I did a lecture on being Wired and Tired downtown for an occupational nurse’s luncheon this past week. Everyone it seems, is feeling the pressure cooker these days. I went over the basic physiology of stress and how it affects us and our neuro-endocrine systems. I talked about the general adaptation syndrome- the 3 phases of stress- the alarm phase, the resistance phase and the exhaustion phase. I talked about the effects of high cortisol on the body and the consequences of the resistance phase which may lead to insulin resistance, high cholesterol and abdominal obesity amongst other things. I talked about the effects of high cortisol on the brain including hippocampal shrinkage and reduction in neurotransmitters resulting in anxiety and depression in some cases. I talked about the exhaustion phase when cortisol levels are low resulting in profound fatigue and poor tolerance and response to stress. But what can we do about this and how do we thrive despite stress?
Starting with nutrition, we need to cut out flour and sugar. That will help reduce inflammation. We want to fast twelve hours overnight to help regulate metabolism. The Mediterranean diet is the best bet to lower mortality all causes women (20%) and men (21%) and can reduce risk of cancer, heart disease and neuro-degenerative disorders. Eat ten servings of fruits and vegetables daily optimally. Limit whole grains to 2 servings daily and eat more non-starchy vegetables like the brassica family, dark leafy greens, asparagus, jicama, konjac root noodles, parsley, cilantro and other fresh spices. Consume ginger root and turmeric root to lower inflammation. Wild seafood think SMASH (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring) should be consumed 3x/week. Adaptogen teas can be consumed including holy basil or Tulsi tea to help normalize cortisol and reduce anxiety. For those with low blood pressure and in the exhaustive phase, I recommend licorice (traditional medicinals organic licorice root). Don’t take it if you have high blood pressure. Rooibos tea is a nutritive tea high in minerals which is supportive as is nettle tea.
In terms of the plant world, adaptogens are what we need to be taking for stress. Plants that are called adaptogens are plants that have grown up in inhospitable parts of the world- think Siberia or the Arctic. These plants survive these harsh environments by producing compounds that help them survive. These compounds can help us survive our stress better as well and harsh environments like living in a modern world with an economic recession. These plants help us modify our HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal axis) as well as modulate our hormones so we can function in balance as much as possible. When there is an adrenal dysfunction, there is usually a secondary thyroid dysfunction as well. I see the adrenals being in hyper-drive which causes the thyroid to put the brakes on- low thyroid function ensues. Animal studies show that plants like Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) can help stimulate the production of T4 and T3. This plant also helps with brain function (may help in acetylcholine pathways therefore helps us remember important things!). Ashwagandha helps inhibit angiogenesis by its suppression of vascular endothelial growth factor and NF- Kappa B; it may have some effect in cancer prevention and treatment as a result.
Adaptogens helps us respond better to stress, come into balance sooner after stress, sleep better, have a stronger immune response in the face of stress (especially with Ginseng- think Cold FX). These plants all seem to protect us from toxins, heavy metals, pesticides; help the liver and kidney to get rid of toxins. These plants help reduce the damaging effects of free radicals and support healthy aging. They are really an answer to support our free radical ravaged bodies in today’s modern world.
Rhodiola which is also called Arctic Root is a great adaptogen if you feel depressed in the face of stress. This plant seems to prevent the breakdown of neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephine keeping them active in the brain longer. This plant is considered a tonic which helps you work longer and have better concentration despite being in a high stress atmosphere. Using it short term may help you get through high pressure exams for instance. It has been shown to reduce headaches and sleep disturbances associated with stress. Studies suggest it may be an aid to stimulate fertility in women or bring on a cycle in women in the case of amenorrhea. This herb can help support healthy thyroid function. The great thing about this herb is it’s safety profile. It is well tolerated with a low chance of side effects.
Ginseng whether it be Panax, Siberian or American are adaptogens that have been used traditionally to help with aging and thus extend longevity. Ginseng inhibits the formation of advanced glycation end products, enhance insulin signalling and cellular glucose utilization. Ginseng cuts rate of acute illness by its immunomodulatory effects on the body. Studies show it enhances the overall activity of the immune system including the antibody response, natural killer cells, and activation as well as proliferation of phagocytes. It has antiinflammatory effects through it’s inhibitory action on COX-2 enzymes.
All of these adaptogens may play a role in supporting our best selves. In general, adaptogens are well tolerated with low risks of side effects. That being said, I do not advise taking adaptogens in pregnancy or breast feeding. They should not be dosed with liver or kidney disease. I would not take adaptogens with diabetes. Always consult with your medical doctor if you already taking conventional medications as they may need to be adjusted if you are on an adaptogen. Side effects may occur with any herb so if you experience a side effect after starting an herb, it is best recommended to stop taking the herb in that case. Don’t dose adaptogens if you are taking sedative herbs or antidepressant or antianxiety medications or herbs that affect the central nervous system as they may interact with your meds. Adaptogens teas as mentioned earlier in the article are a safe bet to start with. Until next time, be well and thrive despite your stress. To make an appointment with me or discuss your health care needs or adaptogens, phone 4032321283 (Parallel Wellness). Robin Vinge, Naturopathic Doctor
References: 1. Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism Donald R. Yance, CN, MH, RH (AHG)
2. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients- January 2004. Women’s Health Update Tori Hudson, ND. ‘Rhodiola Rosea An Overview of its Versatility, Effectiveness and Indications’.
3. Nutritional Management of Stress-Induced Dysfunction, Richard L. Shames, M.D. Applied Nutritional Publications Inc. 2002 Metagenics