Adaptogens and Stress

Shield Yourself From Stress with Adaptogens

Stress. Sometimes it’s insidious, creeping up on you while you’re sitting in traffic, causing your blood pressure to rise and your jaw to clench. Or it can hit you like a ten-ton truck, such as in the event of a serious illness, knocking you off your feet and leaving you feeling like you may never recover. No matter how it comes, it always comes—stress is part of the human experience. And while periods of stress are perfectly normal, and dare I say healthy, chronic stress or stress overload can lead to real mental and physical damage.

Humans are hardwired to deal with stress—it’s called the “fight-or-flight” response. When you are faced with a stressful event, the adrenal glands—small glands that sit on top of the kidneys—release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase blood pressure and heart rate, slow digestion, increase blood sugar, and suppress the immune system.  In an “acute stress” situation, this is an advantage—the surge of stress hormones help you mentally and physically deal with the event at hand. However, chronic stress causes this stress response system to always be turned on, and over time, the constant release of the adrenal hormones, especially cortisol, throws the body out of balance and can lead to major health problems.[1]

Chronic stress can cause anxiety, depression, digestive problems, insomnia, high blood pressure, decreased immunity, and memory impairment.[2] [3] Researchers estimate that stress contributes to as much as 80 percent of all major illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, endocrine and metabolic disease, and infectious diseases of all kinds.[4]

In addition to a nutrient-dense diet, and foundational supplements such as vitamin D and a multivitamin, adaptogens may be one of the best ways to shield your body from the negative effects of stress. Adaptogens are plant-based compounds that help the body adapt to both physiological and psychological stress, bringing balance without stimulating or sedating. They are both protective and restorative—think of them as tonics to buffer stress and support whole-body health. Below are some favorites.

Chronic stress can take a real toll on the brain, but the Ayurvedic adaptogen ashwagandha has been found to protect brain cells against stress-induced degeneration.[5] Research has also found that ashwagandha, when combined with the adaptogenic mushroom maitake, can block the negative effects of chronic stress on the immune system and decrease stress hormone levels.[6] Try 600 to 1,000 mg, twice daily.[7]

Panax ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng, has been found to reduce levels of cortisol, blood glucose, and triglycerides during times of chronic stress.[8] American ginseng, taken for a period of four months, was shown to significantly reduce the number of colds subjects contracted, and in those subjects who caught a cold, ginseng reduced both the severity of symptoms and duration.[9] Ginseng also improves cognitive function, including memory, and supports healthy blood glucose levels.[10] Try 200 to 400 mg daily as a preventative tonic.[11]

Purportedly used by the Vikings to enhance strength and stamina, modern science has proven rhodiola to be an invaluable adaptogen. Research has found that rhodiola reduces the cortisol response to chronic stress,[12] in part by reducing cortisol production and enhancing stress-resistant proteins.[13] Rhodiola also reduces fatigue and can restore mental function during times of chronic stress.[14] [15] Try 100 to 400 mg daily.[16]





[4] Balch, Phyllis A., Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Avery, 2006; p.721

[5] Jain S, Shukla SD, Sharma K, Bhatnagar, M. “Neuroprotective effects of Withania somnifera Dunn. In hippocampal sub-regions of female albino rat.” Phytother Res. 2001 Sep;15(6)544-8.

[6] Vaclav V, Jana Vetvickova. “Immune enhancing effects of WB365, a novel combination of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Maitake (Grifola frondosa) extracts.” N Am J Sci. Jul 2011;3(7):320-324.


[8] Deepak R, Gitika B, Tuhinadri S, Gautam P. “Anti-stress Effects of Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng: a Comparative Study.” Journal of Pharmacological Sciences. Jan 2003;93(4)458-464.

[9] Predy GN, Goel V, Lovlin R, et. al. “Efficacy of an extract of North American ginseng containing poly-furanosyl-pyranosyl-saccharides for preventing upper respiratory tract infections: a randomized controlled trial.” CMAJ. 2005 Oct;173(9):1043-8.

[10] Reay, J. “Neurocognitive and gluco-regulatory effects of Panax ginseng.”


[12] Olsson EM, von Scheele B, Panossian AG. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta Med. 2009 Feb;75(2):105-12.

[13] Panossian A, Wikman G, Sarris J. Rosenroot (Rhodiola rosea): traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology and clinical efficacy. Phytomedicine. 2010 Jun;17(7):481-93.