We could all use some stress relief right about now. Twenty-twenty will likely go down in the books as one of the most stressful years in a long time for pretty much everyone, thanks to COVID-19 and it being a presidential election year. And let’s not forget that the holidays are upon us, which only adds to stress levels.
During stressful times, people often find ways (healthy or not) to help reduce or at least cope with stress. But because stress can have such a major impact, many people are turning to a newly popular — yet old — way of beating back stress: adaptogens. What are adaptogens and are they something you should try?
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Effects of stress: good and bad
If you think of a time when you were under stress, chances are something wasn’t going right in your world. Maybe you were sick, or your car broke down or you lost your job. We tend to view stress as being “negative” in that it makes us upset, anxious, sad or depressed. Physically, stress can cause headaches, chest pain, stomach upset, sleep problems and high blood sugars. The way we respond to stress can be negative, or unhealthy: eating too much or too little, drinking too much alcohol or using drugs, not sleeping enough, yelling at family or friends, or not taking care of diabetes are just a few ways that stress can take its toll.
Stress does have its positive side, however. In fact, there’s a term for “good” stress, and that’s “eustress.” According to The American Institute of Stress, “Eustress drives you to achieve better things. It’s also key to developing resilience, which is super-important for your emotional health.” Examples of eustress include going on a first date, starting a new job or purchasing your first home. Sure, they’re scary, but they’re exciting and challenging, too, and we tend to view these events as being positive.
Back to the “bad” type of stress. When your world is imploding and you’re feeling like things are spiraling out of control, you’re experiencing the bad type of stress, called “distress.” When distress becomes chronic, it can lead to serious adverse health issues. Managing diabetes every day can lead to chronic stress for some people. Having to take medicine, check blood sugars, count carbs, be active and go to numerous healthcare appointments can be very stressful, especially if you don’t have support. Constant stress can lead to high cortisol levels, which can, in turn lead to high blood sugars. It can also lead to high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, and impair the immune system. Clearly, finding ways to lessen or at least better manage stress is a priority for many people.
What are adaptogens?
One of the trending ways to help manage stress is with the use of adaptogens. Adaptogens have been defined as “natural bioregulators that increase the ability to adapt to environmental factors and avoid the damage caused by those factors,” as per the journal Chinese Medicine in 2018. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined adaptogens in 1998 as “a new kind of metabolic regulator that has been proved to help in environmental adaptation and to prevent external harms.”
More specifically, adaptogens are non-toxic herbs, roots and fungi (e.g., mushrooms) that help the body resist or adapt to damaging stressors and promote or restore normal physiological functioning. They’re said to help you better handle mental or physical stress, improve immunity, ward off depression and anxiety, and basically feel better, overall.
Adaptogens are nothing new, even though they’ve recently burst into the wellness scene. Many of the herbs that are currently used as adaptogens have their origins in Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient Indian medical system that takes a natural and holistic approach to physical and mental health.
How do adaptogens work?
It’s not entirely clear how adaptogens work (or if they even live up to their purported claims), but it’s likely that they affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the body’s stress response system. Adaptogens may act as eustressors (the good kind of stress, in other words), by triggering the production of or modifying hormones or changing how the body responds to stress. There are even secondary adaptogens that affect the immune, nervous and endocrine systems, rather than the HPA axis. Secondary adaptogens include fatty acids, sterols and phenols.
Adaptogens work in different ways and can affect different organs and tissues. Claims regarding to how adaptogens work and the changes they can cause include:
- Controlling levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”
- Balancing levels of other hormones, such as estrogen
- Enhancing attention levels
- Enhancing mental performance
- Supporting the immune system
- Fighting fatigue
- Alleviating depression and anxiety that occur as a result of stress
- Improving energy levels
- Supporting the function of various body systems, such as the central nervous system
- Supporting the function of various organs, such as the adrenal glands and the liver
- Reducing inflammation
In short, adaptogens are believed to help the body handle and recover from stressors that have physical and mental effects, including:
- Environmental factors, such as noise, heat or cold
- Illness or injury
- Death of a loved one
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Chronic stress from lack of sleep or problems at home or work
It may seem that adaptogens are too good to be true, and some researchers and health experts remain skeptical that adaptogens can truly own up to their claims. Fortunately, some recent studies have shown that they may indeed be beneficial. As an example, a Swedish Herbal Institute Research & Development study published in 2010 in the journal Pharmaceuticals concluded that “adaptogens have not only specific therapeutic effects in some stress-induced and stress-related disorders, but will also have an impact on the quality of life of patients when implemented as adjuvants in the standard therapy of many chronic diseases and pathological conditions (e.g., post-surgery recovery, asthenia, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).”
The term “adaptogen” may be new to you, but you might already be familiar with herbs that are considered to be adaptogens. Here are a few common adaptogens that you might come across:
- American ginseng (Panax ginseng): American ginseng contains antioxidants called ginsenosides that may control cortisol, ward off inflammation, induce calmness and boost the immune system.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): Ashwaganda is used to boost energy, reduce stress and anxiety, and fight inflammation. Also used to treat arthritis, epilepsy, pain and diabetes.
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): Astralagus contains antioxidants that are thought to protect the immune system, prevent respiratory infections, lower blood pressure, treat diabetes and protect the liver.
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris): A fungus used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat illness, fatigue and low sex drive. Cordyceps may help improve athletic performance, lower blood pressure, help manage asthma and possibly protect against some types of cancer.
- Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum): Also known as tulsi, holy basil is used in Thai dishes, but has possible medicinal use in the treatment of swine flu, colds, fever, upset stomach and diabetes. It’s believed to have antiinflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial and antiarthritic properties.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): Long used as a medicine in Russia, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, rhodiola is believed to increase energy, stamina, strength and mental capacity, and help manage depression and anxiety.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa): Traditionally used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, turmeric contains curcumin that has been shown to have antiinflammatory properties; it may also limit excess cortisol production, and increase the levels of a brain hormone that may improve memory and delay or prevent certain brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
How are adaptogens taken?
There are many ways that people can administer adaptogens. These include:
- Powders mixed into smoothies or soup
Even food manufacturers have jumped into the adaptogen scene. Examples are Califia Farms Maca-‘nilla Almondmilk Protein Drink, Four Sigmatic beverages that contain medicinal mushrooms, and GT’s ALIVE adaptogenic teas.
Safety of adaptogens
A common misconception is that substances that are “natural,” such as herbs, are safe to use. Certainly, not all herbs and fungi are harmless; in fact, many of them can have very serious side effects. The same holds true for adaptogens. For example, cordyceps can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in people using certain diabetes medications; it can also increase the risk of bleeding if used along with blood-thinning medication. Rhodiola may cause dizziness and dry mouth; holy basil may cause upset stomach and diarrhea. Other adaptogens, such as licorice root, can cause high blood pressure and dangerously low potassium levels.
In addition, many of the adaptogens have not been fully studied in humans; some of the health claims are based mainly on animal studies. They also haven’t been fully studied in pregnant women. Also, realize that the FDA does not regulate supplements, including adaptogens, for safety or effectiveness.
Adaptogens can interact with prescription medicines including blood thinners, chemotherapy drugs, sedatives, and some diabetes, blood pressure and antidepressant medicines.
It can be tempting to try adaptogens, especially if you feel stressed or fatigue, or have pain or inflammation. But keep in mind that they can have potent effects and may not be safe for you. If you’re interested in trying an adaptogen or product containing an adaptogen:
- Talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist first. Also, always let your provider know about any supplements that you are taking.
- Never use adaptogens if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Remember that more isn’t better; in fact, high doses of any supplement can cause harm. If you decide to take a supplement, choose one that is certified by the U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International or ConsumerLab.com.
- Realize that adaptogens will not prevent stress, and they’re not intended as substitutes for other self-care measures, such as eating healthfully, being active, taking medications as prescribed and getting enough sleep.
- Keep tabs on how adaptogens impact your diabetes; check your blood sugars regularly or pay close attention to your CGM data.