We know that stress is an unavoidable part of life and that it has an impact on our health. Yet, most of us manage to soldier on through stressful times, continuing to function but perhaps without full awareness of how this stress damages our bodies and minds. However, the stress problem in America has become too big to ignore. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought stress’s physical and psychological effects to the forefront of public consciousness, as our collective health has suffered a noticeable decline. We now face a nationwide mental health crisis, with increasing anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other stress-related disorders. In addition, chronic stress can lead to many other health conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome, hypertension, heart disease, memory impairment, and metabolic syndrome. [This article, “When Stress Is Overwhelming: The Power of Resilience” was originally published in HealthXWire]
How stress affects the body: the basics
Your adrenal glands are the glands of stress, and respond to stressors on biochemical and hormonal levels. Excessive stress can be caused by a profound event or prolonged exposure to repeated stress. When your adrenal glands can no longer secrete enough hormones to meet the demands of excessive stress, adrenal fatigue occurs. Symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, and body aches. On the other hand, if your adrenals continue to handle the pressure, your cortisol levels remain elevated over time, which may contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome. (As the primary stress hormone, cortisol increases blood glucose and suppresses functions such as immunity, digestion, and reproductive function that are nonessential to the fight-or-flight response.) Metabolic syndrome is marked by high blood sugar, excess fat around the waist, and high cholesterol.
The effects of stress on our physical and mental health are both profound and pervasive. All systems of the body are in some way affected by stress. For example, tension headaches and migraine headaches are associated with the chronic muscle tension many people experience due to stress. Chronic stress can lead to heart issues, as consistently elevated heart rate and blood pressure can strain the cardiovascular system. In fact, prolonged stress is associated with an increased risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. Stress can also affect the communication between your brain and your gut, causing pain, bloating, and other gut discomfort. It suppresses the activity of the immune system, leading to increased susceptibility to infections. Our mental health, cognitive function, and reproductive health may decline due to chronic stress.
Resilience is key
While we all face intense or repeated stress at some point in our lives, those with higher levels of resilience bounce back faster and stay healthier in the face of these challenges. Resilience manifests in two basic types: psychological and physical. Psychological resilience is the ability to face adversity while maintaining a sense of hope and meaning. Physical resilience is the ability to recover from a functional decline after a health stressor. From a holistic health perspective, the case could be made that psychological and physical resilience are interrelated. When you experience an acute or prolonged stressor, it is essential to be able to meet the challenge from a position of strength on both counts.
There are many ways to increase your level of resilience. Regulating your emotions will help you stay on an even keel. Building and maintaining a support system is also a great way to build resilience. Essential self-care such as eating a healthy diet, getting good sleep, and stress management techniques such as yoga, relaxation, or meditation are also great ways to keep you strong in the face of a stressor. You may use a cognitive technique called reframing to change how you respond to stressful situations. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic, try imagining what might be happening in that person’s life to reduce your anger and generate compassion. Overall, if you take care of your body and positively reframe your thinking, then you are practicing the most natural methods of building resilience.
Adaptogens are another natural option
If you are practicing basic self-care but are looking for extra help building resilience to stress, then adaptogens might be an option. The word “adaptogen” has its root in the Greek “adapto,” which means “to adjust.” Adaptogens are herbs and mushrooms that help your body adjust to stress. These natural substances are also known to increase energy, increase mental alertness, and increase endurance. Studies on animals and single cells have shown evidence of neuroprotective, anti-anxiety, anti-depressive, anti-fatigue, and nootropic activity in adaptogens.
These natural herbs and roots have been used in Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic traditions for centuries, but they have become part of the mainstream health conversation in recent years. The adaptogens market size topped $8.5 billion in 2020 and has been expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7% between 2021 and 2027, reaching a value of $14 billion. Global Market Insights identifies growing consumer concern with the unwanted effects of many prescription drugs as a driving factor in this market. Adaptogens are now marketed as supplements, in food and beverages, and cosmetics.
As adaptogens are enjoying a modern renaissance today, several rising brands are at the forefront of the trend. However, as a category of nutraceuticals, these herb and mushroom products are largely unregulated by the FDA, so choosing your brand carefully is important. Trusted brands include Herb Farm, Gaia, Purity Products, and Peak + Valley. Of particular interest is Peak + Valley, a company founded in 2019 by former neuroscience researcher and CEO Nadine Joseph. After embarking on her own personal journey to relieve the harmful effects of chronic stress, Joseph found answers in the intersection between science and traditional medicine. Applying the rigorous research methods she had acquired as a neuroscientist, the CEO of Peak + Valley formulated adaptogenic solutions for skin, brain, and stress support. The brand’s most popular offering is the Balance My Stress Blend, which contains ashwagandha to balance cortisol levels, reishi mushroom to support the immune system, and eleuthero root to increase energy. Peak + Valley is based in Seattle, Washington. Their products are available on the company website and at Nordstrom and Whole Foods locations.
Adaptogens get noticed
Although adaptogens have been used in traditional medicines for millennia, the history of adaptogen use in modern medicine began during WWII, when the Soviets studied the stimulating effects of Schisandra chinensis. This interest in S. chinensis was sparked by ethnopharmacological studies of the Nanai hunters in the Far East. They used the berries and seeds to reduce thirst, reduce hunger and exhaustion, and improve night vision.
The concept of adaptogens as natural means of helping the human body and mind resist the effects of stress soon became incorporated into modern medicine. In 1957, Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev introduced the concept of adaptogens into the scientific literature as substances that could increase “the state of non-specific resistance” in stress. By the end of the 1960s, adaptogens were further defined as nontoxic substances that increase the body’s resistance to stressors. The Russian research aimed to find drugs that could help humans survive intense or repeated stress while maintaining the ability to perform work. By 1982, 1009 studies of the kind were published in Russia, with a majority focused on Eleutherococcus senticosus (“Siberian ginseng”). By the early 1960s, adaptogens had made their way into the official medicine of Russia. They were used in the space exploration program, Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, and the Olympic games.
How adaptogens work: the basics
Adaptogens can be described as substances that help the body attain homeostasis by regulating certain body functions. Homeostasis is the ability of an organism to maintain balance despite the effect of external conditions. Stress can be seen as a temporary state where this balance is compromised. Adaptogens are thought to induce a state of adaptive homeostasis, whereby an organism can adjust the homeostatic range, increasing resilience to stress.
So how do adaptogens increase resilience? The adaptive stress response is the ability to resist stress damage by prior exposure to lesser stressors. Mild stressors could include exercise, calorie restriction, and adaptogens. In this way, adaptogens may act as a stress vaccine, stimulating the body’s defenses and metabolism to protect against the harmful effects of stress and promote healthy balance.
Before starting an adaptogen, it’s important to know how these plants and mushrooms are traditionally used. The idea of popping some ashwagandha for your stress would not be how it was traditionally intended. While you may drink a cup of coffee or reach for another stimulant if you are fatigued, adaptogens are not designed to be a quick fix. An herb like ginseng gradually builds up your resistance to fatigue over time. This has certain advantages over more common stimulants that may deplete your energy with regular use. Adaptogens are meant to be taken for weeks at a time, with breaks to reacclimate.
Choosing your supplements wisely
In recent years, there has been increasing consumer interest in purchasing products from companies with sound ethics that promise to give back to communities, and natural supplement makers are responding. For example, in December 2021, PLT Health Solutions signed an agreement with the non-profit Vitamin Angels, to help it achieve its goal of providing nutritional support to over 1 million at-risk women and children by 2030.
A big trend in health products is environmental and social accountability. Consumers are more aware of where their products are coming from and the ethical stances of the companies selling these items. Peak + Valley is one natural supplement company that is on top of this trend, as direct, ethical sourcing is a fundamental component of their business model. As many adaptogen sellers prioritize price point over product potency, Peak + Valley does things differently, obtaining ingredients directly from the very cultures that have used them for centuries. CEO Nadine Joseph emphasizes respect for the ancient traditions that are the sources of her product ingredients. She has traveled to India, Africa, and Peru to investigate these sources, following the principle that direct sourcing offers an assurance of traceability and product quality. Peak + Valley ensures fair and equitable sourcing practices with a focus on environmental and social responsibility. These practices ensure a more sustainable supply chain, as they strengthen the communities that farm their ingredients. With so many supplement makers to choose from, you may prefer to purchase your products from a company that produces high quality at a reasonable price and works from a sound ethical foundation.
What the west can learn from the east
Supplements are a part of the overall wellness picture and not a cure. In Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, adaptogens are used as part of a holistic approach that works to look at the whole person and not simply a disease. These traditions consider that optimal health can be achieved through the treatment of physical, emotional, and spiritual imbalances resulting from environmental factors. The holistic approach supported by these traditional medicines encourages the practice of a healthy lifestyle to promote health.
The modern era has begun to catch up as holistic health has recently gained popularity in western medicine. As a result, physicians and consumers have begun shifting their focus more towards preventative care and the underlying causes of disease rather than simply masking symptoms with prescription drugs. When it comes to creating a solid physical and psychological foundation for resilience in the face of stress, there is no prescription substitute for proper self care and a healthy outlook that embraces compassion and gratitude. In this sense, western medicine may still have much to learn from those traditional medicines that have enhanced well being for millennia.
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