Stress and Adaptogenic Herbs
Stress. It is a term 21st century citizens can define well and it is a concept shaping the philosophies and approaches of modern health and wellness. Quite simply, it is something neither patients nor healthcare providers can ignore.
Stress is a product of our modern lifestyles that often operate on time constraints that leave individuals feeling short on sleep, healthy meals, time alone, time with family, and of course…energy. Success is often measured by productivity, and productivity is matched with speed. Unfortunately, this lightning speed lifestyle takes a toll on our health and can be a root cause of many chronic health conditions.
Stress is currently defined by Merriam-Webster as “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.” Prior to the 15th century, stress was strictly an academic term of physics used to describe pressure on objects and eventually used to define physiological hardship and adversity. The 19th century saw the definition and context of stress morph into our modern day understanding, which is now known as chronic stress.
STRESS AND CHRONIC PAIN CONDITIONS
Chronic stress not only impacts our general well-being, but both physical and emotional stress can trigger and exacerbate many chronic pain and fatigue syndromes, including fibromyalgia. Prolonged stress confuses the central nervous system and widens the body’s ability to perceive pain. As the central nervous system begins misinterpreting an array of harmless stimuli as painful or threatening, the perception of widespread pain engulfs your body.
As society continues to move toward a George Jetson prototype rather than aspiring to move back to the Little House on the Prairie, it will increasingly rely on tools that will provide support for the demands and stresses of a fast-paced life.
Adaptogens evolved in the wake of our newborn understanding of psychological stress. First used in 1969 by herbalists, an adaptogen is defined as “a nontoxic substance and especially a plant extract that is held to increase the body's ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning.” (Merriam-Webster) Fascinating! The classes of therapeutic herbs and supplements are derived from emerging health conundrums of which chronic stress is at the forefront. This makes adaptogens increasingly important to understand since they may serve as strong supporters of optimal health when stress perpetually exists.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a revered herbal adaptogen with deep roots in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Historically, it was used to strengthen, revitalize, and impart vigor. Today, these same qualities are reinstating the popularity of this herb and especially as researchers are fine-tuning our understanding of how this unique herb acts as an adaptogen, supporting strong health during stressful times. A study on the efficacy of Ashwagandha in the treatment of anxiety (a primary sign of the stress response) concluded that intervention with Ashwagandha “resulted in greater score improvements (significantly in most cases) than placebo in outcomes on anxiety or stress scales.” In another study, Ashwagandha not only reduced perceived stress and anxiety, but improved sleep, depression, and social interaction, and improved quality of life.
One way Ashwagandha works its wonders is by supporting the health of the adrenal glands. These glands sit perched upon the kidneys and although small in size, their influence upon various hormones and physiological responses is great. These glands are the heart of the stress response and act immediately when stressors arise by releasing a hormone known as cortisol. While cortisol may be life-saving when we are running from danger, it is also destructive to the immune system and other organ systems when it persists in circulation. Chronic stress causes cortisol to persist and eventually robs us of health and vitality. Ashwagandha’s success as an adaptogen can be partly attributed to its ability to clinically reduce the serum levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol.
Rhodiola rosea is another popular adaptogenic botanical in North America. It has long been recognized and revered in Russia, Europe and Asia as a botanical that encourages mental, physical and emotional resiliency.
One of the most common uses of rhodiola is for improving mental and physical fatigue. Numerous studies have been conducted to this end. A recent systematic review on the adaptogenic effects of Rholdiola rosea concluded that it, “may have beneficial effects on physical performance, mental performance, and certain mental health conditions.” Another study saw improvement in all stress symptoms, disability, functional impairment and an overall therapeutic effect within 3 days of the study. During this 4-week study, the efficacy of those positive health effects grew.
As with other adaptogens, Rhodiola rosea acts upon the central nervous system to enhance the actions of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin. It also makes the blood brain barrier more permeable to neurotransmitter precursors, so adequate neurotransmitters can be produced naturally. Neurotransmitters influence our ability to think, analyze, evaluate, calculate and plan, as well as our attention, memory, and learning functions. As Rhodiola rosea gently stimulates brain function, it can play an important role in appropriately managing chronic mental and physical stress.
Rhodiola rosea also supports the limbic system, which includes the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus. This system responds to norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine and consequently contributes to positive outcomes in emotion, memory, mood, pleasure, energy and drive. The limbic system also communicates with the adrenal glands to help balance cortisol levels in response to stress. Rhodiola’s support of the limbic system and adrenal glands can build strength and resiliency, improving the health of all body systems and contributing to a general sense of wellness. This is one example of the close-knit relationship between all body systems.
As chronic stress continues to destroy quality of life and health, adaptogens such as Ashwagandha and Rhodiola rosea may be imperative in the battle to gain control over foundational health issues and chronic pain and fatigue syndromes that mark an era not too eager to slow down and adopt a less stressful lifestyle.
- Pratte, M. A., Nanavati, K. B., Young, V., & Morley, C. P. (2014). An alternative treatment for anxiety: A systematic review of human trial results reported for the ayurvedic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(12), 901–908.
- Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). 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 Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255–262.
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- Brown, RP, Gerbarg, PL & Ramazanov, Z. (2002). Rhodiola rosea: a phytomedical overview. American Botanical Council: HerbalGram. 56:40-52
- David Brady