I recently had a well overdue tea date with a friend. We have been trying to coordinate doing this for weeks but came up against the same busy wall each time we tried. Kids, sports and other extra curricular activities, work, house renovations, holidays, etc… all these things pile up on a daily basis and keep us hopping from one thing to the next. And as I looked around the coffee shop I wondered how many are on the caffeine fuelled hamster wheel, going from one refill to another in the chaos of getting through the day?
We all know our bodies are extremely resilient and adaptive under any number of conditions, but what many of us fail to address is that the body can’t meet all the demands we place on it without the right TLC. Your body needs the right nutrition and physiological support to handle whatever is thrown its way.
Stress and fatigue tend to be a regular occurrence for just about everyone nowadays. Maybe you’ve heard the reference to “tired and wired”, where we struggle to take care of the demands of work, family and everything in between before we crash, only to find ourselves exhaustedly planning the next day with more of the same. This chronic stress is causing negative effects to both your physical and mental health. Stress affects your cortisol levels – a hormone, that when chronically elevated can affect every system in your body (and one I refer to as public health enemy #1). Adrenal fatigue, an overstressed digestive system, rapid aging, anxiety, cancer, chronic fatigue, hormone imbalances, auto-immune disorders, and thyroid conditions are part of a long list of dis-ease that accompanies a chronically stressed out body.
So what’s a person to do? Along with lifestyle changes, you can help support your body with a class of plants known as adaptogens. These plants are used for their abilities to heal through balancing, restoring, and protecting your body as a whole (which makes them some of my favourites!).
Adaptogens were granted their name because of their distinctive ability to ‘adapt’ their function according to the body’s needs. The term adaptogen itself was created when Russian researchers were looking for natural alternatives to improve performance in their soldiers without the drawbacks of pharmaceuticals and their side effects.
To officially be called an ‘adaptogen’ an herb must be able to raise the overall performance of the body without any adverse side effects. It will also have to work independent of other conditions. This is what makes an adaptogen different from something like caffeine, which we know gives your body that quick fix of energy, but you eventually deflate, depress your metabolic pathways, and then need more caffeine to achieve the same effect. An adaptogen does not have a specific action and does not target a certain area of the body but instead it has a positive benefit to the body as a whole, being able to respond to any influence or stressor that it needs to.
These rejuvenating plants improve and recharge the health of your adrenal glands, counteracting the harmful effects of stress. Your cells get more energy and the ability to eliminate toxic by-products of the metabolic process, which helps your body use oxygen more efficiently. More cellular energy in combination with boosting the adrenal glands strengthens your body’s ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and fatigue. The overall health benefits of an increased stress defense system are pretty widespread – calming you down and boosting you up all at once.
While prescription drugs remain in your system and influence multiple organs, once an adaptogen has completed its job, those herbs are eliminated or absorbed into the body without any side effects. Adaptogens work slowly and gently, a contrast to the instant gratification of the caffeine cycle mentioned above, so you’ll have to practice some patience. They work subtly but the benefits are undeniable and long lasting.
Here are some of my favourite adaptogens:
Withania somnifera. Also referred to as Indian ginseng, this herb eases anxiety, depression and sleep issues. Ashwaganda has immunomodulating effects that boost and regulate the immune system and lower cortisol levels.
Astragalus Membranaceus. Increases the amount of anti-stress compounds our bodies use to prevent and repair stress-related damage. By lowering the ability of stress hormones like cortisol to bind to receptors, astralagus boosts immunity and protects the body from the effects of stress.
3. Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Ocimum tenuiflorum. Referred to as the “elixir of anti-aging,” holy basil helps fight fatigue and stress, boosts the immune system, and regulates blood sugar, blood pressure, and hormone levels. (My favourite way to enjoy Holy Basil is in a warm cup of Tulsi Tea).
4. Rhodiola (Golden Root)
Rhodiola rosea. Contains the phytochemical salisdroside which helps resist anxiety and aging. Other benefits of this herb include suppressing cortisol production, increased levels of stress-resistant proteins, restores normal sleeping and eating patterns, an increased resistance to mental and physical fatigue, and protection against oxidative stress and toxic chemicals. Rhodiola has also been shown to protect the heart and liver, increase use of oxygen, improve memory and longevity, as well as assist in weight loss.
5. Panax Ginseng
This herb, also known as Asian/Korean/Chinese Ginseng, supports physical endurance and mental clarity, as well as containing antioxidant properties that support heart health and your immune system. It is a well-known adaptogen that has antidepressant effects, helping to naturally lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It has been shown to improve the ability to cope with many stressors, both physical and mental. Its actions are mediated by mechanisms that control the adrenal glands. Ginseng is proven to delay the onset and lower the severity of the “alarm phase” of the body’s response to stress (both short and long term).
6. Eleuthero Root
Eleutherococcus senticosus. Eleuthero, or Siberian ginseng, helps the body cope better with stress by reducing the output of stress hormones. It is the most researched adaptogen of modern times containing active chemical components called eleutherosides that appear to inhibit the stress response by lowering the activity of the adrenal cortex. Eleuthero works to balance serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and epinephrine. Its effect on these mood determining brain chemicals makes it a great mood stabilizer. Eleuthero is also a powerful immune booster that helps the body to balance, heal and instill an overall sense of wellbeing.
Eating well, getting adequate sleep, staying active, practicing mindfulness and gratitude, as well as maintaining social connections all help protect you from chronic stress. Adding adaptogens can make you more resilient to the damaging effects of elevated cortisol and allow you to feel a huge improvement in your energy and stress levels.