It’s likely that you’ve heard about the detrimental effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can affect every physiological system in your body, including your thyroid and adrenal glands. It can make you anxious and irritable, lead to weight gain and bone loss, contribute to diabetes and heart disease risk, and deplete your energy levels.
Cortisol is also known as the aging hormone. When cortisol gets too high, it puts you into a “fight or flight” response, which stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands. When this occurs, there is a decrease in your digestive secretions and an increase in blood pressure. This puts your body in a state of constant stress, which will burn out your adrenal glands, stress your digestive tract and cause you to age more rapidly. So if you want to look younger, feel younger and be healthy, you must get your cortisol levels balanced.
Side effects of chronically elevated cortisol can include:
- Autoimmune Diseases
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Common Cold
- Hormone Imbalance
- Irritable Bowel Disease
- Thyroid Conditions
- Weight Loss Resistance
So what can help us adapt to stress and lower cortisol? Adaptogens …
What Are Adaptogens?
Phytotherapy refers to the use of plants for their healing abilities. Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants: They help balance, restore and protect the body. As naturopath Edward Wallace explains, an adaptogen doesn’t have a specific action: It helps you respond to any influence or stressor, normalizing your physiological functions.
Naturopath Marcelle Pick of Women to Women reports that adaptogenic herbs can recharge your adrenal glands, helping you to respond to stress. Adaptogens include ashwaganda, astragalus, ginseng, licorice root, holy basil, some mushrooms and rhodiola. According to Jan Whiticomb, there are 16 proven adaptogenic herbs.
Top 7 Adaptogen Herbs
Ginseng is the most well-known adaptogen, and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is considered the most potent. According to Wallace, research has validated Asian ginseng’s use for improving mental performance and your ability to withstand stress. This red ginseng also has antioxidant effects, antidepressant effects, and can help naturally lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
There are a number of adaptogens referred to as ginsengs that aren’t technically ginsengs but have similar composition or effects, and the benefits of ginseng are undeniable.
Holy basil, also called tulsi, is known in India as the “elixir of anti-aging.” Preliminary studies suggest that holy basil benefits include helping you fight fatigue and stress; boost your immune system; and regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and hormone levels.
Ashwaganda is often referred to as Indian ginseng. Often used in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwaganda regulates the immune system and eases anxiety. Ashwaganda has been used in eastern medicine for over 2,500 years and has immuno-modulating effects that boost your immune system and aid the body in lowering cortisol levels.
Astragalus root is used in Chinese medicine. It boosts immunity and buffers the effects of stress. It increases the amount of anti-stress compounds our bodies use to repair and prevent stress-related damage. It may also reduce the ability of stress hormones like cortisol to bind to receptors.
Licorice root can increase energy and endurance, boost the immune system, and protect the thymus from being damaged by cortisol, but its use requires professional supervision because of how it may affect blood pressure.
Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea), or golden root, is a potent adaptogen that has been the focus of much research. Rhodiola provides a buffer to stress-related mental and physical fatigue. According to Whiticomb, Rhodiola was used by Russian cosmonauts, athletes and military personnel, and years of study have begun to uncover the very mechanisms by which it acts as an adaptogen.
Rhodiola rosea contains a phytochemical known as salisdroside. This component helps combat anxiety and aging. Rhodiola suppresses the production of cortisol and increases levels of stress-resistant proteins. Studies have found that it restores normal patterns of eating and sleeping after stress; combats mental and physical fatigue; and protects against oxidative stress, heat stress, radiation and exposure to toxic chemicals. Rhodiola protects the heart and liver, increases use of oxygen, improves memory, and may extend longevity. Also, new research proves it is also effective in weight loss.
Cordycep mushrooms, reishi, shiitake and maitake mushrooms are funguses with antioxidant properties. That means mushrooms have all the nutritional benefits of antioxidant foods. They may not be adaptogens in the classic sense, but each has adaptogenic, antitumor and immune-enhancing properties. Learn more about the benefits of mushrooms in “Disease-Fighting Mushrooms.”
Eating well, getting proper rest, staying active, writing down what you’re grateful for and maintaining social connection all help protect you from chronic stress, which kills your quality of life. Adding adaptogens to your routine can make you even more resilient to the damaging effects of high cortisol levels.
Dr. Axe’s Key Points
- Chronic stress can affect every physiological and psychological system.
- Adaptogens balance and restore the body.
- You can increase your capacity to deal with stress and improve your mental and physical performance with the use of adaptogens.
Marcelle Pick, “Natural Treatments for Adrenal Imbalance — Restoring the Energy You Thought Was Lost,” Women to Women, Last modified April, 14, 2011,
Edward Wallace, “Adaptogenic Herbs: Nature’s Solution to Stress,” Chiropractic Resource Association, http://www.chiro.org/nutrition/FULL/Adaptogenic_Herbs.shtml
Jan Whiticomb, “Reducing the Risks of High Cortisol,” Life Extension Foundation, September 2011, http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2011/sep2011_Reducing-the-Risks-of-High-Cortisol_01.htm
Marcelle Pick, “Eating to Support Your Adrenal Glands — Small Choices Can Make a Difference,” Women to Women, Updated July 17, 2012, http://www.womentowomen.com/adrenalhealth/adrenalglandfunction-nutrition.aspx