Have you heard of the fabulous class of herbs called adaptogens? They help our bodies cope with, be more resilient during, and recover from stress. Before we dive into these amazing herbs though, let’s take a moment to talk about the stress hormone, cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone made by the adrenal glands. Its purpose is to help us rapidly adapt to a wide variety of stressors.  Cortisol release is triggered by:

  • Low blood sugar (including the normal dip between meals and when sleeping)
  • Prolonged exercise
  • Lack of sleep
  • Sudden danger (fight or flight reaction)
  • Trauma or memory of trauma (PTSD) 
  • Ongoing frustration or anxiety
  • Illness
  • Pain and or Injury

What does cortisol do?

  1. It triggers the release of adrenaline
  2. It triggers an increase of sugar in the bloodstream 
  3. It enhances brain and muscle use of the extra sugar it makes available
  4. It raises blood pressure
  5. It slows down or blocks functions that are not needed during fight/flight situations

But if stress is long-term?

All of those things above sound great if we are in an emergency situation. The problem arises when the sense of stress doesn’t go away in a few minutes or hours. If the source of stress goes on and on for days, weeks, or even years, then the impact of cortisol being high all the time is quite different. If the body has high cortisol levels all the time, you eventually develop cortisol resistance. This means that you lose the anti-inflammatory effect of cortisol but are stuck with all the other effects:

  1.    Poor sleep
  2.    Carbohydrate cravings
  3.    High blood pressure
  4. High blood sugar (with impaired insulin function)
    • This leads to metabolic syndrome and central weight gain
  5. Hormone imbalance 
    • If your adrenals feel a constant need for cortisol, then it becomes difficult for them to keep up and they begin grabbing other steroid hormones (like DHEA and progesterone) and converting those into cortisol as a shortcut, leading to hormone imbalance.   
  6. Immune system suppression
    • The part of your immune system that is supposed to fight infections is muted by the “we are in an emergency situation” signal.
    • The part of your immune system that promotes allergies is more active
  7. Increase in systemic inflammation
    • The part of your immune system that causes tissue inflammation is more active. This is the part that says “hey, I’m hurt, we need immune cells to clean up the damage”.  

When stress is chronic or unavoidable, one of the things that can really help is taking adaptogenic herbs.  

What are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are herbs (and other nutritional substances) that help our bodies deal with stress. They generally help increase energy and increase both physical and mental stamina. Some are more cooling and calming while others are more warming and stimulating. Some are known for use during stress and some are famous for helping to recover from stress, but in truth, all of them can be used in both scenarios. Most adaptogenic herbs do this by some combination of modulating cortisol levels, modulating blood sugar, modulating the immune system, and improving oxygen use by the tissues.  

What do you mean by modulating?

Modulation is a very cool biochemical trick. A modulator is a non-native substance that can bind to a receptor in your body and cause mild activity at that receptor. This mild activity can help address issues of both deficiency and excess. Let’s use cortisol as an example. 

If you are too low in cortisol and you take an herb that has a “cortisol-like molecule” that can bind to the cortisol receptor, it will give you mild cortisol activity (so will improve your symptoms of low cortisol). If your cortisol is too high, and you take that same herb with the “cortisol-like molecule,” it will bind to the same cortisol receptors. It only gives a mild cortisol signal at the receptors it binds to. So, (and this is where it gets really cool) the receptors that are getting that milder signal from the plant steroid are now not available to be bound by your native cortisol. This has the effect of LOWERING the impact of high cortisol on your body. Ta-da! Modulation. One plant substance can improve the symptoms of both high and low cortisol. So. Very. Cool.  

So , where can I get these magical adaptogenic and modulating effects, you ask?

Here are some of my favorite herbal adaptogens:  

5 from the ginseng family: This is a large family of plants that are used to enhance energy and deal with various forms of stress. Different species grow on different continents, and all are slightly different, but it is worth noting how many plants in this family are used to help with stress, fatigue and recovery.  

    ~ Plant family:
    Araliaceae (ginseng)
    ~ Country of origin: China / Korea
    ~ USE: in the Chinese medicine tradition ginseng (Renshen) is considered the “king of herbs” and the most powerful qi (energy) tonic. Medicinally the root is used. The Chinese name Renshen means “in the shape of man” and it is so named because the root is often shaped like a person with a head, torso, 2 arms and 2 legs. It restores the yin, yang and qi of all the body systems. It is considered a stimulating adaptogen, that helps increase energy, especially yang energy, and may benefit libido. There is a proverb in China about ginseng: “It makes an older man younger and makes a younger woman hunger.”
    ~ Plant family:
    Araliaceae (ginseng)
    ~ Country of origin: United States. It is native to the shady forests of the Appalachian Mountain region where it is known as “The Sang.” It remains one of the primary sources of income for this impoverished region, with Sang patches being jealously guarded, sometimes raided, and passed down from generation to generation
    ~ USE: Like Asian Panax and Eleutherococcus, this ginseng species helps build energy after illness or stress, it has steroid-like molecules and so modulates cortisol levels and blood sugar. This American species is more calming and less stimulating than Panax (Chinese) ginseng. In China it is considered a qi and yin tonic. The wild ginseng grown in the Appalachian forests is also considered far superior to the cultivated varieties that are now produced in China.
    ~Plant family: Araliaceae (ginseng)
    ~Country or origin: Russia / Siberia
    ~USE: Contains steroid like molecules, so helps modulate cortisol, inflammation and blood sugar.  Thought to protect the body from prolonged stress (chemical, physical or emotional). Used to increase both physical and mental stamina.  Improves oxygen uptake by muscles. Increases norepinephrine and serotonin levels (focus and mood).  It also helps the liver break down drugs, alcohol and toxins.
    ~Plant family:
    Araliaceae (ginseng)
    ~Country of origin:  Russia / Siberia
    ~USE: Aralia is known for helping to normalize blood sugar. It increases stamina and increases brain function. It contains steroid like molecules, so it can act as a cortisol modulator
  5. OPLOPANAX HORRIDUS (best Latin name for a plant, ever) also known as: DEVIL’S CLUB
    ~Plant family:
    Araliaceae (ginseng)
    ~Country of origin: United States, Pacific Northwest rainforests (in the deepest, shadiest hollows of the forest).
    ~ABOUT: It is a very tall plant (up to 8 feet tall) and covered with large, sharp spines (thus the name Devil’s Club and the Latin name “horridus”). With its huge size and viscous spikes, Devil’s club is said to have “warrior” energy. It has similar chemistry to Panax and American ginseng. It has a popular folk use for insulin resistance, especially if due to chronic stress. This plant has not gotten much research attention, and due to its vicious presentation, is understandably not in common use. It is a cool addition to our list though and another “American ginseng” that is worth knowing about.

6 Adaptogens from other plant families:

    ~Plant family:
    Fabaceae (pea family)
    ~Country of origin: native to both Europe and Asia and is used extensively in both herb traditions.
    ~USE: Has large quantities of molecules that mimic cortisol so can act as a strong cortisol modulator. If the adrenals are over-producing cortisol, licorice can bind to receptors and tell the adrenal glands that they do not need to continue making cortisol (so allows the adrenal glands to rest). If the adrenal glands are under-producing cortisol, the steroid-like molecules in licorice can give you a similar lift without the adrenals having to work more.
    Licorice is strongly anti-inflammatory. It is also anti-viral. It is unique among adaptogens in that it is also soothing to the mucous membranes. It is often used to soothe gastritis, ulcers and leaky gut. It can raise blood pressure, which can be beneficial to some and detrimental to others. Blood pressure should be monitored when first taking licorice root. 
    ~Plant family:
    Fabaceae (pea family)
    ~Country of origin: China / Chinese medicine tradition
    ~USE: This is considered the number two qi tonic in the Chinese Materia Medica. Used to increase qi in general, but has a particular affinity for the lung qi. It is helpful when recovering from respiratory viruses or other illnesses. It balances the immune system (primarily boosting deficient immune function), and also increases interferon activity. Because of its affinity with the lung, it is a common ingredient in some anti-allergy formulas as well as cold / flu formulas. 
    ~Plant family:
    Solanacea (nightshades)
    ~Country of Origin: India / Ayurveda, but it grows easily here in Texas
    ~USE: Contains steroid like molecules, and has some similar actions to Panax ginseng and Siberian ginseng. Ashwagandha is famed for alleviating anxiety, insomnia, nervous impotence, arthritic inflammation, and helping fight respiratory illnesses. Research has found that it can increase bone marrow activity, increasing white blood cell count. It can lower elevated cortisol, and might raise thyroid levels in some people. 
  4. BACOPA MONNIERI, also known as BRAHMI
    ~Plant family:
    Scrophulariaceae family
    ~Country of origin: India, from the Ayurvedic tradition
    ~USE: Brahmi is considered a restorative tonic. It is said to reduce mental chatter, relieve insomnia, while enhancing energy, memory and concentration. Like most of the other adaptogens Brahmi contains steroid-like molecules. Increases GABA activity 
    ~Plant family:
    Lamiaceae (mint family)
    ~Country of origin: India, from the Ayurvedic tradition, but it grows well in Texas
    ~USE: Holy Basil helps modulate the stress response. It lowers cortisol, increases endurance, improves immune function and normalizes blood pressure. It is also thought to help balance insulin function and blood sugar. It elevates mood and spirit. The scent of the fresh herb is heavenly and has a direct calming effect similar to lavender, but more euphoric. 
  6. RHODIOLA ROSEA, also known as RHODIOLA
    ~Plant family:
    ~Country of Origin: Russia
    ~USE: Famous for enhancing athletic performance. Often used by Russian athletes and cosmonauts to enhance training. Traditionally pulsed (3 months on, 1 month off) as stamina enhancing benefits seem to wane over long-term use. It normalizes the heart rate after intense exercise.  Increases blood flow to muscles and brain. Increases protein synthesis.  It enhances immune function.  Protects against altitude sickness

While all adaptogens are technically modulating, some are considered more “stimulating” and some are considered more “calming.” Stimulating adaptogens might be more appropriate when your cortisol levels are low and you need a boost in energy or when you are in a short term “pressure” situation. The calming adaptogens may be better when your cortisol levels are high. They can help you feel calmer, have a clearer mind, and have enough energy to face your challenges. Some of the calming adaptogens have become popular for helping people relax before sleep.

    • Calming Adaptogens: Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Brahmi, American Ginseng
    • Stimulating Adaptogens: Panax Ginseng (renshen), Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza/ gan cao), Aralia, Rhodiola
    • Neutral Adaptogens: Astragalus, Siberian Ginseng, Devil’s club

7 additional ways to help regulate your cortisol levels:
The most powerful tools you have to manage your cortisol levels are diet and lifestyle.  

  1. Keep a regular sleep schedule, ideally going to be around 10pm and getting up around 6-7am.
  2. Get some gentle movement in daily (walking, swimming, gardening, biking, yoga, Tai Chi, etc).
  3. Avoid excessive caffeine 
  4. If your life is high stress, consider if there are things that can be changed (even if it is a long-term plan) to lower the intensity of your stress. Knowing that there is a plan for change can lower cortisol levels a little bit. 
  5. Take time to do breathing or meditation exercises (even if it is only a few minutes)
  6. Try to keep blood sugar steady by eating adequate protein, healthy fat and fiber (veggies!).  Avoid sugar and keep an eye on simple carb levels.  
  7. Address causes of pain if possible (consider proper ergonomics, posture, stretching, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic).

When these are not enough, adaptogenic herbs can really help!