It isn’t surprising that something new pops up every time we read about health and wellness in the form of superfoods, fad diets or quick fixes for weight loss, weight gain, muscle buildup and more. Adaptogens are the latest buzzword in the wellness world occupying top place in magazines, health blogs and juice bars. The word adaptogen was first coined by a scientist in 1940 when he defined plant-originated adaptogens that bring health upon the human body. An adaptogen is a phytochemical that stabilizes physiological processes and also encourages homeostasis in the body promoting tolerance to stress. Stress is yet another buzzword in today’s world which spares none and attacks everyone right from school-going kids to elderly adults. There is not a possibility of life without stress but we can dismiss it by handling stress in the right way. Stress is a physiological reaction to environmental pressures that can either be self-induced (such as working hard for perfect results or looking to fulfill life’s goals) or even a result of external pressures such as workload, family demands, monetary crunches or societal pressures. Each of us have the potential to withstand stress and perform well under stress but if the same prolongs there are heavy chances that the same affects our personal life too. Stress is the cause for 50% of all lost working days, the root cause for may illnesses such as depression, anxiety, diabetes as well as neurological problems and the factor behind reduced quality of life for many individuals that the World Health Organization has defined stress to be ‘the health epidemic of the 21st century’.
Herbs for Safeguarding Health from Stress
There are quite a number of ways proposed for dealing with stress in life including yoga, meditation, exercises, physical activities, hobby classes and more but mankind loves to venture into unexplored territories and come up with new ideas that could benefit humans. Yoga and meditation are tried and tested ways to deal with stress, there are more and more studies coming up on the benefits of physical activity to avoid or displace stress and the latest research is on herbs-a completely new domain that provides ample scope for researchers to try and gain massive information and results. Herbs have been used since thousands of years in Ayurveda and Chinese medicines, occupy prominent roles in culinary domain and are also used as garnishing and fragrance agents. Gardens and terraces are now filled with potted cilantro, basil or thyme plants that bring about an aroma of freshness and herbal gardens are the latest in trend now. Amidst all the behavioral therapies, medications and wellness programs surrounding stress, besides the use of herbs in culinary and medication purposes we now have the latest use of these aromatic agents-as adaptogens.
Herbs used in Chinese medication and Ayurveda is not new but the fact that the same herbal plants might help fight against chronic stress has also been proposed in Western medicine for more than 50 years now. I. Brekhman, studied ginseng in 1950 extending the concept of adaptogens as: medicines that are similar to adaptogens but help in maintaining ideal homeostasis under stressful conditions. Later in 1969 new rules were formulated for plant-originated adaptogens stating that they must minimize harms caused by stressful conditions such as fatigue and depression, they must have a positive excitatory effect on the body, these excitatory effects should not cause side effects such as insomnia or excess energy consumption and finally, must not end up harming the human body. The definition for an adaptogen has been changing ever since and in 1998, the Food and Drug Administration of America defined adaptogen as a new kind of metabolic regulator that helps in environmental adaptation and prevents external harm.
Adaptogens function mainly by affecting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA). Yance, an American herbal doctor, proposed that adaptogens should be divided into three categories-primary, secondary and adaptogen companions. Primary adaptogens help in maintaining and restoring homeostasis, produce positive stress response and regulate energy use. Secondary adaptogens do not influence HPA axis directly but influence immune, nervous and endocrine systems. Adaptogen companions have beneficial effects on the HPA axis but do not formally belong to adaptogens unlike the other two types because they only interact with the other two adaptogen categories to improve their effect.
Similar to how exercise works on the muscles so do adaptogens work on our adrenal glands. Initially when we exercise it causes stress on our body but as we continue to train and exercise our body becomes better at dealing with the stress and we don’t get as tired as before. Likewise, with adaptogens we are training the body to handle stress and its effects. We have a journal study elaborating on the effects of adaptogens on human health:
Adrenal fatigue: Adrenal fatigue occurs when capacity of adrenals to secrete enough hormones to make necessary physiological and biochemical compensations for the stipulated stress levels doesn’t meet the requirements of continuous excess pressure. Stress hormone production increases as eternal pressure increases. Using adaptogens increases effectiveness of adrenal gland secretion reducing excess hormone production.
Arthritis: Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid are the common forms of arthritis that are characterized by elevated pain and swelling. Adaptogens are noteworthy solutions for alleviating pain and inflammation.
Sleep: Sleep has become a major problem with most people nowadays mainly due to presence of excess stress that affects the normal secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone. Sleep, exercise and diet are integral for sleep. Adaptogens help in producing the right amount of cortisol thereby relieving stress and enabling sleep.
Neuroendocrine system: Adaptogens help in stabilizing internal environment of the human body by affecting the neuroendocrine system and also increase rates of oxygen, fats, protein and sugar utilization.
Anti-tumor properties: Adaptogens inhibit cancer cell production and stabilization of the functions of human body. They also promote cell repair, prevent growth of tumors and pave way for cell-selective apoptosis. In cancer patients too, adaptogens help in improving their physical condition by modulating biological responses, remodeling immune mechanism and enhancing resistance of the human body. They also promote the production of marrow, increase the amount of blood cells, reduce infection, strengthen lethal effects of chemotherapy and radiation on cancer cells, inhibit tumor metastasis and development of multidrug resistance and also reduce stress hormone levels during immune dysfunction which is linked to tumor growth.
Rhodiola rosea Extract (RRE)
Roots and rhizome extract of Rhodiola rosea are adaptogens that act to increase the body’s resistance to stress, exhaustion and fatigue. It was long back in 1969 that USSR recommended using RRE for patients suffering from asthenia syndrome, neuroses, vascular dystonia, hypotension and schizophrenia. The affected individual was suggested to take 5-25 drops of the extract in a quarter glass of water thrice daily some 15-30 minutes before meals. Duration of therapy differed based on the individual anywhere between 10 days and 4 months. In another study, 128 patients between 17 and 55 years including both men and women were given RRE as a part of their treatment protocol after being diagnosed with fatigue. Results showed that these patients showed marked improvements in fatigue levels or they disappeared completely. Another open label study on 65 participants suffering from irritability, insomnia and somatic disorders showed improved effect on neuroses.
Dispensing therapy with RRE in 177 patients with vascular hypotension showed that the extract helped to stabilize partially or completely 92% patients with hypotension. Another experiment that fed 58 patients suffering from stress-induced depression with 15 drops of extract thrice daily for up to a month or up to four months showed symptomatic improvement. Suffering from weakness or fatigue soon after getting up in the morning or hypersomnia both reduced greatly. There have been no potentially dangerous side effects of RRE observed and it seems to be pretty safe with no complaints of drug-drug interactions or others. Rarely, there have been cases of insomnia, headache, irritability and excitement reported.
Tulsi & Ashwagandha
There are a couple of studies that show that tulsi (Basil) has therapeutic properties such as adaptogenic, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory. Basil is holy to Indians, is included as part of meals or even taken as supplements or used for preparing tea. It is said to enhance body’s natural response to deal with physical and emotional stress. But we also do have information against using basil in pregnant and lactating women due to unavailability of authentic data.
The herb Ashwagandha gets its name from the odor it emits which is close to the smell of a horse. Its known as Indian Ginseng, Winter Cherry or even the royal herb in Eastern Medicine but there are not many human studies on this most commonly used herb that’s believed to empower the individual with strength and vitality similar to that found in horses, living up to its name! A study on this herb testing its safety and efficiency in reducing stress and anxiety in adults showed marked reduction in their stress and anxiety levels and also revealed no side effects.
Other important herbs that do find their place as adaptogens include Eleutherococcus senticosus that’s used to treat chemotherapy-induced bone marrow suppression, angina, insomnia and poor appetite; Lepidium meyenii that’s claimed to increase strength, energy and stamina; Schisandra that’s used to decrease fatigue and stress and improve physical performance and reishi that’s believed to improve immunity.
Incorporating Adaptogens in Real-time Cases
While positive effects of adaptogens in stress-related changes have been observed in animal experiments there are a handful of drugs that have been adapted as adaptogens in today’s scenario. Though we do have studies and applications showing that plant-originated adaptogens are part of the elite herbal medicine helping mankind overcome stressors the clinical application of these plant-originated adaptogens and their use in healthcare products remains a mystery. We do have studies suggesting what affects our health right from helping us sleep better to stay energetic but we still are in a stage where we cannot 100% convey the message that adaptogens can have a significant impact on the body.
But before adding them to our diet or as a supplement it is advisable to talk to the physician about it as one study found that common herbal supplements interact negatively with prescription medications and many times, patients don’t convey the names of all the supplements and pills they take before the doctor prescribes yet another one for their present illness.
Still, we are not aware of the long-term effects of adaptogens. Individuals find it easier to pop a pill rather than take precautionary steps to avoid or overcome stress by practicing other stress-relief measures. It is not harmful to sip herbal teas and mix adaptogens with your soups or smoothies but when it comes to supplements ensure that they are safe as many supplement companies add plenty other things that’s been unheard of to improve both your strength and vitality.
A Preliminary Review of Studies on Adaptogens: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6240259/
Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/
Stress Management & the Role of Rhodiola Rosea:
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