How to use adaptogenic herbs for stress

As the name suggests, adaptogens literally help the body to adapt, adjust and recalibrate itself depending on our emotional and physical surroundings, by working at a cellular level on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – this is our central stress response system.

Woman holding handful of herbs

So, adaptogens can have a significant impact in times of stress and can counteract the physical harm that stress can do to our bodies, which includes the neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. In terms of mental distress, adaptogens can calm a racing mind when you’re struggling to sleep, induce clarity and concentration, and stimulate energy when you are fatigued.

The term adaptogen was introduced into scientific literature by Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev in 1940 to refer to ‘substances that increase the state of nonspecific resistance’ in stress. With now more than half a century of continuous research, broadly, an adaptogen seems to deliver the four ‘Ns’: 

  • Nourishing – bring nutritive strength. 
  • Normalising – raise what is low and lower what is high (e.g. energy, stress).
  • Non-specific – act on multiple parts of the body at the same time.
  • Non-toxic – be completely safe when used over extended periods of time.

As adaptogens work by increasing the state of nonspecific resistance in stress and decreasing sensitivity to stressors, this results in stress protection and prolongs the phase of resistance (stimulatory effect). Instead of exhaustion, the level of equilibrium and feedback mechanism (known as homeostasis), can be re-set at a higher level called heterostasis. The higher it is, the better the adaptation to stress. Thus, the stimulating and anti-fatigue effect of adaptogens has been documented both in animals and in humans [1][2][3]

Why are adaptogens beneficial to the body? 

Adaptogens can help your body adapt to major changes in life such as bereavement, relationship break-ups and job or money worries.

These herbs aid our bodies in reacting to short- and long-term stress, both physical and mental, enhance recovery.

Research also suggests adaptogens can combat fatigue, enhance cognitive clarity, boost immunity and even ease mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety [4].” 

What herbs should we use and why? 

Each adaptogen has a different effect on the body, so understanding your body’s physical and mental response to stress is key to determining which herb is right for you. For example, if you’re exhausted both physically and mentally, Rhodiola rosea may be helpful as it is known to both energise and relax you. Here are some examples of specific herbs and their known benefits:

  • American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) – Boosts working memory, reaction time, calmness, and immune system. 
  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) – Reduces stress and anxiety.
  • Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) – Combats fatigue. 
  • Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)  – Boosts stamina. 
  • Goji berry (Lycium barbarum) – Boosts energy, physical and mental performance, calmness, and sense of well-being, and can also improve sleep. 
  • Eluethero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus) – Improves focus and staves off mental fatigue. 
  • Jiaogulan (Gynostemma Pentaphyllum) – Reduces stress and boosts endurance.
  • Schisandra berry/Magnolia berry (Schisandra chinensis) – Boosts endurance, mental performance, and working capacity. 
  • Tulsi/Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) – Reduces physical and mental stress, stress-related anxiety, and depression. 

How are adaptogenic herbs helpful for hormonal and adrenal health?

Adaptogenic herbs help in times of stress. They assist the body’s physiological functions as it responds to outside stressors. They do this by lowering the stress threshold. This activity, in turn, supports the adrenal glands, important for hormonal balance. Women should consider taking adaptogenic herbs for support during major hormonal changes. 

Adaptogens play an important role for support during the perimenopause and menopause years. The ovaries produce significantly less oestrogen as a natural progression of menopause creating anxiety and mood swings, therefore, creating more stress.

In summary, the restorative properties of adaptogenic herbs play a key role during the physical stress of perimenopause and menopause, as they help balance and restore the body.

If you’d like some support introducing new produce to your diet to support your stress levels, use our advanced search tool to find the nutritionist that’s right for you.


References

  • [1] Panossian A., Wikman G. Pharmacology of Schisandra chinensis Bail.: An overview of Russian research and uses in medicine. J. Ethnopharmacol. 2008;118:183–212. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2008.04.020. 
  • [2] Panossian A., Wikman G. Effect of adaptogens on the central nervous system. Arq. Bras. Fitomed. Cient. 2005;2:108–130. 
  • [3] Panossian A., Wikman G., Wagner H. Plant adaptogens III: Earlier and more recent aspects and concepts on their modes of action. Phytomedicine. 1999;6:287–300 
  • [4] Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity by Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman https://www.mdpi.com/1424-8247/3/1/188 
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Written by Suzie Sawyer

Suzie Sawyer is a clinical nutritionist and formulator of the Alive! multi-vitamin range.

Written by Suzie Sawyer

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