Dr. Kassam Stress: Understanding it & Top 3 Herbs To Manage It (ND Recommended)

Stress: Understanding it & Top 3 Herbs To Manage it

(ND Recommended)

     Considering the summer we’ve all had, today’s post will focus on understanding the impact of stress on our bodies and will provide you with some stress busting tips. Acute stress experienced as a short episode can actually be beneficial by motivating us and improving mental and physical performance. The body has mechanisms in play to adapt to stress. Internal and external stressors are controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.  This system works to create homeostasis - the body’s ability to maintain a state of balance that is needed to function and survive. These mechanisms exist to deal with acute stress. 
When stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can lead to HPA axis dysfunction which alters the body’s normal stress response.  Chronic stress is detrimental to our bodies and has been shown to accelerate aging, deplete immune function, increase whole body inflammation, may also lead to hormonal imbalances and also affect overall quality of life. Unaddressed chronic stress can lead to conditions like, anxiety, depression, hypertension, heart disease and chronic fatigue syndrome. 
Common signs that stress has become chronic and is impacting health include:
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Increased sugar or salt cravings
  • Brain fog
  • Easily irritated
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea
  • Teeth grinding
  • Poor memory
  • Heart palpitations
It is important to understand the different stages of HPA dysfunction to be able to clarify which stage you may be at. 

3 Stages of HPA Dysfunction:

Stage 1: Alarm Phase

  • Feeling ‘wired and hyper’ all the time
  • High sprung
  • Anxious or agitated
  • “Overly stressed”
  • High blood pressure
  • High daily levels of cortisol 

Stage 2: Resistance Phase

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Sleeping issues
  • Digestive issues
  • Body aches
  • Weakened immunity
  • High hormone levels

Stage 3: Exhaustion Phase

  • Low hormone levels
  • Extreme fatigue, mostly in the evenings
  • Sleeps poorly
  • Allergies
  • Anxious
  • Low blood pressure
Constantly feeling tired and fatigued can make reaching for caffeine and/or sugar quite easy.  However, they don’t fix the lack of energy for very long, and often will result in energy crashes soon after consumption. So, what can help us manage stress & increase energy levels? Adaptogens!

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens have been used in traditional medicine for centuries and work on the basis of prevention. They are a class of plants that help to recharge the adrenal glands and provide them with some additional support. Adaptogens can support both the brain and body. They help to increase our resilience to stress and protect us from chronically high cortisol levels, which can leave you feeling energized and calm. There are many different adaptogens out there and the one/s you choose must match the stage of adrenal dysfunction. 

How Do Adaptogens Work?

Adaptogens help to re-adjust the HPA axis and help the body to re-attain homeostasis. 
  • Increase energy
  • Decrease perceived feelings of stress
  • Increase resistance to stress
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve mental performance

My 3 Top Adaptogens To Consider:


Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha has been used in India for 6,000 years and is found in the dry areas of India, the Middle East, and some parts of Africa. Some of you may know it as Withania somnifera or Indian ginseng. 
Ashwagandha is composed of many medicinal compounds like amino acids, fatty acids and choline.  The root smells like a “Ashva” which is the Indian word for a horse and consuming it is said to “give the power of a horse!”. That is why it is called Ashwagandha.
Thus far, research studies have shown that the benefits of Ashwagandha can be:
  • Reducing stress and anxiety -  Ashwagandha root extract can reduce perceived stress, decrease cortisol and lower anxiety.
  • Enhancing sleep quality - Through its effects on the neurotransmitter, GABA
  • Improving memory and cognitive impairment - Research studies have shown that Ashwagandha can help to improve memory in those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease
  • Lowering inflammation - Helps to reduce inflammation in the body and can be used as a potential treatment option for inflammatory conditions like arthritis. 
Ashwagandha is best suited for Stage 1 + Stage 2 HPA dysfunction where the ‘wired but tired’ feeling is observed and is best taken before bed. Avoid taking Ashwagandha in the daytime. Do not use this herb if you are pregnant or have an autoimmune disease. The recommended dose is typically 300-500 mg/day

Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea)

Rhodiola Rosea is a Russian herb that works by increasing the release of serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’ in the body. It is used by a lot of females to provide a little extra support emotionally, physically and mentally. 
The benefits of Rhodiola can be:
  • Regulating stress - Rhodiola regulates cortisol levels in the body by supporting the Nervous System, which helps manage stress better.  
  • Increasing energy - Rhodiola is used in patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. It is best for fatigue related to a lack of motivation. Since Rhodiola is fast acting, it is best to take mid-day when you feel that decline in energy
  • Boosting physical endurance & energy Levels - Rhodiola is a top herb for endurance athletes. It helps with post-recovery due to physical exertion. Since it is fast acting, taking Rhodiola 30 minutes before a workout can help with energy levels! 
  • Elevating mood - Rhodiola modulates the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin in aim to provide a sense of calmness. 
Rhodiola is best for Stage 2 of HPA dysfunction. It is best to take if you are looking for a little more mental stimulation. The recommended dose is typically 200-400 mg/day

Licorice Root

Licorice root also known as Glycyrrhiza Glabra, acts synergistically with cortisol. It is one of the most used herbs in Traditional Chinese medicine and is specific for people with adrenal exhaustion (Stage 3). Its main medicinal properties come from the ingredient, glycyrrhizic acid, which inhibits the breakdown of cortisol. This helps to balance cortisol levels in the body and is particularly useful for Stage 3 adrenal dysfunction.  
The benefits of Licorice root include: 
  • Increasing energy and endurance - Through balancing cortisol levels
  • Aiding in digestion - Licorice helps to increase saliva production and lower stomach acid which soothes the gastrointestinal tract as food makes its way down the digestive system. 
  • Hormone balancing  - Licorice promotes hormone balancing which can help to balance estrogen levels in the body. It can be used to increase ovulation and improve fertility in women with PCOS
Licorice is best indicated for Stage 3 HPA dysfunction as it helps to raise cortisol levels. It is best taken in the morning for sustained energy. Aim for 1-4 grams/day
Caution: Licorice can cause salt retention, elevated blood pressure and hypokalemia. Do not take Licorice if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Make sure to speak to your healthcare practitioner prior to use!
A great thing about adaptogens is that they can be used individually or in combination formulas. Picking one adaptogen or multiple adaptogens depends on your stage of adrenal dysfunction. While adaptogens work great to help the body adapt to stress and fatigue, it is also essential to address the root cause of your stress. Always go back to the basics - eat a healthy, balanced diet, exercise regularly and use mindfulness practices like meditations or yoga to help manage feelings of stress. Adaptogens work best when taken for a minimum of 3 months and as always speak to your Naturopathic Doctor or health professional  to see which one/s would be best for you!
Choudhary et al. (2017). Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Improving Memory and Cognitive Functions. J Diet Suppl. 14(6):599-612. 
Agnihotri et al. (2013). Effects of Withania somnifera in patients of schizophrenia: A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled pilot trial study. Indian J Pharmacol. 45(4): 417-418. 
A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans: A double-blind, randomized, placebo controlled study. (2008). JANA. 
** Disclaimer: The advice in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the care of a Naturopathic physician.