Adaptogens, Stress, and Your Health

Stress is a real killer, as noted in our other article.  Stress related illness comprise upwards of 70% of all health complaints in America, not to mention other countries.  Although you cannot avoid all stress, it is possible to reduce the impact of that stress upon your body.  Through the use of adaptogens, a proper diet, and exercise, the overall negative impact of stress upon your health can be reduced.  Adaptogens are one powerful means of intervention, which may not just help save your life, but could actually bring about an overall state of wellness to the world as a whole, if we all participated.

Adaptogens, Stress, and Your Health
Adaptogens, Stress, and Your Health

An adaptogen is generally perceived as a natural or herbal substance which can help the body to adapt to stress and one which fosters a ‘normalizing’ effect upon bodily processes.  In reality, the properly chosen diet and exercise could also be viewed as being an adaptogen of sorts, but for the sake of this article, we will stick to the herbal substances.

Adaptogens have been around in medicine, sports, and research for quite some time dating back centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.  They reached a spotlight in the mid 1900’s, as researchers in the world of sports medicine began to unravel their benefits to overall health, fitness, and the ability to assist athletes to recover and endure.  Much of that research actually dates back to the 1960’s and the Soviet Union.

Bottom line, adaptogens and their usage is not new, not some new fad in society, but is very old.  It is only until more recent times, isolating specific benefits in research, that they have become more popular.  Despite this though, they are not as popular as what they should be, taking into consideration today’s hectic stress ridden society and our steady increase in disease incidence.

Adaptogens:  What do the do for your Health?

There are likely hundreds of herbal adaptogens and mineral compounds that are noted as being adaptogens or adaptogenic.  For the most part, adaptogens are grouped as being ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ in their effect on the body.  Primary adaptogens generally target the actual stress response within the body, while secondary adaptogens are usually used to mitigate the damage and assist in body repair.  Some primary adaptogens are also secondary, but generally not vice versa.

An example of secondary adaptogens includes items like bee pollen, propolis, whey or pea protein, amino acids, spirulina algae, and curcumin. These natural items either impact secondary pathways that are created as a result of the stress response, such as inflammation, or they aid in supplying the body with nutrients to assist with recovery and strength.

Primary adaptogens are the main area of focus at least for this discussion.  In being a primary adaptogen, the herbs are capable of directly impacting the stress response, which is associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA).  The HPA axis is the interconnection between the hypothalmus and pituitary in your brain, and the adrenal gland, which is located next to your kidneys. Hormones are released from one step to the next in this 3- step highway, which then impact the next organ in line, and eventually create the production of stress hormones including cortisol and epinephrine.  If an herb is capable of slowing down or ‘normalizing’ this HPA axis, it is seen as a primary adaptogen.

In cases of chronic stress, the HPA axis is generally over-active in nature, which results in the production of cortisol and epinephrine in the body to an excess amount.  These hormones then trigger all sorts of other negative events down the road, impacting inflammation, digestive health, tissue health, healing, blood pressure, circulation, heart function, immune and even brain function.  Anything you can do to balance or normalize that process is for the better.

The primary adaptogens tend to directly impact the HPA axis, helping to normalize it to an extent, and most have secondary effects which extend outwards to other aspects of health.  These secondary effects can be an improvement of mood or spirit, circulation, digestion, inflammation, and energy.  Energy is a key commodity and very important, as it not only keeps us moving on a daily basis, but keeps our cells functioning which is very important to your immune health.

In ancient medicinal cultures, adaptogenic herbs were used in many types of illnesses to help the patient’s recover.  The adaptogens were viewed as having perceived medical benefit for those specific diseases, ranging from digestive illness to the common cold and even cancer, but more so, the herbs were viewed as increasing ‘vital energy’ in the patient.  This vital energy or ‘rejuvenation’ was often the lift that the patient needed to overcome their illness.  This is also the lift that spurred the research in the mid 1900’s regarding adaptogens and athletes, noting an increased stamina and recovery rate.  Here, again, you must keep in mind that exercise when in excess, is a stress upon the body, so adaptogens are very useful.

Specific Adaptogens and Impact on Your Health

There are literally hundreds of adaptogenic herbs that can directly impact your health and the stress response which is present.  Given the large selection available, it can be hard to discriminate which ones are best suited for which situations or for which people.  Despite there being hundreds known to man, the list can be reduced down to 10-12 pretty easily, keeping in mind the sole goal of impacting the stress response with secondary benefits if possible.

Here are some well-known, well-researched adaptogens that generally are suitable for every person, not in any particular order.

  1. Ashwaghanda  (Withania somniferi)
  2. Bacopa
  3. Eleutherococcus senticosus
  4. Hawthorn berry
  5. Cordyceps sinensis
  6. Ginseng
  7. Astragalus membranaceus
  8. Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi)
  9. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
  10. Rhodiola
  11. Shatavari (Asparagus root)
  12. Shilajit

Combination Formulas with primary and secondary adaptogens:

While a detailed discussion of each of these individual adaptogens is not possible within the limits of this article, there are a few highlights to note, which are generally reflective of each.

General Benefits of Primary Adaptogens:

  • Normalize the HPA axis and balance the stress response
  • Aid in energy production on a cellular and physical level
  • Aid in balancing the inflammatory response (anti-inflammatory effect)
  • Aid in reducing daily aches/pains
  • Aid in promoting a healthy immune response
  • Aid in promoting healthy circulation and cardiac function
  • Aid in promoting healthy cognitive function
  • Aid in promoting hormone balance (testosterone/estrogen)
  • Aid in promoting a healthier mood (calming effect)

These benefits are generally seen with most primary adaptogens on various levels.  Some are more well known for some of those benefits, while others are more popular for other effects.

An example would be Bacopa as a general adaptogen, but more well-known for cognitive benefits.  Then there is Astragalus, being a well-known adaptogenic tonic but especially known for vital energy production.  Reishi and Lemon Balm also being primary adaptogens, but more well-known for their impact on mood and aiding a state of ‘calm’ in the body and spirit.

Adaptogens in a Nutshell

Considering the state of our society and the high stress levels we all endure on a daily basis, it just makes sense to try to protect our body and mitigate the damage.  When you see the ever-increasing numbers of stress-associated health ailments on the rise, including cognitive related problems, it makes even more sense to take advantage of both primary and secondary adaptogens.

Health is a participation sport.  You can be told what to do or you can understand it and implement yourself.  Generally, the second option yields the best results.


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN

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