The Stress Response and Adaptogens

stress and australian women and how adaptogens can help

The modern world is stressful. There is a mismatch between our current environment filled with air, noise and visual pollution, torrents of information and an overwhelming number of opportunities, and the environment of our evolutionary adaption - think the simpler world of hunter-gatherer and nomadic societies.

The way we currently live is not set up in a way that is conducive to how environmental conditions were when our brains evolved.

As women we:

  • have multiple responsibilities and are pulled in multiple directions
  • try to fit more and more into our days and sleep is sacrificed
  • compare ourselves to impossible or unrealistic standards
  • are constantly connected

The 2019 Jean Hailes Women's Health Survey (1) found 42% of women who completed the survey reported feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge at least weekly in the past four weeks and it was even for women aged 18-35 (64.1%).

We weren’t built for this level of stress 24/7. But with the help of adaptogens, our bodies can adapt to this stress.

How do we respond to stress?

The body’s short-term and long-term reaction to stress is described as general adaptation syndrome. General adaptation syndrome (GAS) is a three-phase reaction to stress as seen in the below diagram:

stress response - how adaptogens can help

Diagram: based on the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model created by David McQuillan.

Alarm Reaction Phase

This is our initial experience of the stress; it could be work pressures, family pressures, physical stress from the demands of training, or emotional stress from challenging relationships. The body accounts for all this stress in the same way regardless of its source.

During the alarm reaction phase, the stressor disturbs homeostasis - this is the dip in the diagram above. Homeostasis is a point of balance or internal biological equilibrium, you are feeling good and everything is okay. The disruption causes the infamous fight or flight response to kick in - this is the significant uptick in our resistance to stress in the first third of the diagram. Physically this means our heart rate increases, our adrenal gland releases cortisol (a stress hormone), and we receive a boost of adrenaline, which increases energy. 

Resistance (adaptation) Phase

In the Resistance (adaptation) Phase the body tries to counteract the physiological changes that happened during the alarm reaction phase where we were either fighting or fleeing. This phase releases a lower amount of cortisol, and our heart rate and blood pressure begin to normalise. This is represented by the gradual increase in resistance to stress in the middle third of the diagram.

Although our body enters the recovery phase, it is still on high alert for a little while. If the stressful situation comes to an end during this phase, then our body will then return to normal and our hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure reach a pre-stress state. We go back to the first third of the diagram. But, if the stressor remains or we haven’t been able to deal effectively with the stress, our body stays in a state of alert, and stress hormones continue to be produced. If the resistance phase continues for too long without any relief to offset the effects of stress, it can lead to the exhaustion phase.

Exhaustion Phase

After an extended period of stress, our body goes into the final phase of the general adaptation syndrome - the last third in the diagram. We can only fight or flee for so long before it begins to wear down our capacity to resist and deal with stress. Our body has depleted its energy resources by continually trying but failing to recover from the initial alarm reaction phase.

Struggling with stress for long periods can drain our physical, emotional, and mental resources to the point where our body no longer has the strength to fight stress. This could see us experience:

  • fatigue
  • burnout
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • feeling unable to cope
  • decreased stress tolerance

If we don’t find ways to manage our stress levels at this phase, then we are at risk of developing stress-related health conditions in addition to the mental health problems listed above like:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • abnormal heart rhythms
  • heart attacks
  • stroke

How do adaptogens help us respond to stress?

stress response with adaptogens

Diagram: based on the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model created by David McQuillan and altered to highlight the impact adaptogenic herbs have on the GAS as studied by Panossian and Wikman (2010). (2)

Clinical trials have demonstrated that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect that increases our mental work capacity when faced with stress and fatigue. (2) This means even when we are experiencing stressful situations we are able to feel better and perform better and go about daily life better than if we didn’t have the support of adaptogens.

Adaptogens help our bodies by increasing our ability to resist stress and decreasing our sensitivity to stressors as seen by the dotted line in the diagram above. Adaptogens give us:

  • protection against stress in the initial alarm phase - the dip doesn’t go as low
  • protection against stress in the resistance phase - it doesn’t peak as high
  • prolongs the phase of resistance - we don’t drop below homeostasis and reach exhaustion

So in times of extended or chronic stress instead of reaching exhaustion, adaptogens help us reach a higher level of equilibrium (the homeostasis). The higher it is, the better the adaptation to stress. 

Footnotes:

(1). https://jeanhailes.org.au/survey2019

(2).  Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity - Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/