This post was provided by our friends at ATP Science.
Your body can’t afford to wait and see what your stress is before it reacts. Just in case that pain you are feeling is a shark attack that has left a big hole or a snake bite with venom, and not just a sore back from sitting at your desk or standing at the sink for too long.
And then the phone rings. You answer, deal with it and hang up. Someone walks in with a new perfume that makes your nose tickle and makes you sneeze. Then you realize you didn’t get a chance to eat, let alone prepare a meal, so you grab something convenient full of a chemical cocktail of colors and preservatives and sweeteners…
All of these scenarios will trigger a stress response. This stress response gives you everything you need to fight a shark, prevent bleeding and purge venom. After that stress response is activated, it will send signals to the brain to say, “we survived, and now you can switch it all off.”
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is often referred to as our “stress hormone,” as it is released from our adrenal glands in response to stress. Cortisol in the short term will help to keep sugar in your blood to fuel your escape plan, increase blood pressure, and switch off sleep and contentment chemicals to help us escape. Then the brain picks up on the fact that cortisol has been released and says “stop.”
Cortisol also switches off inflammation and immune activity to protect you from your own defense mechanisms. So, cortisol is also our essential “anti-stress” hormone.
Balancing Cortisol Levels
But what if cortisol is telling us to stop when we experience another stressor? What if you wake up in a pit of snakes, have a stress response, get out of there and end up in a pit of spiders with cortisol running around your brain saying, “Stop, relax, it’s OK.” You ignore cortisol and go again anyway. You become resistant to cortisol as an anti-stress hormone.
This can result in phases of hyper-reactivity with over-secretion and over-exposure to cortisol long term. In this instance, cortisol stops working as on/off switch and you struggle to let go and calm down even after the stress has passed. At the same time, your body is changing because of the cortisol. You can develop insulin resistance, keeping sugar in the blood, you can break down the muscles in your arms and legs to make more sugar, and you can preserve fat and fluid around your organs in case of immobilizing injury. The constant preparing for injury results in high blood pressure and holding on to salt and fluid retention. Your immune system can be suppressed.
You can’t do this forever, so your adrenal gland will often go into a phase of conservation, where it holds on to its cortisol and stops giving it out. This is when we experience excessive fatigue and pain and feel wired and tired. We have so much fatigue but can’t get a good night’s sleep.
Most people are stuck hovering between overactive and underactive. There is no middle ground. This is why adaptogens are so good. It is too hard to treat with uppers and downers—you’d be changing plans every day. Adaptogens help to bring back that middle ground and prevent the extremes.
What Are Adaptogens?
The simplified definition of an adaptogen is something that brings you back to balance, regardless of the direction of change. Meaning that when you are up and stressed, they can help calm you down, but when you are down and flat, they can pump you up.
Adaptogens don’t simply work as uppers or downers. They’re not happy pills or sedatives. They work by reducing the number of stress triggers you get from within your body to reduce overreacting to stress as it piles up. This also prevents exhaustion of your stress response.
4 Adaptogens That Can Help Reduce Stress
Imagine stress as an overflowing cup. You can’t stop how much the outside world tries to put in your cup. But with adaptogenic herbs, you can build a bigger cup with ashwagandha to hold more, you can remove the added burden from within your own body with turmeric and schisandra, and you can work to put a cap on it and stop it from overflowing with rhodiola.
Turmeric is an adaptogen with very mild effects on brain chemistry to alter mood up or down. Its main actions are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, supporting the immune system and reducing pain, inflammation and immune over-reactivity. This leaves more resources to deal with stress from outside your body.
Schisandra is an adaptogen with mild brain effects. Its main actions revolve around the liver and lungs, protecting us from toxic exposure and regulating acid (alkaline balance via our cells, liver and lungs).
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen with mild effects on your stress response. Its main target is supporting the other parts of the body that are switched off with stress, such as the systems that control sex hormones and thyroid hormones and support and build up our rest, digest and recovery. It works to support our recovery to prevent exhaustion from being stuck in survival mode.
Rhodiola is an adaptogen with a state-dependent effect on mood. When up and nervy before an event, it can calm you down, but if you are feeling flat and no fire, it can pick you up.
Can Supplements Help Manage Stress?
There are so many stress triggers around us at all times in the modern age. When your body is stuck in survival mode, you have two options. You can use natural or pharmaceutical drugs to manage or sedate your response to stress by modifying your mood or reducing the number of triggers that get to your brain through sedation. Or, you can reduce the severity of the stress signals to the brain to take the burden off your body and allow it to reboot naturally and adapt to your stress.
ATP Science formulated a supplement called Cort Rx to help people deal with stress. The brain knows you are under stress because it picks up on your outside environment but also measures the chemicals released by your immune system, inflammatory pathways, and toxins from your gut and liver. The adaptogenic ingredients in Cort Rx—turmeric, ashwagandha, schisandra and rhodiola—help to normalize your stress reactions by removing the stress burden.
Stress also drives your body into exhaustion. It is essential to ensure adequate nutrition. Macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat and their energy yield) are necessary to regulate energy requirements—having too much or too little is a stress. But do not dismiss the micronutrient cofactors, especially the water-soluble B vitamins that need to be replenished daily, as they are not stored in reserves. You must load up. The more you are doing, thinking and stressing, the more nutrients you are churning through. Nature knows best, so look for a food-based supplement that has been tested to show the nutrients are there in all of their naturally activated forms.
We may not be able to control our outside environment and predict when stress is going to come at us. But if we work on helping our body manage our internal inflammation, oxidative stress, and liver, gut and immune triggers, we can handle life’s challenges better.