The effects of stress on your health can be far-reaching. Some of the conditions often associated with stress include insomnia, high blood pressure, tension headaches, anxiety, depression, decreased mental function, and drug or alcohol abuse. Stress is known to cause changes in the body's chemistry, altering the balance of hormones in our systems in ways that can lower our resistance to disease. As a result, we can become more susceptible to colds and flus, and other types of illness. Too much stress sometimes brings on outbreaks of cold sores or genital herpes for people who carry these viruses in their systems. Other chronic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and rheumatoid arthritis may also flare up during times of stress.

If it's possible to avoid situations that cause you to feel tense, unhappy, or worn down, that's obviously to your benefit. However, it isn't always possible to live a stress-free existence. Work deadlines, family demands, relationship problems, traffic jams, missed appointments, forgotten birthdays, personality conflicts, college exams—all of these things, and many more, can be sources of stress. Furthermore, though most of us associate stress with unpleasant events, even wonderful events in our lives, like weddings, vacations, and holidays, can be genuinely stressful.

Not everyone responds to these situations by getting "stressed out." There are those apparently unflappable folks whose pulse rate wouldn't even go up during an earthquake, and then there are those for whom being five minutes late constitutes reason for a state of total panic. How you manage the stress in your life can determine the impact it will have on you.

There are many different methods of dealing with stress. The basics for good health that we all know (but often forget) help in coping with stress: Eating a balanced diet and getting adequate rest help your body adapt and respond to the events in your life. Ironically, stress can interfere with your ability to take care of yourself in this way. When you're worrying so much you can't sleep, getting adequate rest becomes impossible. Stress can affect your eating habits too. So what else can you do? Exercise, meditation, and biofeedback are all widely accepted stress management tools that might help you break out of a stress-induced downward spiral.

For some people, stressful circumstances can trigger symptoms severe enough to warrant seeking medical attention. Conditions associated with stress, such as insomnia, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, may become severe enough to require medications.

One proposed natural approach to treating the physical consequences of stress involves the use of so-called adaptogens. The term "adaptogen" refers to a hypothetical treatment described as follows: An adaptogen helps the body adapt to stresses of various kinds, whether heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, toxic exposure, radiation, infection, or psychological stress. Furthermore, an adaptogen should cause no side effects, be effective in treating a wide variety of illnesses, and help return an organism toward balance no matter what may have gone wrong.

However, physical exercise is the only indubitable example of an adaptogen. There is no solid evidence that any substance functions in this way. However there is a bit of suggestive evidence for the herb Panax ginseng, which is discussed in the next section.

Panax Ginseng

Most of the evidence cited to indicate that Panax ginseng has adaptogenic effects comes from animal studies involving ginseng extracts injected into the abdomen. Such studies are of questionable relevance to the oral use of ginseng by people; furthermore, the majority of these studies were performed in the former Soviet Union and failed to reach acceptable scientific standards. However, a few potentially meaningful studies in humans have found effects that are at least consistent with the possibility of benefits in stressful situations.

Animal Studies

According to a number of animal studies, most of which were poorly designed and reported, Panax ginsenginjections into the blood stream or abdomen can increase stamina, improve mental function, protect against radiation, infections, toxins, exhaustion, and stress, and activate white blood cells.1 However, when ginseng is injected into the abdomen or bloodstream, it enters the body directly without going through the digestive tract. This mode of administration is strikingly different from taking ginseng by mouth.

A smaller number of animal studies (again, most of them poorly designed) have looked at the potential benefits of ginseng administered orally, and often reported benefit.2-8In addition, studies in mice found that consuming ginseng before exposure to a virus significantly increased the survival rate and number of antibodies produced.9,10

Human Studies

Human studies of Panax ginseng have only indirectly examined its potential benefits as an adaptogen. For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study found evidence that Panax ginsengmay improve immune system response.11 This trial enrolled 227 participants at three medical offices in Milan, Italy. Half were given ginseng at a dosage of 100 mg daily, and the other half received placebo. Four weeks into the study, all participants received influenza vaccine.

The results showed a significant decline in the frequency of colds and flus in the treated group compared to the placebo group (15 versus 42 cases). Also, antibody levels in response to the vaccination rose higher in the treated group than in the placebo group.

These findings have been taken by some researchers to support their belief that ginseng has an adaptogenic effect. However, the study might instead simply indicate a general form of immune support unrelated to stress.

Other studies have looked at Panax ginseng’s effects on overall mental function,15-17general well-being,18-21,54 and sports performance.22-28,52 While it is true that positive results in such studies might tend to hint at an adaptogenic effect, the results were, in general, too mixed to provide conclusive evidence for benefit.

The bottom line: It is not clear that Panax ginseng offers general benefits for stress.

For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full Ginseng article.