Stress-Fighting Adaptogen Herbs: Scientific update and practical use in mental and physical health
Source: Various peer-reviewed scientific journals (see references)
Lifestyle Medicine Update (May 13, 2021)
I want to update you today on adaptogen herbs that have been shown to mitigate the negative effects of stress on the body and the brain. My favorite adaptogen herbs are Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and Schisandra. When we are faced with chronic stress, which is a common feature in our modern world, our adrenal glands are prompted to pump out more cortisol (the stress hormone) than is often desirable for optimal health. Chronically high levels of cortisol can produce many negative effects on the body and the brain, such as:
- Increasing inflammation and worsening inflammatory diseases like arthritis and autoimmune conditions.
- Decreasing immunity -increasing risk of infections and even cancer
- Raising blood sugar levels – triggering or exacerbating diabetes
- Damaging brain cells in a way that negatively impacts our memory, learning ability, and sleep cycles.
- And changing brain chemistry in ways that can trigger or worsen mental health problems, such as depression, burnout syndrome, and anxiety.
In 2017, the Georgia State Honors College Undergraduate Research Journal published a review of recent human studies where adaptogen herbs, like Ashwagandha, Schisandra and Rhodiola were used in the treatment of patients who were diagnosed with:
- Stress-Induced Fatigue
- Mental Fatigue from shift work and exhausting work schedules
- And weight-gain patients where excessive life stress was a factor.
Each of the studies showed that supplementation with adaptogen herbs was effective at not only improving these symptoms along with patient vitality and resilience, but supplementation with these herbs also lowered blood levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in these patients. Other studies published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease Treatment (2017) and the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine (2012) have shown similar results. Human clinical trials have also shown that, when used in conjunction with anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs, patients using adaptogen herbs often responded better to their treatment than do the group not given the adaptogen herbs. An excellent review in the Journal Pharmaceuticals (2010) highlighted the studies showing that adaptogen herb supplementation has also reduced major side effects of drugs used to treat schizophrenia and depression, they’ve improved recovery for patients recovering from influenza and pneumonia, and enhanced recovery from depression and improved physical performance in those who work or train hard physically. Unfortunately, as helpful as they can be, some adaptogen herbs can be dangerous to use in the view of some experts (including me), such as ginseng and licorice extract. These two adaptogen herbs can interact badly with many types of medications causing untoward and even life-threatening side effects. They can also produce adverse effects on blood pressure and the heart, cause skin rashes and impair the normal detoxification of coffee, alcohol, and acetaminophen. On the other hand, the use of Ashwagandha, Schisandra, and Rhodiola has shown a high level of safety and efficacy in human studies, which means that most people can use them without the risk of serious side effects. Based on available human studies and experimental and experiential evidence, here are some examples where a supplement combination of safe adaptogen herbs can be considered as an ancillary measure to help combat the effects of stress, enhance recovery, and/or improve health conditions:
- General Unexplained Fatigue
- Over Training Syndrome
- Recovering from Infectious Disease
- Weakened Immunity (Chemo, Radiation, Infection, Diabetes, etc.)
- Mental Health: Prevention and Adjunct in Depression, Anxiety, Stress-Burnout where stress is a factor.
- Declining Libido and Sexual Performance
- Menopausal Symptoms not responding to standard and other natural interventions.
- Signs and symptoms of underactive thyroid in presence of normal thyroid blood tests (high cortisol can block the effects of thyroid hormone)
- Sleep Disturbances
- Decreased Concentration and Learning Ability in Stressful situations – also consider prior to exams and other mental stressors on the horizon.
- Decreased Physical Endurance – also consider prior to physical work stress.
- Early-Stage Memory Loss (along with other nutrients that support memory)
- Stress-related hair loss (along with a high potency multiple vitamin and mineral supplement)
- Adjunct to a Weight Management Program, where stress is a factor.
- In Some Neurodegenerative Diseases (Parkinson’s dis/Alzheimer’s dis)
- Autoimmune Conditions affecting the Joints (i.e., RA)
If any of this sounds like it applies to you then my personal preference is a supplement containing a combination of Ashwagandha, Schisandra, and Rhodiola.I have included the references for these stress-fighting adaptogens in the text below.
2017 Review: Georgia State Honors College Undergraduate Research Journal: Human Clinical Studies on Mental Health https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1057&context=discovery
Kasper S and Dienel A. Multicenter, open-label, exploratory clinical trial with Rhodiola Rosea extract in patients suffering from burnout symptoms. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2017. 13:889-898. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5370380/
Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults, Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. 2012. July-Sept.34(3):255-262 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573577/
Panossian A and Wikman G. Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress-protective activity. Pharmaceuticals 2010; 3(1):188-224 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/
Dangerous Effects of Ginseng and Licorice Root:
Eat Smart, Live Well, Look Great,
Dr. James Meschino
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. James Meschino, DC, MS, ROHP, is an educator, author, and researcher having lectured to thousands of healthcare professionals across North America. He holds a Master’s Degree in Science with specialties in human nutrition and biology and is recognized as an expert in the field of nutrition, anti-aging, fitness, and wellness as well as the author of numerous books.