Stress on a cellular level 

Stress happens very much on a cellular level - we just notice the more external symptoms first, such as fatigue, a dull appearance, mood swings and overwhelm. Inside, it all starts with the mitochondria within our cells. Mitochondria generate oxygen-containing radicals that can either damage or repair the functionality of proteins by distorting their 3D structure. Under stress such as an infection, virus, and physical or emotional stress, a stress signal response can be activated causing the release of these radicals and enzymes. One of these enzymes is JNK, which functions to increase the creation of aggressive radicals and nitric oxide, which in turn suppresses the creation of energising molecules like ATP. This causes a lack of energy and the reduction of protein function, and therefore our stress response(1)

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are ancient herbs that have been used for centuries to help the body adapt to all kinds of stress, from mental anxiety to physical stress such as high cortisol levels. Our bodies produce stress hormones when under external pressure, and our adrenals then secrete enough hormones to counteract that level of stress. Adaptogens have been shown to enhance adrenal gland secretion and therefore lower excess stress hormone production, which is why they’ve been touted as the supplements to beat stress. 

One adaptogen you might have heard of is Ashwagandha, which is grown in dry regions of South Asia, Central Asia, and Africa, and is regularly used in Ayurvedic medicine. Ashwagandha is clinically proven to reduce feelings of anxiety by supporting the production of mood-stabilising brain chemicals and helps to optimise the body’s stress response by lowering cortisol levels(2).  In an 8-week, randomised placebo-controlled study, Ashwagandha was associated with greater reductions in anxiety, morning cortisol, c-reactive protein, pulse rate, and blood pressure in chronically stressed adults(3).  It’s also been shown to reduce anxiety by up to 40% in some cases(4).  

How adaptogens work 

Another well-researched adaptogen is Lion’s Mane, a type of fungi that helps to enhance memory and recall, improve the rate of cognitive decline and decrease body and brain fatigue. Several studies have shown that lion’s mane may help reverse stress-related changes to neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine and serotonin. Lion’s Mane is the absolute best mushroom for brain support, with potent neuroprotective properties and nerve growth factors, which protect and regenerate brain tissue. In fact, one study found that when taking Lion’s Mane in a supplement form for 16 weeks, participants showed a significantly higher cognitive function compared to the control group(5).  

Several clinical trials have also recently demonstrated that adaptogens can have an anti-fatigue effect on the brain, which serves to increase our capacity to cope with stress and fatigue, particularly our tolerance to mental exhaustion(6)

The blood brain barrier

If we are looking for a supplement to take that will specifically work to boost our brain and protect it from stressors, then the supplement needs to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is both a structural and functional roadblock to microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses or parasites, that may be circulating in the bloodstream. It’s highly impenetrable, so much so that the ability of adaptogens to cross the barrier has been until recently, little understood. One adaptogen that has no trouble crossing the barrier is Lion’s Mane(7).  Since it’s able to get through to the brain, it specifically stimulates nerve growth factors as well as increasing the brain's blood circulation(8).  This research into Lion’s Mane is particularly exciting because it suggests that the clever adaptogen could be used to help treat brain-based illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and depression. 

Adaptogens are not a quick fix 

Adaptogens are meant to be used over the long-term, rather than as a quick fix like coffee, sugar or other energy drinks that many rely on when energy levels are low. They work slowly to build up the body’s ability to fight fatigue and stress, so often we don’t see the benefits until many months down the line after we realise we’re not getting sick or tired so easily. Therefore, it’s best to give adaptogens time to work and to take them consistently, whether you take Ashwagandha, Lion’s Mane, Rhodiola, Holy Basil or ginseng. It’s also important to note that though adaptogens may play an important role in helping the human body resist various stress factors, the clinical application of plant-originated adaptogens is very much still in the preliminary stage. More research needs to be done in order to fully understand exactly how these plants work on a cellular level, though so far it is looking very promising. 

1 Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity
2 An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract
An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract
4 Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Insomnia and Anxiety: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Study
5 Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial
6 Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity
7 Neurohealth Properties of Hericium erinaceus Mycelia Enriched with Erinacines
8 7 Adaptogens to Give Your Brain the Boost You Need