Stress Response and Adaptogenic Herbs
STRESS and 4 herbs to hack yours!
May 20, 2015
By Sandra Miller L.W.M.C
Certified Nutritional Therapist
How many people can say today that they live a life free of stress? Running from errand to errand, sitting in traffic, raising children, getting married, college, changing jobs and even getting older.
All of these things can cause us to feel more than a bit overwhelmed. Even though some stress is necessary to produce the hormones we need to survive, it can also have serious effects on your health. An over abundance of stress affects your ability sleep well, maintain a healthy weight, recover from illness and even lead to a cascade of inflammation and disease. Stress has been known to disrupt your hormones and accelerate the aging process. Let’s take a look at the phases of stress and some ways that botanicals can help us moderate the stress response.
The Three Phases of Stress
Stress like grief, has phases. There are three to be exact. The first two are acute and short lived. The third is chronic and persisting.
- Acute, mild response, not- recurring: This is when we have stress for a short time, but it does not affect you after it is over. A good example would be sitting in traffic. It does not affect you long term. You need to find a way to wind down , but you do recover and return to normal functioning after the event.
- Acute, recurring and poor recovery: In the second phase, your stress is recurring, and you may take longer to recover. A good example would be like sitting in traffic every day but also perhaps having a job you dislike. Your sleep can become affected, and you may be feeling a bit of anxiety you just cannot seem to shake. Sleep does not come easy and coffee is an absolute must have throughout the day to keep up energy from that loss of sleep.
- Chronic, prominent symptoms and poor recovery According to Dr. Tori Hudson, N.D. “by the time you reach this stage, your stress has become chronic. Your symptoms are prominent, and it takes you a long time to recover because your adrenal glands are most likely exhausted. You may also have unusual sleep patterns, sleep apnea, and excessive fatigue. Chronic stress can also impair your short-term memory. Since chronic stress can lead to serious diseases – including heart disease and depression, it is best that you consult your healthcare practitioner on methods of coping if you are constantly feeling overwhelmed and debilitated by it. However, everyone suffers from acute stress (both phase 1 and phase 2) now and again.”
The allopathic medical community recognizes stress as a health concern, but does not properly test for dys-regulation of cortisol, nor does it treat adrenal symptoms. Unfortunately all you get is more drug therapies. They do not hold your answer. Diet holds many keys to unlocking anxiety causes.
Determining Cortisol Levels
If you can relate to phases two or three, you can ask your doctor for lab tests to evaluate your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Serum blood cholesterol testing is a good start but the best way to determine issues with the adrenals is to do a saliva test. http://www.zrtlabs.com With this test you would spit into a few tubes and send it off to the lab. The name of this test is salivary cortisol testing. This measures cortisol throughout the day since you spit into the tubes several times a day. This method is much more accurate at determining what is going on with cortisol. It must be interpreted by a trained physician.
Cortisol should be higher in the morning and gradually lower as night falls. When cortisol is low at night, we can sleep well. If cortisol elevates at night, we then find ourselves waking up throughout the night leading to sleep that is not restorative. Cortisol can plummet in the morning which is opposite of what should happen causing us to be fatigued during the day. Most of us reach for sweets and coffee. Dr. Sara Gottfried outlines her protocol for adrenal issues in her book “The Hormone Cure” available here:
Here are the top 4 herbs to hack your stress. These are the top picks of doctors who use these therapies with their patients. Dr. Tori Hudson, N.D. shares some of her favorites here and according to Dr. Hudson “For phase 1, ashwagandha and Rhodiola are good choices. For phase 2, consider these two herbs plus passionflower and holy basil. ”
There are several other herbs to be considered adaptogens like schizandra, maca and the ginsengs. Let’s dive in!
1) Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) *
Ashwagandha is part of a group called adaptogens which means it can help the body to adapt to stress and so are appropriately nicknamed. If cortisol is too high, it can help to lower it. If it is too low, it has been shown to lower it. These herbs appear to adapt to the body’s need for cortisol release or, in some cases, to withhold it’s release. “* For example, it decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol; maintained pulse, blood pressure, and blood sugar already within normal limits, and improved markers of liver and heart health” as Dr. Hudson states.
According to research done by www.greenmedinfo.org, it is clear that Ashwagandha has been in clinical trials with positive outcomes for everything from lowering blood sugar, attenuating withdrawal-induced anxiety due to chronic ethanol consumption. Even chemo -protective properties against skin cancers have been noted! You can access all of these studies here: Ashwagandha | GreenMedInfo | Substance | Natural Medicine
My go-to resource for herbs such as this is Gaia brand. From the way these herbs are grown in their extraction method, this company does herbs like no one else. Gaia has complete traceability meaning you can research each bottle you purchase back to the day it was grown or “seed to shelf” as they call it.
Get Gaia and all your supplements at 15% off everyday when you sign up at http://www.emersonecologics.com and you provide my SPECIAL CODE BHWEL5 and the zip 33837.
Dosing this herb:
“Ashwagandha is recommended in the following dosages”:
• 3 to 6 grams of the dried root per day
• 6 to 15 ml of a 1:2 fluid extract per day
• 300 to 500 mg of an extract standardized to contain 1.5% withanolides per day.”
2) Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea) *
Rhodiola is another adaptogen that can help your body adapt to occasional stress.* Rhodiola has substantial research for enhancing immunity, increasing the capacity for exercise, enhancing memory and weight reduction. Read more here: http://Rhodiola Benefits & Information (Rhodiola Rosea)
As described by Gaia Herbs (R) ” The fragrant Rhodiola Rosea root, also known as roseroot, has been used throughout history in Iceland, Sweden, France, Russia, and Greece. Popular with the Vikings to enhance mental and physical endurance, this revered adaptogen was included in the first Swedish Pharmacopeia. It has been used to elevate mood, counter stress-induced fatigue and increase mental performance, according to studies.”
Recommendations from Dr. Hudson’s article for Rhodiola
“Rhodiola is recommended in the following dosages:
To support a positive mood: 170 mg or 340 mg twice per day for six weeks
To energize: 200 mg three times per day
To promote healthy sleep: 600 mg per day.”
Gaia products are standardized to 12 mg of rosavins which is the active constituent in this particular herb. I share the research on adaptogens with my clients who express needing this kind of support so they can feel good about the science behind some of these well studied herbs. If you are interested to try rhodiola you can get the professional grade herbs with my link. Supplements are such an important part of being optimal! If you read My Story on the start here section, you will see my improvements and I accredit part of my recovery from adrenal fatigue to the use of adaptogenic herbs. I still use them when I feel off my game.
3) Passionflower (passiflora incarnate) *
It seems Native American healers and 19th-century herbalists traditionally used passionflower to help induce restful sleep. According to herbalists, Passionflower even shows safety for children. Of course, you would always check with your pediatrician prior to giving any herbal remedy to a child. You can find many other uses for this extract here:
Passion Flower Delightful Benefits | Native American Herbalism
Research in Pub Med suggest that” Passiflora extract is an effective drug for the management of generalized anxiety disorder, and the low incidence of impairment of job performance with Passiflora extract compared to oxazepam is an advantage.” It works so well that they claim “A large-scale trial is justified.”*
Passionflower has the following dosage recommendation by Dr. Hudson:
• Dried herb: 2 grams, three to four times per day
• Infusion: 2 grams in 150 ml of water, three to four times per day
• Fluid extract, 1:1 or 1:2 (g/ml): 2 ml, three to four times per day
• Liquid Phyto-Cap form (Gaia): Two capsules, three to four times per day
• Tincture 1:5 (g/ml) extract, three to four times per day
4) Holy Basil (ocimum tenuiflorum) *
The botanical name is Ocimum Tenuiflorum or Sanctum, or Album. This herb is considered “sacred” by Hindus and Holy Basil has even planted around Hindu temples. Another name it has been given is Tulsi which means “the incomparable one”. It is used heavily in Ayurvedic medicine for supporting stress responses. Holy Basil should not be confused with the Basil used for cooking. According to one study from Pub Med, the results indicated ” a significant decrease in fasting and postprandial blood glucose levels during treatment with holy basil leaves compared to during treatment with placebo leaves.*
Since stress modulates the blood sugar response, we can easily see the benefits that herbs with these properties can have. It appears to have an effect on not only “corticosterone (a hormone involved in stress response),but also in creatine kinase (a marker of heart health.)”
Holy Basil dosages used by Dr. Hudson:
300 to 600 mg per day in divided doses (does not need to be taken with food)
Other Elements Affecting the Stress Response
Our bodies respond to stress by activating the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis (HPA axis). This activation allows for the release of stress hormones. Adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate, and norepinephrine raises blood pressure, metabolism, and respiration rate. The body shuts down what it considers to be “non-essential functions” like digestion and delivering blood to our muscles. Can you see why even your everyday stressors can have so many deleterious effects on your health?
It is now proven that sitting down while eating especially with others benefits our digestion. this is because it stimulates the parasympathetic (rest and digest ) mode of the body. Also of benefit is the practice of saying grace or expressing gratitude for our food. These things can activate the calming, parasympathetic response and aid in digestion of food. Calming practices like Yoga, Qigong, practicing mindfulness, Heartmath™ and meditation can calm the sympathetic response in favor of a parasympathetic response. The parasympathetic is stimulatory to the stomach, increases the gastric secretion and motility while the sympathetic is inhibitory, decreasing the gastric secretions and motility. Its no surprise then that our digestion is affected by stress.
The way that we perceive stress is also crucial to how we will respond to it. By considering adaptogens in combination with some of the above calming strategies we can head off acute stress and manage some of our daily stressors. In the end, this leads to a happier healthier and more productive life.
More on Heartmath how the app works here:
How Heart Math Works
Reference Materials courtesy of Pub Med.
*Rhodiola Rosea therapy for major depressive disorder: a study protocol for a randomized, double-blind, placebo- controlled trial. – PubMed – NCBI
*Passionflower in the treatment of generalized anxiety: a pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial with oxazepam. – PubMed – NCBI
* Randomized placebo-controlled, single blind trial of holy basil leaves in patients with noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. – PubMed – NCBI
*You should assume that if you purchase an item through my website that I am an affiliate. These are products that I use or are used in functional medicine. This allows me to keep the lights on and provide you with great content.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to treat or diagnose any medical condition and should not be taken for medical advice. Consulting with one’s physician prior to taking any herbal supplement is strongly encouraged.