Stressed? These Adaptogens and Nutrients Can Help
These days, juggling demanding work and family schedules, ever-growing to-do lists, over-exercising, and being ‘on’ 24-7 can feel relentless. Not only that, but being busy is so common that it’s practically a status symbol—a badge of honor that tells everyone you’re an important member of society!
From my perspective, it’s time to change this. All of this go-go-go and disregard for relaxation is causing chronically elevated cortisol levels. Here’s how it works: High levels of stress in our lives causes us to produce increasing amounts of cortisol to prepare the body to deal with each stressful scenario. What your body doesn’t realize is that the stress we face these days isn’t the kind of life-or-death encounters our ancestors dealt with. (Thankfully, we’re not running for our lives from hungry tigers in the modern world!)
However, when you’re faced with stress—think things like an overflowing inbox or overbooking your calendar—your body undergoes the same biological processes that it would if you were running from a tiger. Those fight-or-flight hormones that once helped direct blood to vital organs to allow you to successfully run for your life now course through your veins with each email notification you receive. What’s worse, they stay elevated rather than dipping back down to healthy levels. The result? Non-stop stress.
As if that’s not bad enough, here’s the real kicker: Chronic stress causes your adrenal glands to produce more cortisol, interfering with the natural drop in cortisol that should happen as the day goes on, which keeps you in a continuous loop of stress. When the adrenal glands overproduce the stress hormone cortisol, it activates your sympathetic nervous system, causing you to experience all kinds of unpleasant symptoms like fatigue, fat storage, depression, anxiety and memory loss. In fact, high levels of cortisol can even lead to impaired thyroid function and decreased activity of sex hormones such as progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone.
(For a more detailed look at the adrenal glands and what you need to know about adrenal dysfunction, read this article!)
Always Stressed? Start Here
If you’re reading this and thinking your cortisol levels are likely sky-high, there are a number of strategies you can try.
So many of our clients ask about supplements out there to support adrenal health, which in turn can help you get your cortisol levels back to optimal levels. Yet while there are many different supplements you can take, remember this: You cannot out-supplement your stress! Though each of the below herbs and nutrients can be beneficial in helping to regulate your stress response, none of them can treat your adrenal dysfunction if you do not address the underlying cause.
It is too easy to blow off relaxation in favor of what you think is more productive. If you spend more hours of the day battling the clock, a full inbox, and your to-do lists, this over-exertion may be a primary driver of your high cortisol levels. Remember, those hair-pulling hours spent trying to be two people at once come at a cost; in fact, they have the ability to change your physiology. And you may not notice the price you are paying until you become bankrupt. The antidote is to learn how to listen to your body, which is likely screaming for you to do less. You may benefit from taking more time for rest rather than approaching wellness from a ‘what more can I do?’ mentality. Remember, the more that you expect of your body, the more you need to give it.
Once you begin to address the underlying causes of your high cortisol levels, the following foods and supplements may serve as tools to help speed up your recovery. Remember, everyone has their own unique needs and responses to different adaptogens. You need to find what works best for you.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are becoming increasingly popular thanks to their ability to bring a person’s bodily functions back to homeostasis. Adaptogens are essentially herbs or mushrooms that are often used in supplements that help protect the body against the physical result of stress. While stress will engage your hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (a.k.a. your HPA axis)—essentially our central stress response system—adaptogens can help regulate the amount of stress hormone produced in response to stressful events. They can also regulate cellular sensitivity to the stress hormones that are being produced, giving your body a higher tolerance for stress. This often leads to feeling more steady energy, calm, less anxious or jittery, and more focused. They also can help people sleep better when taken in the evening.
While there are many adaptogens that can be useful in treating a variety of conditions when used on their own, a blend of several adaptogens can also be beneficial in restoring proper adrenal function. Be cautious of adopting a “more is better” mentality and adding them to everything that you eat because it is likely not worth your money and can be overdone. Pay attention to how you are feeling after adding anything new to your diet and supplement routine and always start low and go slow!
Due to their strong taste, both adaptogens are typically found in supplement form. But you can also purchase them in powder form and add them to your favorite recipes or use them as elixirs. You may also find them as an ingredient in relaxing or calming teas or you can make your own tea blend and drink your way to lower levels of stress.
Here is a list of some of the most common adaptogens:
Ashwagandha helps calm the central nervous system, which is responsible for interpreting and signaling events as stressful. This adaptogen has been used in India as a powerful ayurvedic therapy for thousands of years to help reduce nervous breakdowns, insomnia, memory loss and so much more. It has anti-inflammatory properties and can support optimal neurotransmitter and hormone levels. Supplementing with ashwagandha has been shown to lower levels of cortisol within the body: In a study of patients with chronic stress, not only did those taking the ashwagandha report reduced feelings of anxiety and insomnia over that of the placebo group, but their serum cortisol levels dropped as well.
Rhodiola can reduce the secretion of cortisol during stressful events as well as reduce mental fatigue caused by stress, which in turn improves mental and physical performance. This herb can reduce the body’s response to outside stressors since the phenolic compounds present in rhodiola closely mirror the structures of the hormone epinephrine, which is involved in the activation of the stress system. Rhodiola has also been proven to reduce the biological response to both mental and physical stress in multiple studies and can have antidepressant properties.
Cordyceps are mushrooms that have been used in traditional Chinese Medicine for fatigue, blood pressure regulation (via nitric oxide release), immune support and endurance. Some research also supports that cordyceps are associated with lower blood sugar levels, preserved beta-cell function and kidney protection, offering a promising therapy for people with Type 2 Diabetes. One study showed that supplementing with rhodiola and cordyceps was associated with better aerobic performance after short-term high altitude training.
Asian Ginseng Root
This herb that is native to East Asia and Russia is also known as Panax Ginseng. Asian Ginseng has been associated with increased nitric oxide production, reduced muscle injury and inflammation after exercise. It is also known to support energy levels with one randomized, placebo controlled trial demonstrating its anti-fatigue effects in 90 individuals with idiopathic chronic fatigue. It may also help postmenopausal women improve their menopausal symptoms.
While adaptogens can be incredible tools for healing the stress response, it is important to note that those with autoimmune conditions should be cautious when taking them, as the stress mitigating responses of these herbs can also stimulate the immune system.
4 Nutrients That Can Help You Lower Your Cortisol Levels
Your diet plays a key role in how healthy (or not) you respond to stress. For starters, a very low-carb diet or long bouts of intermittent fasting may exacerbate stress levels. These diets can cause low amounts of glucose to be present in the blood, which can prompt the body to produce cortisol in order to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range. While these diets can be incredibly beneficial for preventing and treating many chronic conditions, work with a practitioner to determine what is best for you.
Similarly, you’ll want to avoid eating habits that cause blood sugar levels to spike and plummet, such as consuming highly processed, high-glycemic foods that eventually lead to a spike and subsequent crash in blood sugar levels. Eating a whole foods diet and following my optimal plate method is a critical first step.
There are a handful of nutrients that I recommend for all of us living in this fast-paced, stressful world—and they’re especially helpful to make sure you’re getting plenty of if you know your cortisol and stress levels are high.
This is a phospholipid that’s present in every cell in the body, though it is found in high concentrations in the brain, lungs, heart, liver, and skeletal muscle. This nutrient has been shown to protect against high levels of stress, improve memory, enhance mood, and speed up recovery after exercise. In one study of patients supplementing with soy-derived phosphatidylserine, participants taking the supplement reduced both serum ACTH (hormones that signal to the adrenals to release cortisol) and cortisol levels.
Where to get it: While your body can synthesize phosphatidylserine, you get most of it from the food you consume. It is present in small amounts in organ meats, certain fish, and organic soybeans, though supplementing 300-800mg, in divided doses throughout the day can lead to heightened benefits. Keep in mind that most phosphatidylserine supplements are derived from soy, so purchase a product that’s soy-free if that’s an issue for you. (Click here for a sunflower-based supplement.)
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that’s involved in many functions across the body, such as regulating the immune system, repairing tissues, and maintaining cartilage. Vitamin C is also used by the adrenal glands to produce hormones, which is why it can become depleted in times of stress. Research backs vitamin C’s stress-busting powers: In one study, men supplementing with 1,000 mg of vitamin C had faster recovery times in terms of the biological responses to stress and reported lower subjective feelings of stress than those not supplementing. The faster recovery time—as well as the reduced response to stress—allow those supplementing with vitamin C to produce less of the stress hormones and bounce back faster when faced with stressful situations.
Where to get it: Vitamin C is an essential nutrient, meaning your body can’t synthesize it on its own and you must get it from food and supplements. Food sources include broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, strawberries, oranges and more. You may need additional vitamin C supplementation from a high-quality brand to see the stress-reducing effects. Supplement between 1-3 grams of vitamin C per day, in divided doses, throughout the day for increased absorption. However, keep in mind that side effects of high levels of vitamin C include loose stools, nausea, stomach cramps, and low blood sugar levels. It’s also not recommended for those with recurrent kidney stone formation, renal impairment, or hemochromatosis.
This is one of the most important minerals, balancing electrolytes and serving as a cofactor for more than 300 processes that happen in the body. When magnesium levels are low, the point at which the adrenal glands produce adrenaline and cortisol becomes much lower, meaning you become biologically more sensitive to small stressors. What’s more, the body tends to burn through magnesium via the urine during times of stress, further exacerbating this issue and causing a vicious cycle of a lower stress threshold and ever decreasing levels of magnesium. Research on athletes performing physically stressful tasks found that supplementing with magnesium can suppress the release of stress hormones.
Where to get it: While magnesium is found in high amounts in pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, black beans, and dark chocolate, most people require additional magnesium supplementation. If you have regular bowel movements, it’s best to supplement with magnesium glycinate, as this form has the highest absorption.
These are essential fatty acids, which means the body does not make them on its own. The other kind of essential fatty acids that the body needs to consume in food sources are omega-6s. But as a society, people have greatly increased their intake of omega-6 fatty acids mainly through processed seed oils such as sunflower oil, safflower oil, and soybean oil. The increased consumption of these oils means people are getting too many omega-6s in their diets, not enough omega-3s, which throws off your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Omega-3s are powerful anti-inflammatory agents, which reduce the production of pro-inflammatory hormones that can lead to many chronic health issues. Not only has low intake of omega-3s been shown to further dysregulate the HPA axis and autonomic nervous system, but supplementing with certain fish oils high in omega-3s has been shown to blunt adrenal activity during mentally stressful scenarios.
Where to get it: For maximum absorption, get your omega-3s in from fish such as wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, cod, and rainbow trout. The recommendation is to consume 2-3 servings per week, but additional supplementation for fish oil can often be beneficial.
Interested in learning more about your personal stress response and supplement needs? We’ll tackle this topic and test your personal cortisol levels throughout the entire day via an at-home saliva kit in our My Food Is Health program. Sign up for our waitlist here!