Adaptogens are a unique nutrient. They work at the cellular level to help normalize the body's various functions and stimulate the recovery processes needed to adapt to all types of stress in our lives. To better understand the following read and understand the General Adaptation Syndrome article first.
Stage One: Alarm
It is important for this stage to function normally as it generates a number of critical metabolic responses for any person. Release of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, occur in this stage. Valuable in the short term, these hormones become disruptive to effective cellular function over a long period of time. Cortisol is a hormone with wide ranging effects on tissues throughout the body. One of the most widely recognized is its immunosuppressive effect. It also has a negative impact on energy regulation. Cortisol decreases the movement of glucose from the bloodstream into muscle cells (and several other types of cells). This is meant to be a protective response, conserving blood glucose for essential functions, such as brain activity. However, during any prolonged stress, complex molecules called beta-lipo-proteins build up and inhibit the passage of energy through the cell walls. The key enzymes (hexokinase) which transform glucose to be used by the cells for energy are blocked by these stress-induced beta-lipo-proteins. As a result of this physiological response to stress, cells do not receive enough energy and their ability to perform many of their critical functions is greatly hindered.
Stage Two: Resistance
This is the stage where adaptive changes take place. Increased fitness is a perfect example of an adaptive response to physical stress. When the adaptation occurs, the individual returns to "homeostasis" or normal equilibrium. However, each individual’s capacity to adapt is limited and completely unique. Overwhelm the individual’s adaptive capacity, and you risk illness or injury. That’s when you enter the final stage – exhaustion.
Stage Three: Exhaustion
This stage is characterized by the observed onset of symptoms of fatigue, including injury or illness. With the addition of adaptogens, the first two stages are handled very differently. The biologically active substances that are found within adaptogenic plants modify the alarm phase and increase the resistance phase. This is done by preventing the formation and accumulation of the harmful beta-lipo-proteins caused by stress and also allow the hexokinase enzymes to more readily convert glucose into usable energy for the cells. Adaptogenic substances also increase the capacity of the cells to build mRNA (messengers) and tRNA (transporters).
This is critical, as these benefits provide protection to a stressed person by helping to maintain optimal cellular function as long as possible before the onset of exhaustion.
So, when adaptogens are added, the person still mounts an appropriate response to a stressful event, but the changes in cell function that result are more moderate and have less of an adverse effect on the entire body. The general action of adaptogens is well demonstrated by looking at the effect of stress on blood glucose levels. Shortly after a person becomes stressed, the stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) cause a rapid increase in blood glucose. Once it peaks, the blood glucose rapidly falls to lower than normal levels. Adaptogens moderate this response, conserving valuable energy in the alarm phase for use in the resistance phase.
In other words, adaptogens do not block the stress response; rather, they smooth the stress response to help prevent adrenal exhaustion by increasing the function of healthy immune systems.