Undress Your Stress
Shield yourself with adaptogenic herbs

By Mindy Green

Like fashion trends or diet crazes, herbs enjoy cycles of renewed interest. In today's stressful times, one class of botanicals in particular is basking in the spotlight: adaptogenic herbs, natural aids to help us cope with stress.

With their ability to fortify and balance bodily systems, herbal adaptogens are a compelling choice that can ease challenges both ordinary and extraordinary. Stress is the greatest contributing factor to chronic degenerative disease; consequently, the best defense is a healthy body with resilient strength. These gentle, effective herbs work by boosting coping mechanisms, better allowing you to deal with physical, emotional and mental stress.

Support Your Self
Adaptogens—a term coined in 1947 by the Russian scientist Nicolai Lazarev, MD, and extensively researched, starting in the 1950s, by his protégé Israel Brekhman, MD—are plant substances that normalize body processes and improve overall health by supporting the body's systems. By balancing secretions of cortisol and other hormones of the adrenal cortex, these multipurpose agents modify a wide range of fight-or-flight responses, proving especially helpful in shielding the body from the impacts of stress. Effective for a variety of conditions and suitable for all body types, adaptogens not only defuse the effects of emotional stress but also help the body recover from physical stress such as heavy manual labor, running a marathon, lack of sleep, surgical recovery, even high-altitude sickness.

Common Signs Of Stress:
Tense shoulder muscles
Back pain
Sweaty palms
Heart palpitations
Desire to "run away"
Insomnia or sleeping too much
Stomach upset, diarrhea, constipation
Teeth grinding
Lack of or excessive appetite
Skin rashes
Loss of sexual interest
Reduced productivity You're probably familiar with what herbalists now call "first-generation" adaptogens: Panax ginseng, American ginseng and Siberian ginseng. But continuing research into herbs' healing properties has yielded some less-common adaptogenic favorites. Currently, the following adaptogenic herbs garner significant praise from herbalists. All come in different forms; since products vary, follow dosage instructions for best results, and consult your health care practitioner for any persistent problems.

Gynostemma (Gynostemma pentaphyllum). "This is a very up-and-coming adaptogen," says David Winston of Herbalist and Alchemist Inc. in Washington, N.J. Known in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as jiaogulan, this member of the cucumber family was used for centuries in China as a folk remedy. "It contains a lot of chemicals that are very similar, if not identical, to those found in ginseng," says Winston, "but it seems to be not as stimulating as ginseng—which is sometimes used inappropriately by people who really don't need extra stimulus." Scientific research on gynostemma began in earnest in the mid-1970s, with recent results showing that the herb exhibits antioxidant activity, improves cardiovascular function, normalizes cholesterol levels, enhances strength and physical endurance, helps improve immune response, and inhibits tumor growth (Chong Cao Yao, 1992, vol. 23, no. 3; Journal of Guiyang Medical College, 1993, vol. 18, no. 3). "What all this means," says Winston, "is that long term, gynostemma is going to reduce the stress response by normalizing all these systems. That's what adaptogens do: Rather than stimulate or sedate, they regulate body systems, helping them to function more appropriately." Gynostemma is commonly available both as a tea and in extract form.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus). Winston also lists chaga as one of his favorite adaptogenic herbs. "I recommend this herb and take it myself," he says. "It contains betulinic acid, one of the components that contribute to its antiviral properties," thus helping reduce the body's susceptibility to viruses—a condition that's often increased by stress. A fungus, chaga grows on deciduous trees (especially birch) in northern polar regions. Though relatively unknown in the United States, it has been studied since the 1970s and is used in Scandinavia as an anticancer herb. It is also an effective remedy against the flu virus, which can place considerable strain on bodily systems. Brewed as a tea, chaga tastes like coffee; it can also be taken as a tincture.

Gingko, garlic and ginger are well-known herbs that can also support your health during stressful times. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), also known as rose root, gold root or stonecrop (Sedum rosea). Research in Russia indicates that rhodiola, like other adaptogens, exhibits a wide spectrum of healing properties: reducing stress and fatigue; improving memory; and enhancing concentration, physical fitness, and overall well-being (Phytomedicine, 2000, vol. 7, no. 2). "Rhodiola is a little bit unusual," says Winston. "Most adaptogens are warming in nature; rhodiola is considered one of the few that is a cooling adaptogen, especially good for people who are fragile and easily overstimulated." Studies show that rhodiola regulates and prevents damage to the heart by improving circulation and increasing oxygen utilization—in other words, helping the heart do better with less. "It's great for people who get easily upset and who experience stress-related heart symptoms, like palpitations," says Winston. "It's also useful for menopausal women, who are often overheated." Like all adaptogens, rhodiola stimulates the immune system, enabling the body's own defenses to ward off the effects of stress (Herba Polonica, 1999, vol. 45, no. 2). It is primarily available as capsules or tinctures.

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum). Also known as tulsi, holy basil—a different species of our familiar culinary herb Ocimum basilicum—is gaining attention for a variety of health benefits. A highly effective adaptogen, holy basil has been shown in animal studies to be protective for the liver, heart, lungs, and stomach, modulating immune response while increasing resistance against stress-induced biological changes, plus enhancing physical endurance (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 1990, vol. 28, no. 2; Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1981, vol. 73). Already well known in Ayurvedic medicine as a smooth-muscle relaxant and sedative, holy basil (like regular basil) contributes to healthy digestion through its gas-relieving properties. In animal studies, holy basil also appears to be effective against gastrointestinal ulcers, without the unpleasant side effects (cardiac arrhythmia, impotence) of currently prescribed antiulcer drugs. Researchers believe that holy basil's healing mechanism stems from its ability to increase gastric mucosal strength (Quarterly Review of Natural Medicine, 1997). Water and alcohol extracts are both effective, so tea or tincture can be taken with equal benefit.

Body In Balance
The rigors of coping in today's world can be overwhelming. Rather than accepting stress as inevitable, adaptogenic herbs allow you to take an active step in helping your body help itself. With body systems that are balanced and harmonized, you have a better chance of facing and adapting to today's extraordinary challenges, both great and small.

Mindy Green is director of education at the Herb Research Foundation and a faculty member of the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies.