Supporting the HPA Axis with Ginseng
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis plays a significant role in regulating hormones including triggering the release of the “stress hormone” cortisol. It is well-known that hypersecretion of cortisol is correlated with poor health and that there are a number of conditions directly related to HPA axis dysfunction and hypersecretion of cortisol. Creating HPA axis homeostasis to reduce the chances of hypersecretion of cortisol remains a key clinical goal for many patients, especially those who are having difficulty coping with occasional stress.
Ginseng is a group of adaptogenic herbs shown to modulate cortisol’s effect on the HPA axis. One definition of an adaptogen is that they are “natural metabolic regulators that increase the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factors.” There are a variety of external environmental factors out of the patient’s control, and even in the patient’s control, that can be supported by adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng.
Modulation of stress mediators like cortisol is one mechanism of action for adaptogenic herbs like ginseng. The most widely studied and commonly used forms of ginseng in clinical practice are Panax (Korean ginseng), American (Panax quinquefolius), and Siberian (Eleuthero). Many studies have shown that ginseng can cause physiological changes that help the body adapt to adverse conditions, including occasional physical, mental and emotional stress.
For example, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods demonstrated that Korean ginseng not only reduced circulating cortisol, it also reduced HPA responses to physical stress. The researchers speculate that this result may be in part due to increased antioxidant expression; however, the ginsenosides found in ginseng have many pharmacological effects in the body. A 2017 review published in the Journal of Ginseng Research reported that the pharmacological effects of ginsenosides can be subdivided into about 100 different categories, illustrating the diverse ways in which ginseng can support health. In that review, the researchers conclude that “when a person faces a stressful environment, ginseng can improve their response by regulating the function of the HPA axis.” In particular, they note that ginseng is especially effective in supporting patients with hypersecretion of cortisol.
Patients who need extra support of the HPA axis may benefit greatly from a supplement that contains ginseng. Ginseng is often combined with other adaptogenic herbs to provide the most comprehensive benefit to patients. There are many high-quality ginseng products presently available to healthcare professionals.
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