Stress is in fact a vital part of our physiological make-up and an ancient response to any sort of threat to our existence. Our capacity to “stress” is one of the reasons we are so advanced as a race and it is worth considering that the early flightless birds such as the Dodo had no adrenals glands and thus were incapable of stress – we all know from their lack of existence their famous fate. Early man had to be capable of reacting in the face of a life-threatening stressor, such as attack from wild animals, while hunting and this reaction had to allow the body to become strong enough to either fight the aggressor or flee. This is now famously known as “fight or flight.” In order to understand how stress affects the body and what the biological effects of this response might be, it is necessary to look at the various stages of stress.
Stage I – Alarm State (fight or flight): When a threat occurs, the brain sends a message to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) giving instructions to prepare the body for fight or flight. This increases heart rate and blood flow to the liver and heart as well as dilating the lungs for increased oxygen flow. The SNS then alerts the adrenals to produce adrenaline and noradrenaline which increase oxygen and blood to the heart, brain and skeletal muscles for energy supply so that the body can either fight or run from the threat. Blood pressure and heart rate are raised so as to provide sufficient blood to vital organs during the necessary exercise and blood lipids and glucose levels rise to provide the fuel needed. The digestive and reproductive systems are also suppressed to conserve energy for vital organs and survival responses. All of these emergency systems are in place to prepare us for fight or flight and are very valuable if we need to do either of these things. However, modern life is predominantly sedentary and we generally do not need vast amounts of glucose under modern day stress which often occurs in the work place or at home. The long term effects of these mechanisms on the body are varied and may be highly damaging.
Stage 2 – Resistance State: At this stage, which lasts longer than the alarm state, different hormones replace adrenaline and we start to see the damage that long term stress can cause.
Stage 3 – Exhaustion State: In the exhaustion state, the body’s resources are depleted and it can no longer maintain the second stage. Exhaustion ensues, often leading to the inability to even get out of bed in the mornings. This is where long term physical and physiological damage occurs and if we look at elements of each stage of the stress response, it will become clear why (see table 1).
|Stress Response Mechanism||Impact on Health|
|Protein breakdown||Muscle wasting, food seeking behaviour stimulated (to replace lost energy), weight gain|
|Glucose & fatty acid release||Excessive weight gain, increased insulin response, T2 diabetes, hyperlipidaemia|
|Cortisol to hippocampus brain area||Desensitisation of hippocampus neurones – impaired memory, confusion, brain fog|
|Adrenaline, noradrenaline, increased blood pressure||Osteoporosis, arterial blockages|
|Permanent cortisol release||Inflammation, congestive heart failure or heart attacks|
The Role of Adaptogens
Adaptogens are a natural substance that increases the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factors; they cause a non-specific increase in the resistance of an organism to noxious influences. They must be non-toxic and almost free of side-effects. They exert a normalizing and balancing action both for hypo and hyper stress, improve general mental, physical or emotional performance and promote recovery from stressful gv situations. Some adaptogens which have shown promising research results are outlined below.
Siberian Ginseng: Its active ingredients are tetracyclic triterpenoid saponins which differ from those in panax ginseng – another adaptogen. It have been shown to reduce the detrimental effects of stress by conserving vitamin C and diminishing adrenal hypertrophy; however care should be taken as it can also raise testosterone levels, possibly resulting in increased aggression. Siberian ginseng also helps balance blood sugar levels – another important part of stress management – as well as asserting an anti-coagulant effect. Side effects may include heart palpitations, insomnia and hypertension.
Rhodiola Rosea: Rhodiola is a highly active adaptogen which produces a stimulating effect within 30 minutes of administration that continues for at least 4-6 hours. It has been well researched and produced very interesting results, showing improved attention, cognitive function and mental performance in fatigue and in chronic fatigue syndrome as well as supporting immune function and increasing exam performance. It has not been FDA approved to treat or cure any disease however.
Schisandra Chinensis: A traditional Chinese herb, Schisandra has been very well studied in Russia as an adaptogen and has also been shown to have hepatoprotective properties. In those trials, it was shown to increase endurance and physical efficacy and decrease sickness in factory workers. Schisandra increases levels of nitric oxide which may explain these effects. It has also been shown in clinical trials to improve concentration, coordination and endurance in healthy males.
Glycyrrhiza Glabra (licorice): Licorice is a saponin, defined as capable of foaming in water. It is one of the most highly regarded herbs used to treat conditions associated with poor adrenal function. As well as balancing oestrogen and progesterone, it also extends cortisol levels by inhibiting its breakdown, thus aiding low adrenal output. It may cause a slight rise in blood pressure via the increased cortisol in the kidneys and so care should be taken in people with hypertension. Care also should be taken with oestrogen replacements due to its phytoestrogenic properties.
Fish Oils: Not an adaptogen, fish oils have nevertheless been well studied for their positive effects on adrenal output and the effects of stress. They have been shown to decrease fat mass and salivary cortisol levels and prevent the adrenal response to mental stress in healthy subjects, blunting serum adrenaline, cortisol and fatty acids concentrations.