Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese systems of medicine have been using adaptogenic herbs for thousands of years. Here in the West, we are only more recently beginning to understand the benefits of using plants with revitalising and restorative properties to enhance our health. Stress is a constant factor in most of our lives, whether it is from financial worries, career dissatisfaction, relationship problems, illness, or an unhappy home life. Stress is a modern day epidemic, which will eventually make us sick if we do not deal with it.
When stress is long lasting or chronic, it can affect virtually all of the body’s systems. The initial response is the “fight or flight” response, which activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes the adrenal glands to secrete adrenalin and cortisol, which are both stress hormones. This fight or flight response is the body’s response to a perceived threat or danger, and is designed for short-term use. It is important that cortisol returns back to normal after this initial response, however, when stress continues for a long period of time, we can get stuck in this sympathetic nervous system state, otherwise known as the resistance phase of stress. High cortisol correlates to digestive problems, weight gain, fatigue, inflammation, and poor sleep, along with being at the core of many other chronic health conditions, such as depression. How well do you deal with your stress? Many individuals turn to alcohol or other recreational drug use in order to help them to wind down or relax at the end of a day, or to mask underlying emotional turmoil. This is not the best way to manage stress as it can lead to substance dependence and addiction, which may eventually lead to poor liver function and other health problems.
Too low or too high neurotransmitter function (neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain), such as dopamine, serotonin and GABA, are very often seen in alcoholics and drug users. Most addictions are driven by the need to increase or reduce these neurotransmitters. Dopamine is the main addiction driver, while serotonin (the happy hormone) acts as an anaesthetist to mental pain and depression, and GABA has more of a tranquilising effect on stressed out and anxious minds. High caffeine consumption can also have detrimental effects on our health. While many of us use caffeine as a stimulant to get going in the morning, and as a pick me up in the afternoon, it usually leads to dependence and may be overly taxing to our adrenal glands. Even sugar is an addictive substance, which many people will find hard to give up. Our genetics can determine if we process caffeine, drugs and alcohol effectively, therefore everyone has a different response and threshold. Usually by listening to the body, we are able to know what agrees with us and what doesn’t. However many individuals ignore these warning signs and carry on with harmful habits, causing more stress to the body, i.e. more release of cortisol by the adrenal glands.
We know that stress is one of the main causes of many or most disease processes, therefore, managing it in a healthy way can only be beneficial to our long term health and wellbeing.
There are other ways to deal with stress, which do not negatively impact on our health. Besides generally slowing down our pace of life; getting out into nature; and incorporating yoga, tai chi, and meditation; we have herbal remedies, termed ‘adaptogens’, which may increase our resistance to stress. Therefore, by increasing our feeling of wellbeing and calmness, we may be more able to reduce our need for the more harmful substances. What are adaptogens? Adaptogens are a group of herbs and natural substances that relieve nervous tension and help to reduce the negative effects of stress on the body. They are powerfully supportive and extremely rejuvenating to the body, mind and soul. This is because they have a way of balancing our hormonal and central nervous systems, helping us to achieve overall homeostasis, or equilibrium. As we are exposed to high levels of stress in our modern lives, adaptogens are the perfect addition to our diet, to help us to manage our stress before it has a chance to have detrimental effects on our health.
Adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng, ashwagandha, rhodiola, and maca, may be the perfect tonic if you are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, or addictions. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) works on the adrenal glands, which excrete the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin. It can help the body adapt to the metabolic stress of substance abuse. It can help us to deal with adrenal fatigue and nervous system exhaustion, so commonly seen in drug users. It may also help with restlessness, as it is very nurturing to the nervous system. Studies have shown antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects (1). Rhodiola stimulates both dopamine and serotonin pathways, making it a useful herb for the management of depression, often associated with addictions and addiction recovery. Clinical studies have shown that although rhodiola may not be as effective as sertraline (an SSRI - selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), it did have fewer adverse events associated with its’ use, and it was better tolerated (2). Furthermore, it can lead to feelings of anxiety and agitation if taken at the same time as coffee, tea, cigarettes, and sugar. It is also contraindicated for anyone already taking an SSRI antidepressant, so it does need to be taken with caution. Rhodiola, as with most adaptogens, have not been clinically tested on pregnant and breastfeeding women, and so should be avoided. Giving up addictive substances can be extremely stressful, therefore, Ashwagandha (Withania sonifera) is a great herb to help with adapting to the change. Increased anxiety from adjusting to a non-drug state can be alleviated by Ashwagandha’s sedative effect, which helps to regulate neurotransmitters and may help to ease withdrawal symptoms (3). It may also protect the brain and cognition from the toxic effects of alcohol consumption. Maca is native to Peru, and has been consumed as a powdered root there for thousands of years for its’ health benefits and adaptogenic qualities. The polysaccharides extracted from Maca are rich in antioxidants, therefore helping to neutralise harmful free radicals and cell damage (4). A high consumption of antioxidants is especially important for those who have abused their bodies through excessive alcohol and drugs. Recent studies have shown that consuming Maca may also reduce blood pressure and depression (5). It is not only herbs, but many medicinal mushrooms also have adaptogenic properties. Coryceps, reishi, and chaga contain polysaccharide compounds such as beta-glucans, and triterpines, which are anti-inflammatory and immune modulatory. In particular, cordyceps has been shown to regulate cortisol levels (6), necessary for supporting the stress response.
Including adaptogens in your daily diet and supplement routine may support the detoxification period, increasing the likelihood of a successful recovery. As not all adaptogens will agree with everyone, it is important to work with a qualified health care practitioner, who is trained in herbs and adaptogenic plants and medicine. * It is advised to discuss any new supplements or medication with your doctor as they may interact with prescription medications or certain conditions. As always, it is important to only purchase high quality supplements from trustworthy sources.
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References 1. Muszyńska et al. (2015) ‘Natural products of relevance in the prevention and supportive treatment of depression’, Psychiatria Polska. doi: 10.12740/pp/29367. 2. Mao et al. (2015) ‘Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial’, Phytomedicine. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2015.01.010. 3. Chandrasekhar et al. 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. doi: 10.4103/0253-7176.106022. 4. Zha et al. (2014) ‘Extraction, purification and antioxidant activities of the polysaccharides from maca (Lepidium meyenii)’, Carbohydrate Polymers. doi: 10.1016/j.carbpol.2014.05.017. 5. Stojanovska et al. (2015) ‘Maca reduces blood pressure and depression, in a pilot study in postmenopausal women’, Climacteric. doi: 10.3109/13697137.2014.929649. 6. Nagata et al, ‘Supplemental anti-fatigue effects of Cordyceps Sinensis (Tochu-Kaso) extract powder during three stepwise exercise of human’. 2006. Japanese Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine.