What is stress, exactly? Simply put, it is any change to our normal physiology that can be brought on by a stressor–anything from sudden, traumatic experiences to smaller, ongoing pressures that seem ncontrollable. Even joyous occasions are associated with a degree of stress.
The principal mediators of the stress response are the adrenal glands. In alarming situations, these cone-shaped glands located just above the kidneys release cortisol and adrenaline, preparing our bodies for a fight-or-flight reaction. Those hormones, in turn, produce the symptoms we typically associate with stress: racing pulse, anxiety, and even aggressive behaviour such as road rage.
Our response to stress is designed to be effective for a finite period of time. Prolonged stress can exhaust the adrenal glands’ ability to produce hormones appropriately, leading to adrenal fatigue, otherwise known as burnout.
Fortunately nature has provided us with a selection of botanicals whose main action is to strengthen our ability to cope with stress. The term adaptogen refers to any herb that increases the body’s resistance to emotional trauma, anxiety, and fatigue–in other words, to adapt. All adaptogens work, either directly or indirectly, by supporting the function of the adrenal glands.
The roots of Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) have a centuries-long history of use in Asian medicine. Siberian ginseng has been used to increase mental alertness, improve the quality of work generated under stressful conditions, and improve athletic performance.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), or Indian ginseng, is an adaptogen that has been used in Ayurvedic medicine since antiquity. Standardized extracts of the roots and leaves of this plant support adrenal function and reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for many stress-related illnesses. Ashwagandha may be particularly useful in promoting mental clarity and focus and for increasing resistance to fatigue.
With a mechanism of action that is distinct from the ginsengs, rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) affects neurotransmitters and endorphins. This is likely why rhodiola improves mood and promotes a general sense of well-being.
As a complement to traditional adaptogens, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) promotes relaxation and calms nerves. One small study, published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry (2003), concluded that lavender taken with the conventional antidepressant imipramine was more effective in treating mild to moderate depression than imipramine alone.
In the words of Dr. Hans Selye, founder of modern stress theory, “Stress is not necessarily bad for you; it is the spice of life. But…your system must be prepared to take it.” In addition to regular exercise and relaxation, supplementing with a combination of adaptogenic herbs is an effective way to prepare for the stress of modern life.
Signs of Adrenal Fatigue
The telltale symptoms of this common condition include:
- pronounced fatigue
- frequent light-headedness upon standing
- reactive hypoglycemia
- craving sweets or caffeine to boost energy