We’re a stressed out nation. According to a 2015 survey released by the American Psychological Association, Americans’ stress registers a 4.9 on a 10-point scale—a little high when healthy is considered a 3.7. What’s more: 22% of us report that we don’t cope with it very well, which makes us a recipe for a health disaster.
The main ingredient is the hormones that our body produces when under stress—most famously, cortisol and adrenaline. When we feel that we are under attack, it is the adrenal glands that produce these hormones to deal with the stress. In simpler times, these stressful episodes were a matter of life or death; now, those attacks come as emails and telephone calls from employers, children’s teachers and anyone else that you feel is threatening your livelihood. And all that pressure eventually wears your adrenal glands out. Luckily, you can help them get the rest they need by making sure you sleep well, and not stimulate them too much—hello coffee habit and high pressure lifestyle.
But there are also things herbs, most notably adaptogens, that you can take to help give your adrenal glands the support they need. Adaptogens are natural substances that help your body adapt to stress and exert a normalizing effect on your body’s systems. These herbs that have been used for thousands of years and, somehow, instinctively know what the body needs to be healthy.
There are three, in particular, that have shown promise to help aid in adrenal function and increase energy levels: ashwaganda, “eleuthero” (eleutherococcus senticosus) or Siberian ginseng, and rhodiola.
Ashwagandha is an ayurvedic medicinal plant that has been shown to affect circulating cortisol levels and improve insulin sensitivity (something stress messes with). Take for example the 57-year-old woman whom doctors at Woodhul Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, were treating for non-classical adrenal hyperplasia, which is a genetic disease where the adrenals do not function properly. In their report in the September 2012 issue of BMJ Case Reports, they describe that after she took ashwagandha for six months her serum cortisol levels decreased significantly. This builds on previous research published in Phytomedicine that found ashwagandha to have anti-stress, immunomodulatory, cognition-facilitating, anti-inflammatory and antiaging effects.
Eleutherococcus and Rhodiola
A 2013 study in the journal Phytomedicine of Eleutherococcus senticosus root extract and Rhodiola rosea root extract found that the two herbs stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter neuropeptide Y (NPY) and the stress-induced molecular chaperone Hsp72. Both of these mediators of stress response are known to play an important role in regulation of neuroendocrine system—you know the one that helps the brain maintain homeostasis, and regulate reproduction, metabolism, energy utilization, and blood pressure—as well as the immune response. In the same study, ashwagandha did not exhibit the same activity.
These three adaptogens may create a powerful trio working synergistically when it comes to fighting effects of stress on the body. Eleuthera and Rhodiola help your body regulate its response better while Ashwagandha exhibits antioxidant effects against free radicals produced in the body when under stress. Together these adaptogens cover different ground and may take some pressure off the adrenal glands. The end result is better health, which equates to more energy and rating your stress a 3 out of 10.
Carey Rossi is a writer and editor with 10 years of experience covering all aspects of nutrition and fitness. She was the editor-in-chief of Better Nutrition, a shopping magazine for natural living, and the founding editor of Muscle & Fitness Hers. In addition, her work has appeared in Muscle & Fitness, Looking Good Now, Healthy Family, Vegetarian Times and Natural Health. She is the author of No More Diets Ever, Lose Weight the Natural Way.