Should You Try Adaptogens for Stress?

If you can't avoid stress (and really, who can?) adaptogens could be the secret to reducing the negative impact stress has on your mind and body.
Should You Try Adaptogens for Stress?

Are you one of the millions of Americans negatively impacted by the chronic stress epidemic?

If so, you’re not alone.

“Every day, I see patients who are literally stressing themselves to an early grave,” says stress expert Dr. Rangan Chatterjee.

Money, work, family responsibilities, health concerns, the economy… stress is everywhere, and the results aren’t pretty. 

Stressed-out people admit to yelling at their loved ones, snapping at coworkers, ignoring responsibilities, canceling social plans, and overeating unhealthy foods. 

Stress can also disrupt your sleep and wreak havoc on your immune system.

If you can’t avoid stress–and really, who can?—adaptogens could be the secret to reducing the negative impact stress has on your health and relationships.

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are specific herbs and roots, such as Ginseng, Holy Basil, and Ashwagandha known to help the body more easily handle stress. Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions have been using these helpful natural stress-fighters for centuries, but the mainstream is just finally catching on to their value in fighting chronic stress.

“Adaptogens help your body handle stress,” Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, told TIME

“They’re meant to bring us back to the middle.”

How do Adaptogens Work?

Adaptogens work by “hacking” your body’s stress response. 

Think of it as strength training for your nervous system; they help your body better manage the physical effects of stress.

Studies of adaptogens suggest they may have the following positive effects in your body:

  • neuroprotective elements
  • anti-fatigue properties
  • antidepressive effects
  • immune-supportive properties
  • increased mental work capacity
  • benefit mood and feelings of calm
  • enhanced attention

Ready to give adaptogens a try?

Which Adaptogen is Right for You?

Not all adaptogens work the same; different adaptogens have different properties and benefits. Let’s take a look at some of the more commonly used adaptogens and find out what they do best.

Acute Stress and Anxiety

Acute stress is immediate, intense, and short-lived. It’s the heart-pounding, blood-boiling, punch-in-the-gut feeling you get when you argue with your spouse, narrowly avoid a car accident, or receive criticism from your boss. 

Acute stress triggers a cascade of changes in the nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. Stress hormones are released, digestion slows, blood pressure and heart rate increase, and immune cells are activated and sent to “battle stations.”

If you’re trying to combat acute stress and anxiety, adaptogens Rhodiola or Schisandra may offer some relief.

Rhodiola

Rhodiola Rosea grows throughout the mountainous regions in the higher latitudes and elevations of the Northern hemisphere. Rhodiola has been shown to significantly improve anxiety symptoms, and its fragrant roots have been studied for their protective effects against physical stresses. 

In a preliminary study, Rhodiola significantly improved measures of anxiety in people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). 

In a double-blind study, researchers gave Rhodiola extract to medical students during a stressful exam period. Those taking the extract reported a better sense of general well-being and performed better on tests. Another double-blind study of military cadets performing a 24-hour duty found Rhodiola extract significantly reduced mental fatigue and improved performance. 

And yet another double-blind trial confirmed the effectiveness of Rhodiola for the treatment of stress-related fatigue.

Schisandra

Schisandra Chinensis is a fruit-bearing vine that has been used as a medicinal herb in Asia and Russia for generations.

Schisandra is thought to prevent and resist acute stress by allowing the body to adapt to heavier stress loads.

Studies have found Schisandra provides neuroprotective effects, increases antioxidant activity, enhances cognitive function, and even extends lifespan in animal studies.

One study looked at a mixture containing Schisandra and Rhodiola and found the combination of adaptogens works like a stress vaccine by activating stress-induced self-defense mechanisms.

Long-term, Chronic Stress

Acute, short-term stress is no fun. But when you’re regularly exposed to the same stressor—or many different stressors—for an extended period, things can go downhill fast.

Experts believe our stress system isn’t designed to be activated continuously. As a result, chronic stress can cause severe wear and tear on our body and mind. Chronic stress has been linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, immune issues, heart disease, type II diabetes, and depression.

Chronic stress has a domino effect on your body—once the stress response system goes out of whack, other bodily systems tend to follow.

If you’re worried about the effect of chronic stress on your health, you may want to consider adaptogens such as Ashwagandha, Ginseng, or Holy Basil.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is a member of the pepper family found in India and Africa. Traditional African, Indian, and Ayurvedic cultures have used it centuries to fight inflammation and support immune health.

Studies suggest Ashwagandha may help to reduce the effects of stress, including chronic psychological stress. In a double-blind study of people experiencing chronic stress, 60 days of Ashwagandha extract significantly decreased perceived stress, compared with a placebo.

Ashwagandha may also reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone which can elevate blood sugar levels and increase the storage of abdominal fat. In one study of chronically stressed adults, Ashwagandha supplementation led to significantly higher reductions in cortisol, compared with a control group.

Ginseng

Ginseng has been a part of Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years and is commonly used in Traditional Chinese medicine to improve mental and physical vitality, especially in older adults. 

Ginseng comes in many varieties, but the most popular are Asian Ginseng (Panax Ginseng) and American Ginseng (Panax Quinquefolius). American Ginseng is thought to have a relaxing effect, whereas the Asian variety is believed to have stimulating properties.

Ginseng has been shown to help fight fatigue and promote energy. One study on chronic fatigue patients found those receiving Asian Ginseng experienced less physical and mental fatigue than those taking a placebo.

Another study gave American Ginseng or a placebo to 364 cancer survivors experiencing fatigue. After eight weeks, those in the Ginseng group reported significantly lower fatigue levels compared to those in the placebo group.

Ginseng may also help reduce inflammatory markers, protect against oxidative stress, support immune health, induce calm, and improve mood.

Holy Basil (Tulsi)

Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is a green leafy plant native to India. Known as Tulsi in Ayurvedic medical tradition, Holy Basil has been called the “Queen of Herbs” in India since the times of ancient civilization. 

Tulsi has been used in Ayurvedic tradition as an adaptogenic herb to increase the body’s resistance to stress and disease, as well as for coughs, colds, and other respiratory disorders, fevers, headaches, stomach disorders, and heart disease.

According to the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, Holy Basil has antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties comparable to prescription antidepressant drugs. One study found that people who took Holy Basil extract each day felt less anxious, stressed, and depressed, and felt more social.

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of an extract of Holy Basil in the symptomatic control of general stress. After six weeks, participants who took Holy Basil reported significant reductions in forgetfulness, sexual problems, feelings of exhaustion, and sleep problems compared to the placebo group.

Clinical studies suggest Tulsi may be one of the more effective adaptogens in helping reduce the psychological, physiological, immunological, and metabolic stress of modern living.

Animal studies suggest Tulsi has potent properties that are adaptogenic, metabolic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial, to name a few.

How to Take Adaptogens

Adaptogens like Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Ginseng, Rhodiola, and Schisandra are readily available and easy to incorporate into your healthy lifestyle.

You can find adaptogens in a variety of forms, ranging from tea to tincture, capsules, and powders, which you can add to coffee, tea, smoothies, oats, and more.

But don’t expect your adaptogens to kick in right away. Generally, they have a cumulative effect you’ll notice after multiple weeks of use. 

There’s little evidence to suggest that adaptogenic herbs pose a risk of side effects or health problems, but to be on the safe side, be sure to get your adaptogens from a trusted, high-quality source. Always discuss supplements with your medical provider to help avoid any possible interacts with other medications you take.

Le’s face it. Stress is everywhere. Since you can’t avoid it, adaptogens may just be the key to helping your body handle it with ease.

Melissa Zimmerman
Melissa Zimmerman is the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of GloWell. After nearly a decade of wellness writing, researching, and implementing healthy habits for her own home and family, Melissa is proud to help others separate healthy-fact-from-fiction.