Stress is the name of the game called life. We all experience stress of various forms on a daily basis. So what can we do about it, if anything?
Well one thing you could do is to take herbs that help your body manage stress. Those herbs are called “adaptogens.” You can get a sense from the name that they help you ADAPT to stress, which is exactly what we want so that stress doesn’t have a chance to cause any sort of health issue. Stress, afterall, is known to be the underlying cause of many health concerns, from fatigue and insomnia, to anxiety and depression, IBS and migraines, as well as heart disease, cancer, and autoimmunity.
What are adaptogens?
In the broadest sense of the concept, adaptogens are actually any activities and natural substances that help your body come back to a balance point after having been stressed. In our highly-stress society, we so dearly need adaptogens.
Adaptogen is a traditional term, first used in 1947, and is now used mainly to describe herbs that are known to or shown in research to re-optimize what I refer to as “stress messengers,” namely cortisol, after exposure to stress. Cortisol is our main stress hormone and is produced by the adrenal glands (above your kidneys). Normally cortisol is higher in the morning and gradually decreases through the day. When stressed, cortisol increases. And when depleted or stressed without a chance to recover, cortisol levels can become lower than optimal. The best way to find out your cortisol level is to have it checked in either saliva or urine in several samples throughout a day (and night).
Research has identified several other stress messengers that are managed by adaptogens, including inflammatory cytokines, nitric oxide and adrenaline. They have also been shown to affect gene transcription, which means that they can change how your genes affect your health. The more we learn, the more we see that adaptogens have an ability to help our bodies realign with a healthy non-stressed state.
Why are they used?
When you are stressed, even for a moment, your brain tells your adrenal glands to make more cortisol, and that cortisol sends messages throughout your body to make your body ready to respond to stress. For example, cortisol increases your blood sugar levels, so your body has the energy it needs to respond to stress. It also decreases digestion and other functions in the body that are not as important while dealing with a stress. And it shifts your nervous system and immune system in a way that makes you ready to respond.
Now that is all good and helpful when you need it, but what about when the stress is gone and you need a whole different set of functions to happen in your body? When we are frequently stressed (think of deadlines and phone calls) then it becomes harder for our bodies to switch from stress-mode to non-stress mode. That’s when we need adaptogens to help us resync.
Herbal adaptogens are known to lower cortisol when it is too high and to increase it when it is too low. They can also help to restore healthy immune function to help you prevent infections and healthy blood pressure (instead of too high or too low). They are known to rebalance mood and digestion as well.
How are they prescribed?
Herbal adaptogens are often prescribed in capsule form, although they are also available in teas and tinctures. They can be used one at a time or in combination. Usually they are to be taken in the morning, when you wake up for the day to help your body be ready for stress exposure. The dose can be repeated mid-day, especially if your cortisol dips part way through the day. Some adaptogens are particularly good at lowering cortisol when it is too high at night, in which case you’ll want to take the dose in the evening.
Contraindications or side effects?
Adaptogens are considered to be generally safe with few or rarely any side effects. It is always important when taking herbs and nutrients to consider your particular health concerns and health history. If, for example, you have high or low blood pressure, it’s important to know that adaptogens could shift blood pressure higher or lower and affect medication dosing. So check your blood pressure regularly and work with a naturopathic doctor who can help you choose the right adaptogen for you.
If you have anxiety or insomnia, I also recommend working with a naturopathic doctor to ensure that you don’t experience aggravations – not that adaptogens cause anxiety or insomnia, but those conditions can be worsened if you take a product that increases cortisol or adrenaline when your levels may already be too high. If you ever experience unexpected or new symptoms after taking an herbal product, then stop taking it and seek out the help of a naturopathic doctor.
Should they be prescribed by a doctor? Or is it ok to self treat?
I absolutely recommend using non-herbal adaptogens, such as meditation, yoga, exercise, gardening, laughter and journaling each and every day to help your body recover from inevitable daily stresses.
While you can find herbal adaptogens at the health food store and try them out for yourself, I recommend meeting with a naturopathic doctor to help guide you because to get the most benefit out of adaptogens you’re going to want to know your cortisol levels and to take the adaptogen at the dose that is going to benefit you most. If you’ve taken adaptogenic herbs on your own in the past, but haven’t noticed an improvement in the way you feel, that is an indication to me that it’s time to have a visit with a naturopathic doctor to assist you further.
My favorite herbal adapatogens.
Licorice, also known a glycyrrhiza, is not the same as candy licorice and should be avoided if you have high blood pressure. It is an herb that supports health in many ways, including as an anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and also as an adaptogen. It is especially known to increase and extend the time that cortisol is effective, so it is used when cortisol levels are low early in the day.
Rhodiola is an interested herb because at low doses it increases cortisol and at very high doses it lowers cortisol. All the more reason to have your cortisol levels checked so you know what dose you need. I like to use low dose Rhodiola when adrenal function is depleted and to support fertility in women.
Ashwaganda is an ayurvedic herb which is gentle and yet effective. Research shows that it can help lower cortisol when it’s too high at night, but it is also used in adaptogenic formulas to be taken during the day.
Holy Basil is a nice herb to start with if you are just wanting to get a sense of adaptogens. Keep in mind that it is subtle, so you will likely want to combine it with other herbs and if you don’t see an improvement in energy or mood, then don’t give up on herbs! That just means you need to be tested and find a more fitting herb for you.
Schisandra is used especially with depletion and weakness. So if you’ve been especially worn out by ongoing stresses, this may be the right adaptogen for you. Again, like with the other adaptogens, you can use schisandra in combination with other herbs. It is particularly nice in teas and tinctures as well as in capsule-form.
Eleutherococcus is a type of “ginseng” (Siberian ginseng) that is known to be gently restorative after periods of stress and especially when cortisol levels are low in the morning. It helped me recovery from midwifery training as well as from having a newborn myself, both of which involved many late nights with little sleep.
Cordyceps and Reishi mushrooms are also considered to be adaptogens. Studies show that they also help the body recover from stress and optimize cortisol as well as the immune system after stress exposure. You can find extracts of these mushrooms in liquid or capsule form.
Dr. Donielle (Doni) Wilson, a naturopathic doctor, certified professional midwife, and certified nutrition specialist, graduated from Bastyr University in 2000. Author of The Stress Remedy, Dr. Doni redefines stress to include toxins, food sensitivities, and imbalanced blood sugar levels, and then offers expert guidance on how to reclaim optimal health. She is creator of a gluten-free nutritional regimen that integrates mind-body medicine with support for reducing exposure to all forms of stress – The Stress Remedy Program. Dr. Doni is passionate about empowering wellness for as many people as possible.