Whether you’ve had a busy week on the job or you’ve been having tough workouts in the gym, your body’s natural response to threatening or demanding situations is called stress. Stress happens when your brain thinks you’re in danger, which is when your defense mechanisms kick in and result in the fight or flight response.
Your body was built like this, with a survival instinct ready to protect you thanks to thousands of years of evolution. This instinct helps you to clear your mind, give you energy, and allow you to focus better so you can determine how to overcome the challenge facing you. Stress is a good thing, even if it doesn’t feel like it, because it can save your life.
While we no longer have to flee from saber-toothed tigers, we still face the stresses of work, family, school, traffic, and more. While not immediately life threatening, they are definitely more constant and pervasive. Chronic stress is not a good thing. Chronic stress keeps your body in a longer period of fight or flight mode than it should be, which forces your body to work at a frantic pace over the long term. As a result, your health, mood, and even quality of life are compromised.
Nature’s answer gives us nutrition. Enter: adaptogenic compounds. Made from plants, these are compounds that help us emerge from that fight or flight state so we can more easily recover and become rejuvenated.
Adaptogens: What Are They?
Adaptogens are compounds that come from non-toxic plants. These plants help to regulate the stress response in our bodies, originating from herbs, roots and mushrooms – used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
Scientists believe adaptogens work because they act on something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA. This is the interaction between the adrenal glands, the brain and the sympathoadrenal system. This last one is located in your nervous system and controls your body’s stress response.
According to this article appearing in the journal Pharmaceuticals, adaptogens increase attention and endurance in scenarios where fatigue or weakness could decrease performance. They could also help you keep stress-induced impairments at bay that are part of the immune systems and neuroendocrine systems.
Research shows that adaptogens could have benefits for people with age-related disorders or cardiovascular issues. As a result, elders could maintain their health at a normal level, boost their quality of life and increase lifespan. Doctors say adaptogens may support standard therapies that help patients fight off a wide variety of health issues.
Adaptogens: What Are They Used For?
They basically help your body deal with stress. Plus, they maintain the resistance part of general adaptation syndrome for longer periods of time so you can ward off exhaustion.
When faced with any kind of mental or physical stress, our bodies deal with it using a process known as GAS (general adaptation syndrome). This process comprises three phases: alarm, resistance, exhaustion.
The alarm stage: this is the fight-or-flight reaction we just talked about. You get worried about something, which causes your heart rate to rise. Your adrenaline starts pumping, and your body releases the hormone cortisol so you can feel more alert and full of energy. This is what allows you to protect yourself from the threat.
The resistance stage: this happens right after the stressful event, such as finishing a test or your workout. Your body will start to recover from that trauma, and return your blood pressure to more normal levels while lessening the cortisol release. If the stress source is totally gone, your body will return to its pre-stress state.
But if the stress sticks around long term and you’re always on alert, your body tries to adapt to the condition, assuming it is the new normal. Basically, you learn to live with that stress. While acceptable to some degree, if your body consistently straddles the border between alarm and resistance without recovering, you will enter Stage 3, which is exhaustion.
The exhaustion phase makes you feel tired and anxious. You won’t be in a good mood, you’ll be more prone to illness and you’ll have a compromised immune system. If you know you’re in this stage, get rest immediately.
Adaptogens will ensure you stay in the resistance phase of GAS for longer periods of time. This gives your body time to recharge its batteries before incurring major damage. This is why adaptogens are known for their stimulatory effect, which speeds up the recovery process to better support healthy stress levels.
That said, people tend to respond to adaptogens differently. One compound may have a different effect on you as it does for a friend. So if you do choose to experiment with adaptogens, try them one at a time to see what the effect is first.
Adaptogenic Supplements: Why Take Them?
Studies show adaptogens have neuro-boosting, mood-boosting, and energy-boosting benefits, helping to regulate cortisol while supporting athletic performance.
Supplements that have adaptogens are available in capsules, tablets, powders and tinctures. Powders can be mixed with water or juice, or sprinkled on your food. Most adaptogens are considered to be safe, but you should talk with your doctor before taking adaptogens. That’s because some herbal supplements could interact with medications. Others could spur allergic reactions or digestive discomfort.
Adaptogens are good for regulating the stress response, but they’re not for everyone. If you have an autoimmune disorder or take an immunosuppressant, take extra caution. Adaptogens may lead to a more active immune system, which is good for healthy people, but not always good for those who have compromised immune systems.
Natural Herbs: Adaptogens?
Yes, adaptogens generally help us handle stress better, but each one brings it own benefits. Here are the top five adaptogens:
This is a ginger family plant, used mainly in Indian curries. The stress-managing support it derives comes from the curcumin content. A review in Foods says that curcumin helps to regulate inflammatory responses, speeding up exercise recovery, i.e., muscle soreness. Curcumin can also help with recovery and performance in people who are very active.
Researchers say a low dose gives health benefits for those who haven’t been diagnosed with health conditions. This means turmeric is good for just about everyone.
Because it has poor bioavailability, curcumin alone isn’t very helpful. To boost absorption and effectiveness, you will want to be on the lookout for black pepper extract, which is piperine. This increases bioavailability by 2000 percent. This is because it inhibits enzymes that are responsible for breaking down curcumin in your body. “Curcumin is fat-soluble, so if you combine it with lipids, this will aid in absorption.
This is a popular herb in India, with many powerful and diverse adaptogens that give you several benefits in regards to health and performance.
A study found in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine says ashwagandha supplements increase resistance to stress and can improve quality of life. Another study that took a look at chronically-stressed people found that ashwagandha users could see big reductions in cortisol. This is the stress hormone that brings on the fight-or-flight response. People who consumed the highest doses of ashwagandha experienced the biggest reductions in cortisol— at about 30 percent.
Ashwagandha also benefits aerobic endurance and strength performance, plus muscle mass. One 2014 trial revealed ashwagandha helped with reaction time and performance on psychomotor and cognitive tasks.
This is a flowering plant from Arctic regions, known to have positive effects on stress, energy, fatigue, and athletic performance. A trial appearing in Phytotherapy Research said that taking just four weeks of rhodiola improved life-stress symptoms. Another study revealed that it helped increase time to exhaustion by 24 seconds when it came to endurance exercise.
This hybrid fungus was used in traditional Chinese medicine for many purposes, but today it’s used mostly as a performance-enhancing supplement. Cordyceps has adenosine, an ATP component. This is the energy source used by the body for movement. This is why cordyceps is good for helping with ATP production, as well as promoting endurance.
A study appearing in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine revealed that cordyceps supplements increased metabolic thresholds in older adults. A 2017 study found that cordyceps militaris, which is a synthetic type of cordyceps, when used as a mushroom blend, helped with performance in regards to time to exhaustion when exercising. Cordyceps combines well with other adaptogens like rhodiola, ashwagandha, and astragalus.
This root, famous in Chinese medicine, can fight inflammatory responses and boost immune as well as cognitive function. This is mainly due to the compounds gintonin and ginsenosides.
One Korean study gave subjects ginseng or a placebo a week before exercising and four days after exercising. The ginseng users displayed a reduction in muscle damage 72 hours after working out. A 2014 study showed an increase in cellular health when females consumed ginseng for 12 weeks.
A trial appearing in Human Psychopharmacology found ginseng helped people feel more calm, helping them think through math problems after only eight days of use.
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