Causes of stress can be anything from that nasty habit of
daily “road rage,” stress at work from working too much with little or no rest,
or constantly worrying about what the future holds. Longstanding stress in
whatever way it manifests itself can be deeply harmful to the body – not only
physically, but also emotionally and even spiritually.
The American Psychological Association (APA) warns
that chronic stress is directly linked to at least six (and likely
more) of the most common causes of death in modern America. Most
notably the effects of stress contribute to heart disease, lung disease,
cancer, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and self-murder.2 Believe
it or not, one scientific study found that upwards of 90 percent of all chronic
illnesses are caused by stress!3
How Is Your Body Coping With Stress and Anxiety?
While the human body is fully equipped to combat the
negative effects of acute stress, persistent (ongoing) stress and anxiety is an
entirely different animal. This type of longstanding stress takes a much bigger
toll on the body than many people think. It wreaks some of its worst
havoc on the glandular and endocrine systems of the thyroid and adrenals that
are responsible for producing the various hormones that our bodies need to live
What was designed to be a temporary “fight or flight”
response to occasional stressors by these important systems is forced into
becoming a permanent coping mechanism for constant, unrelenting stress.
If left unchecked, this type of chronic stress will
eventually deplete the body’s hormone stores to dangerous lows. This sets
the stage for a cascade of even worse health problems that are likely to form
in their absence. We’re talking potentially life-threatening metabolic changes
like blood sugar imbalances (type-2 diabetes), brain damage, decreased bone
density and muscle wasting, increased blood pressure, impaired immunity and
healing, excess fat growth (especially around the abdomen), and elevated risk
of heart attack.
What Are the Signs of Chronic Stress?
There are many ways that stress shows up in the body – both
physically and emotionally. Some of the most common signs of stress as shared
by WebMD include:4
Physical Signs of Stress
- Low energy
- Upset stomach (including diarrhea, constipation, and
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
- Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Excess sweating
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Emotional/Mental Signs of Stress
- Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
- Feeling overwhelmed (either like you are losing
control or need to take control)
- Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
- Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely,
worthless, and depressed
- Avoiding others
Solution to Chronic Stress
It is generally recognized that things like prayer and
meditation, exercise, leisure, and rest are great ways to relieve stress: and
these are all good things, indeed!
But what about diet and herbal support? We don’t hear much
about that, and yet there’s an entire class of herbs known as
adaptogens that are uniquely suited to support the body’s efforts to combat
prolonged stress. As their name implies, adaptogens help the body to adapt
to difficult situations in life that contribute to chronic stress, in effect
stopping it before it begins to take its toll.
Author, educator, and “Medicine Hunter,” Chris Kilham,
describes adaptogens like this:5
“An adaptogen is a botanical that greatly improves your
body’s ability to adapt to stress, whether it’s a hectic schedule, heat or
cold, noise, high altitudes or any number of other stressors. This elite class
of herbs imparts strength, energy, stamina, endurance, and improves mental
One study published in the journal Pharmaceuticals describes
adaptogens as substances that enhance the “state of non-specific resistance” to
stress. By generally warding off stress, adaptogens effectively help to protect
the central nervous system against stress-induced neural damage, while also
enhancing cognition and fighting fatigue, depression, and generalized anxiety.
Put more simply; adaptogens function as equalizing agents to help push the body
towards homeostatic balance – which is its optimal state of being.6
What makes adaptogens even more special is the fact that
they don’t change any specific function of the body. Rather they aid
the body’s adaptive structures to better respond to outside influences and
stressors that, if persistent enough, can throw it majorly off-kilter.
In essence, adaptogens normalize the physiological state of the body to help
release it from the constant state of “fight or flight” that demarcates what it
means to be chronically stressed.
Adaptogens Modulate the Release of Cortisol, the “Aging”
One of the ways that adaptogens accomplish this mighty feat
is by targeting the hormone most associated with the damaging effects of
chronic stress: cortisol. Cortisol is often referred to as the “aging” hormone,
though not necessarily because it causes our bodies to age. Cortisol is
actually quite helpful when it isn’t being produced excessively in response to
Like all of the other hormones that our bodies produce,
cortisol is essential for life. But it’s only supposed to be produced in small
amounts, and for a limited time, as a buffering agent to keep the many systems
of the body running smoothly. When stress gets out of control, so does
cortisol. It turns into a deadly killer that saps energy instead of creating
it, and that impairs immunity rather than supports it.
How Adaptogens Lower Cortisol
This is where adaptogens come into play. Adaptogens
intercede in place of cortisol to give the adrenal glands a break, effectively
guarding them against becoming fatigued. Cortisol levels decrease when
adaptogens are present because adaptogens function similarly to cortisol.
And because they’re introduced exogenously (from outside the body), adaptogens
don’t cause any strain whatsoever on the body as excess cortisol does.
As a result, the adrenal glands are freed up to continue
producing other vital hormones such as:
- Testosterone, and
- Human growth hormone (HGH)
The body needs all of these hormones to keep its many
systems functioning well and in-sync with one another. This then allows
cortisol, which functions as a type of master hormone, to spend more of its
time guarding the body as it’s supposed to – rather than harming it in response
to chronic stress.
Dr. James Wilson writes in his book Adrenal Fatigue7 that:
“Cortisol is a key regulator in the hormonal web of the body. High and low
cortisol levels impact negatively on body systems and related hormones,
particularly thyroid and testosterone. About 80 percent of adrenal fatigue
patients will also have a sluggish thyroid that needs supplementation.”
10 of the Best Adaptogenic Herbs for Managing Stress
It’s no wonder that the traditional systems of medicine both
in India and China have been using adaptogenic herbs for thousands of years.
These herbs help ward off stress and promote energy, calm, and balance
throughout the body.
The tonifying properties of adaptogens (“tonifying” means
increasing the available energy of a body part or system) truly are special in
that these precious substances help to uplift the body while
simultaneously leveling it out. Much like how a thermostat keeps the
temperature inside your home not too warm, and not too cool, but just right.
So what are some of the more popular adaptogens and how do
they work? Here are 10 of them that time-honored tradition and science alike
hold in high esteem for their powerful stress-killing potential:
Ashwagandha. Arguably the most highly prized
of the adaptogenic herbs, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also
known as Indian ginseng, has a multi-millennia track record of powerful
tonic effects in the realm of supporting immunity and emotional balance.
Eastern medicine has long recognized the incredible ability of ashwagandha
to support balanced cortisol levels while helping to mitigating stress.
Astragalus. A popular herb in Traditional
Chinese Medicine (TCM), astragalus (Astragalus propinquus) is
similarly suited to support the immune system while buffering the effects
of stress. Astragalus is also said to help the body in repairing
stress-related damage from the past, while at the same time redirecting
cortisol away from vulnerable stress receptors.
Cordyceps. A nutrient-dense mushroom from the
endoparasitoid family, the cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis)
fungi isn’t technically an adaptogen in a traditional sense. But it does
possess powerful adaptogenic properties as they pertain to immunomodulation
and stress relief, which makes it a worthwhile option.
Eleuthero. Also known as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus
senticosus), eleuthero has many of the same properties as ashwagandha
and astragalus, with the added bonus of helping to support increased
energy levels and optimal sexual function.
Holy basil. Sometimes referred to as Tulsi,
holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is particularly suited to help the
body better respond to both physical and emotional stress. Its tonifying
effects specifically on the mind are what set it apart from some of the
other adaptogens, and many regards it as being powerfully anti-aging as
Licorice root. Known scientifically as Glycyrrhiza
glabra, licorice root is another energizing adaptogen with
immune-boosting properties and a special ability to help protect the
thymus gland from being damaged by cortisol. It’s important to use this
one under the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner, though,
because it can affect blood pressure levels.
Maca. Also known as Peruvian ginseng (though
it doesn’t actually hail from the ginseng family), maca (Lepidium
meyenii) is regarded as being one of the “lost crops of the Andes.” It
has long been prized by the native people of Peru as an herbal tonic of
the highest order. Its many reported benefits include increased strength,
stamina, energy, libido, and sexual function.
Panax Ginseng. Sometimes referred to as Asian,
Chinese, or Korean ginseng, Panax ginseng is the most well-studied of the
ginseng varieties and is considered to be the “truest” form of ginseng.
Panax ginseng is said to provide non-specific support against mental,
physical, and environmental stressors.
Rhodiola rosea. Both calming and invigorating,
Rhodiola rosea is another powerful adaptogenic herb that combats stress as
well as fatigue – hence its immense popularity throughout Siberia where
it’s natively grown.
Schisandra. This incredible berry has been a
staple of traditional medicine for centuries, as it’s known to help
protect against adrenal fatigue while supporting healthy inflammation
levels. A robust fighter against free radicals, schisandraactually
seeks out stress hormones in the blood and helps neutralize them. At the
same time, it supports enhanced physical performance, endurance, and
Causes of Death
Chronic Stress is
Linked to the Six Leading Causes of Death
Life Event, Stress
Management Health Centre
Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms
Associated with Their Stress–Protective Activity
Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome