Adaptogens are plant substances that have been found to help our bodies manage stress and maintain balance, or homeostasis. They help us adapt to external stressors, promote vitality, stabilize mood, and improve performance and focus. You may have heard of some common adaptogens such as maca, black cohosh, St. John’s wort, and ginseng. Today I will be focusing on three specific adaptogens that work really well across the board for mitigating stress, helping with estrogen fluctuations, helping with all of the perimenopausal vasomotor symptoms, and brain and cognition challenges that come with the fluctuation of estrogen and progesterone.
The time when perimenopause begins is also a time in life when there are many other stressors that compound that stress effect. This is a time when many women have kids that are teenagers, or maybe a little bit younger, and they are going through things that put pressure on you. Your parents are getting older and may require more care and time. You may be at an important place in your career and of course you also have performance goals and expectations for your sport. All of these external stressors compound and complicate some of the issues that you are having with hormone fluctuation during perimenopause and these effects carry over into menopause.
So, lets look at three adaptogens that help mitigate those stresses on your body and your body’s response to stress. The primary target of the compounds in adaptogens is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a complex system of glands, hormones, and receptors in the human body. The HPA axis is central to the body’s homeostasis, stress responses and energy metabolism. The hypothalamus is responsible for our temperature control as well as a lot of our appetite and thirst sensations. The pituitary gland is referred to as the “master gland” because it monitors and regulates many bodily functions through the hormones that it produces. And the adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress and other essential function. When we consume adaptogens, their compounds work with the HPA axis to help balance our systems. If there’s too much of one hormone, for instance, the adaptogens help to lower it. On the flip side, if there isn’t enough of a hormone, adaptogens can help replenish its levels. They do this by acting on each hormone receptor, primarily your heat-shock proteins, nitric oxide, cortisol, and your steroid hormones. They do this by a similar mechanism as antidepressants, where you take them for a period of time so they build up in the body, and then the compounds will be ready to respond to any nonspecific stress. It doesn’t really matter what is invoking the cortisol response and increasing stress, adaptogens are there ready to block some of the cortisol response that you have.
During perimenopause we tend to have greater amounts of cortisol production in response to the stress effect of estrogen and progesterone fluctuations. By decreasing your body’s response to stress, you reduce the sudden upsurge of cortisol that is present just from the perimenopause process, let alone all our life stresses. An upsurge of cortisol can interfere with your sleep, the ability to activate your parasympathetic system (the PSNS is kind of a “business as usual” system that keeps the basic functions of your body working as they should) and this will impact your ability to train, recover and adapt for performance as well as function optimally in your life. So, using adaptogens can help to reduce adrenal fatigue, reduce sleep issues, and reduce the effect on your neuroendocrine system. A lot of the symptoms of perimenopause are in response to hormone and neurotransmitter (serotonin, and norepinephrine) fluctuations and their effect on the brain. These neurotransmitters feed forward to other responses like core temperature control, mood, cognition, reaction time, brain fog, and all of those things are mitigated by the use of certain adaptogens.
Let’s start with my favorite, ashwagandha. Ashwagandha is more of a relaxant and is good at decreasing the effects of anxiety and mood fluctuations because it helps moderate the serotonin dump that happens when there is a rapid fluctuation of estrogen in the brain. This is a very common situation during perimenopause when you have high levels of estrogen in relation to progesterone at one point in time followed by a rapid decrease in estrogen. For a reminder of what is happening in your body during perimenopause, review my previous blog post Athletic Performance Through Perimenopause and Beyond – part I. Ashwagandha also helps moderate some of the tryptophan that’s crossing the blood-brain barrier therefore also reducing mood changes and anxiety. It decreases cortisol and helps moderate fatigue, reduces your total cholesterol and your low-density lipoproteins, helps with cognitive impairment so that that brain fog dissipates, and also helps increase luteinizing hormone and helps support your thyroid. As you remember from your review of my previous blog post, luteinizing hormone is only released during ovulation and that timing may be off or completely stopped during perimenopause and menopause.
Ashwagandha also increases your DHEA and testosterone levels, and this is important as all hormones are declining in perimenopause and women still need some level of testosterone. During perimenopause, there is a decline in the production of your sex hormones from your ovaries leading your adrenal glands being your primary producers of sex hormones by the time you reach post-menopause. With this reduction in available sex hormones, using ashwagandha is beneficial to covert cortisol, estrogen and progesterone into DHEA and testosterone. An increase in DHEA and testosterone reduces cortisol and estradiol further reducing estrogen dominant symptoms of perimenopause.
Ashwagandha helps improve vasomotor symptoms, hot flashes, night sweats, heart palpitations, and changes in blood pressure, again, by moderating estradiol (E2). It is also anti-inflammatory. When we have an elevation in estrogen in relation to progesterone, we have increased inflammation that can be systemic and carried through into menopause. When there is reduction in estrogen from the ashwagandha, you have a greater increase in anti-inflammatory properties, which is extremely beneficial for us athletes as it also reduces our delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), again, by moderating that inflammation response.
When cortisol is elevated, it mobilizes glucose and free fatty acids for fuel. This can lead to visceral fat deposition and insulin resistance. Ashwagandha helps with blood glucose control, because when you have less cortisol, you have less of the free fatty acid response. It also helps with insulin sensitivity and ultimately maintaining lean body composition because if you’re decreasing cortisol, you’re also decreasing the stimulus for storing body fat.
If you’re looking to implement only one adaptogen, I would recommend Ashwagandha. For dosing, follow the directions on the package, starting with the lowest dose and building up if needed. An important note is that if you are on any thyroid medication, you cannot take ashwagandha, because it is very much contraindicated for the fact that it does affect your T3 and T4, so don’t use it.
The next adaptogen I want to talk about is Schisandra. Schisandra acts as a stimulant by acting on the central nervous system, improving cognition, and giving you some focus. The stimulatory effects are unlike caffeine that can give you the jitters, but just gives you focus and a boost in the brain. It primarily works to downregulate the degradation of serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters) in the brain, essentially affecting the brain in a similar way as estrogen but modulates what estrogen effects are by also acting as a weak phytoestrogen.
We know that during perimenopause, estrogen fluctuates up and down resulting in an estrogen dominance effect until we eventually reach a plateau and flatline of hormones that we have in menopause or post-menopause. This fluctuation affects your vasodilation and vasoconstriction. Taking Schisandra, helps modulates this estrogen fluctuation by attaching to some of the estrogen receptor sites, you don’t have this immediate vasodilation effect and then a vasoconstrictive effect, so if you have the onset of a hot flash, you don’t have the same severity. Schisandra also induces a little bit of oxidation in the mitochondria, the powerhouse of our cells. The more exposure our mitochondria has to this slight oxidation, the more they adapt to it and ultimately become more robust in an oxidizing environment such as exercising muscles. This is a positive reaction from a physicality and cognitive standpoint.
Schisandra contains lignans, a specific type of phytoestrogen that is similar to what you find in flaxseed, but this is much stronger. This type of phytoestrogen is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. In addition, schisandra may also decrease endogenous (from within) sex hormone exposure by increasing the excretion of their metabolites. So, another beneficial adaptogen that helps modulate that estrogen fluctuation that happens in perimenopause
As with all adaptogens, I recommend starting very small, and then working your way up to the full dose because it could be that the lower dosage will help with your hot flashes and your night sweats while increasing cognition, aerobic capacity, and performance. A common way to take it is to put it in coffee in the morning. It tastes like coffee; it works with the caffeine to enhance that focus. You do want to avoid using it in the late afternoon or evening because it does give you that lift like a caffeine lift. You can also put it in smoothies or simply take it straight.
The final adaptogen I am going to discuss is Rhodiola rosea. Rhodiola also has more of a stimulant effect rather than a relaxant and acts on neurotransmitters. Rhodiola inhibits the enzyme that’s responsible for neurotransmitter degradation, so when estrogen drops, they don’t drop as fast improving cognitive function and helping with vasomotor symptoms. It is also really good for boosting your energy levels, it works from an anti-fatigue standpoint because it affects serotonin and dopamine. This gives you that brain lift and decreases the sensation of brain fatigue and brain fog.
The other benefit is that it normalizes the release of your stress hormones, particularly cortisol. As mentioned, that in perimenopause we have higher levels of cortisol because the body is under a lot of stress. Rhodiola helps mitigate some of the cortisol responses by supporting the functioning of the adrenal glands. It also helps boost your energy by enabling the mitochondria to work better resulting in faster production of ATP.
Rhodiola is also a selective serotonin reuptake modulator (SSRM) that helps with metabolism of estradiol. Rhodiola limits the estrogen-dominance effect by attaching to receptors and preventing endogenous estrogen from attaching and having an effect. Rhodiola also helps with the uptake and the degradation of your natural estrogen, so that you increase some of the metabolite excretion and helps modulate that dominance effect.
When we have that drop in progesterone that we get during perimenopause, we lose some of the neuroprotective effects that progesterone provides. We have to look at some other ways to boost that protective effect and one of them is using adaptogens, in particular, the Rhodiola, because it does help when progesterone drops off.
Like Schisandra, you should take Rhodiola in the morning because it does act as a stimulant. We know that it really helps with the exhaustion and fatigue that we get with the onset of perimenopause as well as helping with our vasomotor symptoms and with brain fog. And from a psychological aspect, we know that concentration improves, irritability decreases, anxiety decreases, and we are able to get out and play, train, and perform the way we want to.
Support your body through this phase of your life and have the confidence and desire to achieve your performance goals.
Sports Holistic Nutritionist
Strength and Conditioning Coach
Very interesting blog. I’m curious how effective these supplements are in post-menopause?
Thank you Fay and great question. I think there is still a substantial benefit in taking these adaptogens even in post-menopause. Anything that you can to to support your body in managing any type of stress is a good idea. While there is a solid focus on managing estrogen fluctuations, they also help with glucose control, insulin resistance, managing cortisol and all the positive cascade effects of keeping that stress response low.