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An Overview of Adaptogens: Can these compounds help us "adapt" in times of stress?

Adaptogens are a specific group of plants and mushrooms used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Recently they have been receiving attention from individuals beyond holistic practitioners. The term "adaptogen" was coined in the 1940's by a Soviet researcher, who was studying the body's resistance to stress. The term is rooted in the Latin adaptare, which means to fit or adjust, and applies to substances that elevate the body's stress resistance.

Causes of Stress. Stress is a result of many contributors--work, environment, overexertion, genetics and more--all putting strain on the body. Chronic stress impacts digestion, mood, sleep, blood pressure, and energy which, in turn, can promote chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, neurological impairment, depression, metabolic disorders, cancer, and premature aging. Certain lifestyle changes can help the body cope with stress. However, research suggests that adaptogens may enhance the capacity to cope in the face of a wide range of stressors.

Effects of Adaptogens. Animal and isolated neuronal cell studies have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, anti-depressive, anxiolytic, and central nervous system stimulating activity. Adaptogens work by strengthening the adrenal system and moderating stress responses. They are thought to be natural regulators that can balance the body and bring it back to homeostasis. In addition, they tend to be good sources of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, which can help prevent cellular damage.

Adaptogens and Stress. Adaptogens have a particular affinity for the hypothalamicpituitary adrenal (HPA) axis--the chief regulator of our body's response to stress. The adrenal glands respond to stress by releasing adrenaline and Cortisol. Under normal conditions, the body returns to homeostasis after the stressor is no longer present. However, during constant stress, the body is unable to calm down, leading to persistent elevations of Cortisol and Cortisol resistance which, together, leads to chronic inflammation. Adaptogens are thought to decrease effects of constant stressors by helping the body "adapt" and return to balance.

Dr. Lise Alschuler, a naturopathic doctor who works with the Andreq Weil Center of Integrative Medicine at University of Arizona explains, "Adaptogens reinstate the sensitivity towards Cortisol and help reestablish the negative feedback system in the HPA axis." Adaptogenic plants also have the ability to address the consequences of Cortisol resistance and elevated Cortisol levels. "This can be through direct antiinflammatory actions, antioxidant actions, and immune regulatory actions--which support the physiology of the body," states Dr. Alschuler.

Adaptogens and Energy. Adaptogens have been found to increase the energy production of the body. "Adaptogens increase energy in the body by improving Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production in the mitochondria and by increasing the oxygen carrying capacity of red blood cells," says Dr. Alschuler. Although she recognizes we don't fully understand all of the mechanisms of adaptogens, research has found adaptogen consumption leads to better exercise tolerance and better pulmonary function.

Chrissy Barth, integrative and functional dietitian, often recommends adaptogens for various ailments. Ashwagandha is one of her favorites for helping to stabilize Cortisol levels, and corydyceps for its anti-inflammatory benefits. Although research suggests adaptogens to be generally safe, she always recommends patients check with their physicians prior to starting an adaptogen due to possible drug-herbal interactions. In addition, she suggests, "pregnant and breast-feeding women should not use adaptogens because they may affect hormones." * Holy basil, also known as Ocimum sanctum L and tulsi, is another favorite of Dr. Alschuler. She likes holy basil for its cognitive support, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial properties. Although additional research is needed, preliminary clinical research shows that taking holy basil extract for six weeks decreased self-reported symptoms of stress and forgetfiilness.

* Bacopa, commonly called brahmi, is a well-known herb in India. Barth recommends bacopa and believes it is excellent for memory and nervous system. She recommends bacopa to those who are interested in the prevention of cognitive decline, as well as patients with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stress, and anxiety. Bacopa is used to treat Alzheimer disease, anxiety, depression, insomnia, cognitive function, memory, ADHD, allergies, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Research has found that taking bacopa for four weeks may reduce nervousness, palpitations, insomnia, headache, lack of concentration, fatigue, anorexia, tremors, dyspepsia/flatulence, and irritability in patients with anxiety.

* Rhodiola, Rhodiola rosea, traditionally has been used to increase endurance, work performance, and tolerance of high altitudes, and to treat fatigue, and weakness. Dr. Alschuler reports that recent research has found rhodiola to have anti-depressant effects, as well as improving physical stamina during exertion. Preliminary clinical research has shown taking rhodiola twice daily for 14 days reduced stress levels by 14 percent, as well as reducing reported levels of anxiety, anger, confusion, and negative mood in college students with anxiety.

Adaptogens can be found in various forms including teas, tinctures, powders, and supplements. Dr. Alschuler believes a large percentage of the adult population could benefit from adaptogens. However, she believes the key is to personalize them to the individuals' needs--both in type and form. Adaptogens can work in synergy with the right combination, finding high-qualty products that are free of contaminants. Using adaptogens as a compliment to other stress relieving activities is essential. Social interaction, exercise, diet, sleep, and calming activities are necessary for health and keeping stress under control.

--Kaley Todd, MS, RDN

Caption: Adaptogens may play a role in managing stress.

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Author:Todd, Kaley
Publication:Environmental Nutrition
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 16, 2021
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