The stress-balancing action of adaptogens
We’ve all been there at least once. Whether it be a list of deadlines, a high-stakes presentation the next day, early morning travel, or a crying infant keeping you awake all night, we’ve all had to pour that morning coffee, push through those frazzled nerves, and hope for the best as we face another challenging day. But what if there was an elixir, in pill or other form, that actually helped restore our body to balance, bringing us down from the ledge of distress – something that actually would help us de-stress?
Well, that something that we are looking for actually might exist, and comes in the form of substances known as adaptogens. Aptly named, adaptogens are substances that help the body adapt to stressors, be they physical, mental, or other challenges of endurance. Adaptogens have been observed to act on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and exert regulating action on other key mediators of the stress response such as heat shock proteins., Heat shock proteins help to repair the damage to the proteins in our body which can occur with physical, mental, or emotional stressors.
Adaptogens are often considered rejuvenators or tonics but also can act as brain tonics – also known as nootropics – and regarded for their memory and cognitive-enhancing effects. Within this category we have the botanicals ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), the ginsengs (Eleutherococcus senticosus and Panax quinquefolius to name a couple), magnolia (Magnolia officinalis), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) as well as many others. Other nutritional substances such as phosphatidylserine also can have an adaptogenic effect, affecting the cortisol response and physical or emotional changes that occur with stress.,,
Ashwagandha – a revered Ayurvedic tonic
Ashwagandha has been studied in many animal models as well as clinical trials, with the majority of this research investigating the body’s response to a variety of stressors. In animal studies, ashwagandha has been shown to reduce the oxidative stress associated with dehydration, prevent stress-induced gastric ulcers, and protect the brain from oxidative stress. Sleep-deprivation studies have shown ashwagandha reduces the effects of sleep loss on cognitive function as well as the anxiety, inflammation, and cellular death normally caused by lack of sleep., However, at the same time, the Latin name somnifera reflects the ability of this herb to induce sleep, which is in part mediated by its effects on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain.
Clinical studies also reflect the stress-mediating effects of ashwagandha, as well as the potential benefits it may have on both the brain and the body. In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial (DBRPCT) of adults experiencing chronic stress, treatment with ashwagandha was found to significantly reduce perceived stress, decrease food cravings, and improve happiness, while simultaneously reducing the physiological markers of body weight and cortisol levels. The body’s response to exercise, which also is a stressor on the body and a source of oxidative stress, also has been observed to improve with treatment with ashwagandha, with a DBRPCT showing significantly greater increases in muscle strength and mass as well as a reduction of exercise-induced muscle damage.
In adults experiencing chronic stress, treatment with ashwagandha was found to significantly reduce perceived stress, decrease food cravings, and improve happiness, while simultaneously reducing the physiological markers of body weight and cortisol levels.
Stress, of course, also can have an impact on mental health, and another DBRPCT has shown that ashwagandha has a significant effect of reducing the severity of obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms when combined with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) . Another study has shown the neuroprotective effects of ashwagandha extend to individuals with mild cognitive impairments, with significant improvements in immediate and general memory in this population. Even sexual function, which often is adversely impacted by stress, has been observed to be improved with ashwagandha supplementation in a study in females ranging from 21 to 50 years of age.
Phosphatidylserine – the stress-buffering fatty acid
Botanicals aren’t the only substances which can have a balancing effect on the HPA axis and the body’s response to stress. Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a phospholipid found in the body’s cellular membranes, including that of the mitochondria, the energy-generating units in the cells, the neurons of our brain, and the myelin which serves to protect them both centrally and peripherally. As such, PS has been shown to support cognitive function and memory, as well as our motor reactions and reflexes.
In human studies, PS has been shown to counteract the HPA axis response to the physical stress of exercise, reducing the typical rise in cortisol and the cortisol promoting hormone adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) after a short period of supplementation. In a study done on males under chronic stress, a combination of PS with phosphatidic acid (PA), another phospholipid which comprises much of the cellular membrane, was shown to significantly normalize stress hormone levels (ACTH and cortisol, specifically) in those under chronically higher levels of stress. The impact of PS on the physical response to exercise also has been assessed, with findings of increased running time to exhaustion, as well as improved exercise capacity during high-intensity cycling.
Effects on mood have been seen as well, and after a period of supplementation subjects reported feeling less stressed and being in a better mood. Improvements in mood as well as memory were also seen elderly women with depressive disorders. Finally, in a study of women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), a combination of the phospholipids PS and PA was shown to broadly improve both physical and depressive symptoms, significantly lower serum cortisol levels, and reduce salivary cortisol awakening response in the first half of the menstrual cycle.
The stressors in our life, although they often persist, are things which we can use supplemental therapies to help mitigate, at least in part. Ashwagandha and phosphatidylserine are but two of the many natural substances found in nature’s toolbox, and now, perhaps, yours.
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