Guest blog by Vicky Ware,
‘Adaptogen’ is a word used to describe herbs that help the body deal with stressful events. They help you ‘adapt’ to stress, so on a biological level you’re better able to deal with it in the future. They also provide a stimulating boost immediately after being taken meaning you’re prepped and raring to go for that stressful meeting, exam or workout.
So how do these wonder plants work? They act on the hormonal system, decreasing sensitivity to stress. This means the same exposure to stress in the future will cause a smaller stress response by the body. In this way, adaptogens can make stress a stimulus for growth rather than a point on the road to burnout – much as exercise is tiring but leads to greater fitness.
Long term stress is a known cause of diseases that plague the Western world 1. By improving the physiological response your body has to stressful events, adaptogens could reduce the negative impact stress has on health. Read on the find out what stress is, how your body responds to it and how adaptogens can improve this response to reduce your stress levels. I’ll also look at the effects of some well-known adaptogens: Peruvian maca, Ginkgo biloba, Panax ginseng, Holy basil and Rhodiola rosea.
Plants are full of health giving nutrients from fibre to fats to micronutrients essential for our bodies to function, which is why plant based diets are thought to be so good for health.
But some plants contain compounds that are really specific in their health giving properties and adaptogens are included in this category. They can help the body react to, and adapt to, stress.
Stress isn’t just the feeling you get when you’ve had a tough day at work, it is the result of exposure to both psychological and physical stressors. Stresses of modern life range from pressure at work to noise pollution, under exercising to over-exercising, pesticides in food and air pollution 2.
This means things you find enjoyable, like going for a run, are included in the amount of stress you’re experiencing.
There’s only so much stress your body can deal with on an everyday basis before it starts to get tired. However, the human body is really great at adapting to stress – you get fitter if you exercise, and it appears you get better at dealing with other stressors if you are exposed to them and given time to recover, too. Adaptogens can give your body a helping hand in this process.
There are three stages involved in exposure to a stressful event; the first is the alarm reaction which occurs when you first notice the stressful situation. Once the stressor is gone, your body responds by making you stronger and better able to cope with stress in the future. It can only do this if you have the resources to re-build which include rest and adequate nutrition.
If you don’t have these resources and stress continues, you become exhausted. This is when your body has run out of resources to adapt to stress and why long-term chronic stress can lead to burn-out. At this stage a prolonged period of recovery is needed to return to full health 3.
Chronic stress without recovery is a leading cause of disease in the Western world, linked with development of everything from the common cold to cancer, depression and obesity and a faster rate of aging 4;5;6.
Adaptogenic compounds are thought to act on the hormonal system, in particular through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which helps the body adapt to stress 3.
In contrast, the sympatho-adrenal-system (SAS) is involved in your immediate response to stressful situations – increased heart rate, sweating and preparing your body to fight or flight 3. Along with promoting long-term adaptation to stress, adaptogens are also involved in promoting this immediate stress response 3.
If adaptogens are taken in a single dose, they are actually a stressor on the body. This is what causes the energising effect. They’re like a pre-real-stress stressor to get your body ready for the fight (or race, or meeting) 3. If taken every day, this effect trains your body to be better able to deal with stress.
Adaptogens are thought to have multiple health benefits, these include:-
- Improved cognitive function;
- Improved physical function;
- Immune modulating effects;
- Liver protection;
- Cancer prevention; and
- Antioxidant function 7.
Adaptogens are not thought to have significant, or any, side effects. Unlike other stimulants such as caffeine they’re not known to affect sleeping patterns or have the potential for addiction 3.
A single dose of adaptogens can increase physical and mental performance, and it’s thought long term supplementation does too 8;9. It’s thought to be phenolic compounds within the adaptogens that cause the beneficial effects 3.
This plant grows in the Peruvian Andes at 4000-4500 metres altitude.
Maca contains micronutrients, most significantly; iron, calcium and potassium along with 10% protein, 60% carbohydrate, 2.2% fat and 8% fibre 19.
This adaptogen has been found to improve symptoms in people who suffer from cognitive decline including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia 12. It’s thought the benefits are due to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect and the fact that it improves blood flow in the brain 12.
Ginseng is thought to have health benefits including preventing cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes and high blood pressure. It also has a balancing effect on the immune system 13. This has the benefits of both improving response to invading infectious agents – meaning you don’t get ill, and reducing disorders caused by immune imbalances such as allergies 14;15.
Holy basil originated in central India and grows throughout the Eastern tropics 2.
Research has shown this herb can protect against stress caused by physical, metabolic, chemical and psychological stressors. It improves immune and oxidative stress levels of animals exposed to chronic noise levels 16. It’s quite amazing to think that a plant can have beneficial effects in protecting the body against stressors as wide reaching as physical exercise and excessive noise 2.
Holy basil has antimicrobial properties, and has beneficial effects on metabolic health by balancing levels of glucose in the blood. It’s also thought to have anti-depressant properties 2.
In animal studies, Holy basil has been shown to enhance the capacity of mice to do exercise by improving aerobic metabolism. The adaptogen also reduced oxidative tissue damage caused by exercise 2.
Unlike other energy boosters like caffeine, Rhodiolo rosea is actually thought to improve sleep, especially at high altitude where people can start to suffer from sleep disturbances 17.
Strangely given the affect it has on sleep it is thought to have a stimulating effect immediately after being taken 3.
Research has shown that your attitude to stress impacts how it will affect your health.
If you view the symptoms of stress as a positive; a racing heart means your body is preparing you for action and that’s a good thing, rather than a negative then you’re less likely to develop stress related health problems. There’s an interesting TED talk on this topic, linked in the references below 18. Taking adaptogens is one way to take control of your stress-life, giving you the peace of mind that you’re helping your body adapt to the challenges life throws at you.
Vicky has a degree in Biological Sciences with a focus on biochemistry and immunology and is currently studying for a MSc in Drug Discovery and Protein Biotechnology. She is also an endurance athlete.
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