By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Stress is a constant part of life. There’s really no getting rid of it or escaping it. But there are ways to control our response to it…and that’s where adaptogens come in.
Adaptogens are a class of healing herbs that balance and protect the body. When it comes to stress, adaptogens have the unique ability to increase our tolerance of it. The stress doesn’t go away, but how we process, react, and adapt to it improves. In turn, the body becomes more resilient to future stressors and remains in a better state of balance (homeostasis) and health overall.
The HPA-Axis and Stress Response
To appreciate how adaptogens work, it’s important to understand what happens in the body when it’s under stress.
During times of high stress, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis revs up. Think of the HPA axis as your body’s “stress feedback loop.” It involves a complex set of organs, hormones, chemical messengers.
First, the area in your brain called the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). This compound plays a major role in your response to stress, initiating a cascade of events and reactions that move to the pituitary gland, and ultimately end with the adrenal glands. The adrenals release cortisol, which you probably know as the “stress hormone.”
Cortisol’s job is to put you into a state of fight-or-flight, so that you have the strength and stamina to respond to a threat appropriately. Your blood sugar, heart rate, and blood pressure all rise in preparation to attack or fight off danger. Once the stressful situation comes to an end, your body returns to normal.
This kind of stress response is normal and isn’t problematic when it happens occasionally. But chronic stress is a different story.
We’re exposed to so many stressors nowadays—large and small—that it’s nearly impossible to escape them. Between home life, work stress, financial worries, health concerns, scary headlines in the press (and these days, when is the news ever good?)—the HPA axis can become overworked. And as a result, our bodies are in constantly heightened states of fight-or-flight. As you know by now, this type of chronic stress can lead to countless health problems.
Adaptogens to the Rescue
Adaptogens work at the molecular level by interacting within the HPA axis. If there’s too much of something, adaptogens help to reduce levels. If there’s too little, they help increase levels.
By getting involved in this process, adaptogens help the body:
- Adapt to all types of stressors, from environmental pollution and physical illness, to social conflicts and emotional distress
- Recover from stress associated with physical exertion or exercise
- Prevent physical problems caused by stress, such as immune system depletion, exhaustion, organ dysfunction, and disease.1
How can you get adaptogens? There are many on the market, but here are a few I consider to be most notable.
Ginseng is one of the most potent adaptogens you can take. There are two main species: Asian and American.
Asian (or panax) ginseng works best as an energy-booster and fatigue-fighter. It helps to increase alertness, accuracy, and good mood. Likewise, American ginseng helps with fatigue, with the added benefit of improving memory, attention, and cognition.
Research has found Asian ginseng to be an “actoprotector”—a subclass of adaptogens that hold a “significant capacity to increase physical performance.” Both animal and human studies have shown that it significantly increases physical and intellectual work capacities.2
In a more recent review of 10 studies, researchers concluded that, “Ginseng is a promising treatment for fatigue. Both American and Asian ginseng may be viable treatments for fatigue in people with chronic illness.”3
Astragalus is a Korean herb that’s rich in several important and protective compounds, including polysaccharides, flavonoids, saponins, and alkaloids. All of these have been shown to enhance immune function.
Astragalus has been also been used clinically to ease stress-related illness. One study looked at the anti-stress effects of this herb and found that rats treated with it had significantly lower stress-induced anxiety and learning/memory deficits.4
Other benefits of astragalus include antimicrobial activity and positive effects on cholesterol and blood sugar.
If you eat a lot of Indian food, you’re probably familiar with turmeric. It’s the bright yellow spice that is used to make curry. While turmeric is best known for its use in cooking, it also has a very long history of medicinal use throughout Asia. Turmeric’s medicinal properties come from its active component, curcumin.
Curcumin’s biggest claim to fame is its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which translates to serious protection against some of our most dangerous and life-threatening diseases. According to one study:
“Curcumin has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities and thus has the potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic illnesses.”5
Along with these benefits, turmeric (more specifically, curcumin) is considered an adaptogen because of its ability to inhibit large surges in cortisol production.
Ashwagandha has been used for more than 3,000 years for stress management, decreasing inflammation, enhancing energy and vigor, and improving cognition.
A 2019 study examined ashwagandha’s stress-relieving effects on 60 adults over a 60-day period. Those taking ashwagandha reported a statistically significant reduction in one anxiety scale (Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale) and near-significant decreases in another (Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale-21). The ashwagandha intake was also associated with greater reductions in morning cortisol levels.6
Another study found that ashwagandha not only lessened stress, anxiety, and cortisol levels, but also improved sleep.7
And researchers of yet another trial concluded that ashwagandha “safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”8
Various mushrooms have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Each species of mushroom has its own unique qualities and benefits, but some of the best adaptogenic mushrooms include reishi, lion’s mane, turkey tail, chaga, cordyceps, and maitake.
Reishi is particularly rich in antioxidants and has the potential to increase energy, reduce, stress, and enhance immune function.
Research into cordyceps shows that they have many therapeutic qualities, including antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, antioxidant, antiviral, anticancer, anti-arthritic, and anti-diabetic, to name a few! One study found that those taking cordyceps extract had lower levels of cortisol after recovering from motion fatigue, which is a form of stress.9-10
Several of these medicinal mushrooms are even being studied for their antitumor effects and as adjunct therapies for cancer.11
How to Use Adaptogens
Most adaptogens come in capsule/pill, powder, or tincture form. You can also find many teas, tonics, and other beverages infused with certain adaptogenic herbs. In the case of turmeric and mushrooms, you can find both at grocery or health food stores to be used in cooking, too.
All adaptogens work differently, and the effects can vary from person to person. Be sure to follow recommended dosage instructions, and start with the lower end of the dosing range and increase after a week or so if you feel the need.
- Panossian A and Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Association with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010 Jan;3(1):188-224.
- Oliynyk S and Oh S. Actoprotective Effect of Ginseng: Improving Mental and Physical Performance. J Ginseng Res. 2013 Apr;37(2):144-166.
- Arring N, et al. Ginseng as a Treatment for Fatigue: A Systematic Review. J Altern Complement Med.2018 Jul;24(7):624-633.
- Park HJ, et al. The Effects of Astragalus Membranaceus on Repeated Restraint Stress-Induced Biochemical and Behavioral Responses. Korean J Physiol Pharmacol. 2009 Aug;13(4):315-319.
- Aggarwal B, et al. Curcumin: The Indian Solid Gold. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:1-75.
- Lopresti A, et al. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 Sep;98(37):e17186.
- Salve J, et al. Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study. Cureus.2019 Dec 25;11(12):e6466.
- Chandrasekhar K, et al. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul,34(3):255-62.
- Ashraf S. Cordycepin for Health and Wellbeing: A Potent Bioactive Metabolite of an Entomopathogenic Medicinal Fungus Cordyceps with Its Nutraceutical and Therapeutic Potential. Molecules. 2020 Jun; 25(12): 2735.
- XING An-hui1, et al. Experimental Study on the Promoting Motion Fatigue Recover of the Cordyceps Militaris Extract on the Chemical Indicators in Blood of Human, last accessed Nov. 3, 2021 at http://en.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTOTAL-SZGY201010028.htm
- National Cancer Institute. Medicinal Mushrooms (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version, last accessed Nov. 3, 2021 at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/mushrooms-pdq
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.