How adaptogenic herbs, aka adaptogens, work is more complex than other substances. If you scarf down a cupcake, for example, on a stressful day, the reason is pretty obvious why you feel like you have more energy, even if it’s a temporary jolt. Most people think it’s the blood sugar spike that provides the energy.
But before the blood sugar spike, what’s actually happening behind the scenes to provide the energy? First, enzymes split fructose and glucose into constituent molecules. Blood absorbs the fructose and glucose and transports the sugar molecules to the liver. The liver then converts fructose into more glucose. Then, a process of cellular respiration occurs. This is when glucose and oxygen eventually become a chemical called ATP. ATP is what our trillions of cells use to provide us with the energy we need for everyday functions.
Remember ‘ATP’…we’ll come back to that later to see how adaptogenic herbs work….
People are becoming more aware that excess sugar and stress are responsible for many chronic diseases. As a result, more and more people are hearing about how adaptogenic herbs can help with stress.
But few people understand how exactly adaptogens work. How they work is perhaps far more complex than being able to explain how we get energy from simple carbohydrates. The truth is, many researchers don’t even know the full, behind-the scenes-microscopic-story of how these miraculous herbs found in Mother Nature help us cope with stress and provide us with other health benefits.
Here’s what we do know about how adaptogens work….
Adaptogens help relieve stress by controlling the amount of stress hormones released. On a very stressful day your hypothalamus gland, located in the center of your brain, releases CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone). Think of CRH as the fire alarm that goes off in response to stress. When CRH is released, it triggers anxiety.
CRH then travels to the pituitary gland. The pituitary then releases ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH after travelling through the bloodstream, triggers the release of cortisol, aka ‘the stress hormone,’ from the adrenal gland cortex. When you experience a ‘fight or flight’ stressor, adrenaline is released from another part of the adrenal glands called the medulla. (This stress response chain is commonly referred to as the ‘HPA’ axis.)
Are you chronically stressed-out? It’s because your body exhausts itself from constantly releasing CRH and ACTH. And that’s how adaptogens can help you. Adaptogens inhibit the release of CRH and ACTH. Because of this, your body does not burn out by releasing excess CRH and ACTH (and other hormones involved in the stress response).
You will experience more anxiety the more CRH your hypothalamus gland releases. Therefore, if adaptogenic herbs inhibit the release of CRH, you’ll experience less anxiety.
Adaptogens help calm you down AND increase energy
Here’s another beautiful way adaptogens work: they can both calm you down and increase your cellular energy. What other substance can do that, safely, with no toxic side-effects? (None.) Adaptogens act as thermostats, instructing some cells to ‘get going’ and be more productive, while telling others to cool down and chill out. Of course, the science behind how they do this is very complex.
Do you remember the mention of ATP from above, in the example of how sugar provides us with energy? Researchers in peer-reviewed studies (such as this one published in Current Clinical Pharmacology) have concluded adaptogens give us more energy by tempering the stress response. This, in turn, decreases ATP production. So, if we have less of a stress response, we have more ATP currency in our cells to cash in as energy.
To clarify this point, Ward Dean writes in an article, “Role of Novel Russian Adaptogenic Compounds in Restoration of Adrenal Function,” published in the Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients (Nov. 2001):
“Adaptogens act to restore hypothalamic and peripheral receptor sensitivity to the effects of cortisol and other adrenal hormones. In this way, adaptogens enable the body to mount an appropriate stress response with lower amounts of cortisol than would otherwise be required.”
And going back to the study mentioned above in Current Clinical Pharmacology, the researchers concluded, “Strong scientific evidence is available for Rhodiola rosea …, which improved attention, cognitive function and mental performance in fatigue and in chronic fatigue syndrome. Good scientific evidence has been documented in [trials] in which Schisandra chinensis and Eleutherococcus senticosus increased endurance and mental performance in patients with mild fatigue and weakness.”
(The three herbs listed above are in Sun Horse Energy’s proprietary formulas.)
How Adaptogens Work: a more advanced look
Do you want a deeper scientific explanation of how adaptogens work? Would you like to know how adaptogens mediate the stress response? If so, you should read this analysis by the researchers in the above-mentioned study:
“The beneficial stress-protective effect of adaptogens is related to regulation of homeostasis via several mechanisms of action associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the control of key mediators of stress response such as molecular chaperons (e.g. Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK1), Forkhead Box O transcription factor DAF-16, cortisol and nitric oxide (NO). The key point of action of phytoadaptogens appears to be their up-regulating and stress-mimetic effects on the “stress-sensor” protein Hsp70, which plays an important role in cell survival and apoptosis. Hsp70 inhibits the expression of NO synthase II gene and interacts with glucocorticoid receptors directly and via the JNK pathway, thus affecting the levels of circulating cortisol and NO. Prevention of stress-induced increase in NO, and the associated decrease in ATP production, results in increased performance and endurance. Adaptogen-induced up-regulation of Hsp70 triggers stress-induced JNK-1 and DAF-16-mediated pathways regulating the resistance to stress and resulting in enhanced mental and physical performance and, possibly, increased longevity.”
If it’s too over your head, don’t worry about it. Just know that if you’ve got lots of stress, you need adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens instruct your cells and organs how to chill the stress response. Not just so you will survive, but thrive!