Fighting the Damaging Effects of Stress with Adaptogens
By the time we reach adulthood, I think it’s fair to say that most of us are pretty stressed out. Unfortunate but true! We tend not to notice as one thing piles up on another, including traffic, long lines at the grocery store, work deadlines, crying babies, and even some annoying occurrences that still jar your nervous system, like super loud music at clothing stores! Taken all together, these stressors quietly accumulate and begin to erode our healthy, beauty, energy and happiness.
Whether you deal with stress in your life is hardly even a question in our culture. The better question really is how you deal with it. Everyone has their own unique coping style – from completely ignoring the signs of accumulated stress, and repressing their turbulent emotions (NOT the way to go!), to taking them as an indication that it may be time to slow down, do some reorganizing, or develop a regular decompression strategy (and lots of stops between).
Over the years, there has been a good deal of research identifying the causal relationship that exists between stress and illness. For instance, the field of health psychology is dedicated to understanding the psychological factors that are associated with both health and illness.
Stress fits right in this category because it is literally defined as a person’s appraisal of circumstances as potentially challenging or threatening, combined with the effectiveness of their coping response.
Of course, everyone is different in this regard, and what constitutes “stress” to one may not be the same as another. It is important to understand that individual stress factors have a way of supporting and sustaining one another as well. Like a domino effect.
Here’s an illustration of how that might work: conflict at home or on the job can contribute to sleep disturbances, and disturbed or interrupted sleep can make you more sensitive and less agreeable than usual, exacerbating any existing tensions at work or at home.
There is a virtual mountain of evidence verifying the associations between prolonged stress and illness. Studies have shown that stress hormones have a proven adverse effect on the immune system, thus paving the way for illness and infection.
For example, increased blood levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine are related to decreases in lymphocytes in circulation. Lymphocytes are small white blood cells that assume the responsibility for our bodies’ immune responses. Some make antibodies that attack invading bacteria and toxins (B cells), while others actually attack body cells that have been taken over by viruses (T cells).
Are prescription drugs the only answer?
This question is one of the times in life we get to apply a black and white answer… NO! While it may be tempting to pop a pill to deal with stress, especially to safeguard against weakened immune, illness, and so on, I want you know that there are many highly effective natural ways to deal with stress. Sans pills and pharmaceuticals.
Beauty Detox is all about providing you with completely natural lifestyle choices to nourish, strengthen, beautify and fortify your body. I am dedicated to showcasing the most natural and wholesome ways for you to discover your ultimate health and beauty potential and live a life that is long and disease-free.
Besides meditation, yoga, the Glowing Green Smoothie packed with stress-reducing greens and everything else we talk about here on the blog and in the books, let me also launch into what I think can REALLY help you with your stress…
Introducing: Adaptogens… ☺
By definition, adaptogens are plants and herbs that help to increase your resistance to stress, anxiety and fatigue.
These have been used for centuries in ancient wisdom traditions like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, which are anchored in the belief that life should flow effortlessly, allowing each one of us to reach our true potential for health, productivity and creativity without all the struggle.
All true adaptogens have 3 characteristics in common:
They are considered non-toxic to the body, which means they can be safely taken for longer periods of time – even incorporated into your daily nutrition regimen.
They produce a nonspecific biological response that can improve the body’s ability to resist multiple forms of stress, from physical, chemical or biological stressors.
They have a normalizing influence, helping to bring your body back into balance in response to exposure to any form of stress.
Sure, there are times when drugs save lives, but I believe it is always best to look to nature first to help with anything that causes physical difficulty or ailment. In modern day western culture, we are so conditioned to simply run to the pharmacy with any problems or challenges we are faced with, instead of first exploring natural solutions.
But think about it for a second – in many other cultures, both ancient and present day, access to modern pharmacology would be impossible, yet simple things like stress are not credited with wiping out those civilizations. Interesting…
Here are 6 adaptogens to get you started:
When I used to live in NYC I walked to Chinatown almost every week to pick up durian (a yummy fatty fruit) and coconuts. I would always marvel at the markets stocked with open bins filled with various kinds of ginseng. But what it is exactly?
Ginseng is a tonic herb used to rejuvenate and invigorate the body. In general, ginseng is any of eleven different varieties of short, slow growing perennial plants with fleshy roots. Ginseng is believed to restore and enhance normal well-being and has become one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world today.
It consists of a light-colored, forked-shaped root that is coarse and knobby like ginger. It has a relatively long, slender stalk, and green leaves with a delicate oval shape similar in appearance to basil or mint.
It is most commonly used as a tonic for the spleen, kidney and adrenal functions, lungs, and as a general restorative for vital energy in the body and mind. The active ingredients in Ginseng root are saponin triterpenoid glycosides, or chemicals commonly called ginsenosides.
Long prized in the alternative medical community, ginseng is known for its energy boosting effects on the body. In fact, in a trial led by the Mayo Clinic, high doses of American ginseng were found to reduce cancer related fatigue in patients when given over the course of only two months. (I love when formal research is conducted on natural plants!).
Patients reported significant improvement in general exhaustion — feelings of being “pooped,” “worn out,” “fatigued,” “sluggish,” “run-down” or “tired” — compared to a placebo group.
Lab experiments have demonstrated the immunological effects of ginseng, and research has shown that this traditional Asian herb does have notable anti-inflammatory effects. The anti-inflammatory role of ginseng is thought to be due to the combined effects of ginsenosides (the active components of ginseng) targeting different levels of immunological activity.
Ginseng has been proven to have preventive effects on certain strains of influenza, a disease that still kills thousands annually. According to an article published by Georgia State University red ginseng extract was found to improve the survival of human lung epithelial cells infected with influenza virus.
Also, treatment with red ginseng extract reduced the expression of genes that cause inflammation. Mice that were orally administered red ginseng extract had lower viral levels even after they had been infected, showing red ginseng to be a true, natural antiviral.
As with many of our adaptogens, the flavor is something that you may have to get used to. People initially pick up the bitter notes when they first try it, but it is also a bit sweet and earthy all at the same time. It’s all about how you combine it/eat it! Give this adaptogen (ginseng), a go, in my Tropical Ginseng Smoothie!
While some people in Asia like keeping a bit of it in the mouth to enjoy all day, you might like adding ginseng to soups and teas bring out its anise-like flavor profile. Try ginseng tea if you are a beginner!
Maca is actually a plant from the broccoli family. ‘Maca root’ refers to the root of the plant, which resembles a cross between a turnip and a big radish. Maca is divided into categories based on the color of the root, which can be red, black, pink or yellow.
This adaptogen is an aphrodisiac that has been used all over the world and affects both genders. It’s believed to help balance hormones and boost adrenal and thyroid function. Maca also appears to be a potent suppressor of prostate hypertrophy.
Maca can help protect the brain from damage, improve bone health, and even improve cognitive ability in healthy people.
It is also prized as a great stress manager and is a true nutritional powerhouse – a new superfood for your arsenal! Using maca daily is believed to be a great way to have your body adapt to stress by counteracting the negative effects of tension and anxiety. Sounds like something we all need, right?!
The different colors all having different effects on the body as well as different tastes. In order of sweetness, maca goes: red, yellow, black. It really tends to have a very strong earthy taste, which can be unpleasant to some. (Not to me, it sort of reminds me of a cross between raw cacao and carob.)
Native to Peru, there are stories of its use from when the Spanish invaded South America; the Spaniards and their livestock was having great difficulty adapting to the stress of high-altitude life, and thus were chronically sick, tired, and weak.
It is said that the indigenous peoples showed the Spaniards the plant, and shortly afterwards, the Spaniards and their livestock were much healthier with less fatigue. As I see it , there are three things to take from this: less fatigue= yay! Secondly, and off topic- maybe the indigenous people should have kept that info to themselves, considering how they ended up being treated! And thirdly, lifestock and all animals need love, and de-stressing help too. :)
Tulsi, also known as holy basil, has earned its classification as an adaptogen because of its proven ability to reduce our natural sensitivity to stress.
Widely considered to be one of the most useful adaptogens, tulsi has been found to reduce cortisol levels in the body, creating a soothing, calming effect on the nerves, fighting damaging free radicals in the body, and improving overall blood flow.
That’s why I personally think warm tulsi tea can be a great sleep aid, especially when enjoyed in the late afternoon or evenings. I love it. Sometimes, I make a pitcher of it as an iced tea variation to enjoy with some fresh lemon. It’s pretty tasty. I also use it in my Blueberry Tulsi Smoothie Recipe.
Reishi is a Chinese herbal mushroom, also known as the “mushroom of immortality.” There are six different types of reishi mushrooms all classified by color, but herbalists generally consider red reishi the most potent medicinal variety.
When reishi is taken regularly, it can help restore the body to its natural state, enabling all organs to function normally, help alleviate common allergies by inhibiting histamine release, improve oxygen utilization and improve liver functions.
Red Reishi is also used to help treat anxiety, high blood pressure, hepatitis, bronchitis, insomnia, and asthma. It’s primarily composed of complex carbohydrates called water-soluble polysaccharides, triterpeniods, proteins and amino acids.
These mushrooms are normally not used in cooking because they are rather bitter and have a tougher texture. In fact, reishi are not only unpleasantly bitter due to their high levels of triterpenes, they are actually more than 90% indigestible fiber.
Because polysaccharides are water soluble, you are more apt to enjoy this adaptogen in tea form with a bit of lemon, honey or ginger, or as a powder added to your soup or stew. If you find the taste too off-putting, try looking for the powder offered in capsule form at your favorite health food store.
Mesquite is another beauty-boosting adaptogen. Mesquite is dense in fiber, proteins, minerals and the amino acid lysine (essential for healthy growth), which produces collagen and antibodies, while aiding in the production of carnitine, converting fatty acids into energy and helping to keep cholesterol in check. Collagen helps our skin stay youthful and retain its elasticity.
Mesquite has this sweet, somewhat nutty flavor, and in powder form, it is wonderful for use in baking, or as a seasoning on food and in drinks. The flour is ground from the seed pods of the mesquite plant, also known as algorroba, a leguminous plant found in arid areas around the world.
In desert areas of the Americas, mesquite seed pods have long been used as a food source by the indigenous peoples.
Today, mesquite powder is proving to be a versatile food with a high nutritional and flavor value. Its malty caramel flavor is both decadent and low glycemic, aiding in sugar metabolism.
An important herb my Ayurvedic teacher Dr. Jay talks about often, Ashwagandha or winter cherry, can be loosely translated to mean “the strength of ten horses,” and is known to be a powerful rejuvenative without being a ‘stimulant.’This means that you will experience renewed vigor and enhanced energy without the crash that is characteristic of ordinary stimulants like caffeine. It naturally regulates cortisol levels to limit the high levels of stress that we know can have such a deleterious effect on health, beauty and happiness.
As we know, stress, environmental toxins, and poor nutrition take their toll on the nervous system. Scientific studies support ashwagandha’s ability not only to relieve stress, but also to protect brain cells against the effects of our fast-paced lifestyle.
Stress can cause increased peroxidation of lipids, while decreasing levels of the antioxidant enzymes catalase and glutathione peroxidase. When ashwagandha extract was administered by researchers along with lipopolysaccharide, peroxidation did not occur, effectively preventing free radical damage.
Ashwagandha has powerful antioxidant properties that seek and destroy the free radicals that have been implicated in aging and numerous disease states. Even more remarkable, emerging evidence suggests that ashwagandha has anti-cancer benefits as well.
Ashwagandha is loaded with powerful natural chemicals, including withanolides (steroidal lactones), alkaloids, choline, fatty acids, amino acids and healthy natural sugars, making it a good blood sugar stabilizer.
Although the entire plant has valuable therapeutic attributes, most western uses for it as an adaptogen focus around the root.
At first glance, it is easy to mistake ashwagandha for goji berry, as they have a similar outer husk, and they are related. They are both plants with potent alkaloid properties, so they fall in with nightshades for their therapeutic attributes. Need some inspiration on how to use this plant. Give my Strawberry Banana Ashwaganha Smoothie a try.
Remember, according to the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda, our bodies are quite literally woven from the foods that we eat and digest.
The nutrients which we ingest are lovingly provided for us by nature to be metabolized into the energy and information that form our cells, tissues and organs.
Every day we should do our best to give our bodies the essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs to achieve its highest potential and allow your unique contribution of creativity, energy and love to shine through that you and only you alone can express. Here is another adaptogen packed smoothie to try, my Goji Chia Seed Smoothie.
Progress not perfection! We don’t have to be perfect all the time, but we should do our best to nourish ourselves with great beauty food choices.