Adaptation to modern day stress

Written by June 2015 Phoebe Wynne-Lewis, BHSc, Dip Nat Med, Dip Herb Med – FxMed Technical Support

A large proportion of all aging diseases (perhaps 70-80%) is believed to occur because our stress levels are too high and/or too long-term. Highstress modern living is probably the main factor causing chronic disease and premature aging in a lot of cases. A wide range of physical and psychological demands trigger our adrenals to provide relatively small blasts of strength in the form of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

Cortisol is also known as the aging hormone. When cortisol gets too high it puts us into a “fight or flight” response, stimulating our sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands, resulting in a decrease in digestive secretions and an increase in blood pressure. This puts the body in a state of constant stress which will burn out the adrenal glands, stress the digestive tract and cause us to age more rapidly. The resulting adrenal dysfunction not only affects our short-term response to stress, but it also impairs our adrenals’ ability to produce and balance other hormones (DHEA, estrogen, progesterone & testosterone) which are important to our long-term health and well-being.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has an answer to this challenge – a unique class of herbs called ‘Adaptogens’.

Adaptogens have the broadest spectrum of healing properties of any herbal medicine, but their unique value is that they can recharge the adrenal glands, helping us respond to stress in a healthier way. Adaptogens not only increase the resistance to the adverse effects of long-term stress, the majority are also a general tonic, immune-stimulating and increase our general sense of well-being.

Research into Adaptogenic Herbs

By 1984 Russian scientists had published in excess of 1,500 pharmacological and clinical studies on adaptogenic herbs. Later research carried out in Germany and Japan demonstrated similar findings. This research into the adaptogenic properties of plants continues today and there remains little doubt that adaptogens increase an organism’s adaptation to stress and have a normalizing influence on our physiology.

Mechanism of Action

Research suggests that adaptogens work primarily by affecting the Hypothalamic/Pituitary/Adrenal (HPA) axis and the Sympathoadrenal System (SAS) ‘Sympathoadrenal’ normally relates to increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system which acts on the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine and norepinephrine. Thus, adaptogens modulate our response to stress (physical, environmental, or emotional) and help regulate the interconnected endocrine, immune, and nervous systems. This re-regulation of a disordered or highly stressed system is achieved by metabolic regulators such as cytokines, catecholamines, glucocorticoids, cortisol, serotonin, nitric oxide (NO), cholecystokinin, corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF), and sex hormones. This broad array of biochemical activators helps explain why many adaptogens also have anti inflammatory, antioxidant, anxiolytic, antidepressant or nervine effects as well.

In more recent research by Panossian and Wikman (2009), they state that adaptogens work not only via the HPA axis and SAS but also on a cellular level. They prime cells to more effectively respond to stress. These herbs activate molecular chaperones such as heat shock proteins which protect the mitochondria from stress-induced damage. FOX (Forkhead box proteins) are also up-regulated. FOX proteins are a family of transcription factors that play important roles in regulating the expression of genes involved in cell growth, proliferation, differentiation, and longevity. They stimulate the cell to produce proteins that help resist stress and enhance longevity. They have also found that adaptogens can down-regulate a stress-activated protein kinase, known as JNK, that is responsible for increasing inflammatory and oxidative compounds and decreasing ATP generation. This is one of the reasons why adaptogens are often effective as part of a treatment protocol for diverse conditions with fatigue, muscle pain, inflammation and weakness, such as Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfuntion Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Multiple Sclerosis.