A Supplement for Stress? The Science Behind Adaptogens

Published August 17th, 2020 by Dr. Betsy Hoida, PharmD, BCPS
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

Stress. Anxiety. Worry. These three words permeate our daily vocabulary lately. Pre- pandemic, you may have had underlying anxiety (diagnosed or not) or problems sleeping. However, now as we are still persevering in this pandemic, stress is ubiquitous.

Adaptogens,” or adaptogenic herbs, refer to a group of herbal supplements that were first developed by a Russian physician and pharmacist named Nicholai Lazarev in 1962 to help pilots deal with stress in World War II. 

Although most of us aren’t flying planes in a war zone, some days we feel like we are. When we can adapt to stress, we perform and feel better, despite life’s stressors. To understand how the human body handles stress, you must first understand cortisol.

The Stress Hormone: Cortisol

Cortisol is widely known as the stress hormone. Hormones can be thought of as “chemical messengers” in our bodies. They enable your brain to tell your organs in your body what to do via your endocrine system. Your body uses a complicated feedback mechanism to keep these hormones balanced. Cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands, which is why chronic stress is sometimes referred to as “adrenal burnout”. 

A healthy amount of stress is good. Our body relies on stress to fight infection. The human stress response enables us to get out of bed in the morning and to drive to work. Cortisol is our body’s “fight or flight’ response and can literally save our lives.

Chronic stress is the type of stress where negative health issues come into play. Stressors like relationship issues, illnesses, and insomnia can cause very real physical changes in the body. Even a poor diet and not getting enough exercise are considered “stressors” and can wear your body down.

Although chronic stress may be unavoidable, there are ways to manage it before it negatively impacts your overall mental and physical well- being. Adaptogens don’t work on a specific body organ but have an overall “balancing” effect for changes caused by physical or emotional stress.

How Do Adaptogens Help Stress?

Besides their use during World War II, adaptogenic herbs and roots have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Some, like holy basil, can be eaten as part of a meal, and others are consumed as supplements, or brewed into teas.

Some research shows that adaptogens can ease fatigue, enhance mental performance, and reduce stress and anxiety. Keep in mind that the term adaptogens refers to a group of herbal supplements. They are often sold together as a combination product but can be obtained as a single supplement as well. 

Each adaptogen has a different effect on the body, so the choice of which one to take depends on the result you seek.

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What Are Some Common Types of Adaptogens?

  • American Ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius)
  • Ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera)
  • Eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

The Bottom Line: Adaptogens and Stress

Stress is inescapable. Adaptogens are a group of botanical supplements that are sometimes used to help the body cope with physical and mental stressors. 

They are not a “magic pill” and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Herbal and dietary supplements are also not reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety and effectiveness prior to being marketed. 

Therefore, before you decide to take herbs or dietary supplements, you should consult with your pharmacist or primary healthcare provider first. Herbs and dietary supplements (like prescription medications) can have drug interactions, side effects, and serious health consequences resulting in harm or complications to your health.  

Reference List:

Brusie C. Adaptogenic Herbs: List, Effectiveness, and Health Benefits. Healthline. Updated June 28, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/adaptogenic-herbs

Guilliams T. The Role of Stress and the HPA Axis in Chronic Disease Management: Principles and Protocols for Healthcare Professionals. Point Institute; 2015.Accessed July 31, 2020.

The Endocrine Society. Hormone Health Network. Your Health and Hormones. Accessed July 30, 2020. https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones

Garrett A. Perimenopause: The Savvy Sister’s Guide to Hormone Harmony. Anna Garrett Companies, LLC;2019. Accessed July 30, 2020. https://drannagarrett.com/book/

Panossian A, 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://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188

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