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Adaptogenic Herbs and PTSD

Posted by Revvl Health on
Photo taken by Alina Grubnyak - Thanks Alina! :)

Adaptogens and Trauma Response

The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons in the brain that is part of the limbic system, or the primitive brain. It controls both fear and pleasure, and helps create picture memories from both of those very different experiences. Although the amygdala is bigger in men than in women, women tend to respond more quickly and more deeply to emotional stimuli. Men tend to respond physically to overwhelming emotional stimulation. When they can’t respond physically, men tend to feel hostile and irritable. The functions of the amygdala are modulated by stress hormones.i The neuropeptide corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) is released during stress and has been linked to many stress-related behavioral, autonomic, and endocrine responses. Elsevier (publishers of scientific research) report that researchers have confirmed the critical role of the amygdala in the stress response.ii

The hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal axis is our central stress response system. Once the pictures instigated by a traumatic event have been embedded in the amygdala, the hypothalamus initiates the stress response by releasing corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRF). When CRF is released, it binds to receptors on the pituitary gland where ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) is produced and released. ACTH binds to receptors on the adrenal cortex and stimulates the adrenals to release cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that will make you fat, sick, and tired. If not addressed, it will cause chronic disease. 

At a certain blood concentration of cortisol, the level of protection is theoretically achieved, and the cortisol initiates the negative feedback loop to the hypothalamus; telling it to stop releasing CRF; and the telling the pituitary to stop releasing ACTH. At this point, homeostasis returns. But what if it doesn’t? With repeated exposure to stress, our bodies adapt to the stressor with constant, chronic, and sustained HPA axis activation (which we know as the stress response.)

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers...

Back in 2004, a man named Robert M. Sapolsky wrote a book called "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers." Funny name for a book, sure... but he writes about the fact that zebras are at the bottom end of their food chain; every other animal in their biosphere tries to eat them; and often succeeds. They have to stay in alert response mode all the time because if they don’t, they will be killed. They are constantly scanning their environment for trouble. If they see or sense that trouble is brewing, they react by running away. If they manage to escape, then they live to run the next day, and the next, and the next. Each and every time they stop running, and get to a place where they are safe, within an astounding 90 seconds their nervous systems reset back to normal. Zebras don’t get ulcers because their systems are so neuroplastic that they adapt and respond immediately after the threat is over. The only time a zebra gets an ulcer is when it is locked in a zoo. It can’t run away, so the stress never stops.

But humans aren’t like zebras... Once our bodies get “stuck” in the stress response mode, it can stay there indefinitely. It takes conscious effort and sometimes a change of lifestyle to break that stress response and get off the merry go round. PTSD is a chronic state of being stuck in the stress response because of pictures that are stored in the amygdala part of the brain—pictures of traumatic events that have happened to you or in your presence. Whenever things get quiet and the pictures present themselves again, the movie begins to play in your head of those events. At that point your body is immediately in full- fledged stress response that can show up as panic attacks, physical illness, chronic conditions, aggression, hostility, addiction(s), withdrawal, emotional detachment, social isolation, insomnia, agitation, emotional paralysis, and all types of self-destructive behaviors. Counseling, therapy, emotional and spiritual healing help make things better, but in order to break the stress response, physical changes are required as well. Some proven ways to “break” the stress response are:

  1. Regular and specific spinal adjustments (that remove interference from the nervous system)

  2. Regular exercise 

  3. Detoxification of the body

  4. Adequate and restorative sleep

  5. Proper nourishment

  6. Consciously practicing gratitude and generosity

  7. Consumption of adaptogenic herbs

Adaptogenic Herbs

Because more and more people are turning to the healing properties of herbs instead of reaching for pharmaceuticals, science has begun urgently studying the effects of natural substances on the symptoms of disease and on the human stress response. The specific constituents of herbs, many of which have been used for thousands of years in other cultures, are now being reported in mainstream research like PubMed (from the National Institutes for Health). If one accepts the premise that stress causes inflammation, and chronic inflammation causes or allows disease to inhabit the body, then it makes perfect sense to study the ability of adaptogenic herbs to mitigate the body’s stress response.

David Winston is one of the world’s leading experts on adaptogenic herbs, and has written what is considered a textbook for treating common conditions with Phytotherapy. Phytotherapy refers to the use of plants for their healing abilities. Adaptogens, of which there are thirteen, are a special class of plants that helps balance, restore, and protect the body from the effects of stress. In order to be considered adaptogenic, herbs and plants must meet these criteria:

  • The substance is non-toxic to the recipient.

  • The substance influences many organs or body systems (non-specific), and acts by increasing resistance of the organism to a broad spectrum of adverse biological, chemical, and physical factors.

  • The substance must help modulate system function and promote homeostasis. Unlike pharmaceuticals, adaptogens are not new. They have been used by Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic practitioners for thousands of years to boost energy and increase resiliency to stress. Adaptogens are amphoteric in nature, meaning they work like a thermostat. When the house is too hot, the thermostat stops the heat and/or initiates the air conditioner. Adaptogens can boost energy and make the user calm all at the same time without overstimulating. One of the most interesting aspects of adaptogens that has recently been discovered is their ability to quiet a stress-activated enzyme known as JNK. JNK is responsible for increasing inflammatory and oxidative compounds and decreasing ATP (energy) generation. Taking an herbal adaptogen helps mediate this stress response.

The specific herbs in STRESSRX® are:

These are adaptogenic herbs that positively affect the HPA access; thereby increasing the body’s resiliency to stressors. Clinical trials of adaptogenic herbs in general show their ability to intuitively either stimulate or suppress certain chemical messengers in the body as needed. In addition, clinical trials of these three herbs in particular show an affirmative effect on the HPA axis—the core mechanism of the human stress response. We are finding that our natural, non- habit forming formula increases the body’s resiliency to stress by increasing its ability to adapt to and recover from stress and return the body to a place of rest and homeostasis. This balance is experienced by the user as focus, concentration, inner calm, and an overall sense of wellbeing.

Adaptogenic Herbs and PTSD

The National Institutes of Health reports that Rhodiola improves attention, cognitive function, and mental performance in fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome—often a result of PTSD.III The key point of action of adaptogenic herbs is their up-regulating and stress- imitating effects on the "stress-sensor" protein Hsp70, which plays an important role in cell survival and apoptosis (the cycle of cell death). Hsp70 inhibits the expression of NO synthase II gene and interacts with glucocorticoid receptors directly and via the JNK pathway, thus affecting the levels of circulating cortisol and NO. Prevention of stress- induced increase in NO, and the associated decrease in ATP production, results in increased performance and endurance. Adaptogen-induced up- regulation of Hsp70 triggers stress-induced JNK-1 and DAF-16-mediated pathways regulating the resistance to stress and resulting in enhanced mental and physical performance.IV

Some may think, “Just mitigating a stress-activated enzyme won’t take the pictures out of my head.” And you are right. However, epigenetics has suggested that our minds and bodies are able to turn certain genes on and certain genes off; independent of anything that has happened to us. Therefore, by mitigating the stress-activated enzyme JNK, and by mediating the stress response in the body, you can actually change the “soup” that 

surrounds your genes, and change your own physical, emotional, and mental health history. The same brain that stores every single experience in your life is also able to quiet the pictures in your head. Our brain is infinitely neuroplastic, meaning that it can change if given the right conditions. Once changed, it will be up to each individual to then replace the bad pictures with better pictures that are more suitable for health and happiness. When your body is stuck in the stress response, it triggers PTSD. When that response is mitigated with the help of recommended and time-tested adaptogenic herbs, PTSD is mitigated as well.


i The Journal of Neuroscience, 7 April 2004, 24(14): 3471-3479; doi: 10.1523/ JNEUROSCI.5740-03.2004

ii Volume 664, Issues 1–2, 21 November 1994, Pages 207–210
iv Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Sep;4(3):198-219. Epub 2009 Sep 1.


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