Adaptogenic Herbs Improve Stress Tolerance, Adrenals, and Energy

Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

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Adaptogenic Herbs Improve Stress Tolerance, Adrenals, and Energy
Too much or too little. Overstimulated or exhausted. These are examples of loss of stress tolerance that can affect all systems of the body. The body has lost its ability to remain stable and constant, exhausting itself. We need our bodies to be in a state of homeostasis, or balance, able to accommodate stress demands imposed upon us. This simple principle is fundamental to healthy function and aging well, but as demands tug on this balance, function is challenged. Adapting to stress is a full time job of the body. Many things help this constant state of flux, but there is nothing like the herbal adaptogens to help when the homeostatic balance and apple cart are turned over. Adaptogenic herbs like cordyceps, holy basil, eleutherococcus, rhodiola rosea and the phytochemical gamma oryzanol provide impressive support for the entire balance of the body.

Disrupting homeostasis of the body is like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity and is worn. It doesn’t bounce back or there is inefficiency in the ability to rebound. There are many things that help the return of homeostasis that are primal like eating, sleeping, physical activity, play time, rest, and so forth. However, many find that with our fast-paced life and pushing ourselves to the limit, that homeostasis is lost. Burnout, illness, adrenal stress, adrenal fatigue, and loss of vitality occur. Considering that loss of stress tolerance or health problems with stress are related to over 75 percent of patient visits to primary care physicians, something needs to be done. The present generation is more ravaged by the consequences of stress than at any other time in history. This is where nutritional support with adaptogenic herbs, or adaptogens, come into play to help restore balance and stress tolerance in the body.

Herbal Adaptogens for Adrenal Health

Adaptogens can help substantially improve the body’s ability to adapt to stress. This stress may be related to physical fatigue, mental fatigue, heat, cold, or noise exposure, immune stress, lack of endurance, and so much more. Anything can be a stressor. Any of these stressors affect the signaling process in the body called the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). This HPA axis communication system provides the fundamental life management of the body.

The command center and conductor of this system is the hypothalamus gland. It is part of the limbic system of the brain. The hypothalamus is responsible for the production of many essential hormones in the body. It governs basic physiological functions like hunger, sleep, mood, sex drive, temperature regulation and thirst. The primary function of the hypothalamus is to maintain homeostasis of all of the systems in the body. It sends out signals through the pituitary that affects the adrenals (hence the HPA axis terminology) but it also affects the thyroid, sex hormones, growth hormone, dopamine, and a few other hormone signals and pathways. It regulates fluid balance, electrolytes, body temperature, and body weight.

Not only does the hypothalamus send out signals, but it receives feedback signals from the tissues it communicates with, monitoring the balance and need. It adjusts signals based on current status and stress levels. It is critical to keep this feedback loop system in a state of balance, or homeostasis. This homeostasis monitoring occurs in all tissues, 24/7 under unconscious control. When it is out of balance too often from excess demands and stress, the body loses its efficiency in stress tolerance. We don’t respond or bounce back the way we once did. Things become harder and less efficient. Problems with fatigue, burnout, and loss of health become the norm. Adaptogens such as cordyceps, holy basil, eleutherococcus, gamma oryzanol, and rhodiola come in to the arena. These herbal ingredients are hailed to be some of the most powerful adaptogenic tools for homeostasis and stress tolerance in the body. Each compound itself has amazing adaptogenic functionality and support for many different processes in the body. These herbs and phytochemicals act as a tonic to the HPA axis system and homeostasis of innumerable systems of the body, bringing stress tolerance and vitality back to the system. They help to thwart the ultimate exhaustive state of the body in burn-out and adrenal fatigue.


The Journal of Evidenced Based Complementary Alternative Medicine’s recent April 2015 issue summed up the actions of the herb cordyceps very nicely in a review study. Cordyceps is a prized medicinal fungi, or mushroom, that has been used as a tonic and health supplement traditionally in Asia. It is commonly used in seniors who struggle with different types of exhaustion and loss of function. This centuries old traditional Chinese medicine tonic contains several active components that demonstrate pharmacological activity throughout multiple systems of the body. It is indeed a prized adaptogenic herb with amazing properties. Cordyceps provides anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, anti-apoptosis (anti-cell death), immunomodulatory actions, cholesterol reducing, blood sugar lowering, anti-aging, neuroprotective, and kidney protective benefits. Furthermore, many of the active components are being heavily researched and used for drug development of cancer and infectious disease therapies.

A major active component of cordyceps is cordycepin. It is one of the main active ingredients in cordyceps. This compound has been found to intensively regulate the functions of human immune cells within cell cultures, i.e. it helps to keep the immune system in a state of homeostasis. It functions with anti-tumor activity, along with antibacterial and antiviral activity. Cordycepin has tremendous therapeutic potential in regulating cellular function including nucleic acid, apoptosis or cell death, and cell life cycle. It has been shown to reduce stress and fatigue changes associated with the adrenal glands, spleen, thymus, and thyroid in animal studies. Research also shows cordyceps can induce cell death to thyroid cancer cells, offering protection and hope to the millions diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Cordyceps has been shown to protect the brain after injury or stroke and protects the heart from cellular injury related to heart attack. Animal studies show that it decreased the size of the injury after a heart attack. It supports against liver fibrosis and free radical damage to fats. It aids liver detoxification and helps support healthy kidney microcirculation and blood flow. It also helps to adjust adrenaline levels in the body and related endocrine and sexual function.

Very new research shows for the first time that cordycepin provides anti-inflammatory activity to human cartilage cells helping to potentially prevent osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease. Treatment with cordyceps down-regulated MMP-13, IL-6, iNOS, PGE2, and COX2 the pro-inflammatory compounds within human cartilage cells, thus reducing pain and inflammation. In essence, cordycepin, or cordyceptic acid, buffers and regulates the inflammatory stress and oxidative response of these many different tissues, thus helping to keep homeostasis in check.

Another compound, adenosine, found within cordyceps plays a powerful role with the production of energy, or ATP. It helps protect the heart and improve heart function even in the throes of congestive heart failure. It does this by reducing the stress hormone adrenaline release that irritates the heart muscle and leads to damaged tissue, lending to improved homeostasis.

Adenosine is also considered a neuromodulator that helps with promoting deeper restorative sleep and calming down overstimulation of many types. It also helps protect the mitochondria from stress and inflammation. It provides support against inflammation related to depression, anxiety, and even seizure activity within the brain.

Other active compounds within cordyceps have been shown to inhibit urinary tract inflammation, promote healthy circulation, and tremendously enhance immune system function including bioactivity against the influenza virus within cellular studies. It is especially helpful in restoring homeostasis and relieves fatigue and weakness after illness. Additional information shows that it can help improve blood sugar regulation, reduce excess blood sugar, and support healthy pancreatic function and kidney function even when the kidneys are failing.

Cordyceps provides benefit for all ages and levels of health. Athletes who are looking for a safe, non-toxic, effective natural compound to assist with training, endurance, and recovery have helpful options for improving performance and endurance. A recent study with male amateur cyclists between ages 30-40 years was performed with this powerful mushroom extract. The athletes supplemented with cordyceps for three months and were followed during the course of their training and racing schedules. Lab measurements showed that cordyceps prevented the drop of testosterone and imbalanced ratios of cortisol and testosterone that often occurs in athletes from overtraining and oxidative stress. Blood tests showed antioxidant effects with cordyceps use, preventing overtraining difficulties.

As you can see, this list of benefits by cordyceps alone is absolutely impressive as it provides incredible possibilities for rebalancing struggling bodies. Now combine it with some other impressive adaptogens and you will see even more stunning possibilities.

Holy Basil

Holy basil considered an incomparable, elixir of life of traditional Indian medicine has been used and even worshipped in Ayurvedic medicine for over 3,000 years due to its healing properties. It has been shown to possess anti-asthmatic, fever-reducing, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving properties. It has been shown to support healthy catecholamine levels and support serotonin and dopamine in stressful situations. Catecholamines are hormones released by the adrenal glands such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and adrenalin. Other Ayurvedic uses for holy basil include protecting against chemical stress from industrial pollutants and heavy metals, physical stress from prolonged physical activity, ischemia or lack of adequate blood flow to tissues, and cold exposure. Metabolically, it has been shown to help normalize blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. It has been shown to positively affect memory and cognitive function and provide anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties. It also has a broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity.

In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, the standardized extract of holy basil, called OciBest®, was found to markedly reduce multiple symptoms of stress. Participants in the study experienced a number of symptoms related to stress including headache, heart palpitations at rest, trouble with hearing, blurred vision, forgetfulness, sexual problems, frequent GI symptoms, lack of appetite, muscle tics and tremors, irritability, exhaustion or feeling overworked, sleep problems, and avoiding people or tasks. Study participants supplemented with OciBest® holy basil for 6 weeks and were compared to a control group. The results of the study clearly showed a marked reduction in stress-related symptoms for all of the study participants who took holy basil. The greatest reduction of symptoms occurred with forgetfulness, sexual problems of recent onset, exhaustion, and frequent sleep problems. The results occurred as a result of the adaptogenic effects of holy basil, as it is neuroprotective, immunostimulatory, free-radical scavenging, and balances and reduces excess cortisol. It is considered to be preeminent of Ayurvedic wisdom with scientific research confirming its pharmacological beneficial effects.

Another study showed in particular that animals exposed to chronic noise stress and treated with holy basil prevented cortisol changes. It acted as an anti-stressor against noise. Considering how many people work or live in busy, noisy environments, holy basil offers a highly promising agent to protect oneself against this daily stressor. Just think about a day spent shopping at the mall or visiting a theme park with the amount of stimulus and how exhausted you feel afterwards. This is a loss of homeostasis induced by the sheer amount of sensory stimulation. Holy basil may help make your next trip considerably less exhausting.

Eleuthero Extract

Eleutherococcus, also known as Siberian ginseng or eleuthero, offers profound adaptogenic support for many different stress-related concerns. A recent study published in The Journal of Internal Medicine Research found significantly greater improvements in Burnout Syndrome when eleutherococcus extract was used for 12 weeks. This was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of professional adults who were struggling with marked problems with Burnout Syndrome. Those taking eleuthero extract had marked improvement in all areas monitored with the burnout as compared to those who received placebo.

Eleuthero has another interesting added benefit for those struggling with tissue inflammation like cartilage, tendon, and ligament damage provoked by high levels of MMPs. Eleuthero, like cordyceps, has been shown to provide protection and pain relief for osteoarthritis concerns and cartilage breakdown.

Sleep deprivation is a major problem today. Memory deficits, behavioral stress, and stress to the hippocampus are just some of the concerns induced by sleep deprivation. Animal studies showed symptom improvement in cognitive skills, memory, and behavior related to sleep deprivation when treated with eleutherococcus. The scientists concluded the study with the statement that the "adaptogenic herb may provide an effective and powerful strategy to alleviate behavioral alterations induced by sleep deprivation".

Eleutherococcus is often studied together with rhodiola rosea. Scientific evidence presented by clinical trials show that both of these adaptogens provide significant benefit. Eleutherococcus increased endurance and mental performance in patients with mild fatigue and weakness. Rhodiola improved attention, cognitive function and mental performance in fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome. The adaptogenic function was associated with how the HPA axis mediated stress. The herbs were found to interact positively with the Nitric Oxide Synthase gene and cortisol receptor sites, improving resistance to stress. The final result showed that these two adaptogens enhanced physical and mental performance and may possibly result in increased longevity. Another review study agrees on the strong evidence for stress protection with the neuroendocrine system for both rhodiola and eleutherococcus, proving benefit for mental and behavioral disorders.

Beside neuroendocrine protection, animal studies show that eleuthero has heart protection properties, like cordyceps and holy basil. Rodents were pre-treated with eleuthero and then exposed to stress intended to severely stress the heart and cause damage. In this case, the rodents pretreated with eleuthero prevented damage to the heart. Cardiac tolerance to stress was increased and beta-endorphin levels (the runner’s high/feel good endorphins) increased. Consistent use of eleuthero protected the heart against oxidative stress and stabilized heart rhythm, i.e. it provided an anti-arrhythmic effect and helped increase natural internal opioid (pain-relieving) peptide levels.

Gamma Oryzanol

Gamma oryzanol is a bioactive antioxidant and phytochemical extracted from brown rice bran and rice bran oil. While it is not classified as a typical adaptogen, it provides remarkable properties in helping the body adapt to stress. The biological properties of this compound are also impressive. The range of support and function includes antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, lipid-lowering, anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, and anti-allergy support. Over the last 15 years, review studies have shown the components found in gamma oryzanol are able to regulate and mediate anti-inflammatory effects. It is able to down-regulate NF-kappa B, COX-2, iNOS, and proinflammatory cytokines such as IL-1beta, IL-6, and TNF-a. In addition, it has been shown to up-regulate blood adiponectin levels. Adiponectin functions like a teeter-totter with leptin. Low adiponectin levels are linked with blood sugar problem, heart disease, and leptin imbalances. Lack of adiponectin also influences the AMPK enzyme in that it is a master switch in mitochondria function with fat and glucose burning and energy production.

Other animal studies show gamma oryzanol helps concerns with metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance. Even in the context of a high fat, high sugar diet, gamma oryzanol can help reduce the inflammation associated with blood sugar dysregulation. This is of critical importance as blood sugar regulation is fundamental to all homeostatic functions of the body.

Another review study viewed both cellular and animal studies on gamma oryzanol and found other beneficial properties. This included modulation of pituitary secretion, which is part of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) relay system involved with homeostasis and stress modulation. It has helped to inhibit excess stomach acid secretion, provided antioxidant action, and inhibited platelet aggregation or reduced the risk for blood clots. Other studies show that the phytochemicals and adaptogic functions from the rice bran and rice brain oil extracts provide preventative and nutraceutical effects in concerns such as cancer, elevated cholesterol levels, fatty liver congestion, excess calcium excretion in the urine, kidney stones, and heart disease.

Gamma oryzanol is also shown to help prostate health. An animal study demonstrated that severely immune suppressed mice with prostate cancer benefited by the use of gamma oryzanol and other herbs with anti-tumor activity. This was partly due to stopping blood vessel growth to the prostate tumor.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola rosea akin to cordyceps and holy basil offers tremendous support in a body ravaged by stress. It has been part of traditional medicine systems in parts of Europe, Asia, and Russia for centuries. Countries such as Mongolia have prescribed it for cancer and tuberculosis. Siberia uses it to boost fertility and the Vikings have used it to increase endurance and physical strength.

Several double-blind, randomized control studies reviewed and evaluated the benefits of rhodiola rosea with professional burnout, mental fatigue, and physical well-being. A short study was performed on Armenian physicians suffering from Burnout Syndrome. The study found that there was significant improvement in fatigue levels with two weeks of supplementation. No adverse effects were noted. Students going through exams were placed on rhodiola at 100 mg per day for 20 days versus placebo. The students receiving the adaptogenic herb showed improvements in hand-eye coordination, mental energy, and general well-being. Those individuals who did not receive the herb had a significantly higher heart rate, indicating the autonomic nervous system homeostatic stress response was being challenged. There were no reported adverse effects or toxicity experienced. Information reported on in these clinical studies showed improvements with 200-680 mg of rhodiola per day for physical fatigue and 100-576 mg per day for mental fatigue.

In a study with athletes and a four-week trial with rhodiola found that exercise and endurance capacity was improved with the herbal intake. The researchers measure the VO2 and VCO2 peak which is the limit of oxygen and carbon dioxide per your body weight that you can move or utilize with intense exercise. It is depends on body weight and strength of the lungs. The athletes in this study showed improvement in both of these cardiac-respiratory measurements.

Individuals struggling with depression may find rhodiola helpful. In a randomized, placebo-controlled trial performed with 57 adults, new research showed that the rhodiola treated group with mild to moderate depression experienced positive results had less adverse effects and was better tolerated than the anti-depressant sertraline (Zoloft) with modest anti-depressant effects.

A study published in September 2014 had some rather impressive findings. The findings showed that rhodiola targeted over 1,000 genes regulating cellular responses, affecting multiple signaling pathways and molecular networks. Benefits were found particularly with emotional behavior and especially favorable at reducing aggressive behavior and glutamate excess. Depression, anxiety, and seizure activity were all decreased. Molecular and signaling networks were also improved in the areas of other neurological health, cardiovascular, metabolic, endocrine, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Rhodiola is also shown to help pulmonary hypertension, often a very serious life-threatening illness. The beneficial effects of rhodiola were due to its profound health friendly attributes. It supported cardiac-lung health with high altitude stress, and supported healthy signaling of endothelin-1, nitric oxide, angiotensin-converting enzyme, NF-kB, TNF-a, and IL-6. When elevated, these signaling compounds result in devastating problems with heart-lung oxygen regulation and vascular inflammation. Experimental pulmonary hypertension studies show that rhodiola provided promising therapeutic benefits offering quality of life and prolonged survival in patients.

Individuals struggling with ischemic heart disease have another tool in their tool box with rhodiola. A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials demonstrated that rhodiola had a positive effect on treating ischemic heart disease, stable angina and improved EKG readings.

The research and studies mentioned in this article is by no means a complete list of benefits of these amazing adaptogenic herbs and phytochemicals. In essence, the adaptogens have the propensity to positively regulate all types of cellular responses and organ systems related to stress and loss of homeostasis. Anyone struggling with mental or physical fatigue, stress overwhelm and stress related illnesses, or illness worsened with stress and inflammation have extremely powerful tools to cope with twenty-first century demands. Consider these herbs the go-to for any and all situations of stress. The evidence is resoundingly clear that adaptogens are a must for today’s demands.

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