Exploring Adaptogenic Herbs

Photo: Thinkstock/kerdkanno

Got stress? Although there isn’t a single, universally accepted definition of “stress,” there appears to be no shortage of it. Perceived pressures and their associated physical and psychological responses are pervasive in today’s culture.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America survey, 80 percent of Americans experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom of stress within the previous month, such as headache (34 percent), feeling overwhelmed (33 percent), nervousness or anxiety (33 percent) and depression (32 percent).

However, adults also are significantly more likely to recognize the connection between stress and physical and mental health than in previous years — and 36 percent identify stress reduction as a personal priority.

Among myriad anti-anxiety treatments, including behavioral therapy, medication and other therapies, is one of the current darlings in wellness circles: adaptogens.

The use of herbs for maintaining balance in the midst of a variety of stressors has been a healthy lifestyle tenet in Eastern Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for centuries. However, the notion that some herbal plants may help alleviate chronic stress has existed in Western medicine for about 60 years, when midcentury researchers defined adaptogens as nontoxic compounds with many mechanisms of action and pharmacological effects related to adaptability and survival.

The theory is that adaptogenic compounds affect several key mediators of the adaptive stress response both inside and outside cells, thus having a broader spectrum of action than traditional medications that target one symptom or disease.

For instance, adaptogens are characterized as eustressors, or “good stressors,” that induce stress-protective responses. By stimulating the expression and release of mediators of the adaptive stress response, adaptogens may help increase the body’s tolerance to stress.

With chronic stress being linked to adverse health effects such as cognitive, emotional and behavioral dysfunctions, as well as increased inflammation in the body potentially leading to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune syndromes and mental illnesses, alleviating or limiting ongoing stress is vital for overall, long-term health.

This is where adaptogenic plants may play a therapeutic role, as they have been found to normalize chronically increased cortisol and corticosterone — stress hormones that have been linked to anxiety, depression, digestive troubles and other chronic stress issues.

However, the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health emphasizes caution with using herbal remedies due to limited scientific evidence.

Currently, there are about 70 herbal plants cited in literature with adaptogenic properties, including ginseng, Rhodiola Rosea and maca root. Two of the most popular adaptogens are tulsi and Ashwagandha root.

Also called “holy basil,” tulsi is revered in Ayurvedic medicine as the “elixir of life.” This peppery-tasting herb sometimes is called “hot basil” and is used in stir-fry dishes and spicy soups. Tulsi is used as a treatment for a range of conditions including anxiety, asthma, diarrhea, fever, arthritis, eye diseases and indigestion.

In vitro, animal and human studies reveal tulsi may have therapeutic actions, including adaptogenic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective and immunomodulatory effects. A 2017 review in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined 24 studies to assess the clinical efficacy and safety of tulsi and found positive clinical outcomes with no adverse effects. Although these results reinforced the efficacy of tulsi for treating diabetes, metabolic syndrome and psychological stress, further studies are needed to determine its mechanism of action, dosage and dose form, as well as populations that may benefit from it.

The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database lists holy basil as “possibly safe when used orally, short-term.” The database notes some preliminary research on its effectiveness in reducing anxiety, blood sugar control and decreased symptoms of stress, but more evidence is needed in these areas. There is some evidence that holy basil extract can be used safely for up to six weeks; however, the database advises against use during pregnancy and lactation due to lack of reliable information.

Commonly called “Indian Ginseng” or “Winter Cherry,” the adaptogenic herb Ashwagandha root is named for its odor. This herb emits the smell of horse — which is the literal translation of “Ashwagandha”— and consuming its extracts is said to give people strength and vitality similar to that of a horse.

Known as the “royal herb” in Eastern medicine, Ashwagandha is the most commonly used and studied adaptogen, although human studies are limited and Ashwagandha is not listed in the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.

In a 2012 study on the safety and efficacy of Ashwagandha root for reducing stress and anxiety in adults, participants who took 300 milligrams of a high-concentration, full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root twice daily for 60 days experienced a significant reduction in stress and cortisol levels. No serious side effects were reported, and researchers concluded Ashwagandha root safely and effectively improved study participants’ resistance toward stress and improved self-assessed quality of life. However, further longterm research using a larger population with varying degrees of physical and psychological stress is needed to determine the effects of Ashwagandha root on stress resistance.

Although the available human research on adaptogens shows potential for alleviating symptoms associated with stress, more studies are needed to determine their efficacy and the range of interactions between adaptogens and stress response pathways in preventing chronic stress and age-related disease — as well as their role in exercise recovery.

As always, a thorough health and nutrition assessment by a physician and registered dietitian nutritionist is necessary, along with supporting evidence, for individualized nutrition recommendations involving botanicals or herbal remedies.

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Vicki Shanta Retelny
Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, LDN, is the Lifestyle Nutritionist — her Chicago-based practice focuses on lifestyle nutrition and culinary communications. Read her blog, SimpleCravingsRealFood.com, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.