By Richard L. Shames, M.D.
In today’s fast-paced society, the vast majority of individuals are under a constant barrage of stressors. Surveys and research reports conducted over the past two decades reveal that 43% of all adults suffer adverse effects due to stress. In fact, 75% to 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are in some way related to the adverse impacts that stress has on the body.
The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis
Stressors trigger the HPA axis. The HPA axis then translates these stressors into signals that alter the body’s biochemistry to support a “fight or flight” response, also termed the stress response. The HPA axis is the primary regulator of this stress response. While stress-induced changes in biochemistry may be beneficial to survival in the short term (acute stress), they present an increased risk of various health challenges in the long term (chronic stress).
Dysfunction of the HPA axis brought on by repeated exposure to stressors may curtail life expectancy by several years due to its downstream effects on physiology and organ/system function. Research increasingly supports the critical role that stress can play in obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, gastric ulcer, cancer, and gastrointestinal, skin, psychological, and neurologic disorders, as well as a host of disorders linked to immune system disturbances.
Combating Stress With Herbal Adaptogens
Fortunately, lifestyle changes such as stress reduction, relaxation, regular exercise, and a healthy diet can all support a healthy response to stress. In addition, many herbs referred to as “adaptogens” have been used over the centuries in traditional medicine and have clear empirical and clinical evidence of their ability to support a healthy resonse to stress and normalize HPA activity. Adaptogens, by nature, have a variety of beneficial effects, such as increasing energy and stamina, preventing fatigue, enhancing memory and concentration, and improving work performance. Such adaptogenic herbs include:
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) – Holy basil is an Indian herb with a rich history of treating a variety of conditions. It has repeatedly shown to modulate stress response activity in animal testing. For instance, treatment with holy basil decreased the incidence of gastric ulcer, increased physical endurance, and lowered the stress-induced release of adrenal hormones and cholesterol in animal studies.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) – Known as a classic rejuvenating herb in Indian medicine, ashwagandha has been shown to enhance adaptability to both physical and chemical stress. For instance, mice pretreated with ashwagandha and subjected to physical stress showed increased endurance. Additionally, ashwagandha has been shown to prevent ulcers and other symptoms associated with the stress response.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) – Bacopa is traditionally used to revitalize nerves and the mind, as well as to help strengthen the adrenals. In animal testing, bacopa has been shown to improve adaptations in sensory, motor, and motivational systems.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) – Cordyceps is a therapeutic fungus found primarily at high altitudes in China and is one of the most valued medicinal fungi in Chinese medicine. Research dating back to 1843 suggests the use of cordyceps to help strengthen and rebuild the body after exhaustion or long-term illness.
Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) – Ginseng is greatly valued as a tonic – a substance that acts to normalize body function and biochemistry. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the individual who will benefit from ginseng is overwhelmed and exhausted.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) – Rhosiola is widely distributed at high altitudes in the Arctic and mountainous regions throughout Eastern Europe and Asia, where it is traditionally used to stimulate the nervous system, decrease depression, enhance work performance, and eliminate fatigue.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – Of the many herbs available, licorice is one of the most highly regarded in terms of treating conditions associated with diminished adrenal function.
The HPA/Thyroid Link
Stress-induced HPA dysfunction may also hinder the proper function of the metabolic regulator, the thyroid. Research suggests that high levels of stress affect the synthesis of thyroid hormones (T4, T3) and negatively impacts their metabolism. The end result is reduced thyroid hormone activity and the accompanying health challenges, which include weight gain, lethargy, reproductive failure, depression, irritability, memory loss, muscle weakness, and more serious long-term effects, such as congestive heart failure.
Nutritional Support for Healthy Thyroid Hormone Activity
Specific combinations of nutrients may support 1.) thyroid hormone synthesis, 2.) the conversion of T4 to the more bioactive T3, and 3.) the expression of thyroid hormone responsive genes. Taken together these activities may promote the optimal health of individuals with thyroid hormone issues originating from insufficient metabolism or activity of thyroid hormone. These nutrients include:
Bladderwrack – Bladderwrack is an algae that provides a natural source of iodine, which is required for the synthesis of T4 in the thyroid gland.
Selenium – Due to its role as a cofactor for the enzyme 5′-deiodinase, which converts T4 to T3, selenium is essential for normal thyroid metabolism and biological activity.
Zinc – Research suggests that zinc may play many roles in thyroid hormone homeostasis, including supporting T4 synthesis, 5′-deiodinase function, and healthy expression of thyroid hormone responsive genes.
Vitamin E – Vitamin E may support the conversion of T4 to T3 by influencing hepatic 5′-deiodinase activity; it may accomplish this by protecting the stability of cell membranes in which 5′-deiodinase exists.
Vitamins A, D, and Carnosic Acid – These nutrients may provide support for the binding thyroid hormone receptors to DNA, thereby contributing to the healthy expression of thyroid hormone responsive genes.
While stress is an inevitable consequence of modern life, the downstream damage caused by chronic stress is not. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and relaxation are important factors in managing stress. In addition, adaptogenic herbs that help normalize parameters of the stress response and nutrients that support optimal thyroid hormone activity play an important role in supporting overall health and well-being throughout life.
By Richard L. Shames, M.D.