There’s no escaping stress in life. Although most of us tend to think of stress in negative terms—relationship difficulties, job pressures, family problems and financial concerns—stress also is triggered by positive experiences, such as a promotion at work, getting married or buying a home. Stress simply is the body’s heightened physiological response to new situations and to the ever-changing conditions of life.
There’s no doubt that positive stressors feel better than negative ones, but all stress takes a toll on your physical and emotional well-being. The body responds to stress by preparing to fight or flee: The adrenal glands release hormones (including cortisol and adrenaline), which give you a surge of energy and strength. This is designed to be an emergency response to a temporary situation, and all systems are meant to return to normal functioning when the crisis has passed.
Problems arise when stress becomes chronic. Continual releases of stress hormones trigger inflammation, knock back immune function, elevate blood pressure, hinder digestion and impair mental clarity. In fact, researchers estimate that between 60 and 90 percent of all illnesses are stress-related.
Bolstering your resistance to stress includes basic strategies: Eat a healthful diet, get plenty of exercise and rest, and learn to reduce your stress through some type of calming practice, like meditation or yoga. In addition, taking a specific class of herbs known as adaptogens can protect your body, improve your mental functioning and help your body adapt more easily to stressors.
A Long History of Use
Knowledge of special tonic herbs to fortify health and promote longevity dates back thousands of years to ancient China and India. Research over the past few decades has proven that these tonic herbs—now called adaptogens—have remarkable health-protective properties. Today, more than ever, adaptogens play an important role in helping strengthen resistance to the daily stresses of life.
There are certain criteria an herb must meet to qualify as an adaptogen. The herb must restore balance and strengthen the functioning of the body without throwing another organ or body system out of balance. Adaptogens facilitate these changes by a wide range of actions rather than just by one specific action. Of equal importance to the herb’s active properties is its safety—an adaptogen must be nontoxic and non-habit forming, even when taken over a long period of time.
According to Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, the improvement in energy that comes from the regular use of adaptogens is the result of a deeper internal shift toward health. Adaptogens provide a safe way to restore balance, rebuild health and vitality, and promote longevity. For optimal benefit, adaptogens should be taken for a minimum of three months, and can safely be taken indefinitely. The following adaptogens have been used for centuries to improve health and vitality, and have a significant body of research to support their use.
Ashwaganda: An Ayurvedic Favorite
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera). The most frequently prescribed tonic herb in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwaganda is recommended for anyone suffering from weakness or debility, including fatigue caused by nervous tension and overwork. Ashwaganda is reputed to increase energy and endurance, promote longevity, support sexual vitality, calm the mind, enhance mental function, rejuvenate the tissues, strengthen immune function, encourage restful sleep and help the body overcome imbalances caused by mental or physical stress, poor diet, environmental toxins or lack of sleep. Ashwaganda also has been used as an anti-inflammatory to relieve arthritis and joint pain.
In the August 2000 issue of Alternative Medicine Review, the authors evaluated research on ashwaganda to determine the chemical properties, therapeutic effects and potential toxicity of the herb. They determined that ashwaganda has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-stress, immune-enhancing and rejuvenating properties. In addition, ashwaganda has little or no toxicity. Researchers believe that compounds called withanolides are responsible for ashwaganda’s healing properties. Withanolides are very similar to ginsenosides, the compounds responsible for the health benefits of ginseng. In fact, ashwaganda often is referred to as “Indian ginseng.”
In studies, ashwaganda has been shown to stimulate immune cell activity and inhibit inflammation. Research also has shown the herb has mild sedative and muscle-relaxing properties. These findings support the herb’s traditional use as a tonic to bolster stress resistance and enhance general health and well-being.
Ashwaganda is available in powdered form, capsules and as a liquid extract. A traditional dosage is 1 to 2 grams of the dried powdered root, taken three times daily. As a liquid extract, take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon three times a day. A typical dosage of a standardized extract is 100 to 200 mg twice a day.
Eleuthero: The Ginseng That Isn’t
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Formerly known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is not a true ginseng, although it’s in the same botanical family as Panax ginseng. Indigenous to Siberia and northeastern China, eleuthero has been used for at least 2,000 years to improve general health, increase energy and as a longevity tonic. Many studies have shown the herb to be an invaluable aid for enhancing resistance to stress, and people who regularly take eleuthero report an increased sense of psychological as well as physical well-being.
The health-promoting benefits of eleuthero have largely been researched and documented by Russian scientists, who became interested in the root of the spiny shrub as an alternative to the more costly P. ginseng. In more than 1,000 studies, eleuthero has been shown to significantly increase energy and endurance for both physical and mental tasks, enhance immune function and protect the body against environmental stresses and toxins. Eleuthero also has been shown to normalize blood pressure, lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and strengthen the adrenal glands, which play an important role in regulating the body’s response to stressful situations.
Scientists have identified compounds in eleuthero called eleutherosides, which have similar effects to the ginsenosides found in P. ginseng. Many herbalists regard eleuthero to be more appropriate for a wider range of people than the more stimulating P. ginseng.
A typical dosage of eleuthero is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of liquid extract twice a day or 2 to 3 grams of powdered root daily. Some products are standardized for eleutherosides; if you’re taking these products, follow the manufacturers’ dosage recommendations. For best results, take eleuthero for at least three months. Because eleuthero can have positive effects on regulating blood pressure, consult your doctor if you’re taking blood pressure medication.
Ginseng: A Long-Revered Tonic
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). In ancient China, ginseng was valued more highly than gold, and turf wars still flare in the United States over stands of wild American ginseng (P. quinquefolius). A slow-growing woodland plant, ginseng has been revered for more than 5,000 years as a premier herbal vitality tonic.
The botanical name, Panax, is derived from a combination of Greek words that translates as “cure-all,” or “panacea.” Hundreds of studies support ginseng’s illustrious reputation. Research shows that ginseng increases endurance, relieves fatigue, bolsters immunity, helps regulate cholesterol and blood sugar, and enhances mental function. Two species of ginseng are commonly used as adaptogens: Asian ginseng, which grows in China; and American ginseng, which is native to the northeastern United States. Both have similar properties. In fact, Native Americans used ginseng in much the same way as the Chinese, and American ginseng is highly prized in China.
In research studies, ginseng has clearly been shown to enhance physical and mental performance and help protect the body against stress. Scientists have identified dozens of active compounds unique to ginseng called ginsenosides.
Ginseng appears to modulate hormonal reactions, particularly those related to the physiological stress response. Studies have shown that ginseng helps to lower levels of stress hormones called glucocorticoids, both immediately after stressful incidents and during periods of prolonged stress. In a 1996 study published in Phytotherapy Research, 232 people suffering from long-term fatigue were given a multivitamin/mineral supplement. Researchers spiked half of the subjects’ dosage with 40 mg of standardized ginseng extract twice a day. The other half were given a placebo. After a couple of months, only 5.7 percent of the ginseng group still complained of fatigue, compared to 15.2 percent of those taking the placebo.
While consumers in the West tend to use various types of ginseng interchangeably, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine make specific recommendations for ginseng use based on the age and health of the individual. In general, Asian ginseng is used as a restorative for the elderly and for anyone in a weakened condition. American ginseng is believed to be less stimulating and, therefore, more appropriate for younger people (those younger than 50), for those in generally good health and for long-term use. Because of overharvesting, the once abundant American ginseng is now considered rare and endangered.
However, cultivated (sometimes called woods-grown) American ginseng is widely available.
Ginseng can be taken as a liquid extract, powder, capsule or tablet. Standardized extracts provide a guaranteed amount of ginsenosides. Most clinical studies have used ginseng extracts standardized to 4 percent ginsenosides, at a dosage of 200 to 500 mg daily. If you are taking a nonstandardized preparation, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s recommended dosages because potencies vary greatly. A general dosage for nonstandardized preparations is 1 to 4 grams of powdered root daily or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon daily of liquid extract. Traditionally, ginseng is used cyclically—for example, take the herb for two weeks, and then take a two-week break before resuming the dosage.
When used as directed at recommended dosages, ginseng rarely causes side effects. However, Chinese ginseng has been known to cause overstimulation or irritability in some people. If this occurs, lower the dosage or switch to American ginseng, which is considered less stimulating. Don’t take larger-than-recommended doses of ginseng, and do not use ginseng in combination with other stimulants, such as caffeine. Pregnant and nursing women also should not use the herb.
Rhodiola: A Russian Favorite
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). Used for hundreds of years in Russia and Scandinavia, rhodiola grows at high altitudes in the arctic regions of Europe and Asia. Sometimes called “golden root,” rhodiola derives its Latin name from the roselike fragrance of the fresh root. For centuries, rhodiola traditionally has been used to bolster physical and mental capacity.
Although it has been studied extensively in Russia and Scandinavia, rhodiola has only recently become known in the United States. In Russia and many Scandinavian countries, however, rhodiola is considered an official botanical medicine and commonly is prescribed as a general strengthener for treating fatigue, improving work performance, alleviating depression and improving resistance to both physical and psychological stress.
Dozens of studies show that rhodiola has potent adaptogenic properties. In a recent Phytotherapy Research study, researchers found that even a single dose of the extract results in improved ability to cope with stressful situations, including reducing stress-related anxiety.
Because there are many varieties of rhodiola, buy only products that specify on the label that the species used is R. rosea. The product should be standardized for the amount of rosavin (generally 2 percent), which is considered the active ingredient. A typical dosage is 100 mg three times a day.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 1,001 Natural Remedies (DK, 2003) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).