By Morlife Naturopath Marlie Ferguson
Rising and thriving during times of stress.
You’ve probably seen that adaptogens are making their way onto health food store shelves everywhere. While the beneficial effects are experienced by those who consume them, the evidence to support their use is still growing.
These herbal magicians have been prescribed regularly by naturopaths for decades, mainly because they are the best class of herbs that fit our contemporary lifestyle. Why, you may ask? Because they help balance us out - physically, mentally and emotionally - in the face of chronic stress, more commonly known as modern life.
But first, what is stress?
I think I can safely say that we don’t need a scientific study for each of us to understand what stress is. Stress is a normal and unavoidable part of life - from arguing with a loved one to looming assignment or work deadlines - and all of us at one time or another have experienced it.
Stress is anything that causes the body or mind to move from a balanced state (known as homeostasis) to an imbalanced state. But you might have never considered that this means stress can be things such as infection, feeling overwhelmed, extreme temperatures, over training and even boredom. All of these events can cause an imbalance in the body and mind, triggering a similar cascade of events that our ancestors experienced when dealing with a saber-tooth tiger, known as the fight or flight response.
According to The American Institute of Stress, the top 7 causes of stress are:
- Job Pressure - Workplace tension, bosses and work overload
- Money - Loss of job, medical expenses and retirement
- Health - Health crisis or chronic illness
- Relationships - Arguments with friends, loneliness, divorce or death of spouse
- Poor Nutrition - Inadequate nutrition, caffeine, processed foods and refined sugars
- Media Overload - Television, Radio, Internet, Email and Social networking
- Sleep Deprivation - Stress hormone imbalance and being kept awake at night by stressors
What happens to the body when we become stressed?
When we experience stress, the body undergoes a cascade of chain reactions in order to cope and bring the body back to homeostasis. This cascade activates many body systems, including the nervous, immune and endocrine systems.
On a cellular level, one reaction to stress is to increase an enzyme called JNK (c-Jun N-terminal kinase for the biochemistry nerds out there), which causes a host of problems. JNK increases the production of free radicals (which creates oxidative stress) and have been known to reduce our ability to create energy on a cellular level, making us feel tired. The JNK enzyme also protects cells by increasing the stress hormone cortisol which reduces inflammation by suppressing the immune system. This is one of the reasons why when we are stressed, we are more prone to infection. Chronic high cortisol is associated with depression, chronic fatigue, impaired cognition, poor digestion, anxiety and weight gain. None of this sounds very fun, right?
But wait, there’s more! The physical and psychological symptoms of stress can include a wide variety of symptoms that undoubtedly affect our physical and mental health:
Fortunately, we have adaptogens!
What is an adaptogen?
Adaptogens are substances that improve our resilience and help protect the body from the effects of stress. Adaptogens are also classified as substances that are harmless, have minimal side effects and have non-specific actions that positively affect overall function, therefore improving resilience in many ways.
During the second world war, Russian scientists were looking for ways to improve the resilience and performance of their soldiers. While scientific evidence supporting the use of herbal adaptogens has continued to grow since the 1940’s, there’s still much more we need to learn.
Research into adaptogens (and herbal medicine as a whole) is challenging because they differ so greatly to pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals are typically one chemical that performs one action on a specific target within the body. This is a very convenient method of study, allowing researchers to carry out ‘randomised, controlled double-blind trials’ which have been the gold standard of research for therapeutic agents for decades. Unfortunately though, adaptogenic herbs are very complex, making them difficult to determine their efficacy.
Plants sometimes have dozens of phytochemicals that work together, like a football team or an orchestra. They possess many interacting parts that have many different effects within the body. By definition, adaptogens never have just one action, making them very complex to study.
What do adaptogens do?
One of the characteristics of adaptogens is that they act as eu-stressors (good stressors). This means they gently stimulate the stress response to induce the body’s natural anti-stress mechanisms. This gentle stimulation acts as a sort of ‘stress vaccine’ that protects the body from future stressors. The only issue is that we need regular exposure to adaptogens to maintain the adaptive state.
Benefits of Taking Adaptogens
Adaptogens are not a magic pill and won’t make life’s ups and downs disappear. But they certainly help us to better manage how we react and adapt to change which goes a long way towards reducing stress. If you are chronically stressed and it’s getting the better of you, it’s essential to get the evidence-based support from a health professional. But if you are looking for some natural therapies that support your poor adrenal glands and promote good health in the long-term. Check out these adaptogenic herbs that can help you feel under control in the vicissitudes of life.
Siberian ginseng aka Eleuthero
Further reading / related articles