Renowned stem cell biologist Bruce Lipton states that stress causes up to 90 percent of doctor’s office visits. While this number may seem so high it’s hard to believe, it makes a lot more sense when you consider how stress affects the body.
The easiest way to illustrate the dangers of stress on the body is to understand organ transplants. Doctors give transplant patients stress hormones to stop the donor organ from being rejected. You see, stress hormones cut off the immune system.
Since almost everyone is under some level of stress these days, we’re all experiencing some level of reduced immunity. It sure helps explain why illnesses of all kinds seem so rampant today. Is there anything we can do about this? Thankfully, the answer is yes.
No magic wand will remove the impact of prolonged stress on the body, but there is one stress reliever that’s amazingly effective and quite simple. I’m talking about certain herbs and plant extracts that act as adaptogens.
Adaptogens: Nature’s Stress Relievers
The term adaptogen explains the effect of herbs and plant extracts that stabilize physiological processes and help the body resist stress. A Soviet scientist first coined the term in 1947. In fact, it was the Soviets who did a lot of research into the benefits of adaptogenic herbs in their elite athletes and later, in cosmonauts as part of their space program.
Adaptogens work by stabilizing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – the central stress response system – raising HPA hormones that are depressed, while lowering ones that are too highly elevated. This movement towards a healthy balance in the body is called hormesis, or sometimes homeostasis.
The benefit of balanced stress hormones goes beyond a healthy immune system. Less stress means more physical energy, better mental focus and even better-feeling joints and muscles, not to mention a happier mood and better overall sense of well-being. There’s scientific evidence proving this.
In a 2010 article published in the journal Pharmaceuticals, researchers wrote that “a number of clinical trials demonstrate that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental work capacity against a background of stress and fatigue, particularly in tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention.”1
There are at least 15 recognized adaptogens. These include panax ginseng, holy basil, and cordycep mushrooms. But two of the most popular and well-researched are ashwagandha and rhodiola.
Top Stress-Busting Herbs
Ashwagandha: This herb has a long history of use in Ayurvedic (Indian) traditional medicine to counteract the negative effects of stress.
52 people suffering from chronic stress took part in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, the kind that’s considered the “gold standard” of research. Those taking the herbal supplement scored much better on the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, which measures a person’s subjective feelings of happiness and well-being.
After eight weeks the improvement was 19.18 percent among those taking ashwagandha compared to just 3.56 percent for those on the placebo.
Researchers used an objective clinical measure to confirm these findings. Serum levels of the stress hormone cortisol measured 16.05 percent lower after four weeks and 22.2 percent lower after eight weeks among those taking the herb. This compares to declines of just 6.74 percent and 7.87 percent in the placebo group.2
Cortisol is one of the hormones that dramatically depresses the immune system, in addition to depressing your mood.
In another “gold standard” trial the researchers concluded that “Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”3
Rhodiola: Traditionally used as an adaptogenic medicinal herb in Eastern Europe and Asia, it has gained popularity worldwide for its ability to decrease fatigue and anxiety while improving mood, memory, and stamina.
In a high-quality study, researchers tested a standardized extract from the plant’s roots on individuals suffering from stress-related fatigue. After one month there were significant differences between the herbal and placebo groups.
Researchers concluded that Rhodiolarosea “exerts an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome.”4
In a review of the herb conducted in 2010, the researchers wrote that “Rhodiolarosea has robust traditional and pharmacological evidence of use in fatigue, and emerging evidence supporting cognition and mood.”5
How to Take Adaptogens
When it comes to adaptogens, there may be a narrow window of effectiveness.
This means a dose that’s too low won’t counter stress, but too much will overstimulate and increase stress.
It’s best to start with the lowest recommended amount and allow two to three weeks to see what effect it has on you. If the herb hasn’t helped by then, up the dose and try again. If you’re still not noticing any benefits, this particular herb might not be for you and it’s time to try a different adaptogen and repeat the procedure.
A fair amount of trial and error may be required. The optimal approach is really a personal one and could involve a combination of plant extracts.
In addition to supplements, you’ll also find adaptogenic herbal teas. You might try those, too.
The good news is, the research recognizes adaptogenic herbs as generally safe and helpful to virtually everyone, so you can experiment with confidence. That’s a sharp contrast to anti-anxiety medications which are riddled with negative side effects.