Adaptogens & Stress

Unlocking the secret to vitality in the golden years
By Donnie Yance, MH, CN

It doesn’t take a randomized, double-blind, clinical study to observe that, as we age, we become more susceptible physically, mentally, and emotionally to the negative effects of prolonged stress.

As youths, we naturally take advantage of our inherent ability to adapt and our youthful metabolism in order to live a full measure of modern lifestyle. With our bodies providing plenty of energy, we engage in patterns of stress and depletion, blissfully unaware of the continuous shifting of resources our bodies must manage in order to maintain this lifestyle. Eventually, these choices catch up with us and we wonder, “Why am I breaking down now?” or “Why is it so hard to lose weight?” The simple answer is that stress, combined with the natural aging process, promotes biochemical changes that occur as a result of the body’s attempt to adapt to the stressors of life and aging.

As a result, we desperately attempt to hold on to our youth through all manner of devices, from cosmetic creams and injections and surgical interventions, to pharmacological measures and all manners of “natural” remedies. The sobering fact remains, however: Although Americans in the 21st century are expected to live beyond 75 years, many at that point are merely surviving. The qualitative aspect that gives life character and worth has slipped away.

How did it come to this?

Many of the illnesses and conditions that we associate with aging are subclinical, however, meaning they smolder beneath the surface for many years before being recognized and named. The good news is that this gives us a window of opportunity. We can greatly retard the aging process, reverse premature aging, and optimize our quality of life through a combination of herbal adaptogens, nutritional compounds, and a balanced approach to diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

Adaptogens are an essential part of this approach; they are unique in that they provide assistance for handling short-term stressors by providing more energy and decreasing physiological damage, while at the same time delaying negative metabolic changes that might otherwise occur. Unlike external hormones and pharmaceuticals, however, adaptogens provide nonspecific enhancement to many of the body’s systems.

Balance and adaptation is life

Your body is constantly adapting to current conditions. There are systems in the body that are continually at odds with each other—in fact, have effects that are polar opposites—but are both absolutely necessary to sustain life. For example, the process of hormone regulation involves a delicate dance of balance. In the process of adaptation there exists a constant struggle between prioritizing hormones that aid in the short-term survival of immediate crises (real or perceived) and reestablishing normal hormone status for long-term health and survival. Response to stress plays a major factor in influencing these markers of health by modulating the rate of cellular aging. Chronic stress is significantly associated with higher oxidative stress, increased inflammation, reduced anabolic hormones, and other biological responses, all of which are known determinants of cellular aging and longevity.

While stress hormones are essential for meeting the challenge of a stressful event, they don’t do us any good—and in fact cause us harm—if we’re generating them simply as a habitual response to life. Although we may sometimes be aware of our stress response, more often we are not—and we suffer the consequences. All this being said, some stress, and even difficult challenges, can be good for us, provided that we are constitutionally strong and in good health. Rising to the occasion—that is, meeting the stressful event head-on and recovering from it—can not only be okay, but can even help make us stronger and healthier by exercising our adaptive capacities and pushing us to persevere.

Exercise, for example, is good for us, yet too much can become stressful, and even be harmful. The same can be said for stress. What we want to avoid is constant low-level stress. We need to learn to respond in a healthy manner to stressful events so that we can move through them effectively without becoming stagnant. And then we need to give ourselves the time and space we need to recover.

In general, as we get older, establishing adaptive balance becomes more difficult. Although hormones naturally decrease with age, it’s essential to recognize that stress speeds up this age-related decline. The way we age as individuals appears to be strongly influenced by how well we adapt to life stressors. Once again, research increasingly concludes that emotional, mental, and physical resilience are interdependent.

A person often displays either too much of a stress response or not enough, or has an initial excessive response and then falls below the normal, healthy baseline and is unable to return to a place of balance. For example, older people are less efficient at shutting off an acute stress response even after the triggering event is no longer present, and therefore they remain in a state of hyper-response. This, in turn, requires other hormones to become hypofunctional. Ultimately, these types of hormonal shifts accelerate aging and can lead to disease conditions. Although the precise way in which this process unfolds varies from one person to the next, a progressive decline in adaptation is common among us all.

Stress and the immune system

Since the neuroendocrine system regulates every aspect of immune system response it is vastly important for immune system health. Long-term stress is often a significant player in immune system disruption and chronic or systemic inflammation, which in itself is a hyperactive immune state. In the presence of stressors, the immune-endocrine system goes awry, and instead of protecting the body from invaders it launches an attack on itself, as in the case of autoimmune diseases. But autoimmune diseases are an extreme example of immune system disruption and are relatively uncommon. For most people, a gradual impairment of the immune system’s ability to regulate itself is the norm.

Unfortunately, the conventional medical community rarely recognizes this impairment. This is a significant problem in medicine today: If you don’t suffer from a diagnosable disease for which a doctor can prescribe drugs, then the attitude of the medical profession is that there isn’t anything wrong with you. In my experience, most people actually have many things wrong and are far from living in an optimal state of health, yet until they suffer a serious health breakdown or crisis, modern medicine can’t figure out what to do for them.

It boils down to metabolism

The efficiency of our cellular energy-producing machinery (inefficient energy production results in unwanted oxidation) and the continued effectiveness of our genetic responses to environmental insults is likely a major factor in resistance to disease and aging and thus is an important determinant of longevity. The observation that free radical pathology increases with age raises the question as to whether this is truly a cause (driver) of aging or merely an effect (passenger). The most important fact, however, is that both young and old bodies are exposed to roughly the same environmental levels of oxidants.

What’s more, cell division occurs at much higher rates in young people, increasing DNA exposure far beyond that experienced by an older person; yet free-radical pathology is uncommon in youth and is universal in the elderly.

The metabolic model resolves this issue by pointing out that cell defenses, including the production of DNA repair enzymes (such as DNA polymerase) and antioxidant enzymes produced by the body (such as glutathione), are influenced by anabolic hormone levels.

Anabolic metabolism positively influences cell defenses, enabling production of antioxidants and DNA repair enzymes. Detoxification at the cellular level depends on adequate energy production, which requires healthy, nutrient-supported mitochondria. Optimizing micronutrient intake will in turn optimize energy production and metabolism, which results in decreased DNA damage, and/or the ability to fix damage, and/or enhance normal “programmed” death of damaged cells—all depending on the will of the life force and what is best for our health. This, in turn, contributes to reducing all degenerative diseases of aging. Because anabolic metabolism is robust in youth but weak in the elderly, this is extremely important background information.

Nourishing the body with adaptogens

A more supportive approach to aging and dealing with many of our most common ailments is to nourish the body with herbal adaptogens and companion nutrients in addition to the basic foundation of a healthful diet and lifestyle. A balanced formula of adaptogenic herbs can greatly improve anabolic metabolism, reduce the effects of oxidative stress, and provide true holistic metabolic support to reverse the slow decline in health that we associate with aging.

The anabolic effects of a comprehensive herbal and nutritional program will lead to profound changes in reproductive health and vitality, body composition, mental clarity, sexual function, mood, bone health, and overall sense of well-being. This program—together with a balanced, health-promoting diet; adequate sleep; stress-reducing techniques; an exercise program; and a reduced stress load—can contribute to maintaining healthy muscle tissue and healthy levels of hormones while improving energy production in the cells.

Where adaptogens are found

Those of us who seek to promote a more natural way to optimal wellness need to look more to the plant world for enhancement of health rather than to drugs and chemical replacement hormones. Plants’ evolutionary development and their intricate relationships with other organisms has led them to develop many complex secondary compounds—adaptogens—which are the same compounds that protect us from stress and aid in optimizing hormone health. We are discovering that when humans ingest these secondary compounds found within plants and plant extracts, they increase our ability to withstand stress through protection and adaptation, improved immune response, and epigenetic repair.

Enhancing the body’s systems for vitality

This is where herbal medicine, and in particular adaptogens, excel. In my 25 years as a practicing clinician I have had the opportunity to witness the beneficial effects of adaptogens, not only for the immune system but for overall health as well. People who were often sick with allergies, colds, bronchitis, or pneumonia, or who took a long time to recover from illness, now seldom get sick and recover quickly when they do become ill. I attribute this in great part to the adaptogenic formulas that I prescribe.

To be vital and healthy as we age, and to address the issues at the root of most diseases, requires our full attention to the nonspecific enhancement of the neuroendocrine and endocrine systems. This is done with a comprehensive protocol built with adaptogenic formulations, tonics, and nutritional agents. Adaptogens, which nonspecifically nourish the neuroendocrine and immune systems as well as multiple other systems and aspects of our health, are the building blocks to any protocol, and we all should be taking them on a daily basis.


Donnie Yance, MH, CN, is a researcher, writer, and consultant on cancer and healing through the intelligent use of botanical and nutritional medicine. He is the author of Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism, and Herbal Medicine, Healing & Cancer. He devotes his time off to playing jazz, enjoying nature, and the study of Franciscan theology.

Adapted from the book Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism ©2013 by Donnie Yance, MH, CN. Published with permission of Healing Arts Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions.


Common Adaptogens

1. Carnosol and ursolic acid (from rosemary, holy basil, and sage)

2. Curcuminoids (from turmeric)

3. Gingerols (from ginger)

4. Grape seed extract (from grape seeds)

5. Resveratrol (from grape skins and Japanese knotweed)

6. Pterostilbene (from Pterocarpus)

7. Catechins (from green tea)

8. Elderberry leaves and flowers

9. Propolis (from bees)

10. Boneset

11. Forsythia fruit

12. Honeysuckle flowers

13. Yarrow

14. Astragalus