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Amazing Adaptogens for Stress & Fatigue

Jan'19


At this wintry time of year, I reckon we could all do with a bit of calm in our days, especially with only 7 or so hours of daylight to cram everything in.

This is a great time of year for adaptogenic herbs, which, in my humble opinion, are real power-house plants that help the body adapt to physical and mental stress. Incredibly effective (I speak from personal experience), they've been used extensively in Ayervedic and Chinese medicine for centuries. Now, the rest of us are waking up to Amazing Adaptogens.

Definition of 'adaptogen'

The physician Walter Cannon coined the term 'homeostasis' in his book published in 1930, The Wisdom of the Body. In short, it refers to any process that living things use to actively maintain stable conditions for survival. Now enter the Russians ...

The former Soviet Union spent many years searching for plants that would help energise their astronauts, soldiers, and Olympian athletes. They were looking for what they called 'adaptogens' - specific plants that could help the body adapt to physical and mental stress.

Even though the concept of adaptogens dates back thousands of years, modern-day research began with the Russians back in the 1940s. Following WWII, Soviet scientists set out to determine why Siberians lived healthy and long lives – many living beyond 100 years.

Over a period of 45 years, research scientists conducted a large number of studies. Most of the research was conducted by the Russian military, so many details were kept secret until the mid-1990s. This early research led to the discovery of 'adaptogens', a phrase created by a Dr. Nicolai Lazarev, demonstrating a new class of plant compounds that could help people reduce stress and live healthier lives.

Two qualifying factors for herb to be considered an adaptogen were identified. To be an adaptogen, the herb needed to…

  • Help the entire system gain balance or homeostasis
  • Have non-specific activity by increasing the resistance of the entire body to stress

An adaptogen herb's main role is to help balance and protect the body, especially important during times of stress, by strengthening the body’s response to 'adapt' by increasing the natural resistance to emotional, physical and environmental stress. They calm the adrenal glands while helping to normalise the cardiovascular and the endocrine (hormone) system back to regular function.

Life’s stressors can affect mental and physical health, and if anyone's experienced the effects of adrenalin and cortisol coursing through the body, you'll know how much of a relief it is for the sensation to pass. Personally, I add a couple of gentle adaptogens into the morning smoothie to help keep me on the straight and narrow during the day, and my horses get similar in their daily herb mix during winter to help keep any seasonal melancholy at bay.

However, if we're talking a chronic, ongoing, stressed state, this means the body's already in a degenerative systemic breakdown at cellular level, which if left unaddressed will take the body, as a whole, down the path of utter exhaustion. In order to survive, and whether human or horse, the body kicks in its own survival kit, the Fight/Flight defence system.

This is very much part of the stress scenario - the fight/flight response is the body’s natural stress defence system to cope with a perceived threat. The central nervous system now alerts the body into emergency mode, sending messages via nerve impulses to the relevant organs to ready themselves for survival.

At the same time, the endocrine system – a series of glands that secrete hormones (chemical regulators) – kicks in. If homeostasis is threatened in any way, it instantly secretes specific hormones from the adrenal glands to put the body on alert to fight or fly, specifically cortisol - the stress hormone which affects the central nervous system, digestion and kidney function, and adrenalin - the survival hormone, to basically keep the body focused and functioning enough to survive the threat.

Until the survival syndrome is turned off, this whole process uses heavyweight resources and they're exhausting - once everything's returned to normal, the brain and body will go through a period of exhaustive recovery, so alleviating the symptoms is critical to both mental and physical well-being.

This is where adaptogenic herbs come in. Thanks to Mother Nature there are some truly amazing, effective adaptogens which we use extensively in many of our blends where restoration of homeostasis is needed, and never more than in our herbal StressTonic blend.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is regarded as one of the best medicinal herbs for mental or physical fatigue, and is especially beneficial for adrenal fatigue. It naturally balances hormone levels, insulin sensitivity and the natural production of thyroxine which supports healthy thyroid function.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also referred to as Siberian ginseng, is believed to help the body handle stress by supporting adrenal function, reduce fatigue and hormonal levels. Eleuthero modulates stress response by supporting the body’s ability to produce brain chemicals that offset the effects of stress. This herb is often prescribed by herbalists for those who lack concentration or are low on energy.

Liquorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is one of my personal go-to herbs if ever I’m feeling wired on adrenalin or under pressure. Considered an effective immunomodulator, with a specific affinity with the adrenal glands to produce a restorative effect, a cup of liquorice tea will completely relax my agitation within 15-20 minutes.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) is an indigenous herb to the Himalayas and widely used in Ayurvedic and Indian folk medicine. Renowned for its life-giving properties, Gotu Kola has been shown to be effective in fighting off fatigue by boosting energy levels as well as stamina.

Ginkgo Biloba is an extremely ancient tree that has been used in China to treat various health ailments for thousands of years. Studies have shown that ginkgo can be useful as a remedy for poor concentration and fatigue. In Germany it's often prescribed as a treatment for improving oxygen utilization and reducing fatigue.

Ginkgo is believed to protect the brain and liver from free radicals. Fatigue increases susceptibility to free radicals which in turn damage proteins, cells, and DNA. Ginkgo is also thought to counteract the effects of high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is another herb that has a long use in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), partnering well with eleuthero. Considered an immunostimulant adaptogen, astragalus is used as a tonic to enhance the function of the adrenal glands. NB. It should not be used with blood-thinning medicines or by those suffering from high fever.

Nettle (Urtica dioica) is an energy-boosting, super-nutritious plant, packed with minerals and vitamins. Many herbalists recommend nettle for nourishment as well as to address endocrine imbalances such as adrenal fatigue.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is often used with other adaptogen herbs such as ginkgo and ginseng to combat adrenal fatigue. Working together synergistically, these herbs are believed to have a strengthening effect on the adrenals, increase resistance to stress, and regulate the levels of cortisol.

Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis) has long been used by the Chinese to aid in normal body functions during stressful times.Research also shows that this medicinal herb provides antioxidant activity and promotes proper functioning of the liver to protect the body from the damage stress-related free radicals can cause.

Rhodiola Rosea This adaptogenic herb is renowned for use with stress-related physical and mental fatigue. Rhodiola contains salidroside, phytochemicals known to relieve anxiety, and the herb has been shown to inhibit excessive release of stress hormones, particularly cortisol, leading to less fatigue.

Holy Basil
(Ocimum tenuiflorum), also called Tulsi, is known in India as an elixir of anti-aging. It is regarded to have numerous health benefits such as regulating hormone levels, blood sugar and blood pressure. Being an adaptogenic powerhouse, holy basil is thought to be able to ease stress by calming the nervous system.

Sources
Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals. 2010;3(1):188-224. doi:10.3390/ph3010188.
Adams, D, Wu, T, Yang, X, Tai, S, and Vohra, S: Traditional Chinese medicinal herbs for the treatment of idiopathic chronic fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome}, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Ganzheitsmedizin. Herbal Drugs in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: An Overview. Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, H.N.B. Garhwal (Central) University, Srinagar, Garhwal.