Updated: Sep 6
It’s estimated that stress and anxiety affect 40 million people in the US alone, accounting for nearly 18% of the population each year. Adaptogens - ancient herbs used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, have been shown to induce a calming effect, helping your body improve its response to stress achieving a balanced state of mind. We’re going to talk about the best adaptogens that may help you reduce your daily stress and anxiety.
What Are Adaptogens
Adaptogens are definitive components of herbs which help the body’s resilience to physical and mental stressors. Each adaptogen slightly differs in pharmacological as well as therapeutic benefit. For example, the adaptogen ashwagandha has been used in ancient medicine for thousands of years for physical and mental stress, sleep, and as a natural testosterone booster. Other adaptogens such as Eleuthera (Siberian ginseng) is a stimulant, and supports the improvement of chronic fatigue, energy levels, and optimizing mental focus.
How Do Adaptogens Work
Each adaptogen is unique in its specific mechanism of action, or how it works in the body. Researchers believe that adaptogens work by altering the reactivity of defense systems, such as the immune system, endocrine response, and central nervous system.
Adaptogens are found to help you “adapt” to stress and better cope with anxiety. Adaptogens regulate and balance the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, pituitary, and the sympathoadrenal system, all of which are involved in the body’s response to stress.
Some adaptogens are found to increase GABA, inhibiting stress responders and achieving a balanced state of mind by producing anxiolytic effects. Other research has indicated that adaptogens balance hormone levels such as cortisol, the stress hormone, lowering stress induced disorders and improving cognitive function.
How Do Adaptogens Help Stress
Adaptogens were initially defined as substances that enhance the “state of non-specific resistance” in stress; a physiological condition that is linked with various disorders of the neuroendocrine-immune system. Researchers have found that adaptogens work on a molecular level by regulating a stable balance between the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands, which are involved in stress response. Adaptogens essentially work by “hacking” the stress response in your body.
There are three stages of stress,
PHASE OF RESISTANCE
The alarm phase sends out chemical messengers and signals to help you deal with whatever stressor your body is currently facing. As you begin to experience fatigue, you enter into what’s called the exhaustion phase. Adaptogens essentially stretch out the middle - the phase of resistance, helping you achieve more and adapt before hitting exhaustion, increasing mental work capacity, enhancing attentiveness, and preventing stress and fatigue.
The 6 Best Adaptogens For Stress And Anxiety
Ashwagandha is a powerful and potent adaptogen, native to India, the Middle East, and North Africa. Ashwagandha has been cultivated for thousands of years as an Ayurvedic medicine for a variety of traditional uses and benefits, most notably anxiety, energy, inflammation, and overall health and wellness. Studies have shown that Ashwagandha helps improve testosterone levels, cognitive function, sleep, and athletic performance.
Ashwagandha is also a powerful adaptogen when it comes to improving symptoms of anxiety and stress. Workplace stress has risen nearly 20% in the past three decades with 2 out of every 3 adults (67%) reporting mild to severe levels of stress according to the APA.
In a double-blind, randomized controlled trial, 64 subjects were administered 300mg of full spectrum ashwagandha root for 60 days to evaluate the efficacy of Ashwagandha in reducing stress and anxiety. The treatment group exhibited a significant reduction in scores on all stress-assessment scales compared to placebo, improving stress levels and overall quality of life.
2. Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng)
Eleuthera, also known as, Siberian Ginseng is a bit different than your traditional Asian or American Panax ginseng. Research indicates that Siberian ginseng is a stimulant and directly inhibits fatigue, improving energy levels and cognitive function, assimilating the body to stressful situations.
A review published in Economic and Medicinal Plant Research investigated the effects of Siberian ginseng in stressful situations measuring stress response in 35 clinical trials with over 6,000 subjects.
Studies were conducted in normal and stressful conditions (e.g., high temperature environment, forced work periods, loud noise conditions, motion sickness, varying degrees of deafness, heavy physical burden, hypertension, mountain rescuers under forced conditions, athletes, deep sea divers, intense mental work and physical work, factory workers under extreme working condition). The review concluded that there was an improvement in physical and mental work capacities in all cases.
Theanine is a non-protein amino acid naturally found in tea leaves; non-protein meaning it has the same structure as an amino acid yet is not a building block of proteins. Theanine is best known for its benefits on sleep, due to its powerful anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. To achieve optimal sleep quality, your mind and body need to be relaxed, free of anxiety and stress. This is where theanine comes in.
Theanine inhibits excitatory brain chemicals, creating a sense of calmness and relaxation by boosting levels of GABA, and naturally elevating levels of serotonin and dopamine - collectively known as neurotransmitters. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it blocks mental stress, fear, and anxiety establishing a well-balanced emotional/mental state.
4. Valerian root
Some evidence suggests that Valerian root may have an effect on patients with anxiety. Valerenic acid is thought to have a direct influence on receptors which enhances GABA transmission and serotonin, but without the pronounced sedative effects
A systematic review conducted by Harvard Medical School, found two different studies that explored the stress-reducing effects of valerian root. Both studies concluded that valerian root may reduce stress levels in healthy patients. Another study combined valerian root with St. John’s Wort, and put it head-to head against diazepam in 100 patients with anxiety. After two weeks of randomized treatment, the combined valerian and SJW group reported superior relief of anxiety symptoms.
Despite the inconclusive evidence on the efficacy of Valerian, researchers still do suggest that Valerian Root appears to be a promising candidate for anxiety.
5. Tongkat (Malaysian Ginseng)
Tongkat, also known as longjack or Malaysian Ginseng has several known benefits, helping to improve free testosterone levels, increase libido, reduce fatigue, and alleviate stress.
A study published in the Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition investigated the effect of tongkat ali on stress hormones and psychological mood state in moderately stressed subjects. 63 study participants were assessed for moderate stressed and supplemented with tongkat extract or placebo for 4 weeks. The study found significant improvements in tension levels and improved mood state. Cortisol and testosterone levels were significantly improved as well with a 16% decrease in cortisol and 37% increase in free testosterone.
6. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola is one of the most commonly used and best adaptogens. It grows in cold climates between the crevices of rocks, in high-elevation and on sea cliffs in certain regions of Europe, Russia, North America, and Britain. Several clinical studies have demonstrated its effectiveness used to improve mental performance, relive stress, anxiety, fatigue, and as a mild to moderate anti-depressant.
Similar to Ginseng, Rhodiola increases your bodies resistance to physical and mental stress without interfering with normal physiology. Stress affects your cortisol levels, the central nervous system (CNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis (HPA). Research suggests that Rhodiola works directly on the CNS and increases levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters to speed and optimize communication between synapses.
Most of the benefits of Rhodiola are derived from two active compounds – salidrosides and rosavins. Salidrosides are phenolic compounds which play a major role in cancer prevention and treatment. Phenolic compounds also have a variety of anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Rosavins are classified as an organic plant compound belonging to the phenylpropanoids.
Several studies have shown that Rhodiola can help prevent physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion in stress induced environments. One study showed improvement in mental fatigue amongst a group of 161 servicemen, while another double-blind crossover study showed favorable outcomes in cognition and perception amongst physicians working graveyard shifts.
The Best Adaptogens: Takeaway
If you're facing elevated stress and anxiety, including some key and proven adaptogens such as ashwagandha, theanine, and Rhodiola can create a calming affect, soothing your senses, and relaxing your mind and body. Over time, stress can create long term detrimental health effects improving your risk of chronic disease states, and speed the aging process. Adaptogens can not only help you reduce stress, but help you adapt to stressors improving mood and overall quality of life.
Author - Walter Hinchman