One of the biggest contributors to many modern illnesses and chronic conditions is stress. Phytochemicals are substances that help the body to better handle and manage stress when it is encountered. These different components are able to help stabilize the body’s physiological processes and promote healthy homeostasis. By working with the body to regulate hormones and other aspects that directly relate to how a person handles stress, these substances are able to use the bodies own physiology to better manage how the stress is handled in the individual.1
What Is An Adaptogen?
Substances that fall under this category include a variety of herbal medicines that are used for the specific purpose of manipulating a person’s physiological processes in an effort to promote a healthy state of homeostasis. Many people within the medical and scientific community feel that there are not yet adequate studies done that conclusively demonstrate what these substances claim they can do. However, a large majority of those that are in the field of natural and herbal medicine feel that the results are clear.
The idea of phytochemicals came about in 1947 to help describe natural substances that helped resist stress. Russia applied some of these remedies in an effort to show they could produce resistance against certain organisms that led to biological stress. As a further definition to describe this process, it has also been said that it is a non-specific and nontoxic substance shown to have an effect on physiology and organisms within the body.
Up until the 1980s, the majority of studies performed using these substances were done in China, Russia, and Korea. Much of the scientific community has dismissed the majority of these studies as they say they have a number of flaws in the methodology. The FDA in the US submitted a warning in 2013 to a company located in Washington cautioning them not to make false claims about the ability of these substances and how they might be able to treat stress.
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Despite the reluctance of the medical community to embrace these substances and their effect on physiology, the majority of those within the herbal and natural medicine community feel that there is ample evidence to support the usefulness of these substances. Herbs and plants are as natural as the substances in them, and they are found growing naturally in many parts of the world.
They are generally considered safe and they are believed to have a balancing effect which helps the body to more effectively manage stressful situations. This means that they have an effect on balancing the body’s hormone system and its connection with the brain. Your brain and body’s hormones work together to stabilize and maximize your energy, mood, sex drive, and immune system. When your hormones get out of balance it can cause problems with your libido, create fatigue, and cause problems with your thyroid.
Each of these herbal substances are able to work independently with many of them working cohesively with others. Each one individually has their own benefits, and together with others, will have additional benefits for those taking them. The greatest ability is in balancing hormones, which promotes a physiological state that helps a body to better manage different types of stress.
The substances found in natural herbs and plants help modify the body’s stress response by having an impact on organisms that help the body have a resistance to stress, which in turn, helps those organisms improve their ability to adapt and better manage that stress. Some of the models currently used to explain the mechanism by which physiological adaptation takes place is considered insufficient. Using ideas such as the reductionist concept in pharmacology helps explain how a body’s biology works with these phytochemicals. These mediators work with the body’s own stress hormones to better regulate the state of homeostasis.2
They work with the body and its stress-protective activity in order to help improve its overall adaptability for managing the different types of stress that the body encounters. Some of the beneficial effects include reducing chronic inflammation, cognitive impairment, aging-related illness, and metabolic disorders. Currently, the best uses of these phytochemicals are related to cognitive function, fatigue induced by stress, behavioral disorders, and mental illness. Many within the herbal medicine community have found that the prophylactic use in healthy subjects can reduce stress and prevent some age-related diseases.
The word adaptogenic is not a word that is well known by those not interested or working in natural medicine. However, just because adaptogenic is a word that many do not know, does not mean that it is something that has not been used for a long time. This category of medicine falls outside of modern medicine and is another way of evaluating certain substances. These natural phytochemicals are related to the substances found in plants and herbs that reduce inflammation and pain as well as help regulate hormones and the body’s physiology.3
Some of these compounds have later been demonstrated as having too many negative effects to be useful. Substances extracted from the coca plant and poppy, while having a powerful effect on physiological and mental states as well as reducing pain, was found to be addictive in nature and has an overall negative effect. On the other hand, things such as ginseng, for its ability to help with increasing energy and mental clarity, as well as substances such as Spanish fly which for many, helps in improving a man’s ability to obtain an erection, are all samples of where these substances have had a positive effect.
Over the years the substances that are considered a useful phytochemical have expanded onwards, but nonetheless, a substance shouldn’t be put into this category unless there’s a good reason for doing so. Most would agree for example, that things such as sucrose and glucose, or even starch, would not be appropriate in this category. Sugar as an example has been something that some have categorized as a drug and was sold in drugstores for a long time. Overall, however, the substances that would be correctly put into this category would be reserved for powerful herbs and other compounds that have been demonstrated to have a significant impact on their ability to help organisms and physiology in order to increase its ability to adapt and better manage stress.
How Do These Herbal Compounds Work?
When considering the process of phytochemicals, it is important to realize that the body is only meant to handle stress in short bursts. When the body is subjected to chronic stress and fatigue over long periods of time, its general state lacks the ability to manage that stress well. In a state of stress, the body’s natural response is to release certain hormones that were designed to help human ancestors avoid danger.4
As useful as these hormones are for giving a person the ability to think and move quickly, they add damage to the body over a long period of time. When a person is in a constant state of stress the hormones and other physiological conditions that can be developed, can lead to various health problems such as low levels of energy, problems with the immune system, and problems with the body. Those substances that are considered to be phytochemical compounds help mitigate and manage the body’s natural stress response.
Adrenal fatigue, which is a common response to chronic stress, can be relieved through adaptogenesis. The effect the substances have on hormones and other bodily functions can actually help to manage stress that the person encounters. Substances such as Schisandra and Rhodiola Rosea have been found to decrease a variety of stress hormones and thereby reduce stress being felt. The way they work allows the body to return to a natural state after encountering the physical stress in activities such as exercise. It also helps to normalize the body when experiencing the effects of chronic stress.
Many in the herbal and natural medicine community have likened phytochemicals to a thermostat. They help regulate the body’s system so that its natural stress response is maintained at a desirable level. This works similar to a thermostat that helps maintain a room temperature from ever getting too high or too low. Taking these substances can even be good for you even when there are no high levels of stress.
The History Of The Adaptogenic Response
For well over half a century the idea that someone could take a pill or substance that could significantly impact their mental state or improve their physical performance has been investigated. Perfectly healthy soldiers were given a variety of stimulants during World War II to test the theory that this could be done. Reports of hunters in the Far East that would use certain types of berries and seeds to reduce their feelings of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and even help their night vision as they went on long hunting expeditions were examined.
Enough evidence came out of the different studies that had been conducted from several different countries during the war in the 1950s and 60s, that a number of herbal plants were used medicinally in order to help increase a person’s stamina and their ability to survive in harmful environments.5 It was from these uses and studies that the term adaptogen was developed. This new concept was used to introduce and describe compounds that could improve a state of nonspecific resistances and stress. This was based on the theory of adaptation syndrome, which revolves around three phases. The three phases include the alarm phase which is the initial onset, followed by the phase of resistance, and then the phase of exhaustion.
These phytochemicals have the ability to increase nonspecific resistance as well as decrease a person’s sensitivity to stress. This results in offering the person protection against the damage that long-term stress can cause, meaning that the final stage of exhaustion is avoided and a person ends up with higher homeostasis. The higher the person can achieve, the better their adaptation is to the existing stress. These effects have been demonstrated in both humans and animals.6
It was concluded by Brekhman and Dardimov that these substances increase the overall resistance against biological, chemical, physical, and psychological factors that helped normalize stress factors. This then led to the field developing into biomedicine research inside the former USSR, which was done in part because of their desire to map and screen biologically active substances. There was an enormous amount of research done that consisted of well over a thousand studies that continued from the 60s through the early 80s.
The main areas that are continuing to be studied today include biochemistry, photochemistry, the mechanisms of stress, and clinical pharmacology. These studies are trying to find if these substances are safe and if they can demonstrate a genuine efficacy of their ability to improve stress disorders in both animals and humans. Some of these studies have clearly demonstrated that some of they do have a measurable impact on protective mechanisms of the body’s cells. This has further been demonstrated to improve the rate of survival in vivo and in vitro.
How Are These Substances Defined?
These substances are typically defined as herbal extracts or phytochemicals that are used to improve endurance in the face of fatigue and that help in the reduction of impairments brought on by stress. The definition of these substances was formed through evidence provided by clinical trials which were performed using the U.S. Natural Standards Of Evidence and the European Medicine Agency Assessment Scale.7 In modern medicine, it is more common for one drug to be associated with one condition.
Within the area of phytochemicals, the one drug, one condition paradigm is not appropriate. As these are generally natural they will typically have a number of pharmacological indications and effects. For this reason, the effect of one can be combined into groups that are shown as able to stimulate protective effects against stress within the endocrine system, the nervous system, and the immune system.
Six Adaptogenic Herbs That Have Been Shown To Have Real Impact On Stress
In India, holy basil is considered a very strong supplement for anti-aging. Ayurvedic medicine has commonly used its benefits in the treatment of many conditions that include the common cold, skin diseases, fever, infections, and even as an antidote against scorpion stings and snake bites. To test its ability to help manage stress it has been studied in rats and mice to see if it can reduce measurable levels of stress.8
In human beings, some tests have been done in recent years that concluded that the use of holy basil was able to improve the rate of errors that they made as well as increase their reaction times. There are three phytochemicals found to impact the stress response. Ocimumosides A and B Are considered as compounds that are anti-stress and they are believed to lower other stress hormones in the body and improve the brain’s neurotransmitter system.
This is believed to raise endurance and improved levels of energy as well as helping improve the immune system. It also helps regulate cortisol which is a stress-related hormone. Because the use of licorice root can reduce levels of potassium as well as have an effect on blood pressure, you will usually want to take it in 12-week cycles. Like some other herb medicine, this has been found to better regulate cortisol which is a stress hormone.
Some of the unintended results of this can be that the person may avoid ulcers and even obesity. For women, it may reduce the production of testosterone. These improvements can ultimately improve levels of energy as well as mood and the functioning of the immune system. This can all play an intricate part in a person’s ability to manage stress better.
Of all the compounds studied, this is among the most known and considered by many to be the most powerful. Some of the factors that have been shown to improve include the ability to remain calm as well as improvement in memory even in young, healthy adults. A study done on animals concluded that it reduces the chance of developing ulcers and helped regulate blood sugar levels. It has also been found to help decrease triglycerides, improve the circulatory system, and reduce other stress-related hormones that the body often produces when a person or animal is under stress.
It was surprising to find that this herb doesn’t have any direct impact on cortisol but instead reduces other stress-related hormones which in turn lowers the negative effects of stress. One study on rats found that the rats work increased by over 130% while taking this type of ginseng. Additional studies in rats demonstrated that the animals were more highly motivated when taking this herb.
Not every study that was done on this ginseng found favorable results for every claim that has been made for it but there is enough evidence that makes it very promising in the areas of memory, stress relief and areas of concentration. While the scientific community waits for those test results to be run, many of those who take this herb continue to report significant improvement in their ability to focus and their general sense of well-being.
This root is often called Indian ginseng and it is used for stress tolerance and to control cortisol. Its ability to help improve a person’s response to stress is something that has been studied for many decades. The substance that is extracted from this root has been studied in rats where it was found to reduce the levels of bacteria-induced stress. The studies done also found that there was an indication that it reduces the chance of ulcers and even helps the rats maintain a healthy weight and improve their adrenal glands.
Taking this herb helps to manage their levels of cortisol as well as improve their stress resistance. Many of the studies show that this herb improves memory and cognition and overall brain health. It also reduces inflammation, neurodegenerative diseases, and even arthritis. The studies are not just those done in animals but many have shown successful results when studied in humans. These human studies tested those who were taking the herb to see if they could handle stress better and they reported that their quality of life improved.
These mushrooms have long been used in Japan for their delicious taste as well as the health benefits they are believed to bring. Under the definition of phytochemicals, these may not be considered a traditional adaptogenic compound. Even so, they have properties that meet the definition and these include the ability to enhance the immune system and reduce the formation of tumors. Even more importantly, is their ability to manage levels of cortisol and reduce oxidative stress.
Test done on male mice demonstrated that levels of testosterone and cortisol were slightly elevated which gave them added protection from physiological stress. Although that study showed a slight rise in cortisol levels in men, it was later demonstrated in another study that cortisol levels were maintained or reduced in men and women over time much more so than those who were taking a placebo.
This is an herb that has long been used in Chinese medicine for reducing stress levels and boosting the body’s immune system. Tests done on animals found that this herb helped to reduce stress hormones as well as inflammation. It also found that it allowed for the temporary increase of cortisol to give the body a chance to respond to stress. This herb would allow the body to receive a temporary increase in cortisol and then level off which created a positive result in the management of stress.
It is important to remember that whether it is pharmaceutical drugs or herbal medicine, that a certain level of caution should be taken. You should always consult with a healthcare professional that understands your situation and that can help you manage any conditions you have. Getting enough rest, eating right, staying positive, and keeping active are all important factors in managing stress