Updated: May 18
Even before we entered the pandemic season, stress was a part of the daily lives of most of the world’s population. Managing stress has become a serious health concern that wellness professionals address as part of treatment. In my practice, discussing the amount, duration, and level of stress one has in their life is a regular protocol for developing coping mechanisms. Stress affects diet, digestion, and craving and directly impacts health choices.
According to a poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, almost 70 million adults resolved to find ways to improve their mental health in 2022. Healthy Minds Monthly results were taken from a poll with a nationwide sample of 2119 adults. Of this sample size, 37% had anxiety about the state of their mental health in the new year. The poll also indicated that less than half of participants grade their mental health as good (42%), 26% as excellent, 22% as fair, and 9% as poor.
Stress takes its toll on the body and may lead to chronic inflammation, depression, atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, cancer, neurological impairments, and aging. This leaves people searching for innovative ways to cope with the stress that doesn’t involve conventional medication. For centuries, traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda encouraged the consumption of adaptogenic herbs and botanicals to aid the body in maintaining balance when confronted with a wide range of stressors. Those stressors may be in the form of chemical pollutants, physical overexertion, erratic blood glucose, high blood pressure, high lipid levels, memory loss, mood swings, and diminished cognitive function.
As the research has been ongoing and evidence continues to be reported, the idea of using adaptogenic herbs to combat stress is becoming more widespread. In the nineties, the food and drug administration defined adaptogens as “ a new kind of metabolic regulator that has proved to help in environmental adaptation to prevent external harms.”
In an article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2017, adaptogens were identified as stress response modifiers that may increase an organism’s resistance to various stressors and aid in survival. However, the FDA explicitly recommended that consumers consult with a qualified health professional before taking any herbal or botanical substance. Some may not be suitable for certain medications or with specific health conditions. Additionally, some commercially available herbs may contain other chemicals and may do harm. It is essential to obtain herbs from reputable sources.
Some of the more popular adaptogenic herbs are as follows. They may be sold as a single supplement or a combination of supplements, and each includes the available research and their potential stress relief properties.
Ashwagandha has been used for more than 3000 years for stress relief and management, inflammation reduction, blood sugar control, anxiety and depression, and improved cognition. There haven’t been many clinical trials investigating these claims until recently. It is currently being tested in randomized, placebo-controlled trials for several health issues, including stress. One eight-week study looked at the effects of ashwagandha root extract at various dosages on 60 healthy men and women with significant stress levels at baseline, four weeks, and eight weeks. It was discovered that dosages of 250 mg/day and 600 mg/day indicated a reduction in perceived stress and cortisol levels.
Turmeric is mainly touted for its anti-inflammatory properties and is part of the ginger family. Its active compound, curcumin, potentially has adaptogenic properties because of its effect on cortisol production. Cortisol is the hormone secreted by the body during times of stress. Although not fully understood, curcumin may inhibit significant increases in cortisol production. This action may protect against the damaging effects of chronic stress, which has been shown to lead to various diseases. As with many adaptogens, more research is needed on humans.
Turmeric is usually used in its dried form or as a spice blend, commonly known as curry powder. Used along with black pepper, its absorption and effectiveness may be increased. Turmeric can be added to smoothies, curries, lentil dishes, stews, teas, soups, and salads.
Ginseng has antioxidants referred to as ginsenosides which have potential pharmacological properties, although more studies are needed. However, recent findings indicate that Ginseng may help control stress hormones, including cortisol. This may aid in decreasing chronic inflammation, which leads to many of the modern diseases we see today, such as cancer.
Ginseng extract is mainly found in supplements, and it appears that interaction with other medications is low. Use caution whenever using an herbal supplement, especially when taking blood thinners, blood pressure, or blood sugar-lowering medicine. Always consult with a licensed medical professional if you consider Ginseng or any other supplement.
The root of the Rhodiola plant contains about 140 bioactive compounds and may have stress-protective attributes by lessening the effects of chronic stress in the body.
Rhodiola is commonly used as an extract in supplement form and combination with other herbs. In most cases, it is used in conjunction with Ginseng.
Adaptogens are often included alone or combined in herbal teas, smoothies, plant-based protein powders, bottled juices, and supplements. Dosage and formulations may vary widely, and some interact with other medications, so use caution. It’s also important to note that it is not recommended for pregnant or
breastfeeding women due to its impact on hormone levels.
Never make the mistake of thinking that more is better when taking supplements. The research does not support doing this, and it may be risky. Stress is a daily part of life, and there are many ways to deal with it. Exercise, healthy eating, prayer, or spending time with friends or family work in conjunction with various therapies.
The science is emerging, and we’re learning more about botanicals and adaptogens, and their potential to impact stress regulation looks promising. As findings are presented, we may have more options to treat stress holistically without using anti-depressants or other conventional medication. However, natural is not always better. All substances are chemicals and react physiologically, and each chemical may have a positive or an adverse reaction and needs to be monitored and tested.
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