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adaptogens for stress support

Adaptogens for Stress Support

What are Adaptogens? 

Let’s face it, adaptogens are all the rage these days. They are making their way into coffee drinks, protein powders, kombucha, and candies, but what are adaptogens and what do they do?  These supportive herbs have been traditionally used in TCM and Ayurveda for centuries, praised as sacred plants and called “elixirs of life.” Adaptogens are plants, roots, or mushrooms that help modulate the body’s response to environmental stress. In our modern, fast-paced world, who wouldn’t want an herb to help the body adapt to occasional stress?* 

The term adaptogen was coined in the late 1940s by Soviet Scientist Nikolai V Lazarev. It was the dawn of the Cold War, and the former USSR “assigned the Soviet Academy of Science to develop a product that increased the performance of their athletes, military personnel, political officers, and chess players while adhering to strict health guidelines (Winston & Maimes, 2007).”  

In the years that followed, the Russian Academy of Sciences produced over 1500 pharmacological studies and clinical trials on adaptogenic herbs, investigating “four thousand plants and identifying twelve herbs as adaptogens. Most of the research was done on eleuthero, rhodiola, rhaponticum, and schisandra (Winston & Maimes, 2007).” 

In 1968, Lazarev’s colleague Israel Brekhman defined an adaptogen as follows: 

  1. Adaptogens are safe and nontoxic. 
  1. Adaptogens boost the body's ability to cope with different types of stress, including physical, chemical, or biological stressors. 
  1. Adaptogens help bring balance to the body's functions, normalizing physiology even when affected by stress (Winston & Maimes, 2007).  

Many of our classic adaptogens like rhodiola, ginseng, schisandra and eleuthero have some interesting similarities. For one, these adaptogens are all native to the southeastern tip of Russia known as the Primorsky Krai. This region of the world is believed to have survived multiple ice ages, and its elevated, rocky and wind whipped landscape protects these plants from anthropogenic (human) impact (Masé, 2020). Their ability to survive such intense environmental stressors is one indication of their usefulness in supporting a healthy stress response. * 

These herbs also contain unique phytochemistry that has been shown to support a healthy and balanced response to occasional stress. The mechanism of action is different for each herb. Some act on the HPA axis through potentially inhibiting the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), thereby reducing the initial trigger of the stress response. Others seem to interact with neurotransmitter receptors in the brain to promote a sense of calm.* 

Adaptogens are nourishing, tonic herbs that are best incorporated into your daily routine.  Many of them come in powdered form and can be added to smoothies, hot beverages, and – when not fasting - batter and granola recipes. They often have a mild flavor that is pleasant and enjoyable. Try out this adaptogen energy ball recipe for an easy mid-day boost. You can also find adaptogens in our endocrine formulas: Endocrine Daily, Adrenal Support, Pituitary Support, and Thyroid Support.* 

How do Adaptogens Help with Stress?  

It is important to realize that stress is not always bad! Humanity has aways been stressed. Imagine how stressful it was to live in a cave, hunting and foraging for every meal...back when the fight or flight response was triggered by a wild, hungry tiger! When you think about it, life at every level is constantly under stress, and from this stress evolution, innovation, and adaptation are born. 

According to a research study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, “Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.” This means being stressed and thinking stress is bad for you can negatively impact your health.  

Embracing stressors as a normal aspect of our existence can be an important first step on your road to wellness.  

The goal is to modify your reaction to stress. If stressful situations are easily triggering your fight or flight response – increased heart rate, perspiration, dilated eyes – then you’ve got some work to do! It is this repeated cortisol flush and adrenalin rush that down-regulates other vital organ systems (hello weakened immunity and slowed digestion). This is fine if it is happening occasionally, and you are mostly in a state of homeostasis but if you are experiencing this kind of stress daily your body can get stuck in this down-regulated state that can lead to more serious health concerns.  

First, identify your relationship to stress and start to think of stress as an opportunity for growth and change. Second, promote a more positive response to occasional stressors with herbs! This is where adaptogens really shine. When taken over time, adaptogens can support a healthy response to occasional stressors.* 

Studies have shown that adaptogens support individuals in increased focus and performance when experiencing fatigue from overwork and stressful environments as well as supporting wellbeing in other stress related disorders.* According to a 2009 review: 

“The key point of action of phytoadaptogens appears to be their up-regulating and stress-mimetic effects on the ‘stress-sensor’ protein Hsp70, which plays an important role in cell survival and apoptosis.”  

In simple terms, it seems that what adaptogens do is mildly stress-out our cells, which encourages cellular resilience. It may seem counter intuitive, but through this mild irritation, the cells become more adaptive to stress, which can carry over to support your overall response to occasional stress.* 

Over time, Adaptogens work to support endocrine system function via the modulation of the hormone cascade triggered during a fight or flight response. This intricate hormone dance takes place along the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis. Adaptogens help to level out the troughs and valleys of your hormone response, putting less stress on your body.* 

Adaptogens and Our Cells 

Let’s take a closer look at what stress looks like in our cells. Stress hormones activate proteins/enzymes like JNK (an enzyme that regulates many cellular functions such as neuronal development, activation of the immune system, and apoptosis or cell death). More specifically, in the face of an external stress event JNK increases the production of aggressive radicals and nitric oxide (NO) which in turn suppress energy production within the cell.  

Without proper ATP production many proteins stop functioning and the cell can no longer work properly. Energy from ATP is also required to produce Hsp70, the ‘stress-sensor' protein we mentioned earlier, that helps repair damaged proteins within the cells and makes you more resilient to stress. JNK also suppresses glucocorticoid receptors (GR) which stops the feedback inhibition of cortisol production, meaning that cortisol levels in the blood rise. Cortisol is necessary in the short term because it protects you from overreaction in response to stress by lowering the immune system and decreasing inflammation. However, elevated levels of cortisol are associated with depression, fatigue, and impaired mental focus and clarity in the long term.* 

It is thought that adaptogens decrease production of JNK enzymes, NO, and cortisol during a stress event and stimulate the production of more Hsp70 which enhances repair of damaged proteins, returns levels of ATP to normal, inhibits downregulation of the immune system, and result in increased resistance to stress.*  

Adaptogen Formulas for Stress Support 

Doctor Morse’s Endocrine Daily formula is the perfect supplement for incorporating adaptogens into your daily routine. This 11-herb formula includes eleuthero, He Shou Wu, and schisandra, all powerful adaptogens that assist the body in regulating hormonal imbalances and inspire you to ride the wave 

Happy Caps are another great option for encouraging overall wellbeing. This formula supports healthy mood and sleep with four adaptogens, rhodiola, schisandra, He Shou Wu, and eleuthero, while including many other herbs to support your other body systems.*   

When under acute stress, the hypothalamus triggers the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream. Our Pituitary Support Formula containing eleuthero, schizandra, and He-Shou Wu (Fo-Ti) supports the detoxification and regeneration of the pituitary gland and the overall function of the endocrine system. * 

Try our Thyroid Support formula to encourage healthy metabolism and immune function. Two key factors in homeostasis of the whole body which can help support your stress response. *  

The adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys and are the final gland of the HPA axis hormone cascade. Once they receive ACTH from the pituitary gland, they release cortisol (the stress hormone) into the blood stream, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure. For glandular support specifically targeting the adrenals, try our Adrenal Support tincture, glycerin and capsules.* 

Add the Pancreas Support Formula to your endocrine system protocol to support healthy blood sugar levels and digestive function. * 

For additional reading on this subject, and to learn more about the individual ingredients in these formulas, including adaptogens, read 10 Herbs for the Endocrine System 


*FDA warning: This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. 


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