Cortisol gets a bad rap. Produced by the adrenal glands, the hormone helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar level and sleep cycles. However, the so-called “stress hormone” also triggers the fight-or-flight response to threatening situations. In prehistoric times, the danger was a predator. Today, it’s everyday life.
“Most of us are living in fight-or-flight mode, and it doesn’t mean we’re going through acute trauma and acute suffering—though some may be,” says Liz Abel, a certified nutrition specialist and licensed dietitian nutritionist in Wilmington. “We’re screaming at emails, getting cut off by cars and feeling like we’re shuttling our kids around.”
Prolonged stress can lead to depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems and cardiovascular issues. Adaptogens might help—but how?
Adaptogens are botanicals and mushrooms thought to possess health benefits—and they’re a big business. According to a Global Market Insights Inc. study, the market valuation could top $19 billion by 2032.
Why the interest? Adaptogens may balance cortisol, which affects nearly every organ and tissue in the body. An imbalance can lead to health concerns. For instance, Addison’s disease causes adrenal insufficiency, and Cushing’s disease produces an excess. When a healthcare provider rules out a medical condition, adaptogens may assist by “fine-tuning” your cortisol rhythm, Abel says.
“Some adaptogens can push cortisol up, and some can pull it down, and some can work both ways, which is why ashwagandha is so popular,” Abel says. “It’s almost like it understands the body and does what it needs to do to regulate the nervous system.”
Ashwagandha, an evergreen shrub in Asia and Africa, is a “big one,” agrees Andrea Riley, a wellness coach and consultant with Isagenix, which sells dietary supplements and personal care products.
The medicinal herb contains chemicals that might help calm the brain, reduce swelling, lower blood pressure and alter the immune system.
Rhodiola rosea (rose root) reportedly stimulates the nervous system, decreases depression, enhances work performance, eliminates fatigue and even prevents high-altitude sickness. “It helps manage the impact of physical and mental stress,” Riley says.
People use holy basil for anxiety, stress, diabetes and high cholesterol. Mushrooms, meanwhile, are also praised for immune-boosting benefits. And these are just a few adaptogens.
Scientists would maintain that there’s no evidence to support any claims. The proof is often personal. “It’s usually a soft, subtle change,” Abel says. “It’s not like, ‘Wow, I took this pill and woke up feeling amazing.’”
Riley, who has been using adaptogens for 10 years, says they’ve eased the symptoms of menopause, including sleep disturbances. Since high cortisol can hinder weight loss efforts, they also help her stay fit. However, she adds, she is not making health claims—she is speaking from experience.
Talk to a nutritionist, herbalist or healthcare provider before taking a tincture, pill or product with adaptogens, which cause side effects if you take certain prescription medications, such as drugs for hypertension and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Adaptogens aren’t a cure-all. You likely need to make lifestyle changes, Abel says. “You’re never going to have success reregulating your nervous system with supplements alone.”
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