What is a stressor?
We are exposed to stressors every day – chemical stressors like pesticides and food additives, emotional stressors like an overwhelming workload or an argument with a friend or family member, and microorganism stressors like a viral or bacterial infection, and all of these stressors can trigger the stress response in the body (1).
Most of the time this stress response goes unnoticed, but when we experience extreme, persistent, or long-lasting stressors that overwhelm us, the stress response can be harmful to body systems and we experience signs and symptoms of dysfunction that can lead to disease (1).
Symptoms of chronic stress:
· Muscle tension
· Digestive issues
· Sleep issues
· Substance abuse (food, alcohol, caffeine, drugs)
Stress that produces these symptoms, left unchecked, can increase the risk for health problems like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic (2).
Reducing stress levels
Learning to manage stress helps reduce the risk for health problems, and there are many steps we can take to manage our life stressors.
Reducing our exposure to chemical stressors like pesticides and food additives can be accomplished with an organic, whole food diet, reducing emotional stressors can be achieved with deep breathing, taking a walk outside, exercise, spending time laughing with friends, and journaling (3). Managing infection stressors like the common cold can be accomplished with things like rest, zinc, nasal saline irrigation, application of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil ointment, and probiotics like Lactobacillus casei, according to an article published in the American Family Physician journal, while more serious infections require the attention of a qualified health care provider (4).
Some herbs help to protect the body from physical, mental, and emotional stress as they strengthen the immune system, and these herbs are referred to as adaptogenic herbs (5).
Adaptogens have been referred to as medicinal substances, metabolic regulators, and agents that reduce the damaging effects of stressors (6).
Working at the molecular level, adaptogens regulate the balance of the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands (7).
Adaptogens are defined by what they are and do for us like being non-toxic, providing beneficial effects on body systems, increasing or decreasing the production of hormones when needed, and affecting the stress response, but they are not bound by a plant family or group of chemicals (8).
Adaptogens for stress reduction
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is considered a balancing and calming adaptogen able to reduce anxiety and nourish and strengthen nerves, adrenals, thyroid, and immune function as well as decrease inflammation (8).
This adaptogenic herb has also been used for stress relief and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (8).
Ashwagandha is available in capsule form, as an extract and tincture, and the powdered root can be brewed into a tea (5).
Ashwagandha is generally safe for consumption, but for those that struggle with plants of the nightshade family, like tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, ashwagandha should be used cautiously as it is a member of this nightshade family.
Holy basil or tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) is also a calming adaptogen that balances cortisol, the stress hormone, can improve digestion, decrease inflammation, and lower blood sugar levels (8).
Holy basil can improve immune health to help stave off viruses and other infections that can stress the body (8).
As a relaxing bitter herb, holy basil normalizes the stress response and can improve digestion by stimulating peristalsis (the wave-like motion that moves food through the digestive tract), and enzyme, saliva, bile, and stomach acid production (8).
Holy basil (tulsi) can be taken in capsule form, as a tincture or extract, as a powder used in cooking (just like any herb), or as tea. Holy basil is a member of the mint family and is said to have a “peppery” taste.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) is a calming adaptogen that can reduce anxiety and sharpen the senses while it also improves circulation, promotes wound healing, and improves the strength and flexibility of blood and lymph vessels (8).
Some research shows that Gotu kola increases mental function, which may be attributed to the improvement of circulation and strength and flexibility of small blood vessels in the brain (8).
Gotu kola has been used as an ointment for scars and wounds as well as a remedy for varicose veins attributed to a chemical called triterpenic fraction of Centella asiatica (TTFCA) that stimulates the production of collagen and elastin which are necessary for the internal lining and wall strength of the veins (9).
Gotu kola can be found in capsule, liquid extract, and powdered form as well as in an ointment for topical application. Generally well-tolerated, Gotu kola can cause upset stomach, headaches, and dizziness in some, and should not be taken when pregnant, breastfeeding, or with liver problems (8).
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is a stimulating adaptogen used to improve energy, focus, and enhances both attention span and memory as it helps the body produce cellular energy (adenosine triphosphate) and reduce fatigue caused by stress (5) (8).
Rosavin is an active compound found in Rhodiola found to improve intestinal damage as it modulates inflammation and oxidative stress in the body (10).
Two active compounds found in Rhodiola rosavin and salidroside have been found to exert anti-stress properties in animal studies (11).
Rhodiola has been found to significantly reduce anxiety in patients diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, and improvements were similar to those found with prescription medication but Rhodiola had no significant side effects associated (5).
Rhodiola consumption can increase levels of serotonin in the brain, which can improve mood and social function (5) (12).
Rhodiola can be taken as an extract, tincture, and in tea form. Although well-tolerated, Rhodiola can interact with some medication, and safety during pregnancy is not known so caution is advised in these situations (5).