Most of the research studies and news articles on adaptogens have focused on the benefits of these therapeutic herbs on stress levels. More recently, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, adaptogens have also become better known for their ability to support a balanced immune system.
With millions of people out of work, feeling anxious, fearful, or confused because of the pandemic (or all of the above), it’s difficult to maintain or achieve optimal health. Being healthy requires a delicate, holistic balance of mind, body and spirit. You can be in excellent cardiovascular shape and even have a well-balanced immune system. However, if you let fear or anxiety shape your consciousness, your immune system can weaken.
(Read our Holistic Health Checklist For Staying At Home.)
You already know how adaptogens may help keep your immune system balanced. Now learn how adaptogens can support mental balance and keep your spirits up during these challenging times….
Can Adaptogens Keep You Calm?
There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic branch is the “rest and digest” component of the nervous system while your “fight or flight” response is controlled by the sympathetic branch.
For overall balance, including mental harmony, there must be balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Adaptogens may help strike that critical balance. By reducing the sympathetic nervous system and increasing the parasympathetic branch, adaptogens may help slow your heart rate, and recharge and calm your mind and body.
Numerous research studies show that adaptogens support a balanced mood and counteract the effects of distress. According to David Winston and Steven Maimes, co-authors of “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief,” many adaptogens have anxiety-relieving, antidepressant and nerve tonic effects.
The following herbs in the base formulation of Sun Horse Energy (which contains 13 adaptogens) are recommended in Winston’s and Maime’s book for anxiety:
For minimizing depression, the authors suggest ashwagandha, rhodiola and schisandra.
How Do Adaptogens Support Mental Balance?
Out of the tens of thousands of medicinal plants on Earth, adaptogens are remarkable in that they can exert a bi-phasic effect. This means that they can calm certain bodily functions that need calming, yet energize certain bodily functions that are functioning on the sluggish side.
In the case of jiaogulan, the Chinese herbal adaptogen can exert a calming influence on people that feel agitated, “stressed-out,” experience headaches and difficulty sleeping.
[See a summary of 389 research studies on jiaogulan here.]
Rhodiola, like other adaptogenic herbs, has a positive influence on cortisol levels. The herb reduces the amount of cortisol secreted by the adrenal glands. At the same time, rhodiola increases the activity of neurotransmitters associated with a more positive mood, such as serotonin and dopamine.
In addition to lowering stress levels by reducing cortisol output, rhodiola relieves stress by increasing levels of beta-endorphin that’s released by the pituitary gland.
Extra bonus: beta endorphins suppress pain. When you’re in considerable pain, it’s difficult to feel mentally balanced.
Shisandra fruit, another traditional Chinese herb, typifies the bi-phasic characteristics of adaptogens. While it may minimize feelings of anxiousness, it may also help you feel more alert, albeit without the jittery feeling of caffeine.
How Do Adaptogens Help Keep You Focused?
If you’re lucky enough to have meaningful employment during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may prove challenging to keep your focus on work. There’s the temptation to check your news feed for updates on the health crisis. If you’re finding it difficult to focus on the task at hand, adaptogens may help.
For example, rhodiola has been shown to increase the capacity for memorization and prolonged concentration.
Asian Licorice Root has been shown in several animal studies to improve memory. Licorice may also promote cholinergic transmission in the brain. This action enhances the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is the primary transmitter of nerve impulses within the parasympathetic nervous system.
[Currently, there are 755 research studies on licorice.
Adaptogens for Meditation
Meditation and deep breathing are time-tested techniques for calming the mind. Several research studies show that breathing and meditation are beneficial for stress management and mental balance.
Adaptogens do not have specific singular actions on the respiratory system. (Adaptogens by nature act non-specifically, unlike active ingredients in pharmaceutical medications.)
However, if you have breathing difficulties, adaptogens may help “decrease stress-induced shortness of breath and many adaptogens inhibit allergies and allergic asthma,” Winston and Maimes write in their book on adaptogens.
Can Adaptogens Help Keep Your Spirits Up During a Pandemic?
Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way: there is currently no cure or vaccine for COVID-19, also referred to as SARS-CoV-2, the infection caused by the novel coronavirus. While modern research cannot corroborate the effects of any remedy on the mind-body-spirit connection, adaptogenic herbs have been used for millennia to help lift the spirit, calm the mind and promote optimal health.