Stress can save our lives. Now, you might think that sounds rather melodramatic of me, but I assure you it’s true. You see, stress triggers our fight or flight response which, in the days of our ancestors, kept us safe from predatory and environmental threats. In the modern day, we are less likely to be faced down by a woolly mammoth or sabre-tooth tiger, but our fight or flight hasn’t yet adapted to recognise that an unexpected phone call from an unknown number isn’t the same thing. This is why uncertainty and stress can make us anxious, and present with physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, panic attacks and fatigue.
When it comes to stress relief, many of us will have our own favourite methods of self-care and recuperation. Be that a hot candlelit bath, a walk, meditation, or a large piece of cake, the way we restore balance to ourselves in quiet moments is very personal. However, these options might not be available to us when we’re in the midst of a stressful experience, and a lot of us will only be able to consider a ‘quick fix’ in the moment.
Short term fixes - large amounts of caffeine, sugar, energy drinks - can all appear to immediately fix the problems posed by external stressors. They offer an immediate boost to our energy levels which can appear to remove the fatigue caused by stressful events, but these are not a long term or healthy solution.
There are other ways of reducing stress throughout our life.
Adaptogens, for example, can build up our resilience to stressors, giving us the opportunity to handle stressful events and experiences. They also encourage our body’s stress-protection responses and return it to a state of balance, called homeostasis. These wonderful plants are grouped as ‘adaptogens’ because of their ability to adapt to and regulate their environment - so when it comes to consuming them, that environment is you!
Used for centuries in traditional and ayurvedic medicine, the Western world is only just starting to understand the benefits and uses of adaptogens, but studies have already shown their efficacy at reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety, as well as boosting mental clarity and working memory recall. Each adaptogen works in a different way to help our bodies react and adapt to certain situations. What they do share is the uncanny ability to help us regulate our responses to that inescapable factor of modern life… Stress.
Whilst stress can impair every function of the body, and physical and mental stress can really harm our health, not all stress is bad for us. The stress caused by the pressure of an impending deadline or exam, for example, can be the catalyst we need to keep going - that creeping pressure which builds up over time and gets you to crack open a book whenever you have a spare moment.
When we are faced with a stressful experience, it goes through a three part process called General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). The first stage is ‘alarm’, the second is ‘resistance’, and the final stage is ‘exhaustion’. Adaptogens help to keep us in the ‘resistance’ phase of GAS for longer, ensuring that we don’t move into exhaustion. This helps our ability to resist the effects of stress and physiologically adapt to external and situational stressors. Unfortunately, this can’t be done in half an hour, and sipping on an adaptogenic latte during an interview might not immediately calm your nerves.
Usually, adaptogens take two to three weeks to have a noticeable effect on the body, and some of the resilience which is built up by adaptogens over time can take even longer. For example, certain studies have shown that taking ashwagandha consistently for 8 weeks improves cognitive function and working memory recall.
When taking adaptogens, always take the packaging instructions into account, and seek the advice of a medical practitioner if you’re taking other medications. Some studies suggest that changing the type of adaptogen you take every six weeks or so will help to keep their stress reducing effects active in the body.
In short, adaptogens may not be able to help us in sudden and extreme cases of anxiety and stress. They work best in conjunction with a healthy, balanced diet over time to help the body improve resilience to stress and lessen its effects on the body, helping you to be happier and healthier over time. Whether you have a cup of coffee with Lion’s Mane Mushroom in the morning for a boost of clarity, or a soothing hot chocolate with Reishi and Ashwagandha before bed to help relax your mind into sleep, adaptogens can help us to manage stress and live a calmer, happier life.