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Adaptogens are herbs that help our bodies deal with stress and restore balance. These herbs have been used for thousands of years by cultures all over the world.
Written by Cheryl Stephens, APRN
"We are not meant to deal with the stress of all the tragedies around the world set to dramatic music every evening."
Recently this quote appeared in my Facebook news feed; I could not help but nod my head in agreement. Even those of us who try to eat healthy, exercise, take the appropriate supplements, get enough sleep, and avoid environmental toxins are affected by the stress of these nightly tragedies, on top of our normal daily stresses. We juggle jobs and relationships. Many of us are caring for children, aging parents or both. Others are facing our own health issues and changes associated with aging.
Stress gets a bad rap, but it is good for us in small doses. Stress makes us more alert and helps us focus. Like many beneficial things though, too much stress can be detrimental to our health. High stress causes high cortisol levels leading to adrenal fatigue. There is a long list of symptoms that are related to adrenal dysfunction including, but not limited to — fatigue, insomnia, and weight gain. Self-care is necessary when we become overstressed, and sometimes we need a little help from natural sources known as adaptogens.
Adaptogens are herbs that help our bodies deal with stress and restore balance.These herbs have been used for thousands of years by cultures all over the world. Studies were conducted by Soviet scientists in the 1950s attempting to find a competitive advantage for athletes, military and cosmonauts. One of these Soviet scientists, Isreal I. Brekhman, defined adaptogens with the following properties:
Adaptogens are known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.They offer protection to the heart and liver. For instance, triterpenoid saponins are plant based compounds that strengthen the adrenal gland by mimicking the activity of stress-regulating hormones. A specific class of carbohydrates called polysaccharides help to improve the immune system by stimulating cytokines, tumor necrosis factor, natural killer cells, B and T lymphocytes, macrophages, granulopoiesis and thrombopoiesis. Because of these effects, if you are taking prescription medications or have any medical issues, discuss the use of these herbs with your healthcare provider.
A few adaptogens to consider are:
American ginseng helps mild to moderate adrenal insufficiency. Improvement has been noted with the immune system specifically with frequent colds, allergies and asthma. American Ginseng has been shown to be helpful in metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. It can enhance digestion and improve absorption of nutrients.
Caution: American Ginseng may interact with Coumadin.
Asian ginseng is the most stimulating of the adaptogens. It improves the immune system, adrenals, pancreas, circulation and nervous system. Benefit has been shown in use with those suffering hypertension and Raynaud's syndrome.
Caution: interacts with Coumadin, medications that lower blood sugar, and MAO antidepressants.
Ashwagandha is a mind, mood, and muscle soother with calming and nourishing properties. This herb is known for improving sleep, relieving anxiety, repairing nervous system exhaustion, and the improvement of memory and learning tasks. Ashwagandha can reduce inflammation and help with pain relief. It has also been shown to improve blood glucose in diabetics and improve cholesterol. Ashwagandha may be helpful in regulation of the thyroid. The powdered form contains iron, making it appropriate for use with people who are anemic.
Caution: those who suffer from an allergy to nightshades, hyperthyroidism, and hemochromatosis may have negative side effects.
Cordyceps is a mushroom that helps with both male and female infertility, frequent urination, night sweats, dizziness, and ringing in the ears. These mushrooms have also been shown to improve lung and kidney function.
Caution: Excessive amounts of Cordyceps can depress the immune system, cause edema, anxiety and headaches.
Eleuthero's stimulating effect enhances mental performance and focus. It increases energy and stamina, reduces stress and fatigue, enhances immunity, and improves detoxification. This herb also helps build muscle and prevents age-related muscular breakdown. It can help with lowering LDL cholesterol. Athletes can benefit from its use as it increases endurance and stamina and leads to quicker recovery.
Caution: Use Eleuthero with caution if you have insomnia and avoid for high blood pressure. It is contraindicated with Digoxin.
Holy basil helps with overall mind, mood, and immunity. It works well for those struggling with depression, anxiety, and low mood. It improves mental clarity, motivation, and memory. Improvements in high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides and blood glucose have been reported. Holy basil calms the mind and spirit and promotes longevity.
Caution: Holy basil should be avoided in women trying to become pregnant.
Like many other adaptogens, Licorice can be used to help support the adrenal and immune system. It is of benefit for people who suffer from gastritis, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn's disease). Licorice has been shown to protect the liver and improve the symptoms of menopause. Topical application of Licorice may help heal herpes lesions.
Caution: Licorice should be avoided by persons with hypertension and care must be taken to avoid overdose if eating excessive amount of licorice extract or using licorice tea. (Note: DGL licorice is considered safer and less likely to cause elevation in blood pressure than other types.)
Rhodiola is considered a cooling adaptogen and less likely than other adaptogens to cause overstimulation. It can enhance alertness, reduce fatigue, improve memory, anxiety and depression, burnout, irritability, and ADHD. This herb can help prevent immune depletion caused by overwork and excessive physical training. It has been found to lower blood sugar and decrease Parkinson's disease symptoms. Studies also show benefits for the heart.
Caution: Rhodiola should be avoided in people with bipolar depression.
Schisandra has been found to have liver protecting effects on the body. It also offers benefits to the nervous, immune and endocrine systems. This herb has both a stimulating and calming effect on the nervous system. It helps to normalize blood pressure and improves brain fog, memory, and focus problems.
Caution: Schisandra should not be taken by people with a viral or bacterial infection.
Finding the right adaptogen is a process. I would encourage you to read about the different adaptogens and their uses to see which describes your symptoms most closely. This article contains only a partial list of adaptogenic herbs; there are many others that should be considered as well. After reading and educating yourself about the benefits of these herbs, discuss their use with your healthcare provider. Pharmacies have information about potential drug interactions.
Most adaptogens can be taken with other herbs and supplements, including other adaptogens. However, it is best to start with a single herb then add another if needed. I have not included dosing information as adaptogens can be taken in many forms including capsules, tinctures, and teas. As with most medications and treatments, the best advice is to start low and go slow. You may notice results within a few weeks. Some conditions can take longer, up to 4-6 weeks. Adaptogens are usually taken for several months and can be used for longer periods if needed.
Adaptogens should not be used as a tool to help us push our bodies harder. They should be used as an aid to healing or during times of unavoidable stress. The best way stay healthy and feel good as we head into our prime years is to eat healthy food, get moderate exercise, sleep regularly, spend time in nature, daily meditation or prayer practices, and most of all find joy and happiness in every day. ~