You may or may not have heard of the growing world of adaptogens. These stress-modulating compounds help your body respond to stress, fatigue, and anxiety. The superpower of these plants and mushrooms is that they adapt to what your body needs.
For example, an adaptogen can be both stimulating or calming for someone based on an individuals needs.
Traditional Chinese medicine contains adaptogens such as, Fu Zi (Aconite), Huang Qi (Astragalus), Gan Cao (Glycyrrhiza radix), and Gui Zhi (cinnamon twig). While the term ‘adaptogen’ was only first proposed in 1940, these herbs have benefited people for thousands of years.
Aconite (Fu Zi) to Regulate Body Temperature
Ice covered twigs
In an animal study in 2009, researchers administered aconite root (Fu Zi) to hypothermic mice. The aconite root restored the core body temperature in the mice in a dose-dependent manner. The researchers found that the increase in body temperature in the mice was caused by an increase in the level of uncoupling protein (UCP)-1 in brown adipose tissue. Aconite helps the body respond to the stress of extreme cold by modulating body temperature.
Researchers in 2021 similarly explored aconite as therapy for rats with hypothermia. This study focused on aconite’s ability to regulate gut microbial and bile acid metabolism. Not only did aconite increase the activity of brown adipose tissue and an increase in body temperature, but also aconite administration led to a healthier gut microbiota profile and an increased level of bile acids.
When the rats were administered antibiotics in addition to the aconite, there was no change in the gut microbiota. Further, there was also a reduction in healthy bile acids and less restoration of body temperature in the rats.
Therefore, the researchers concluded that the rat’s enhanced gut microbiome contributed to aconite’s ability to promote thermogenesis through brown adipose tissue activity.
This study suggests that further research is needed to better understand the connection between the gut microbiome and the activity in brown adipose tissue.
The Antioxidant Role of Astragalus (Huang Qi)
Astragalus, also known as Huang Qi, is an antioxidant-rich adaptogen. In 2021, researchers administered astragalus in mice with alcoholic liver disease. The study provided two doses of astragalus to the mice over a period of four weeks.
The researchers measured increased activities of both liver enzymes and antioxidant enzymes and a decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines (immune cells). The study concluded that astragalus reversed the increased fat levels in the liver, a key pathological component of alcoholic liver disease.
In 2009, researchers of an animal study explored astragalus specifically for stress-induced anxiety. The study administered astragalus for 14 days and tested the rats for spatial memory on a Morris water maze test and for anxiety on an elevated plus maze (EPM). Rats in a control were run alongside the astragalus rats.
The researchers selected these tests to evaluate stress-induced deficits on learning and memory. The results found that the rats given astragalus had significantly reduced stress-induced deficits. Therefore, the study suggests that astragalus reverses impairments induced by stress.
Glycyrrhiza (Gan Cao) to Combat Stress
Chinese medicine adaptogens
Glycyrrhiza Radix (Gan Cao), commonly known as licorice root, is another herb that helps with stress in the body. Researchers in 2010 studied Glycyrrhiza’s anti-stress effects on anxious rats.
The study divided the rats into a Glycyrrhiza group and control group and after eight days of stress, the researchers tested spatial memory on the Morris water maze test and anxiety on the elevated plus maze test.
The results found statistically significant reductions in stress-induced deficits in learning and memory on the spatial memory tasks in the Glycyrrhiza group.
Additionally, the rats in the Glycyrrhiza group expressed increases in cholineacetyl transferase (ChAT). ChAT is an enzyme responsible for the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential for triggering voluntary movements.
Formulas Along the HPA Axis
When the body is stressed, the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland constantly communicate. This pathway is recognized as the HPA axis. The nervous system sends signals up and down this pathway to either stimulate or relax systems. In order for herbs to modulate related stress systems, an effect on the HPA axis is necessary.
If you are curious to read more about the HPA axis, check out the article How 3 Chinese Herbal Remedies and Acupuncture Can Fight Anxiety.
Kai-Xin-San (KXS) is a traditional Chinese medicine formula that includes Ginseng radix, Polygalae radix, Acori tatarinowii rhizome, and Poria. Researchers in 2020 exposed mice to chronic unpredictable mild stress (CUMS) to produce emulate depression in mice.
Over the study, researchers exposed the mice to extracts of KXS and then assessed depression-related symptoms through behavioral tests. The study found that KXS alleviated depression-like behaviors in the CUMS-exposed mice. The altered gut microbiota found in the small intestines of the mice could have alleviated depression-like behaviors in mice. The altered gut microbiota included a decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, including lipopolysaccharides, and an increase in the tight junction proteins in the gut epithelium barrier and the blood-brain barrier.
The strengthening of the microbiome barriers and a decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines contributes to reduced inflammation potentially present in the depression pathology.
Further research is necessary to evaluate these findings against controls and in human clinical models.
Zhi-Zi-Chi (ZZCD) is a decoction that researchers studied in CUMS rats. Another animal study in 2022 explored the underlying antidepression mechanism of the formula. The researchers found that ZZCD improved the metabolism of glutathione, a major antioxidant.
ZZCD’s glutathione effects led to reduced oxidative stress levels in the brain, a contributor to the rats’ depression. An alleviation in stress levels could explain why mice induced with ZZCD experienced a reduction in depressive behaviors.
Adaptogens can help nudge our bodies in the right direction of healing. Sometimes we have too much or too little, and these herbs are powerful enough to sense what that specific need is.
The above research targets animals to determine the adaptogen’s mechanism of action. Next steps are human clinical studies. However, since adaptogens vary with suppression or enhancement, their effect on your body may differ from another’s.