The effects of stress on your health can be far-reaching. Some of the
conditions often associated with stress include insomnia, high blood pressure,
ulcers, headaches, anxiety, depression, decreased memory, and drug or alcohol
abuse. Stress is known to cause changes in the bodys chemistry, altering the
balance of hormones in our systems in ways that can lower our resistance to
disease. As a result, we can become more susceptible to flus, colds, and other
types of illness. Too much stress sometimes brings on outbreaks of cold sores or
genital herpes for people who carry these viruses in their systems. Other
chronic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, Crohns disease, and
rheumatoid arthritis may also flare up during times of stress.
If its possible to avoid situations that cause you to feel tense, unhappy, or
worn down, thats obviously to your benefit. However, it isnt always possible
to live a stress-free existence. Work deadlines, family demands, relationship
problems, traffic jams, missed appointments, forgotten birthdays, personality
conflicts, college exams—all of these things, and many more, can be sources of
stress. Furthermore, though most of us associate stress with unpleasant events,
even wonderful events in our lives, like weddings, vacations, and holidays, can
be genuinely stressful.
Not everyone responds to these situations by getting "stressed out." There are
those apparently unflappable folks whose pulse rate wouldnt even go up during
an earthquake, and then there are those for whom being five minutes late
constitutes reason for a state of total panic. How you manage the stress in your
life can determine the impact it will have on you.
There are many different methods of dealing with stress. The basics for good
health that we all know (but often forget) help in coping with stress: Eating a
balanced diet and getting adequate rest help your body adapt and respond to the
events in your life. Ironically, stress can interfere with your ability to take
care of yourself in this way. When youre worrying so much you cant sleep,
getting adequate rest becomes impossible. Stress can affect your eating habits
too. So what else can you do? Exercise, meditation, and biofeedback are all
widely accepted stress management tools that might help you break out of a
stress-induced downward spiral.
For some people, stressful circumstances can trigger symptoms severe enough to
warrant seeking medical attention. Conditions that are often associated with
stress, such as insomnia, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, are sometimes
treated with sedatives, antipsychotic drugs, or antidepressants.
Principal Proposed Treatments for Stress:
The primary natural approach to treating stress focuses on the use of so-called
adaptogens. The term adaptogen refers to a hypothetical treatment described as
follows: An adaptogen should help the body adapt to stresses of various kinds,
whether heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, toxic exposure,
radiation, infection, or psychological stress. Furthermore, an adaptogen should
cause no side effects, be effective in treating a wide variety of illnesses, and
help return an organism toward balance no matter what may have gone wrong.
Although there is no solid evidence that there really are any such things as
adaptogens, there is quite a bit of suggestive evidence that the herb Panax
ginseng functions in this way.
Other plants that have been called adaptogens by some herbalists include
Eleutherococcus senticosus, ashwagandha, astragalus, suma, rhodiola, schisandra,
and the Oriental mushrooms maitake, shiitake, and reishi. These are discussed in
the section on Other Proposed Treatments for Stress, below.
Ginseng (Panax Species): The Most Famous Potential Adaptogen
If any herb is an adaptogen, ginseng is. However, a number of herbs are referred
to as ginseng. The original medicinal species of the herb is Asian or Korean
ginseng (Panax ginseng). American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) contains many of
the same chemical compounds, although in slightly different proportions.
Siberian "ginseng" (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is actually not ginseng at all,
and its discussed in a separate section (see Other Proposed Treatments for
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Ginseng?
Most of the evidence regarding ginseng as an adaptogen comes from animal
studies. However, studies in humans have found effects that are consistent with
the possibility of benefits in stressful situations.
In animals, ginseng injections have been found to increase stamina, improve
mental function, protect against radiation, infections, toxins, exhaustion, and
stress, and activate white blood cells. If you put these studies together,
injected ginseng truly does appear to be an adaptogen, as reputed.
However, when ginseng is injected into the abdomen or bloodstream, it enters the
body directly without going through the digestive tract. This mode of
administration is strikingly different from taking ginseng by mouth.
Other studies have administered ginseng orally. The majority of studies
examining the effects of ginseng on animals under conditions of extreme stress
indicate that ginseng increases physical endurance and causes physiological
changes that may help the body adapt to adverse conditions. In addition, studies
in mice found that consuming ginseng before exposure to a virus significantly
increased the survival rate and number of antibodies produced.
Immune System Stimulation
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study suggests that Panax ginseng can improve
immune system response. This trial enrolled 227 participants at three medical
offices in Milan, Italy. Half were given ginseng at a dosage of 100 mg daily,
and the other half received placebo. Four weeks into the study, all participants
received influenza vaccine.
The results showed a significant decline in the frequency of colds and flus in
the treated group compared to the placebo group (15 versus 42 cases). Also,
antibody levels in response to the vaccination rose higher in the treated group
than in the placebo group.
Two other studies found evidence that ginseng increases the number of immune
cells in the blood, although a third did not.
Some of the possible effects of stress, as weve mentioned, include impairment
of mental functions. Whether or not a given herb is an adaptogen, if that herb
might improve your ability to remember things and stay focused, it could be of
benefit. Therefore, were including all of the information on the research about
ginsengs effects on mental function here. In some cases, mental function was
tested while the participants were under stress, making the studies even more
relevant to our topic.
Two human studies suggest that Panax ginseng might improve some aspects of
mental function. In the more recent investigation, 112 healthy middle-aged
adults were given either ginseng or placebo for a 2-month period. The results
showed that ginseng improved abstract thinking ability. However, there was no
significant difference in reaction time, memory, concentration, or overall
subjective experience between the two groups.
An earlier, smaller trial enrolled 16 healthy men who also took either ginseng
or placebo for 12 weeks. For most of the tasks measured, there was no
statistically significant difference between the men taking ginseng and those
taking placebo. The one area in which the ginseng group performed significantly
better was in mental arithmetic.
A double-blind study of the effects of ginseng on the work performance and
well-being of nurses on night duty did not find significant differences between
the treatment and placebo groups.
Sense of Well-Being
Among stress potential symptoms is a general decline in overall sense of
A double-blind study compared the effects of a nutritional supplement with and
without ginseng extract on feeling of well-being in 625 people whose average age
was just under 40 years old. Quality of life was measured by a set of 11
questions. People taking the ginseng-containing supplement reported significant
improvement compared to those taking the non-ginseng supplement. Similar
findings were reported in a double-blind placebo-controlled study of 36 people
newly diagnosed with diabetes. After 8 weeks, participants who had been taking
200 mg of ginseng daily reported improvements in mood, well-being, vigor, and
psychophysical performance that were significant compared to the reports of
control participants. In addition, a 12-week double-blind placebo-controlled
study of 120 individuals found improvement in general well-being among women
aged 30 to 60 years and men aged 40 to 60 years, but not among men aged 30 to 39
years. However, a 60-day double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 83 adults in
their mid 20s found no effect on mood or psychological well-being.
The evidence for Panax ginseng as a sports supplement is mixed. An 8-week
double-blind placebo-controlled trial evaluated the effects of Panax ginseng
with and without exercise in 41 individuals. The participants were given either
ginseng or placebo, and then underwent exercise training or remained untrained
throughout the study. The results showed that ginseng improved aerobic capacity
in individuals treated with ginseng who did not exercise, but offered no benefit
in those who did exercise. In a 9-week double blind placebo controlled trial of
30 highly trained athletes, treatment with Panax ginseng or Panax ginseng plus
vitamin E produced significant improvements in aerobic capacity. Another
double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 37 individuals also found some benefit.
However, no benefit with Panax ginseng was identified in an 8-week, double-blind
trial that followed 31 healthy men in their twenties. Other small trials of
Panax ginseng have also failed to demonstrate any benefit.
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full ginseng
Other Proposed Treatments for Stress:
Multivitamins Plus Minerals
Surprisingly, a treatment as simple as multivitamin-mineral tablets may be
helpful for stress.
In a double-blind placebo-controlled study, 300 men and women were given either
a multivitamin-mineral tablet or placebo for 30 days. The results showed that
individuals taking the nutritional supplement experienced less anxiety overall
and an enhanced ability to cope with stressful circumstances. The supplement
used in this study supplied the following nutrients and dosages: vitamin B1, 10
mg; vitamin B2, 15 mg; vitamin B6, 10 mg; vitamin B12, 10 mcg; vitamin C, 1,000
mg; calcium, 100 mg; and magnesium, 100 mg.
Benefits were seen in another double-blind placebo-controlled trial that
enrolled 80 healthy male volunteers. The supplement used in this trial was
similar but not identical.
Its not clear how these nutrients help stress, but considering that many of us
would benefit from general nutritional supplementation in any case, it might be
Eleutherococcus (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Another Possible Adaptogen
In the 1940s, Dr. Brekhman, the same scientist who first dubbed ginseng an
adaptogen, decided that a much less expensive herb, Eleutherococcus senticosus,
is just as good as ginseng. A thorny bush that grows much more rapidly than true
ginseng, this plant later received the misleading name of "Siberian" or "Russian
ginseng." Its chemical makeup, however, is completely unrelated to that of Panax
ginseng. As yet, there is little evidence that oral eleutherococcus is an
What Is the Scientific Evidence for eleutherococcus?
Although many scientific trials of eleutherococcus have involved people (and in
some trials, enormous numbers of participants), most were not double-blind and
many were not controlled, making the results nearly meaningless. Animal studies
of eleutherococcus have also been reported, but the use of injections rather
than oral doses makes their relevance limited as well.
A suggestion of adaptogenic effects comes from a double-blind placebo-controlled
study of eleutherococcuss effects on the immune systems of healthy volunteers.
Participants took either 10 ml of extract of eleutherococcus or placebo 3 times
daily for a 4-week period. Blood samples were analyzed to determine changes in
immune cells. A very large, statistically significant increase in numbers of
cells important to immune functions was observed in the treatment group as
compared to the placebo group. This finding supports, but definitely does not
prove, that eleutherococcus may increase resistance to disease.
More practical data was obtained in another double-blind, placebo-controlled
study involving 93 people infected with herpes virus. Use of eleutherococcus
significantly reduced the severity, frequency, and duration of herpes outbreaks
relative to placebo during the 6-month trial.
On the negative side, a double-blind study of 20 athletes over an 8-week period
found that a standard eleutherococcus formulation produced no improvement in
physical performance. Furthermore, in a small double-blind, placebo-controlled
trial of endurance athletes, use of eleutherococcus actually increased their
physiological signs of stress during intensive training.
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full ginseng
Other Possible Adaptogens
A double-blind trial of 56 physicians evaluated whether rhodiola(Rhodiola rosea)
could improve mental alertness in physicians working at night. While the results
were somewhat equivocal, they appear to suggest that rhodiola might improve
mental function under stressful situations. Preliminary evidence from another
double-blind placebo-controlled trial suggests that rhodiola may improve
physical and mental performance and sense of well-being.
Numerous other herbs are said to be adaptogens as well. These include
ashwagandha, astragalus, maitake, reishi, shiitake, suma, and schisandra.
However, there is little to no real evidence as yet that they work in this
Preliminary double blind trials suggest that the amino acid tyrosine may improve
memory and mental function under conditions of sleep deprivation or other forms
Insomnia and anxiety are both common complaints related to stressful
circumstances. These symptoms themselves can often make stress worse. It works
like this: You feel stressed and worried, so you cant fall asleep; then,
because youre starting the next day already fatigued, the stressors you
encounter are harder to deal with, making it even harder to sleep the next
night. Whether your complaint is anxiety or insomnia, you can easily see how
being able to calm down or get some sleep could help in the long run.
There are natural treatments that may help insomnia and anxiety. For more
information, see the full articles on kava and valerian. One study purported to
find evidence that these herbs help reduce reactions to stressful situations,
but because the study lacked a placebo group, the results mean little.
In stressful situations, levels of the hormone cortisol rise, setting off a
chain-reaction of changes in the body. It is believed that lowered immunity,
difficulty sleeping, and several other symptoms of stress are directly related
to this increase in cortisol. Highly preliminary evidence suggests that the
supplement phosphatidylserine might help reduce this effect.