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Stress can come at you in many different ways. Adaptogens are herbs that help the body cope with various kinds of stressors. These herbs have been used in natural medicine for many years and are still widely popular today.
What Are Adaptogen Herbs?
Adaptogen herbs help the body to adapt to stress, hence the name. They work to counteract the effects of stress primarily on the immune, neurological, and endocrine systems. When the body encounters a stress trigger, it can launch the fight-or-flight epinephrine (or adrenaline) response. However, once that’s done, fatigue and a crash-and-burn feeling can overtake the body. When stressors become chronic, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, and depression can be common physiological responses.
Adaptogenic herbs help to provide a balance to the way that the body comes down from the epinephrine-driven stress response, decreasing fatigue and brain fog and increasing focus, feelings of calm, and an overall feeling of well-being. But they can pivot in how they help the brain. If you’re anxious and feeling wound up from stress, they can help provide a balancing calm. If you’re fatigued and burnt out, they can bring a more energetic calm to the body and mind. Overall, adaptogens support normal physiological function and metabolic processes in the body, in spite of any physical, biological, or environmental stressors that it may encounter.
Top Adaptogenic Herbs & Their Benefits
There are many adaptogens, but we’ll discuss three of the most commonly used, along with their individual benefits.
Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb that primarily works to promote stamina and decrease the way that the body experiences stress and anxiety. It also has other benefits that include supporting healthy glucose metabolism and balanced cortisol levels. It may also be beneficial for promoting healthy sleep by reducing the incidence of insomnia and fatigue. Ashwagandha has also been used as a natural way to address symptoms of depression.
Ashwagandha has other benefits that are not related to stress. It may increase testosterone in men dealing with infertility. It may also lead to better performance in strength or endurance training, although it is unclear if this is related to a testosterone increase or a different mechanism. It also has an immune-modulating effect, creating balance in how the immune system responds to threats.
Ashwagandha supplements are made from root extracts and come in varying doses and formulations. Ashwagandha works best when taken early in the day and consistently, although research is limited on long-term use.
Maca is a vegetable in the brassica family that is native to Peru. It has many reputed health benefits, and one of its primary effects is to increase energy levels in both men and women.
It is widely considered to be a hormone booster, but research shows that it does not actually increase hormone levels in men. Studies on whether or not it increases estrogen in women show mixed results. It is often recommended for both men and women when it comes to helping the body adapt to stress. It can serve as a mood balancer and may even help to address mood instability and other symptoms associated with menopause. It has also long been used as an aphrodisiac, although the mechanism is unclear since it does not largely influence hormone levels.
For women, maca has stronger anti-anxiety benefits, according to studies, and may lead to increased feelings of general well-being in both men and women. Maca may also be beneficial for reducing fatigue and balancing TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels.
Maca supplements are made from the root, which looks like a turnip. The dried root is often ground up into a powder and added to foods or drinks, but can also be encapsulated or taken as an extract or tincture. Maca comes in red, yellow, black, and pink varieties.
Rhodiola is an herbal supplement that helps the body to adapt to stress, primarily by reducing chronic or persistent fatigue. Rhodiola not only works to decrease fatigue, but may also help to address fatigue-related issues like burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also serve as a mood booster, although this is a secondary benefit and may be due to the fact that someone’s mood naturally tends to increase if they feel less fatigued and burnt out.
Rhodiola also has immune-supporting benefits and may even exert anti-pathogenic activity against certain viruses, while modulating the immune system’s response. Rhodiola also has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. It also has anti-aging properties, specifically when it comes to neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, and metabolic disorders (including diabetes).
Rhodiola also helps the brain to be more alert and focused, again, another side-effect of having fatigue levels decreased. Some early research suggests that Rhodiola may exert effects on the brain such as sparing serotonin or increasing its levels or protecting neurological function.
Rhodiola is typically supplemented as an encapsulated or liquid extract.
Today’s Simple Step
In today’s busy, chaotic society, stress and burnout are far more common than they should be. Even in people who prioritize wellness, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed, overloaded, and overbooked.
While stress, fatigue, and burnout can’t typically be addressed in one fell swoop, and certainly won’t be fixed by taking one supplement, there are many things that we can do to support the body’s natural and healthy response to stress.
Eating a diet that is rich in nutrients is the first step. Part of Dr. Weston A. Price’s work revealed that modern society was plagued with disease and poor health, including cavities, because of the decreasing nutritional value of food and the increasing reliance on modern, refined foods. These foods are stripped of essential vitamins, minerals, and fats—all of which Dr. Price found to be fundamental for supporting vibrant health.
Convenience foods can be more enticing during times of stress or busyness, but the price that the body pays can be heavy. While it may be hard to find time to cook when you’re stressed or tired, there are some easy ways to prioritize this without adding to your stress burden in the process. You can learn more about this in our recent blog post How to Find Time to Cook When You’re Busy.
Diet and nutrition aren’t the only ways to prevent stress and burnout. Seek mental health support in any way that you need it. Much like dental care is every bit as essential as other aspects of medical care, so is taking care of your mental health.
Dr. Pottenger’s Soup recipe is a good base from which to launch many other dishes. Make this in large batches to use throughout the week.