How we react to mental stress is controlled by a complex interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands. These three structures form the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and help control mood, energy levels, body temperature, and immunity.
The hypothalamus secretes hormones that act on the pituitary gland that can cause or stop the release of pituitary hormones. The adrenal glands release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The role of the HPA axis is expansive yet its primary function relates to how we respond to stress. In the first stage of the stress response the hypothalamus releases a hormone that signals the pituitary to “activate” the adrenal gland to release cortisol. Cortisol is a classical stress hormone that is increased during times of stress.
Cortisol release is a normal and healthy response to normal levels of stress. This is certainly true for acute stress. However, chronic exposure to stress, like job pressures or family demands, can add on heavy doses of mental stress. Chronic stress seems to be a hallmark of modern life and can cause dysfunction in both the HPA axis and cortisol secretion patterns. A prolonged stress response can negatively affect one of the most important organs in your body, your brain-as a result, the individual may experience decreased cognition, anxiety and poor mental performance.
However, bioactive substances from Adaptogens can help by functioning like “stress vaccines” by reducing the over-exaggerated response to a stressor and by helping maintain healthy levels of cortisol. This effect has been noted in a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study using ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) supplements in adults experiencing high levels of stress (1). Not only did researchers find decreased levels of perceived stress in subjects taking ashwagandha, but cortisol was also decreased. The researchers suggested that the supplement’s “therapeutic activity may be attributed, at least in part, to its effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which regulates serum cortisol concentration.”
The idea of a “stress vaccine” was coined by Adaptogen expert Alexander Panossian, who explained that adpatogens mimic stress itself and create an adaptive response to stress (2). This translates into increasing the work capacity of the brain by being “stress-protective” or “restorative.” Dr. Panossian reasons that the chemical structures of Adaptogens are similar to hormones like adrenaline (2). Components of the herbs may also resemble corticosteroids, which help to inactive a stress response (3).
Adaptogens, being restorative or stress protective, improve attention and focus while reducing risk of mental fatigue. In this regard, Adaptogens are markedly different from stimulants. Adaptogenic effects have been noted to occur after only one single dose (4). In this double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized study investigators used a single dose of a combination of rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Mental performance, such as attention, speed and accuracy, was assessed in tired individuals performing stressful cognitive tasks. The subjects in Adaptogen group exhibited improved attention and increased speed and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks. There was also a tendency to reduce percentage of errors, which meant better accuracy, quality of the work, and degree of care.
Other plants like wolfberry (Lycium barbarum) and bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) also increase resistance to psychological stress by acting as powerful antioxidants to support brain health (5-9). This is particularly true for older individuals where decreased mental performance is more apparent. For example, in a study investigating the effects of bacopa in memory improvement in older people over a 12-week period, bacopa significantly improved memory acquisition and retention (which reference?).
Unfortunately, in today’s modern lifestyles, too many people are succumbing to chronic stress-with poor health outcomes as a result. While exercise and good nutrition is always advised, Adaptogens offer a further stress management option to maintain brain health. Strong evidence ties the use of Adaptogens to improved memory, focus, attention and mental performance. Truly something that every brain could use.
- Auddy B, Hazra PJ, Mitra PA. A standardized Withania somnifera extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. JANA. 2008; 11:50-56.
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Current clinical pharmacology 2009;4:198-219.
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stressGÇöprotective activity. Pharmaceuticals 2010;3:188-224.
- Aslanyan G, Amroyan E, Gabrielyan E, Nylander M, Wikman G, Panossian A. Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised study of single dose effects of ADAPT-232 on cognitive functions. Phytomedicine 2010;17:494-9.
- Amagase H, Sun B, Borek C. Lycium barbarum (goji) juice improves in vivo antioxidant biomarkers in serum of healthy adults. Nutrition Research 2009;29:19-25.
- Jayaprakasam B, Padmanabhan K, Nair MG. Withanamides in Withania somnifera fruit protect PCGÇÉ12 cells from +¦GÇÉamyloid responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. Phytotherapy Research 2010;24:859-63.
- Morgan A, Stevens J. Does Bacopa monnieri improve memory performance in older persons? Results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2010;16:753-9.
- Roodenrys S, Booth D, Bulzomi S, Phipps A, Micallef C, Smoker J. Chronic effects of Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) on human memory. Neuropsychopharmacology 2002;27:279-81.
- Ziauddin M, Phansalkar N, Patki P, Diwanay S, Patwardhan B. Studies on the immunomodulatory effects of Ashwagandha. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1996;50:69-76.