Adaptogens – Supporting the Stress Response
What are they?
An adapatogen is a herb or substance that improves the ability to adapt to stressors.
How does that work?
Typically, these herbs or substances grow and or live in extreme conditions where their environment is particularly stressful, no that doesn’t mean they have a demanding boss, they have a long commute to work or they are experiencing the trials of parenting teenagers or toddlers. It means their physical environment is so harsh they find ways to adapt to the extreme conditions in order to survive. For example: Rhodiola a well-known adaptogen grows in mountainous regions of the world, where the temperature is extremely cold in high altitudes.
The unique properties of adaptogens due to their harsh living environments and their ability to adapt and survive can be extracted and used in supplements. Adaptogens help support the adrenal and nervous system helping the body adapt and respond more effectively to challenging situations. These may be good and bad stressors, the stress reaction can happen in good and bad times as well. For example, sitting exams and receiving good results will both trigger a stress response. In todays world we are constantly challenged and it can be difficult to regulate and normalise the stress response. As adaptogen substances adapt to their harsh environments they may help the human body adapt to theirs.
What are the common ones to look out for?
Ashwagandha contains many properties that contribute to its ability to help the body adapt to challenging situations.
A small double blind trial found that the group of volunteers who were picked because they were feeling particularly stressful improved in their mood and their ability to cope when they took ashwagandha for 60 days as opposed to the placebo group.
It is known to energise and refresh the nervous system. It may prevent stress related disorders and the stress related depletion of vitamin C and cortisol, a stress hormone. A long with supporting immunity it also may help with physical fatigue as well as helping with sleep.
Rhodiola – there has been many studies on this herb and it has been proven effective in the resistance to stress. It’s action on the regulation of the body’s biochemical response to stress has been shown to be beneficial. It supports the nervous and adrenal systems of the body. Evidence has supported the view rhodiola supports physical and mental well-being. It is advised to take earlier in the day as it can be stimulating.
Blue Ling Fish also known as its extract name Garum Armerilium has been found to promote anti-stress activity. My daughter took Stabillium, the trade name for this adaptogen during her exams and we all noticed a dramatic effect. Mainly, her approach, language and body language changed, she was assured and we noticed this difference in her. This is an interesting adaptogen as it was discovered a long time ago by ancient Celts and was given to Roman legionnaires during war time to help them cope with the emotional and physical stressors of war. Again it contains properties to support the nervous and adrenal systems. It contains high levels of the omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Substance within these fatty acids are involved in regulating the nervous system. A couple of very small trials held in France found a marked improvement in patients with symptoms of stress who took garum armerilium for 3 months.
From a food and supplement angle mushrooms could also be argued to be adaptogens. Reishi, maitake and cordyceps also known as caterpillar mushroom have been found to influence the body’s ability to adapt in response to stressors. They have also been found to support the immune system, regulating inflammation. Inflammation if left uncontrolled is a continued stressor on the body. For more reading on adrenals and ways to support check Mark Hyman’s blog.
There are other adaptogenic substances that may be useful in supporting the body when it is challenged such as panax ginseng again know for its adrenal strengthening and immune support. It is very important to check with your GP or professional nutritional therapist for any drug-nutrient interactions if on any medications. They are not quick-fix pills but they may just give the body that extra support it needs when it is not finding the ability to adapt and cope itself.
Ultimately supporting these systems through diet, exercise (but sometimes not too much if you are in an exhaustive state), adequate sleep and finding ways to relax are the best ways to approach, however sometimes an extra hand can go a long way to helping with reducing symptoms such as anxiety, low mood, insomnia, irritable bowel and headaches which may be due to life overload.
A very big thank you to Aidan Craig, nutrition student at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh who contributed to researching the information to this article.