the metabolic activity was occurring during stress. Since Professor Brekham created this category, many more herbs have been classified as Adaptogens.
To earn the title of “Adaptogen” a herb must be non-toxic and have non-specific, generalised effect on the whole body rather than a specific part. Adaptogens can be found as foods or as herbs.
Here are the top 5 Adaptogen herbs and their individual effect on the stress response:
Eleutheroccocus sentiosus - Siberian Ginseng
Thanks to Professor Brekham’s research in Russia, there is an abundant amount of research into this Adaptogen[i]. Brekham’s conmclusions showed that Ginseng can increase the body’s capacity by 500% - meaning you can do 500% more activity on eleutherococcus before reaching exhaustion. It also reduces sensations of fatigue and increases immune cells in response to exposure to viruses or bacteria[ii].
Bacopa monieri - Brahmi
Bacopa is a grounding Adaptogen best known for its ability to improve memory and concentration[iii][iv]. When taken before exercise the exercising person can exercise for longer. Bacopa is fat soluble herb and should be taken with a fat source such as an oil or butter for best effect.
Rhodiola is commonly known as arctic root, as it grows in the arctic regions of Europe. Russian researchers tested the Rhodiola on Russian cosmonauts, military personnel and sportsmen and found that it this Adaptogen would increase stamina, modulate their stress response and improve their recovery time.
Rhodiola is a very uplifting herb, with studies evidencing that it can reduce the symptoms of fatigue and exhaustion. It is also a powerful anti-viral, and appears to reduce vulnerability to viral infection after a period of stress[v].
Astragalus is a herb that is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to help the body mount a stronger immune response to invading viruses or bacteria. During a period of stress, cortisol is increased. Cortisol suppresses the actions of the immune system, creating vulnerability to illness during stressful epidodes leading to coughs, colds and infections. By reducing cortisol, the immune response is therefore strengthened.
Research into the precise mechanisms of Astragalus show that administration of Astragalus increases the body’s T-Cell count. T Cells are immune cells that help the body mount an immune response to an invader[vi].
Schisandra is a bright red little berry, used to make wine, powders and tinctures. It is popular in Traditional Chinese Medicine where it is nicknamed “the five flavoured fruit” as it is sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy. It has a 2000 year history of use in China and is recorded as being a herb of youth and vitality.
Modern day interest in Schisandra has shown that it is an uplifting Adaptogen that is most often used to improve physical performance and mental agility[vii].
Who should use Adaptogens?
Whilst Adaptogens are very useful herbs for helping the body manage stress: the body does have limits even with the best Adaptogens at hand.
Where stress is long, prolonged and chronic, even the best Adaptogen will run out of usefulness eventually if the lifestyle and exposure to the stress is not adjusted.