If you’re living with stress, you must learn how to protect yourself from its damaging impacts.
Many of us face stressful situations day in and day out.
This chronic stress causes disruptive symptoms, degrades our quality of life and leads to problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and mental illness.
Medicinal plants, known as adaptogens, increase our resistance to stress and sickness. I want to tell you about 10 adaptogens that you can start using now to restore your strength, enhance your stamina and make you immune to the threats of stress. But, before I do, let’s talk about how stress affects our bodies so we can recognize the signs of imbalances… before they progress into major health problems.
How Stress Affects The Body
Stress induces immediate and significant changes to help us respond to an imminent threat.
When we’re stressed, our brains inhibit our digestive function so that our energy and resources can be diverted to resolving the source of the stress.
Our blood pressure goes up, our heart rate goes up and our blood is diverted to our extremities, away from our guts and other vital organs.
These changes are actually beneficial. Without our stress response, we would be ill-equipped to fight immediate threats to our survival.
The problem arises when stress is not resolved, and instead, becomes chronic.
Cortisol is released by our adrenal glands to help us cope with stress. It has anti-inflammatory properties and is necessary for healthy metabolism.
Cortisol is released in response to stress factors like…
- The physical stress on the body from consuming unhealthy foods
- Stress on the body due to undetected food sensitivities
- Leaky gut
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Lack of sleep or poor quality of sleep
- Environmental toxins
- Relationship tensions
Unfortunately, many of us consider one or more these stressful scenarios on a daily basis, leading to constantly elevated cortisol levels.
Here’s what happens when we endure chronic stress:
The pancreas suppresses production of digestive enzymes, inhibiting our capacity to breakdown our food and assimilate nutrients. Our digestion stagnates as the stress-altered behavior of the valves between different sections of the gut inhibit motility.
As our guts become sluggish, toxins begin to recirculate into the bloodstream, instead of being eliminated.
Our thyroids suffer as well. We rely on our thyroids to produce hormones that influence every single cell in our bodies. When our ability to assimilate nutrients becomes hampered by stress, we can’t absorb enough iodine, selenium and zinc to produce those vital thyroid hormones.
Plus, the thyroid provides energy for every cell in the body. As our levels of thyroid hormones decrease, the functioning of all of our organs decreases. For example, if we lose 20% of our thyroid hormones, the capacity of our minds, immune system, metabolism, liver, kidneys and gut will all be reduced by 20%.
It’s not hard to see how problems with our thyroid quickly affect our health, mood and wellbeing.
Our sex hormones become imbalanced as well, especially for women.
We rely on our guts to eliminate estrogen that our bodies no longer need. When our motility suffers and toxins re-enter our bloodstream, used estrogen gets recirculated. (Of course, if our thyroids are compromised, our livers will be less able to filter used estrogen into the gut in the first place.)
Stress also depletes our progesterone levels. That’s because when we’re stressed, our adrenals must produce more cortisol. When stress is prolonged, our adrenal glands convert progesterone to cortisol to keep up with the incessant demand.
As a result, our estrogen levels go up and progesterone levels go down. Estrogen and progesterone must balance each other. Rising estrogen levels due to stress and poor motility lead to an estrogen dominant hormonal imbalance.
Sustained, elevated cortisol levels also suppresses the function of insulin, which means our cells can’t metabolize sugar. This makes us crave carbs and gain weight.
Blood sugar imbalance is acutely dangerous. If insulin gets out of balance, it can cause death in 8-12 hours.
To restore balance, our bodies produce extra testosterone, which makes us more sensitive to insulin. For women, the ovaries will grow cysts, which produce testosterone to save us from the deadly risk of insulin imbalance.
Sustained high production of cortisol in response to stress eventually fatigues the adrenal glands. This causes low libido, joint pain, fibromyalgia symptoms and the loss of connective tissue that causes our skin to become saggy and inelastic.
Clearly, chronic stress creates problems throughout the body that none of us wants to live with!
Stress is an unavoidable part of life.
In order to thrive, we must enhance our ability to cope with and respond to stress.
Adaptogens are a powerful resource for enhancing our capacity to cope with stress and protecting us from the negative impacts of stress that cannot be avoided.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Adaptogens are herbs and medicinal plants that have been used around the world for thousands of years.
To be considered an adaptogen, a plant must:
- Be generally safe for everyone
- Increase stress coping capacity
- Restore balance to hormones
Adaptogens soothe inflammation, lower cortisol levels and support the adrenals, thyroid and reproductive organs.
These traditional medicines also stimulate the nervous, endocrine and immune systems simultaneously and by multiple pathways.
They balance, normalize and enhance the function of the brain, nerves, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenals, thymus, pineal gland, pancreas, reproductive organs and immune system.
The key to the health-sustaining benefits of adaptogens is the way they help us respond to stress by stimulating our natural defense systems.
In response to chronic stress, adaptogens stimulate and balance the nervous system, immune response, blood sugar and adrenals.
Best Adaptogens for Stress Relief
Many adaptogens are available to help you combat the destructive impact of chronic stress on your body and mind. These are some of my favorites:
Chief medicinal plant of the Cherokee, ‘grandfather ginseng’ was used for shortness of breath, coughing, digestive upset, headaches, convulsions, fatigue, headaches, convulsions, female reproductive disorders and general weakness. Recent studies confirm that American ginseng restores depleted adrenals, boosts the immune system and soothes an over-stressed nervous system. It also offers protection from Type 2 diabetes and erectile dysfunction and boosts digestion and absorption of nutrients.
In ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha is said to give one the stamina and strength of a stallion. In ancient India it was used for prolonging life, stimulating the mind, enhancing libido and sexual performance and recovering from illness and injury. Although most adaptogens are stimulating, ashwagandha is known for its calming effect. It is beneficial for anxiety, fatigue, brain fog, stress-induced insomnia and nervous exhaustion. Ashwagandha enhances the adrenals and is one of the few herbs that directly boosts thyroid function.
Asian ginseng has a long history of use in China, where it is regarded as a ‘kingly tonic.’ It is used broadly throughout Asia for malaria, diarrhea, vomiting, coughs, diabetes, dizziness and general weakness. Asian ginseng is one of the most studied herbs in the world. Research confirms its traditional usages and reveals new applications for modern ailments. It is considered the most stimulating of adaptogens, which makes it ideal for weak, deficient and exhausted people. It profoundly benefits the immune system, adrenal glands, pancreas, circulation and nervous system.
Astragalus is native to China where ancient texts document its effectiveness for treating asthma, chills, fevers, kidneys, coughing and “hundreds of diseases in children.” Astragalus was traditionally used to strengthen the tendons, bones and muscles, and to boost the immune system. Today, it continues to be used to tone the spleen, stimulate appetite and improve circulation. It prevents cold, influenza, bronchitis, pneumonia and other infections. Astragalus also prevents immuno-suppression in cancer patients and inhibits the growth of tumors.
The cordyceps mushroom grows in the foothills of the Himalayas in Tibet and Bhutan where it is used for kidney failure, heart failure and to enhance libido. In Traditional Chinese Medicine cordyceps is used to replenish the kidneys, strengthen the spleen and enhance fertility, bone strength and hearing. It also helps with infertility, night sweats, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and fatigue. Studies confirm that the cordyceps mushroom increases aerobic capacity and cellular energy stores, lowers cholesterol, prevents oxidative damage and regulates immune function.
Holy basil is a sacred herb in the Hindu tradition, where it is regarded as rasayana, meaning it promotes long life and nourishes perfect health. It has been considered one of India’s most powerful herbs for 3,000 years. Daily use of holy basil is believed to balance the energy centers of the body and to induce a state of goodness, virtue and joy. It is a remedy for bronchitis, upset stomach, vomiting, nasal congestion, ear aches, fevers, UTIs, gas, intestinal cramps, ulcers, colds, influenza, headaches and coughs. Modern research shows that holy basil is antioxidant, neuroprotective and stress reducing. It protects the liver, lowers blood sugar, heals ulcers and alleviates depression.
Native to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia, licorice has been used as a long time as both a food and medicine in China and the Middle East. Ancient Greek texts record its uses for dry coughs, respiratory disease and to heal the stomach, throat, liver and kidneys. Licorice is considered the most commonly used herb in ancient China, where it was used to balance all of the organs, strengthen the bones and connective tissue, enhance muscle growth and heal topical wounds. Today it is celebrated for its adaptogenic, immune-enhancing and anti-inflammatory benefits. It heals the liver, restores the adrenals and alleviates the symptoms of IBS.
Varieties of reishi mushrooms can be found in Asia, Europe, North America and the Amazon rainforest. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is regarded as the “herb for immortals” and has been used to strengthen the eyes, calm the mind, increase compassion, prevent senility and increase lifespan. It strengthens the spleen, relieves coughs, tones the kidneys, relieves joint pain and strengthens the muscles, bones and connective tissue. Reishi has been extensively researched by modern scientists who have found that it enhances immune function, fights cancer, improves all aspects of cardiovascular health, eliminates inflammation, improves adrenal function and relieves stress.
Rhodiola is native to Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. In Tibetan medicine it is used to lower fever, improve circulation, nourish the lungs and enhance energy. As knowledge of its uses spread, it became a cherished medicinal plants of the Chinese, Greeks and Vikings. Rhodiola alleviates depression, enhances alertness, reduces fatigue and improves memory. It prevents and reverses immune depletion caused by stress and overworking. Rhodiola balances blood sugar, enhances reproductive function, prevents stress-induced damage to the heart and is recommended for treating cancer, fibromyalgia, diabetes and congestive heart failure.
Schisandra is a fruit that is native to China. It benefits the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and spleen and has traditionally been used to treat coughs, weakness, congestion, dysentery, diarrhea and jaundice. Recent research shows that it relieves excess sweating, night sweats and menopause. It protects, repairs and enhances the function of the liver. Schisandra enhances reflexes and mental capacity, but is also calming and stress-relieving. It restores the immune system from damage caused by chronic anger, anxiety, depression and fear.
These adaptogens have been used around the world for thousands of years to keep us healthy and balanced in an often-stressful world.
Stress is an inevitable part of life and the changes induced in the body by stress allow us to overcome immediate threats to our survival.
Stress becomes dangerous when it is chronic, but it also offers us opportunities to learn, grow and change. The key to thriving in spite of the stresses we encounter every day is the way we respond to it.
Choose to be grateful for the challenges that spur you along on our journey and remember to use adaptogens to keep you energized, balanced and healthy.
Drop a note in the comments to tell me about a stressful experience that made you happier and stronger in the end.