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Stress vaccines

8 May 2023

Adaptogens enable the body to successfully adapt to numerous environmental factors

Adaptogens are nothing short of a secret weapon we can use to combat chronic stress. They are a group of plant-derived compounds that are known to increase attention and endurance when in a state of fatigue. They are also able to significantly reduce stress-induced impairments and disorders related to multiple systems, including the nervous, hormonal, cardiovascular and immune systems.

For more than 60 years, adaptogens have been studied and thoroughly investigated in relation to physiology, pharmacology, toxicology and potential uses in medicine and the management of stress-related health disorders.

Adaptogens are unique in the way that they enable the body to successfully adapt to numerous environmental factors – both external and internal – thereby preventing subsequent or potential damage. Simply put, they are master metabolic regulators.

Many of the more common adaptogenic plants have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for centuries, before the advent of modern-day stress, to promote physical and mental health, improve the body’s defence mechanisms, and enhance longevity. What’s remarkable about adaptogens is that the normal paradigm of a single medication for a single disease does not apply because adaptogens can have multiple, sometimes overlapping, pharmacological and biological effects. The reason is that they exhibit multi-target action and interact with a number of cellular receptors. Simply put, they interface with and influence many different types of cells. Of particular relevance in the successful management of chronic stress and the promotion of stress resilience is that adaptogens are able to strongly influence the body’s response to numerous neurochemicals and hormones, especially stress hormones, steroid hormones and even serotonin. According to a 2017 literature review published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences:

A characteristic feature of adaptogens is that they act as eustressors (i.e.,“good stressors”) and as mild stress mimetics or “stress vaccines” that induce stress-protective responses.

Within the body and broader cellular machinery, mild stress induced by adaptogens promotes a resistance or ‘immunity’ to more severe or protracted stress exposure. However, there is a drawback in that this resistance carries no memory function. This means that regular repeated exposure to adaptogenic compounds would be required in order to maintain a stress-resistant state. The best example of this model is physical exercise. Physical exercise is a form of mild, short-lived stress that is usually progressive in nature. Regular exposure increases resilience to the activity and over time enhances our capacities in that area – aerobic, strength, speed, flexibility. When we stop exercising, our ability to withstand the same physical stressors diminishes progressively over a relatively short period of time.

Like regular physical exercise, repeated administration of adaptogens and the subsequent stress-protective responses invariably leads to prolonged general resistance in multiple domains, specifically in mental and physical endurance. The role of adaptogens in moderating stress and promoting resilience is multifactorial and complex. Interestingly, adaptogens influence both the stress axis (HPA) and our cells. While adaptogenic plants are able to reduce cortisol and stress hormone responses to stressors, as well as enhance and expedite the normalisation of biological functioning following one of life’s many challenges, the primary value of adaptogens lies in their direct influence on our cells. Typically, stress triggers the formation of chemicals and proteins that promote cellular damage and suppress the production of energy in the cell. This reduced energy production in our cells is especially destructive because several proteins, such as Hsp70, rely on this valuable energy to perform ongoing cell repair and maintenance. The impact of this down-regulation may result in cell damage, abnormalities or even premature death. Additionally, stress can trigger intrinsic proteins that corrupt the cell’s responsiveness and interaction with cortisol. According to a 2010 review published in Pharmaceuticals, many of the commonly used adaptogens positively influence our cells’ relationship to cortisol, reduce free radical production, and are able to increase energy production as well as facilitate enhanced repair of damaged proteins. There are over 70 adaptogenic plants, some of which have been extensively researched. The more commonly used adaptogens include ashwagandha, Bacopa monnieri, Rhodiola rosea, Cordyceps sinensis, licorice, Schisandra chinensis, holy basil, Polygala tenuifolia, Rehmannia glutinosa, Asian ginseng, and the better-known Siberian ginseng.

Intriguingly, each adaptogen has completely unique characteristics, inducing an extensive range of biological effects, many of which are only now being uncovered. My pick are three very different adaptogens that have a broad diversity of effects. They are:

■ Rhodiola rosea

■ Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

■ Bacopa monnieri.

I will discuss the value of each of these herbs in promoting stress mastery in future posts. To find out how these and other adaptogens can help you, get a copy of The Stress Code (available at all world class book stores/platforms)

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