Adaptogens have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and we think they may just be the next big thing in fighting anxiety and insomnia. Here's Dr. Josh Axe's take on which ones are most effective in lowering cortisol levels and relieving chronic stress.
It’s likely that you’ve heard about the detrimental effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels and chronic stress can affect every physiological system in your body, including your thyroid and adrenal glands. It can make you anxious and irritable, lead to weight gain and bone loss, contribute to diabetes and heart disease risk, and deplete your energy levels.
Cortisol is also known as the aging hormone. When cortisol gets too high, it puts you into a “fight-or-flight” response, which stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands. When this occurs, there is a decrease in digestive secretions and an increase in blood pressure. This puts your body in a state of constant stress, which will burn out your adrenal glands, stress your digestive tract, and cause you to age more rapidly.
So if you want to look younger, feel younger, and be healthy — and heal adrenal fatigue — you must balance your cortisol levels.
So what can help us adapt to stress and lower cortisol? Adaptogens.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants that help balance, restore, and protect the body. As naturopath Edward Wallace explains, an adaptogen doesn’t have a specific action. Instead, it helps you respond to any influence or stressor, normalizing your physiological functions. Marcelle Pick of Women to Women reports that adaptogenic herbs can recharge your adrenal glands, helping you to respond to stress.
Eating well, getting proper rest, staying active, writing down what you’re grateful for, and maintaining social connection all help protect you from chronic stress. Adding adaptogens to your routine can make you even more resilient to the damaging effects of high cortisol levels.
Top 7 Adaptogen Herbs
Benefit-rich ginseng is the most well-known adaptogen, and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is considered the most potent. According to Wallace, research has validated the use of Asian ginseng for improving mental performance and the ability to withstand stress. This red ginseng also has antioxidant and antidepressant effects, and it can help naturally lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
There are a number of adaptogens referred to as ginsengs that aren’t technically ginsengs, but keep in mind that they have similar composition or effects.
2. Holy basil
Also called tulsi, holy basil is known in India as the “elixir of anti-aging.” Preliminary studies suggest that holy basil may be effective in helping fight fatigue and stress; boosting the immune system; and regulating blood sugar, blood pressure, and hormone levels.
Ashwagandha is often referred to as Indian ginseng. Often used in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha regulates the immune system and eases anxiety. Ashwagandha has been used in Eastern medicine for more than 2,500 years and has immunomodulating effects that boost the immune system and help the body lower its cortisol levels.
4. Astragalus root
Used in Chinese medicine, astragalus boosts immunity and buffers the effects of stress. It increases the amount of anti-stress compounds our bodies use to repair and prevent stress-related damage. It may also reduce the ability of stress hormones like cortisol to bind to receptors.
5. Licorice root
Licorice root can increase energy and endurance, boost the immune system, and protect the thymus from being damaged by cortisol. However, its use requires professional supervision because of how it may affect blood pressure.
Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea), or golden root, is a potent adaptogen that has been the focus of much research. Rhodiola provides a buffer to stress-related mental and physical fatigue. Rhodiola was said to be used by Russian cosmonauts, athletes, and military personnel, and years of study have begun to uncover the very mechanisms by which it acts as an adaptogen.
Rhodiola rosea contains a phytochemical known as salisdroside, which is thought to help relieve anxiety and combat aging. Rhodiola suppresses the production of cortisol and increases levels of stress-resistant proteins.
Studies have found that it restores normal patterns of eating and sleeping after stress; lowers mental and physical fatigue; and protects against oxidative stress, heat stress, radiation and exposure to toxic chemicals. Rhodiola also protects the heart and liver, increases use of oxygen, improves memory, and may even extend longevity. Also, new research found it to be an effective weight loss agent.
7. Cordycep mushrooms
Cordyceps, reishi, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms are funguses with antioxidant properties. That means nutrition-rich mushrooms have all the benefits of antioxidant-rich foods. They may not be adaptogens in the classic sense, but each has adaptogenic, anti-tumor and immune-enhancing properties.
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