Adaptogens – ancient herbs for modern life

We are living in unprecedented times and for many of us our levels of stress are at an all-time high, and mood and energy levels at a low. According to the World Health Organisation, stress has been classified as the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’1 and a recent UK-wide stress survey, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, found that 74% of adults have at some point over the past year felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.2 Stress can have a significant impact on our mood, energy and sleep, and can contribute to a range of physical and emotional problems. During this week’s blog we will discuss four remarkable adaptogenic herbs and some of the benefits these wonderful herbs may give to help you keep a handle on stress.

We all deal with stress at some point in our lives and in the short term it can be helpful. At a most fundamental level, stress energises both the body and brain, prepares us for action and can boost performance. Our ancestors would have experienced infrequent bouts of stress, often in response to life-threatening situations. In these instances, stress would have been beneficial to survival. The problem lies with situations where stress is prolonged. In this case, there is a mismatch between the stressor and our body’s stress response, which was to help us to survive short-term threats, not long-term ones. Overwhelming or unremitting stress can have quite devastating effects on our physical and psychological wellbeing.

Unlike our ancestors, 21st century stressors tend to be more mental or emotional. They include relationship difficulties, social media, financial worries, job security, multi-tasking, and busy schedules. Of influence recently has been the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing conflict in eastern Europe and the psychological impacts of climate change (sometimes referred to as eco-anxiety). A new global survey, for example, has illustrated the depth of anxiety many people are feeling about climate change.3

There are other situations which the body can also ‘perceive’ as stress which are often less obvious to us. These can include intense exercise, nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar imbalance, caffeine, medications, alcohol, food intolerances, toxins, and illness – the list goes on. 

The New ‘Normal’

Elevated levels of stress are therefore becoming the new ‘normal’ for many of us and studies have shown many health problems related to stress which include increased infections, blood sugar dysregulation, sleep dysfunction, mood disorders, gastrointestinal problems, and even heart disease.

What are the common signs or symptoms of chronic stress?

Physical manifestations of chronic stress to be mindful of can include:

  • muscle tension and pain
  • headaches
  • exhaustion/low energy
  • high blood pressure
  • digestive problems
  • weak immune system
  • insomnia
  • clenched jaw/teeth grinding
  • obesity

Chronic stress can also lead to mental and emotional symptoms such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • low mood
  • panic attacks
  • irritability/agitation
  • poor focus

Some of the ways we may attempt to counteract stress in our lives include excessive alcohol intake, smoking, caffeine and other stimulants, overeating, opting for unhealthy foods and medications. Ironically, these can often end up increasing stress in the body.

Adaptogens – Ancient Herbs for Modern Life

An adaptogen refers to a substance which promotes adaptation by the body to all kinds of stressors, whether they be emotional, physical, or environmental.4 They work by recognising the needs of the body and help to tip the balance in the right direction.

Adaptogens have thousands of years of historical use and have been used in both Ayurveda and Chinese medicine. These herbs contain active phytochemicals that help account for their adaptogenic functions. Due to the heightened levels of stress in the modern world, they are now experiencing a revival in health and wellness practices today.

Adaptogens are considered non-specific, meaning their effect is widespread and they can exert many influences on the body. They are most widely known for their ability to improve the body’s response to stress but are also known to promote energy and vitality, stabilise mood, promote calm and reduce anxiety. Studies also indicate many possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and hemopoietic properties.

The hormonal response to stress in the body is mediated through the adrenal glands. One of the risks of long-term stress is a weakening of adrenal gland function, known as ‘adrenal fatigue.’ This is characterised by dysfunction in the secretion of cortisol and other major adrenal hormones and can give rise to symptoms such as low energy, fatigue, mood issues and sleep problems. Remarkably, adaptogens work whether experiencing adrenal fatigue or over-stimulation. For example, an adaptogen may have a calming effect on one person or an energising effect on another, depending on the needs of the individual.

Mechanism of action

Stressors cause stress by triggering the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis stress response. The pharmacological profile of various adaptogenic plants is complex and might be different from plant to plant, but studies do suggest that most adaptogens have an effect due to their influence on the HPA axis. The HPA axis is fundamental to homeostasis, stress responses and energy metabolism.

Research also suggest adaptogens may interact with the immune-neuro-endocrine system, which helps the body regulate its use of energy and immune defences. Studies have shown that the intake of adaptogens can affect nitric oxide levels, blood glucose levels, cortisol levels, plasma lipid profile, and hepatic enzymes.5

Ashwagandha 6-11

Ashwagandha, also known as Withania somnifera or Indian ginseng, is a shrub that has long been used by Ayurvedic practitioners to promote an inner calm. It is a source of a myriad of compounds, the principal ones being Withanolides, but also catechins, naringenin and kaempferol.

Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen that is best known for its anxiolytic and stress-relieving effects. It has also been used to improve sleep and memory, reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. In the brain, the compounds in Ashwagandha act as powerful antioxidants that can protect neurones from free radical damage, preserving resilience.

It is thought that Ashwagandha is useful for adrenal dysfunction, and it has been reported to lower chronically raised cortisol levels, improve cholesterol balance, and to help withstand stress.

Studies

In human studies, Ashwagandha has been shown to work by reducing anxiety and inflammation, measured as lower levels of C-reactive protein post-Ashwagandha ingestion.

Furthermore, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study examined the efficacy of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults with a history of chronic stress. The study demonstrated that Ashwagandha significantly decreased feelings of stress, depression, anxiety and significantly increased mood and general well-being. The study also showed a statistically significant decrease in serum cortisol levels.

Other studies have shown that Ashwagandha can:

  • prevent decrease of adrenal cortisol and ascorbic acid which occurs due to stress
  • be useful in the prevention of stress-induced ulcers of the gastrointestinal tract
  • be used for body weight management in adults under chronic stress (growing evidence suggests a significant positive association between increased cortisol levels and weight gain)
  • mimic the neurotransmitter GABA and therefore promote a calm and restful sleep

Bacopa Monnieri 12-14

Bacopa monnieri, also known as Brahmi, is a creeping perennial with small oblong leaves and purple flowers, found in warm wetlands, and native to Australia and India. Bacopa contains many active chemical constituents including steroidal saponins, bacosides A and B, bacopa saponins D, E and F as well as alkaloids, flavonoids, and phytosterols.

Stress is associated with increased oxidant production and oxidative damage, and thus long-term exposure to stressors may enhance the risk of poor health, particularly in relation to the brain. Bacopa is best known as a neural tonic and memory enhancer, and as with Ashwagandha, it has been shown to have a significant effect on the protection of the brain and nervous system, as well as cognitive performance.

Emerging research demonstrates several mechanisms of action for bacopa including acetylcholinesterase inhibition, choline acetyltransferase activation, β-amyloid reduction, increased cerebral blood flow, and monoamine potentiation. Bacopa also interacts with both the dopamine and serotonin systems.

The bacosides in bacopa work as adaptogens, enabling better handling of stress and in Ayurveda, it is used for anxiety, depression, and for ‘general neuropharmacological disorders.

Studies

Studies have demonstrated that bacopa has the ability to increase antioxidant levels (glutathione, catalase, superoxide dismutase and Vitamins C, E and A) and that they independently decrease lipid peroxidation within the brain, therefore contributing to neuroprotection. Further studies have also shown that bacopa shows improvements in cognitive outcomes in child and adult populations.

Rhodiola 15-20

Rhodiola, also called Rhodiola rosea, Golden root or Arctic root, grows in the colder mountainous regions of the world. It contains a number of phytochemicals including rosavin’s and salidrosides, which are the primary active components of the herb.

Rhodiola can help to promote a calm emotional state and has been used to increase energy, stamina, and strength and to help the body adapt to and resist stress. It is a key adaptogen for reducing anxiety. The adaptogenic effect of rhodiola is associated with the HPA axis, reducing the levels of corticotropin-releasing hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline.5

Many studies have been conducted on the benefits of rhodiola and have shown:

  • reduction in symptoms of anxiety
  • improved mood
  • reduced fatigue
  • improved depression
  • improved sleep
  • It has also been used in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia

Studies

Patients experiencing burnout syndrome from stress-related fatigue have been found to present a high cortisol response to awakening stress. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled group study examined the effects of rhodiola. The post-treatment cortisol response to awakening stress was significantly reduced in the group. A further study examined the stimulating and adaptogenic effects of rhodiola extract on stress-induced fatigue in students during an examination. The study displayed statistical significance in improved physical fitness, mental fatigue, neuro-motoric tests, and general well-being.

Siberian Ginseng 21,22

Siberian ginseng, also known as eleuthero, is a woody shrub that has been used for many years in Eastern countries, including China and Russia. It is the root of the plant that is used medicinally. Siberian ginseng contains eleutherosides, the active constituents that provides the adaptogenic effects of this herb. Siberian ginseng has traditionally been used for strengthening the immune system and as general stimulant and one of its main purposes over time has been for its ability to increase energy and vitality in the body. Siberian ginseng works by stimulating the adrenals so that symptoms of low energy and fatigue can be improved. By increasing circulation, Siberian ginseng may also help to increase blood flow to the brain, improving mental functions such as memory and concentration.

Studies

Several studies have investigated the effect of Siberian ginseng on

  • increasing energy
  • reducing fatigue
  • enhancing exercise performance

For example, in a human study of male athletes, Siberian ginseng was shown to enhance endurance capacity and elevate cardiovascular functions. A further human study showed that Siberian ginseng may work to a cortisol threshold, below which it increases the cortisol, and above which it decreases it.

Conclusion

In the modern world, stress is a part of our daily lives, and it is important to find ways to help manage stress and to protect the body from the effects of stress. The symptoms of chronic stress can negatively impact on many aspects of our life. Adaptogens support the body by helping it to adjust to and positively respond to stress. They may do so in many ways including increasing energy, normalising cortisol, decreasing fatigue, and improving cognition. Adaptogens also exert many other benefits often due to their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-modulating properties.

Due to the lack of collection of safety data during pregnancy, it is not recommended to use adaptogens during pregnancy and if you are taking any medication please check with your doctor before taking any of the herbs mentioned.

Key Takeaways

  • Stress can have a significant impact on our mood, energy levels, and sleep, and can contribute to a range of physical and emotional problems
  • The problem lies with situations where stress is prolonged. In this case, there is a mismatch between the stressor and our body’s stress response
  • Physical manifestations of chronic stress include muscle tension, headaches, exhaustion, high blood pressure, digestive problems, weak immune system, insomnia, clenched jaw/teeth grinding
  • Mental and emotional symptoms include depression, anxiety, low mood, panic attacks, irritability/agitation
  • An adaptogen refers to a substance which promotes adaptation by the body to all kinds of stressors
  • These herbs contain active phytochemicals that help account for their adaptogenic functions
  • Adaptogens are known for their ability to improve the body’s response to stress but also promote energy and vitality, stabilise mood, promote calm and reduce anxiety
  • Most adaptogens have an effect on the body due to their influence on the HPA axis
  • Ashwagandha is best known for its anxiolytic and stress-relieving effects. Also used to improve sleep, memory, and reduce inflammation
  • Bacopa is used for anxiety, depression, and for ‘general neuropharmacological disorders
  • Rhodiola can help to promote a calm emotional state and has been used to increase energy, stamina, and strength and to help the body adapt to and resist stress
  • Siberian ginseng is known for increasing energy, reducing fatigue and enhancing exercise performance

References

  1. Stress: The Health Epidemic of the 21st Century | SciTech Connect (2016). Available at: https://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/stress-health-epidemic-21st-century/ (Accessed: March 24, 2022).
  2. Stressed nation: 74% of UK “overwhelmed or unable to cope” at some point in the past year | Mental Health Foundation (2022). Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/stressed-nation-74-uk-overwhelmed-or-unable-cope-some-point-past-year (Accessed: March 24, 2022).
  3. Young people feel anxious about climate change | Human Development Scotland (no date). Available at: https://www.hds.scot/news/young-people-feel-anxious-about-climate-change (Accessed: March 24, 2022).
  4. Adaptogens: A Review of their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits – American Botanical Council (no date). Available at: https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/90/table-of-contents/feat_adaptogens/ (Accessed: March 25, 2022).
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  13. Aguiar, S. and Borowski, T. (2013) “Neuropharmacological Review of the Nootropic Herb Bacopa monnieri,” https://home.liebertpub.com/rej, 16(4), pp. 313–326. doi:10.1089/REJ.2013.1431.
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7 thoughts on “Adaptogens – ancient herbs for modern life

  1. Dear Cytoplan, thank you for this informative and extremely well written article on ‘Adaptogens – ancient herbs for modern life’. I make the connection between C – reactive proteins and adrenal fatigue and stress through insight into ashwaganda .
    May we have a follow up article on how this also has a role in menopause?
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Carolyn – Thank you for your feedback – I am glad you have found the blog helpful. We will certainly consider producing a follow up blog in the future.

    1. Hi June – Yes, it is a powerful adaptogen that is best known for its anxiolytic and stress-relieving effects.

    1. Hi Lara – We provide our apoptogenic herbs individually in order to be able to offer therapeutic levels, with the exception of our Ginseng Complex which provides a number of herbs to support your adrenal health. If you would like advice as to which of the adaptogens might be most suitable for you please do get in touch with our team of nutritional therapists: nutrition@cytoplan.co.uk

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