Everyone encounters stress in their lives. You know the feeling: your palms start to sweat, your heart races, your muscles tense, your breath quickens, and you feel supercharged. These feelings come from the combination of hormones released in the body when encountering a stressor--hormones that set off a cascade of biological events that almost instantaneously prepare you to react with a fight or flight response.
From an evolutionary perspective, stress is essential to human survival. It warns us when danger is near and prepares the body to react appropriately. In the modern world, we aren’t exposed to nearly as many life-threatening situations as, say, a caveman, but that doesn’t stop the body from over-reacting to everyday toils like traffic jams and pressure at work. It has no way of differentiating between life-threatening and non-life threatening stressors, reacting the same way to running into a bear in the woods as it would to giving a big presentation at work. Our ancestors were also never exposed to the cocktail of unique stressors that populate our modern world--a place filled with ubiquitous chemical and biological toxins that keep our bodies in a near constant state of stress.
Occasional stress is nothing to stress about, but chronic stress can be problematic because the chemicals that rev you up for fight or flight--cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine--have long-term damaging effects on practically every system in the body. Therefore, chronic stress is a key mechanism in the development of many diseases, like heart disease, obesity, depression, anxiety, and gastrointestinal disorders--to name a few.
The effects of chronic stress on human health are only part of its intrigue to researchers. Stress is also associated with fatigue, affecting two key behavioral capabilities world leaders and corporations are particularly interested: productivity and stamina.
During World War II, Russian researchers were interested in identifying a chemical that helps people maintain the ability to complete mentally or physically taxing work in times of prolonged or intense stress--the perfect drug for the perfect soldier. The results of this project were enormous; they published 1,009 studies on the topic, supplying huge amounts of information on stress protection, almost all focusing on the physiological effects of adaptogenic herbs.
Adaptogenic herbs--the most common being eleutherococcus senticosus, rhodiola rosea, and schisandra chinensis--have a stimulatory effect that is key in moderating the stress response. These herbs temper the intensity of all phases of the stress response and even diminish the body’s sensitivity to future stressors. Compare the pink and blue lines in the image below to see how these phases of the stress response are altered by the presence of adaptogens.
There are three phases in the stress response: the alarm phase, the phase of resistance, and the phase of exhaustion. Adaptogens moderate the intensity of the alarm and resistance phases, extend the phase of resistance--thereby eliminating the phase of exhaustion, and raise the sensitivity threshold for future stressors. In simpler terms, adaptogens make the stress response less intense and protect us from stress long-term.
Taking adaptogenic herbs is only one of the many ways to mitigate the negative effects of stress on your health. Doing things like eating well, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, and thinking positively can help you better prepare for and manage stressful situations, therefore reducing stress-related wear and tear on the body.
Adaptogens have positive effects that reach far beyond stress protection. Between eleutheracoccus, rhodiola, and chinensis, researchers have found a long list of positive effects that come without the toxic side effects usually found with man-made pharmaceuticals:
Researchers are also beginning to uncover the role of these herbs in facilitating longevity. They are clearly a promising frontier in promoting health and wellness in the modern world. Come see us at Tristar to start taking control of your stress through herbal supplementation and healthy lifestyle changes!
Ponassian, A. & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress-protective activity. Pharmaceuticals, 3, 188-224.
Bone, K. (2009). Clinical monitor: UNE conference on evidence-based complementary medicine: selected highlights. MediHerb, 1-3.