Adaptogenic herbs for hormone balance and stress relief possess specific qualities that help your body. It is common to mistake them for food, but they are actually herbs that can easily be added to your beverages (look for their powdered version) or taken as supplements in capsules.
Interestingly, adaptogens are anything but new; they have been present in human life for decades. We explain what they are and how to include them in your life, so you get all their benefits.
In nature, change is the only constant, and adaptation the only survival strategy. We have multiple adaptive mechanisms with a clear function: to maintain internal balance despite the constant external change.
One of our complex adaptive process’s key pieces is the so-called HPA Axis (Hypothalamic-pituitary-Adrenal), vital in our process of adaptation to stress and hormonal balance.
Today we will see how the modern world misaligns this central axis and how adaptogens can help us maintain serenity.
Adaptogenic herbs for hormone balance: The HPA Axis
The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis is an essential part of the neuroendocrine system. It controls the stress response and regulates multiple body processes, from digestion to the immune system, from reproduction to energy metabolism.
When the amygdala perceives a threat, it activates the sympathetic nervous system. It alerts the hypothalamus, which initiates a hormonal cascade that will conclude with cortisol release, whose mission is to prepare us to fight or flee.
A simplified version of the HPA Axis
It is a perfect system, for a world that no longer exists.
Some time ago, ancestral stressors were generally physical. The natural physiological response was beneficial for fighting an enemy or escaping a hungry tiger, but it won’t help you pay the mortgage or pass final exams.
Your body still responds to stress in the only way it knows how even though the actual threats are very different.
Endless chronic worries have replaced acute and brief stressors. You are never really active, but you are never totally relaxed either.
This chronic low-grade stress produces imbalances of the HPA axis, contributing to multiple disorders: obesity, hormonal imbalances, depression, panic attacks, or Alzheimer’s.
What if there was something that activates us when we are fatigued and relaxes us when we are anxious? Something that optimizes our adaptation process to stress?
The recent history of adaptogens begins with the Cold War. In the late 1940s, the former Soviet Union and the United States competed for their nuclear and space technologies.
Still, they were also seeking biological advantages: tougher soldiers, stronger athletes, and more productive workers.
The Russian scientist, Nicolai Lazarev, was in charge of finding substances that would improve his comrades’ performance in a hostile environment of constant stress.
He focused on plants accustomed to inhospitable places. He assumed that any organism capable of thriving in Siberia’s steppes or the high snows of the Andes must have developed special molecules to tolerate adversity.
And perhaps that stress resistance could be transferred to the humans who consumed them.
After analyzing thousands of compounds, he found what he was looking for. Because of the general adaptive function they produce in our organism, he called them adaptogens.
The power of adaptogens lies in their generality. Unlike the conventional, one size fits all ailment approach, the pathways of action of adaptogens are multiple and many unknown.
They are the “Swiss army knife” of herbal supplements. They serve many purposes, but modulation of the HPA axis is one of their main assets.
For a substance to be considered adaptogenic, it must meet three criteria:
- Harmlessness. Not being toxic or presenting relevant side effects, even when exceeding usual doses.
- Non-specific response in the organism. It must improve tolerance to any stressor: physical, chemical, or biological. For the body, sleeping too little or eating poorly are also stressors.
- Normalizing effect. Its action must be adapted to the situation. By reinforcing the homeostasis regulatory system, they improve the response in both directions. They can either calm an overactive system or vice versa. This bidirectionality is what separates these substances from others.
Of the thousands of plants studied, only a handful qualify as true adaptogens. I summarize below some members of this select club.
The best adaptogens
In reality, Lazarov did not discover anything new. Almost all of the plants that worked had been used for thousands of years by different societies and were part of traditional medicines.
Although the few substances classified as adaptogens share the same general properties, they also have their particularities.
What can you expect in general when supplementing with adaptogens? More resistance to stress, less anxiety, fatigue, and better rest.
I discuss below my five favorite adaptogens: Ashwagandha, Ginseng, Maca, Rhodiola Rosea, and Reishi.
It has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in multiple clinical trials, but its list of benefits is much longer:
- It helps control blood sugar
- It increases testosterone and improves sperm quality. In women, it can improve sexual function
- It is anabolic. It boosts strength and muscle gains as well as aerobic performance
- It is effective against arthritis, probably because of its anti-inflammatory capacity
- It seems to have a neuroprotective effect, although so far, there have only been animal studies
- It has anticarcinogenic properties. No adaptogen should be used as a primary therapy against cancer, but it can help prevent and mitigate conventional treatments’ after-effects (such as chemo). Ashwagandha contains a compound called withaferin A, effective against different types of tumor cells
Doses of 300-500 mg/day are effective, although much higher doses have been used without apparent complications (up to 6,000 mg/day in several doses). Best taken with food, and preferably in the morning.
Another classic of Ayurvedic medicine. There are two different versions: Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American (Panax quinquefolius), with many similarities and differences.
They have been studied mainly as tonics to reduce fatigue, but their properties are multiple: they strengthen the immune system, prevent respiratory diseases, and improve post-workout recovery.
It has also been studied for its nootropic and neuroprotective function, improving mental performance, especially the American version. It may alleviate symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Finally, it improves glycemic control, hypertension, and erectile dysfunction.
Effective dose: 200-400 mg/day.
Native to the Andes and cultivated mainly in Peru. Inca warriors had already been using maca to improve their resistance and vitality.
Besides representing a concentrated source of vitamins and minerals, it is known for its aphrodisiac potential.
It has been traditionally used to improve sexual desire and performance, and today science supports its effects, both in animals and humans, even without altering hormone levels.
The improvement is also noticeable outside the bedroom, enhancing sports performance.
Finally, it mitigates some disorders associated with menopause, from depression to weight gain.
Effective dose: 1-3 g/day.
4. Rhodiola Rosea
Native to various arctic regions, it has a long history in multiple cultures. It was valued by the Vikings to energize their warriors, and its properties are described in one of the first books of ancient Greek medicine, De Materia Medica, from 77 BC.
Recent studies confirm that it reduces the effects of stress, fatigue, and even depression.
Rhodiola Rosea makes one of the best adaptogenic herbs for hormone balance and stress. The increased sense of well-being it produces is also associated with better physical and mental performance.
In some people, it may have a stimulating effect, best taken in the morning. It can also be used if you are trying to limit caffeine.
Effective dose: 200-600 mg/day.
5. Reishi mushroom
Although its botanical name is Ganoderma lucidum, it is known in Chinese medicine as the mushroom of immortality.
It contributes hundreds of bioactive compounds, many of them with as yet unknown effects.
This is probably the first mushroom used with medicinal properties since records have been kept.
It occupied a privileged place in traditional Chinese medicine. It was also worshipped in the millenary cultures of Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries, making its leap later to the Roman Empire.
In addition to regulating the immune system and improving mood, it is anti-inflammatory and antihistamine, being useful against multiple allergies.
It has been widely studied for its ability to fight fatigue associated with cancer.
Dosage: 1.5-5 g/day.
Adaptogenic herbs for hormone balance and stress: Side effects and conclusion
Throughout history, adaptogens have shown to be safe, but any supplementation requires some caution. If you take anticoagulant or anti-diabetic drugs, consult your doctor.
By modulating the HPA axis, they may also interfere with thyroid drugs, and because of their effect on the immune system they can have unpredictable effects on autoimmune diseases, improving symptoms in many cases but worsening them in others.
And if your life is in constant stress, you should reevaluate your priorities or develop psychological tools to improve your response to modern stress.
While stress is inevitable, suffering is optional. For example, the Stoics have always advised that we waste too much time worrying about things beyond our control, creating unnecessary anxiety and leaving us without the energy to solve the problems that really depend on our actions.