A picture of a stethoscope and a heart figurine.

Adaptogens, Stress, and Your Heart

Each year 610,000 people in the United States die of heart disease according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This is one in every four Americans, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women. There is little controversy among health professionals that a leading contributor to heart disease is stress, but how to manage your stress can be a difficult problem to solve.

One reason why stress may be detrimental to our hearts is because it stimulates the release of the hormone cortisol, which modifies our fight-or-flight response. When we are stimulated for short periods of time cortisol can be helpful, allowing us to mobilize and escape dangerous situations. However, when it is constantly being released into our bloodstream it can wreak havoc on our body, including our heart. Fortunately, a group of herbs exist that help balance stress and lower cortisol levels. They are called adaptogenic herbs, named so because they are prized for helping your body adapt better to stressors in your environment.

Adaptogens: Internal Thermostats

Adaptogenic herbs balance our systems, rather than influence one specific action in the body. As Dr. Frank Lipman, a board-certified internal medicine doctor and the director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness center, describes adaptogenic herbs like an internal thermostat, “When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high it brings it down; when the temperature is too low it brings it up. …[Adaptogens] can normalize body imbalances...”

One way they help normalize imbalances is by helping to modify your reaction to stress. There are many herbs available in this remarkable class of plants, but two of the best for alleviating stress are Asian Ginseng and Ashwaganda.

One You Know…

Ginseng, specifically Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is probably the most well-known of the adaptogenic herbs, and is considered by many to be the most potent. Used widely in Chinese medicine for centuries, ginseng possesses a number of highly regarded properties that research in the Western world has finally just begun to validate.

Among ginseng’s revered properties is its ability to lower blood sugar, improve memory, and reduce blood pressure levels. Dr. Lipman remarks,“...[Chinese ginseng] has been studied extensively for its ability to help the body withstand stress...research indicates that it promotes a sense of well-being and may protect against some kinds of cancer.” One study at the Division of Pharmacology at the Central Drug Research Institute concluded that it could be used for the treatment of stress-induced disorders. This important herb harmonizes various bodily systems and manages our stress response measurably.

…and One You May Not

A less well known adaptogenic herb, but just as equally important in managing stress, is Ashwaganda. This herb, also known as “Indian ginseng” due to its similar benefits as the Chinese Panax ginseng, has been relied upon heavily by the Southeast Asians in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It's best known for its immunomodulating effects—which is to say it regulates the immune system—as well as its ability to lower anxiety.

Ashwaganda is suggested for such health conditions as disparate as adrenal fatigue to arthritis, and has a regulating effect on thyroid activity. In fact, this is one the few herbs that has a regulating effect on both patients who are hypo- and hyperthyroid. One must wonder what this herb can’t do. In fact, a 2012 double-blind, placebo-controlled research study (the gold standard of research studies) confirmed Ashwaganda's ability to reduce serum cortisol levels, making it an excellent choice to assist you in a stress management program.

Life throws a lot of curveballs, and sometimes we don't have the option not to be stressed out. With their stress managing and cortisol lowering abilities, adaptogenic herbs can truly help with heart health. If you are just getting started exploring adaptogenic herbs, Ginseng and Ashwaganda are great choices to begin with since they are proven to have powerful stress-relieving action, a long history of use in the East, and have been widely studied in the West. Since the use of adaptogenic herbs reduces your stress response, incorporating them into your wellness routine is one step you can complete to ensure you remain heart healthy.

The information in this article is for general educational purposes only, and should not be construed or interpreted as medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any medical condition or treatment, and before undertaking a new heathcare regimen. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article or any linked materials.

Faith is Earthlight's staff writer and one of our many star employees.