We all know that feeling...
'Fight or flight'.
A stressful moment presents itself and the body releases loads of chemicals as a defense mechanism to help cope and survive the situation. Internally this looks like a the floodgates of adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones dumping into our bloodstream. Emotionally, it can feel like a building tsunami wave of emotions ranging from benign nervous excitement to a more volatile experience of anxiety, anger, or a cocktail of both.
Stress is certainly not unique for the human experience, and isn't inherently bad. This 'fight or flight' experience was extremely useful during human kinds evolution centuries ago when physical dangers such as bestial predators, invading enemies, impending storms, etc. were a more common threat. In these cases, an adrenaline dump would be a welcomed & effective natural 'power-up' to temporarily achieve superhuman-like abilities to physically respond to the problem at hand.
However, in todays day in age, most common causes of 'fight or flight' aren't actually life and death (despite how they might feel!) Instead of dangerous predators or surprise battles, are daily stressors are more likely related to public speaking, confrontation with roommates, family drama, coworker issues in an office, etc. In these circumstances, our biological 'power-up' may be a little overkill for civil problem solving.
Some school of thoughts think that nothing is inherently stressful, but it is rather the bodies interpertation of the events that set off the stress response. What then are some solutions for equipping the mind and body to manage & regulate the chemical response to the creation of stress?
Aside from proper diet, physical exercise, & a mental wellness practice or meditation routine, there is promising speculation pointing towards compounds known as 'adaptogens' for providing solutions for regulation of the lifes stressors.
What is an Adaptogen?
Adaptogens are a class of fungi & herbs that contain compounds that equip an organism to 'adapt' (go figure) with the physiological conditions produced by stressful situations. Stress is associated with the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. The endocrine system is the one responsible for the chemical dump that involves the release of adrenalin, cortisol, and other hormones, which in turn results in physiological changes that cause the 'fight or flight' response.
Many things can influence the promotion of a stress response :
- Environmental factors (extreme temperatures)
- Biological factors (injury or sickness)
- Chemical agents (substance abuse or exposure to toxins)
- Mental issues (focus on negative life events)
- Physical events (chronic sleep loss and fatigue)
Adaptogens help the body respond to and overcome the influences of these stress factors. They are known to improve attention, increase endurance, lower stress induced disorders, balance hormones, fight fatigue, normalize bodily functions, boost the immune system, , improve organ function, and assist in sleep.
In short, adaptogens will help you sleep as well as this pup named Finn here.
Adaptogenic mushrooms and herbs that support the body in hormonal regulation and equip a person to deal with stress are called such because their unique ability to adapt their function based upon specific needs. These needs could be biological, physical, or chemical in nature. They possess compounds that create balance in the body by opposing certain qualities. In this regard, they are somewhat paradoxical- the same compound can produce stimulation or relaxation according to the imbalance. Whether up-regulating or down-regulating, adaptogens help a bodily system return to homeostasis or the ideal "baseline" for optimal function .
Scientifically, adaptogens improve adrenal glands by interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system. This helps alter hormone production and physiological responses so that the body .“Studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), nootropic and CNS stimulating activity .”
How is the physiological system affected by this improvement on stress regulation? In layman's terms, when the stress is short-lived, the adaptogens allow the adrenal glands to stop secreting adrenalin more rapidly. Where there is prolonged stress, the adrenals conserve their resources by a reduction in stress hormones. This reduction allows the body to parse out the energy available to the stress response and thereby delays adrenal exhaustion . Adaptogens are therefore intended to be taken over a longer duration. Some give an immediate burst of energy, however if you find that you consistently are waking with fatigue, system strengthening is achieved via longer-term adaptogenic therapies .
Mushrooms are a highly scientifically studied group of superfoods used to increase performance of the brain, endocrine (hormonal system), immune system, energy levels, mental acuity, and mood . Often regarded as more potent than their herbal counterparts, medicinal mushrooms have been used for thousands of years in numerous cultures to prevent and treats various ailments. Additionally, most of the medicinal mushrooms are also considered culinary and can be a delicious addition to a well-prepared meal. We will look briefly at some popular mushrooms and their health benefits:
Reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lingzhi) are adaptogenic and full of anti-inflammatory compounds and anti-oxidants. They help to regulate the endocrine system by lowering cortisol (stress producing) levels, improving sleep and stress responses. They are also shown to regulate sugar levels and decrease excess fat storage.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) helps the body reduce inflammation and roaming free radicals via its powerful antioxidant properties. As a power adaptogen, it can also bolster the immune system and is shown to assist in fighting viral infections and even has a demonstrated track record in assisting the fight against liver, lung, and brain cancer.
Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps militaris) is an energizer. It supports the adrenal glands and keeps your bodily energy levels regulated. It increases cellular absorption of oxygen and is beneficial to asthma patients as well as endurance athletes. It can help with fatigue, stamina and improves recovery time from exercise. It is also known for its anti-aging properties as a powerful anti-oxidant.
Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus) helps promote nerve growth factor (NGF), a critical bioprotein that assists in the health and regeneration of neurons in the brain. There is sufficient research to suggest it improves creativity, concentration, and memory, resulting in better mental clarity. A lack of NGF is one of the known causes of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is the age-old remedy for longevity and a classic adaptogenic mushroom. As an incredible source of B vitamins, vitamin D, and zinc, it boosts the immune system and contains anti-cancer properties. Additionally there is evidence to support it assists in cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol levels.
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) is a major immune booster and adaptogenic mushroom. It is known for its powerful antiviral and antimicrobial properties that assist in treating the cold and flu. It contains powerful polysaccharides that have been widely studied in for their immune boosting properties in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Additionally, it is noted for its aid in digestion as it nourishes the beneficial gut bacteria .
Although an increasing trend, medicinal mushrooms represent a return to a more traditional healing path and have been prized by cultures throughout time. The West has been subject to a more pharmaceutical view of medicine, but mushrooms and herbs represent a sustainable, cost-effective, and reduced risk approach to wellbeing. Particularly useful as a preventative measure, there are a wide variety of fungus species that are well adapted to dealing with numerous human ailments. The mushrooms covered in this article represent only a small fraction of potent medicines and increased scientific research is constantly making progress toward finding new ways our health can be improved by these ancient allies.