Stress is a signal from the environment (whether externally, or internally) that signals adaptation. This occurs through our nervous system, with our brain registering the threat, signalling our adrenal glands so secrete cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline – our stress hormones. With this comes a cascade of responses enabling us to fight, flight or freeze.
Acutely, this is a good thing. We want to adapt, to build resilience. But chronically, it’s degenerating, drives inflammation, an immune response, imbalances, symptomology and disease formation. And this is what we want to prevent, the chronic activation of the stress response and the activation of our sympathetic nervous system.
How stress manifests is unique to all of us, but ranges from constipation and digestive imbalances to IBS, to headaches and migraines, to muscle cramps and spasms, insomnia and difficulty quietening the mind, to aggression, hostility and anxiety. Adaptogens are a class of super herbs, which as their name so aptly suggests – help us to adapt and help prevent the above mentioned symptoms.
Adaptogens enable us to build greater resistance, to pivot and adapt to the stressors of our lives without signalling the physiological stress response and release of stress hormones. They buffer it. Each adaptogen is unique in it’s qualities and compounds, but all of them work along the HPA axis – the hypothalamic (brain) – pituitary (brain) - adrenal axis.
The HPA axis is what regulates the stress response, with our hypothalamus being the homeostasis king always encouraging us back to balance. It then, speaks to the pituitary gland who’se the middleman, releasing hormones like ACTH to say “hey adrenals, release those stress hormones ASAP”.
Adaptogens then come in at either the point of communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary or adrenals and interrupt the signal, protecting the nervous system from repeat stress assaults.
They’re anti-fatigue, support performance, sleep, digestion, libido, immune function, mood, skin – everything. As each cell in our body has a receptor to cortisol, so stress impacts every organ system we have.
Some well-known adaptogens are Panax Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Reishi Mushroom, Turmeric, Schisandra, maybe you’ve heard of them? They’re pretty cool and are MVP status in my eyes, and all stem from traditional medicines, such as Ayurvedic and TCM.
Adaptogens are the types of herbs that are designed to be either taken through a particularly stressful period to support and nourish the nervous system and thus, you, or everyday as an additional support increasing resistance to whatever the world throws at you, as they’re non-specific. They don’t mind if the stress is emotional, environmental, psychological or physical they add a layer of armour to you.
Here’s a list of some key adaptogens along with their unique benefits so you can see which is best suited to you
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) – anti-fatigue, adrenal restorative, immune modulating, anti-anxiety, neuroprotective
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) – supports cognition and buffers mental fatigue, supports mood, antioxidant, anti-anxiety, helps with brain fog
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) – anti-bacterial, anti-viral, antioxidant, supports digestion, supports detoxification, immune enhancing, anti-inflammatory
Cordyceps Mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis) – increases Nitric Oxide production, anti-asthmatic, supports cardiovascular system, increases libido, neuroprotective, elicits similar effects to caffeine, improves stamina, physical performance and recovery.
Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthero Root) – Increases cellular energy, protects and supports liver, lowers cholesterol and improves blood sugar, strengthens connective tissue, immune modulating, anti-fatigue
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) – protects and regenerates liver, supports detoxification, anti-fatigue, antioxidant, immune modulating, supports healthy skin & protects from environmental damage e.g UV damage from the sun.