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December 6, 2019

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Does plant medicine play a role in combating stress?


Schisandra (1), ashwagandha (2), astragalus (3), licorice root (4), rhodiola rosea (5), maca root (6), cordyceps (7), chaga mushroom (8), ginseng (9), holy basil (10) are types of adaptogens.

Stress causes physical, emotional and mental responses within the body that can have far-reaching effects for many. While mild or occasional stress is perfectly normal and even healthy, chronic stress can lead to a litany of health problems. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress has been linked to depression, anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension and immune system disturbances, and can cause and exacerbate health conditions. Because of the associated risks, it’s important for everyone to find ways to properly manage life’s challenges. The basics of stress management are simple: sleep, exercise and eat a balanced diet. But in a fast-paced world where stressors are abundant, an increasing number of people are turning to plant medicine as well. Enter: adaptogens.

Ways to consume or use adaptogens

• Infusion: When parts of a plant are steeped in hot water for a short period of time and consumed.

• Decoction: Similar to infusion, parts of the plant are steeped. However, in this process, they are reduced into a more concentrated form.

• Syrup: Plant parts are added to sugar or honey water, to create a syrup—think lavender or rose syrup in gourmet lattes.

• Powder: Ground, dried plants. Many adaptogens are found in powder form.

What Are They?

The buzzword “adaptogen” generally refers to herbal and plant-based remedies intended to help combat the effects of stress and allow your body to better “adapt” to them. The term was coined by a Russian scientist in the mid-20th century, but many of the remedies used today have medicinal roots stretching back thousands of years, particularly common in Chinese herbalism and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.

How do they work?

Stressful situations prompt a biological response that is designed to keep us safe. For instance, if you’re hunting in the jungle and see a tiger ready to pounce, the ability to feel stress is invaluable—you want to have a “fight-or-flight” stress response if confronted with an apex predator. Physiologically, your brain is flooded with adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones to help you navigate the circumstance. While today’s human is more likely to face stressors in the form of office deadlines and rush-hour traffic, the basic stress response is the same.

Your adrenal glands, part of the endocrine system, are the main regulator of the “fight-or-flight” response, as they release adrenaline, cortisol and more. Oftentimes, the adrenal system is overworked as it compensates for chronic stress.

Most adaptogens are thought to balance and promote healthy adrenal function in order to limit the negative effects of stress, as well as support the endocrine system as a whole.

Though many commonly used adaptogens have long been recognized in Eastern medicine, there’s a limited amount of clinical research available on their efficacy. If you’re considering introducing adaptogens or other types of plant-based medicine into your lifestyle, be sure to consult with your primary care physician first, and do your own independent research.

Types of adaptogens

Did you know?

From bath salts, to face masks and lotions, adaptogens are now being introduced into skin care products. The thought process goes that if adaptogens help the body cope with stress when consumed, perhaps they can help soothe stressed-out skin.

While the list of adaptogens is long, some of the more common options are listed below.

1. Schisandra: Native to China and Russia, the schisandra berry contains multiple kinds of “schisandrins”—bioactive chemical compounds that may benefit many different health conditions. As a complete supplement, schisandra is said to help with exercise performance, endurance, depression and liver support. A 2017 Chinese study reported that Schisandrin B, found in schisandra berries, may help patients with Alzheimer’s disease as well.

2. Ashwagandha: One of the most well-researched and long-used adaptogens in the world, ashwagandha is an herb from the evergreen shrub, Withania somnifera, and is native to Africa, Asia and Southern Europe. It can be used in myriad ways and may help decrease anxiety, lower blood sugar levels, increase fertility in men, reduce inflammation and more.

3. Astragalus: Also known as Huang Qi or milkvetch, the root of a legume plant has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries and is found in soups, teas, extracts or capsules. Astragalus may help strengthen the immune system, support liver function and may even help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.

4. Licorice Root: While there are variations of licorice root, the one used more often as an adaptogen is found in Europe and Asia. The root can be used as an extract, tea, powder and more. In addition to being an adaptogen, licorice root may help soothe a sore throat, PMS and menopause symptoms and strengthen immunity.

5. Rhodiola Rosea: Nicknamed the Arctic or golden root, Rhodiola rosea is an herb that grows in high altitudes in Asia and Europe. The root has been used in traditional medicine in Russian, Scandinavian and other European cultures for centuries. It's often used to help fight fatigue, depression and anxiety, as well as improve attention span and increase productivity.

6. Maca Root: A plant native to Peru's Andes Mountains high plateaus, maca has been cultivated for thousands of years for its medicinal properties. Maca root may relieve menopause symptoms, balance hormone levels and increase energy.

7. Cordyceps: A parasitic fungus, cordyceps grow in the wild on caterpillars in China and Tibet, but many are cultivated in labs today. This adaptogenic mushroom has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, often to help cure respiratory dysfunction, support healthy energy levels and increase immune function.

8. Chaga Mushroom: A fungal parasite found on birch and other trees, Chaga has been used in Russia and European countries as a folk-medicine remedy, most often grated into a fine powder and brewed into a beverage similar to tea or coffee. Chaga may reduce blood-sugar levels, increase physical endurance, relieve irritable bowel syndrome and more.

9. Ginseng: Ginseng is a root that has been a staple in Chinese herbalism for thousands of years, and is said to treat many different ailments. It can be consumed in pill, powder or a topical cream, and may increase energy, lower cholesterol, improve cognitive function and increase sexual arousal in men.

10. Holy Basil: Native to India, the plant's leaves, stems and seeds have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years. When applied topically in a cream, holy basil is said to help with eczema. It may also help with enhancing metabolism, lowering blood-sugar levels, easing joint pain and more.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.