Health Benefits of Adaptogens
- Living with chronic stress poses serious implications for physical and emotional health
- Adaptogens are herbs and plant extracts that increase the body’s resistance to stressors in the environment
- Research finds that adaptogens possess considerable immunomodulatory and antioxidant benefits for human health
Stress rates are at an all-time high in this country, and it’s not hard to see why.1 From the ongoing pandemic to political tensions and natural disasters, the start of the new decade has been nothing if not stressful.
To make matters worse, at some point, prolonged stress turns into chronic stress. This can have serious implications for physical and emotional health.
Keep reading to learn about the body’s stress response, and how nature may provide the tools to manage a healthy one.
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological tension.1 A stressful situation—whether something environmental like a job interview, or psychological, like persistent worry about the health of one’s family—can trigger a cascade of stress hormones and physiological changes throughout the body.2
These changes are part of what’s known as the “fight-or-flight” stress response and have evolved to help us react quickly to harmful situations. For instance, hormones released during the acute stress response help prime the body for action by boosting mental clarity, quickening breathing, tensing muscles, and accelerating heart rate.3
After being stimulated by a short-term stressor, a popular (albeit somewhat simplistic) theory holds that our bodies respond by going through three stages of physiological stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.3
Stages of General Adaptation Syndrome
Stage 1: Alarm
Stage 2: Resistance
Stage 3: Exhaustion
The body’s stress response system is usually self-limiting. This means that, once the perceived threat has passed, hormonal signals switch off the stress response and the body returns to normal.3
However, sometimes that doesn’t happen. When stressors are consistently present (recall, for example, 2020), the fight-or-flight response stays turned on, and the body remains physiologically primed to handle a potential threat. This is known as chronic stress, and spoiler alert: it’s bad for you.
Why is chronic stress so bad?
Aside from being an unpleasant experience, long-term activation of the stress response packs quite a wallop on physical and mental health. Overexposure to stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) can change your body’s hormonal balance in a way that disturbs vital physiological processes.2,4
Over time, these physiological changes lead to an increased risk for health problems including high blood pressure, heart abnormalities, obesity, anxiety, depression, and infertility. 2, 5-7
Fortunately, there are things we can do to help manage our bodies’ reaction to internal and external stressors.
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are substances that help reduce metabolic stress by increasing the body’s resistance to emotional, physical, and environmental stressors.8,9
They are molecules found in plants, herbs, and mushrooms that help bring the body back into homeostasis (a state of internal balance) by restoring normal physiological function during times of increased stress.8
By definition, adaptogens support a state of resistance without forcing the organism into an undesirable physiological state.10 Unlike conventional stimulants, adaptogens have no addiction potential, and rarely cause undesirable side effects like jitteriness or irritability.9
How do adaptogens work?
Adaptogens are typically characterized by a diverse profile of secondary metabolites, such as the terpenes, polyphenols, lactones, and alkaloids found in plants and mushrooms. These metabolites are believed to possess anti-stress, immunomodulatory, and inflammation-resolving properties that help promote a healthy stress response by strengthening our internal systems and regulating the body’s use of energy resources.11,12
Although the exact mechanisms behind their anti-stress effects are not fully understood, researchers believe the stress-protective activities of adaptogens are related to their influence on the HPA axis and key mediators of the stress response.13-15
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis as it is commonly called, describes the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands.
The main function generally attributed to the HPA axis involves the body’s reaction to stress. In essence, adaptogens “hack” the body’s stress response by modulating the HPA axis in ways that improve the body’s resistance to stress and decrease its sensitivity to stressors.9,13
For example, various herbal extracts have been shown to act on receptors and channels that influence neuronal signaling via stress hormones like adrenaline, and neurotransmitters including acetylcholine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). 16,17
Evidenced-based benefits for neurological health and function
Given the rising rates of dementia, mood disorders, and other chronic nervous system disorders, there is growing research interest in the potential physiological benefits of adaptogens for the central nervous system (CNS).18,19
- Studies with animals and cell cultures reveal that adaptogen molecules may exhibit neuroprotective, nootropic (cognitive-enhancing), anti-fatigue, and CNS-stimulating activities.20-22
- Clinical research with humans further supports these findings by demonstrating specific adaptogens can reduce fatigue and increase mental work capacity during periods of mental exhaustion or prolonged attention. 9,23
Evidenced-based benefits for immune health
Research finds that some plants and mushrooms provide natural bioactive molecules that can influence numerous aspects of normal immune function.24,25
- Asian ginseng, or Panax ginseng, is a species of plant whose root is the original source of ginseng. The main active components of ginseng are ginsenosides, which possess adaptive capabilities for promoting innate and acquired immune defenses.26,27
- Clinical research shows that daily supplementation with ginseng can enhance immune cell activities, lower the incidence of seasonal illness, and increase numbers of immune cells.28-30
- Astragalus membranaceus is an herb commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its established antioxidant, immunomodulating, and antiviral activities.31-35
- Extracts and individual molecules isolated from membranaceus have been shown to help enhance the body’s natural immune mechanisms and scavenge a variety of free radical species.36-38
- Holy Basil, or what is scientifically known as Ocimum tenuiflorum, is an adaptogenic plant from India with immunomodulatory and antioxidant properties.39
- Clinical research suggests holy basil can enhance immune functions, improve measures of respiratory health, and relieve symptoms related to an overactive immune response.40-42
Although adaptogens are an effective tool for managing stress, they aren’t a replacement for the foundations of good health, and work best when combined with quality sleep, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and good lifestyle choices.
Until life gets easy, do yourself a favor—make it easier to handle. Talk to your healthcare professional about adding an adaptogen into your daily healthcare routine.
Fight-or-Flight: Physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived threat, harmful event, or attack. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee.
Homeostasis: Refers to an organism’s ability to regulate various physiological processes to keep internal states steady and balanced.
HPA Axis: A term used to represent the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, which plays an important role in the body’s response to stress. The pathway of the axis results in the production of cortisol.
Secondary metabolites: Organic compounds produced by bacteria, fungi, or plants which are not directly involved in the normal growth, development, or reproduction of the organism. These metabolites generally provide survival advantages for the organism.