You’ve likely heard of ‘fight or flight’, but do you realise that your body experiences this on a daily basis? You can thank evolution for that - when our ancestors were often faced with life-threatening situations that required an automatic response for survival. But you don’t need to be chased by a wild animal to enter this defence mode. The comparatively mundane stresses of life - such as work, relationships and even exercise - have a similar effect. Although not life-threatening, these stresses place a more enduring strain on your body, keeping you on high alert for a much longer period of time. If not addressed appropriately, this will eventually take its toll on your health.
Nature provides its own solution to help us cope with and overcome stress called adaptogens. Adaptogens are natural, plant-based compounds extracted from herbs, roots and mushrooms that ease us out of this defensive state and into recovery.
How do they work?
Scientists believe that adaptogens regulate stress by working on a molecular level to create balance among the pituitary, hypothalamic, and adrenal glands. Essentially, their role is to hijack our stress response system.
When our bodies encounter any form of physical or mental stress, we undergo a process called general adaptation syndrome (GAS). This occurs in three phases: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. Alarm is the immediate response as a stressor is encountered. Say, for example, you are about to enter a fight. Your body will flood with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to make you feel alert and energised to enhance your performance. This is the fight or flight stage.
Directly after this stage is resistance - when your body begins to recover from the trauma of the event. As soon as you’ve finished your workout, your heart rate and blood pressure will begin to return to normal and the release of cortisol will subside. However, if the stressor lingers, your body will adapt to this state and accept it as the new normal. Whilst this is a key process that allows us to live with stress, teetering on the edge of alarm and resistance for too long can lead to the third stage: exhaustion.
Exhaustion is a stage you don’t need to - and don’t want to - reach. Fatigue, anxiety and moodiness are common side effects of stress overtaking your body. Exhaustion also results in diminishing your immune system, leaving you increasingly vulnerable to illnesses.
The role of adaptogens is to keep your body in the resistance phase for longer, allowing you to adequately recharge and recover from any forms of stress. According to a study published in the academic journal Pharmaceuticals, adaptogens boost attention and endurance in times where fatigue would normally set in. This is especially beneficial for combat athletes, who exert enormous amounts of energy in short bursts of time. In order to uphold their level of output over an entire training session, adaptogens are needed to accelerate the recovery process and continue to persevere through the explosive exercises.
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Natural adaptogen sources
Adaptogens come from a variety of different plants. Three of the main sources are turmeric, ashwagandha and ginseng.
- Turmeric: Derived from the ginger family, this spice contains the stress-reducing compound curcumin, which has been linked to anti-inflammatory benefits. This may be useful for athletes to recover from exercise and reduce muscle soreness. It has also been shown to boost cognitive function and reduce depression.
- Ashwagandha: A powerful herb that has been found to boost resistance to stress and reduce cortisol production. It has also been linked to improved aerobic performance, strength and muscle mass.
- Ginseng: Well known for its popularity in Chinese medicine, ginseng is a root that helps boost the immune system, enhance cognitive function and fight inflammation. One study found that participants who took ginseng experienced significantly less muscle damage than the placebo group.
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Although adaptogens can be extremely effective in reducing both physical and mental stress, it is important to remember that everyone will react differently to certain substances. Those who have an autoimmune disease or take any type of immunosuppressant should speak to their healthcare professional first for advice. Adaptogens can stimulate the immune system and cause it to become more active, which is a fantastic effect for most people but may cause complications for others with these conditions.
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