Did you know that one of the most neurotoxic and potentially lethal chemicals are released as a result of stress? The hormone cortisol is related to chronic stress and can have a very negative affect on your physiological, emotional and cognitive functioning. Stress affects all your major systems and can even alter thyroid and adrenal gland activities which can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, chest pains, foggy thinking, irritability, weight gain, bone density loss, diabetes, heart risk and more.
This is the reasons why adaptogens can be so effective in so many ways. Adaptogens help the body and brain deal with internal and external stressors. Cortisol, which is also known as the aging hormone, is a fight or flight related hormone. It stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands.
When your body goes into fight or flight, many things happen. Your digestive system slows down and decreases secretions, blood pressure increases and this is often accompanied by potentially dangerous increase in heart rate. Living in this state of chronic stress can create a difficult to escape feedback loop that can put you in a state of near constant stress. This can burn out adrenal glands and lead to a sense of chronic fatigue. Chronic stress can also have a negative impact on the digestive tract.
In addition to being a fight or flight related chemical, cortisol is also known as the aging hormone. One way to help fight adrenal fatigue and the deleterious effects of cortisol on the body is to keep your cortisol levels balanced. Some side effects of chronic high levels of cortisol include anxiety, auto-immune diseases, cancer, chronic fatigue, hormone imbalances, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid issues and difficulty losing weight.
Plant medicines have been safely used for centuries, but only in the past few decades has their been much research into exactly how and why they work and how effective they may be. One class of herbs that have been commonly used are referred to as adaptogens. According to the naturopath Edward Wallace, an adaptogen doesn’t have a specific action. This sets them apart from many other herbs or supplements. The real magic of adaptogens is their blancing and normalizing infuence.
Adaptogens have long been prized plant medicines especially in the Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine systems. Improved energy levels and vitality, lowered stress and improved cognition have been noted with adaptogen use anecdotally for years, but researchers are beginning to understand more about how the adaptogens actually work. Improving the reaction time of the adrenal glands allows them to act more quickly and cut off the cortisol production as soon as necessary.
Not all stress is created equal. There are actually two distinct types of stress, good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Cortisol, like some other catecholamines like ephinephrine, can provide a boost in mood, focus and energy. This is the purpose of the fight or flight response. The surge in adrenaline was built in to help us escape dangers surrounding us. Unfortunately, since we’re not running away from sabretooth tigers anymore that cortisol doesn’t get worn off as often. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201506/how-do-various-cortisol-levels-impact-cognitive-functioning
Low levels of cortisol can also have negative effects on the body and the brain. Low cortisol levels may be a biomarker for depression, apathy or hopelessness, but elevated levels of cortisol are directly lined to the anxiety and distress that are created by environmental stressors and then manifest in dangerous chemical secretions of cortisol.
BACOPA MONNIERI, AYURVEDIC MEMORY TONIC
Several types of adaptogens have been shown to be healthy at balancing cortisol levels. Bacopa monnieri is an aquatic plant that was long used as a memory tonic in Ayurveda. It has been considered a longevity supplement and nootropic as well as theorized to have some potential application as an adjunctive for those living with anxiety and depression. One proposed mechanism of action for its cognitive effects is simply by releiving anxiety and stress levels. Stress not only fogs up the mind but can also create long term conditions that make executive decision making difficult. Bacopa is also an antioxidant, to boot. Bacopa is also an antioxidant, to boot.
Some research on bacopa shows it has reliably improved memory in healthy adults as well as those beginning to experience cognitive decline related to aging. Increased rate of information retention is believed to be more from a decrease in forgetting rather than improved rate of learning. Bacopa also has a positive effect on neuronal communication and nerve ending growth.
Rhodiola is another excellent Chinese tonic herb. It has been used to combat stress, improve energy and raise immune levels. Stress also depletes the immune system. Rhodiola may reduce adrenal related fatigue and exhaustion and, like bacopa and many other adaptogens, it seems to have a greater affect as it is taken regularly. Rhodiola may be somewhat energizing so it may be best to take early in the day especially if you’re sensitive to stimulants or already have difficulty sleeping. Some research suggests rhodiola may also be mood boosting, can reduce fatigue and appears to improve cognition regardless of stress or fatigue levels.
MUCUNA PRURIENS, the Velvet bean
The velvet bean is another adaptogenic plant crammed with nootropic potential. Mucuna pruriens, the velvet bean grows in Africa and Asia. Like the other herbs we’ve mentioned, it was long a staple in the Eastern medical tradition. The extract of velvet bean contains levodopa (L-Dopa) which is a precursor to dopamine. Synthetic l-dopa has been used as a prescription drug to treat Parkinsons and other neurological conditions.
The brain uses L-Dopa to biosynthesize dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter and is also related to focus, attention and feellings of reward that are tied into the reward-feedback cycle that is necessary to maintaining levels of motivation. Improving dopamine levels may improve mood and relieve anxiety while in turn improving levels of focus and motivation that can improve your overall cognitive functioning. Some studies have attributed potential for increased motivation, improved memory, mood balancing effects and even some aphrodisiac potential. Mucuna is also used by folks in the bodybuilding and fitness communities because it may improve testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) levels.
TONGKAT ALI, THE “MALAYSIAN GINSENG”
Tongkat Ali is another adaptogen, like velvet bean, that has been known to improve testosterone production and may have some application as an aphrodisiac. Tongkat Ali is native to Malaysia and is occasionally known as “Malaysian ginseng” because of its similar adaptogenic properties. Traditionally the root is prepared as a tea or soup and often used by older men to recover from tiredness, fatigue or libido issues.
Like the other adaptogens, there is a build-up effect. The immediate effects of tongkat ali will be related to neurotransmitter levels, bu after a couple weeks of regular dosing it begins to affect the endocrine system increasing testosterone and decreasing cortisol. Interestingly, it doesn’t actually up-regulate testosterone. Instead, it makes the testosterone already in the body more bio-available or effective.
If your testosterone levels are already healthy, this boost won’t take place but if your testosterone levels are low regular intake may help get you back to baseline. Both men and women may find benefits in Tongkat Ali. Women and men both need testosterone and since women create ten times less testosterone than men it’s vital for women to maintain healthy endocrinal levels. Tongkat ali, like velvet bean is especially good for athletes and bodybuilders, those with low libido and like the rest of the adaptogens, folks who would like to try and normalize their cortsol levels.
L-THEANINE, THE “NEUROTRANSMITTER ADAPTOGEN”
Finally, we’ll mention l-theanine. Technically, l-theanine isn’t a true adaptogen because it doesn’t operate on the cortisol system. It does however have very similar effects to the adaptogens, but its primary action is through antagonism of glutamate and agonism of GABA. Theanine not only mimics the calming effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, but is structurally similar to glutamate (the primary excitatory neurotransmitter). So not only does it produce some GABAergic but it blocks some potentially stress inducing glutamergic effects.
Like cortisol, glutamate can be neurotoxic at high levels. By blocking glutamate receptors and supporting GABA, l-theanine may reduce feelings of anxiety and stress and improve cognition by blocking the deleterious effects of anxiety. L-theanine may also relieve high levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine.
Remember when trialling any new herb or supplement, always abide by the recommended dosage instructions. It’s best to start near the bottom of the therapeutic window and find your sweet spot. Many herbs and supplements have a U-shaped dosage curve. Up to a point, greater amounts of the supplement will improve conditions but past a certain point the efficacy actually decreases so it’s best to find the minimum effective dosage and stick with that.
Adaptogens often have a build up effect and are more effective taken over periods of time but you still may want to cycle off at least a day or two a week. Remember to always speak with your primary care practitioner before undergoing any new supplement, diet or exercise regimen. This is especially important if you are currently under a doctor’s care or taking any over-the-counter or prescription medicines for any pre-existing condition.