Mental and physical stress are unavoidable consequences of life which humans have been locked in battle with for as long as we have been around. Throughout the ages, every culture has found unique ways to reduce their effects in an attempt to make daily life more pleasurable.
For plant life in the brutal climatic conditions of Siberia, however, the ability to adapt to extreme environmental stress is about more than spreading your leaves in comfort- it is the difference between life and death. Responding to the pressing needs of such intolerable conditions, certain plants in the region have developed simply incredible abilities. These superheroes are the adaptogens.
How do we respond to stress normally?
While small-scale «stressors» are essential in regulating our daily activity through chemical pathways based around the hormone cortisol, too many of these distress signals over a long period of time can be hugely detrimental. Prolonged exposure can contribute to mental fatigue, physical exhaustion and even a shorter lifespan. When our body is exposed to stress we undergo the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Initial stress symptoms accompany the stage one alarm reaction. In stage two, we acquire some non-specific resistance which relieves the symptoms. In stage three, if the stressors are still present, exhaustion sets in leading to systemic stress and eventually death.
For example, when you enter a very hot room you initially feel very uncomfortable, a feeling which gradually fades as you «get used to» the conditions. However, if you were unable to alter this environment, your body would soon stop being able to ignore its surroundings. You would begin to become dehydrated and eventually die. Our body reacts to many different stressors via this GAS pathway.
Where did Adaptogens come from?
The term adaptogen was coined by Russian scientist Lazarev in 1947 to describe compounds that increase our natural non-specific stress resistance by decreasing the alarm stage in stage one of GAS. Over the 1950s and 60s he and his colleague Brekhman, aided by over a thousand researchers, analysed countless Siberian plants-classifying only 12 as true adaptogens. Their work was heavily invested into by the Soviet government, eager to gain an edge on their western counterparts. Their research fed into the Russian space, military and athletics programmes.
Strict conditions must be met for a plant to be classed as an adaptogen. These natural stress modulators must exhibit stress-protective and health stimulating properties, as well as being able to restore and maintain homeostasis. They must display non-specific normalizing effects and be completely innocuous, causing no harm and carrying no side effects.
How do Adaptogens Relieve Stress Symptoms?
In short, they protect our bodies from the debilitating effects of long-term physical and mental stress by boosting our natural tolerance for these kinds of exhaustion by aiding the functioning of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. A key feature of adaptogens is their ability to upregulate heat-shock protein expression. Heat-shock proteins are expressed by the body in response to stress. They signal that damage is imminent because various stressors can interrupt proper protein folding or even unfold functional proteins. Insufficient expression of heat-shock proteins accelerates the ageing process so adaptogens slow down this natural degradation by causing more heat-shock proteins to be present in our systems. Adaptogens also assist our stress-regulatory system, balancing cortisol levels and protecting our cells from mitochondrial damage, hence promoting longevity.
In conclusion, adaptogens boost the immune system and promote healthy adaptation to stress while alleviating the many effects of chronic stress such as inflammation and oxidative stress. Now that we’ve introduced these siberian superstars, join me in the sequel to this article where we will have a closer look at some of these miracle plants and the benefits they can bring into your life.