Adaptogens are a special class of herbs that help support your adrenal glands and manage your body’s hormonal response to stress. These powerful herbs have lots of benefits and can help improve your well-being by helping your body fight fatigue and stress. Learn more here about adaptogens, adaptogenic herbs and ways you can add them into your daily routine.
By now, you may know all there is to know about what it means for a food or herb to be anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. You may also be familiar with foods that are strong antioxidants. But do you know what it means when an herb is considered adaptogenic? Regardless of your answer, you’ve clicked on the right article, because once you learn what an adaptogen is, you’ll be searching where to find them and fast!
What are adaptogens?
To put it in simple terms, the term “adaptogen” actually refers to an entire class of particular herbs and natural substances that support your adrenal glands, which manage your body’s hormonal response to stress. Adaptogenic herbs and supplements are best known for their ability to improve human stress levels and fight fatigue, though there are plenty of other health benefits to spare. By helping the endocrine system stay strong, adaptogens are able to naturally and safely balance out the pesky stress hormones in the body.
When your body responds to stress, it releases the hormone cortisol. This increase in cortisol helps initiate your “fight or flight” response – that is how your body decides what to do in times of stress. However, heightened levels of cortisol due to chronic stress can negatively affect virtually any and every physiological system in your body. Let’s not forget cortisol is also referred to as the aging hormone. Adaptogens however, are here to help strengthen your body’s response to stress. What a relief!
What is stress?
People often forget that stress can be mental and physical – the body takes both. So, when we say that adaptogenic herbs help relieve stress, that encompasses all stress! Let’s dig a little deeper. Stress, while quite inevitable at times, is not always a bad thing. However, negative stress can eventually take its toll on our bodies. Ever neglect eating all day because of stress? Perhaps you have splurged your money on ice cream and salty snacks because of stress, and now you feel sick to your stomach. Sometimes stress even gets us by keeping us up at night. It is a nondiscriminatory phenomenon.
What is stress, then, scientifically? Stress is the automatic reaction the body performs in response to a demand, otherwise called a stressor. Stressors could be anything from school work to bills to physical injuries and trauma. The reaction taking place stems from the hypothalamus, a little region in the brain that causes the body to produce a set of hormones, the commonly known ones being cortisol and adrenaline. The released hormones are what aid in the sometimes quick decision-making process that occurs within the body: fight or flight. You may feel a splurge of energy thanks to cortisol prompting glucose to be released temporarily. Along with this, your heart rate may speed up and your blood pressure may rise. You may feel like a superhuman because the hormones often suppress other bodily functions that are not necessary for responding to the stressor, including digestion and your immune system. And while the superhuman feeling is great for when you are in an emergency situation, when you stressed just sitting in traffic or at your desk, this response is not helpful and can be harmful to you in the long run.
In fact, long term chronic stress can have toxic effects on your body. There are psychological ones like anxiety and anger, and there are also plenty of physical ones as well, like high blood pressure, stomach pain, headaches, and even a weaker immune system (1). Basically, chronic stress has the potential to hinder every physiological system in our bodies! The fact that stress can directly be detrimental to your physical health means that we need to find ways to cope and manage daily stresses. Adaptogens and adaptogenic herbs are a great way you can help to regulate your body’s ability to handle stress.
What are adaptogenic herbs?
As we said earlier, adaptogenic herbs refer to a special class of herbs and roots that help restore the body through means of nourishing the adrenals and the endocrine system and help your body maintain healthy hormonal fluctuations.. The term “adaptogen” was first coined by N. V. Lazarev in 1947, a time in which the use of medicinal plants for improving odds of survival in stress-inducing environments was being developed (2). The Soviet scientist, who specialized in toxicology, used the terminology to describe substances with a “non-specific” effect on helping humans deal with stressful situations. He created this term shortly after his studies of dibazol, a drug/medication that he found to be helpful in reducing damage within the nervous system.
So, adaptogenic herbs do not actually exist to serve a specific purpose; think of them more as a helping hand. When you respond to a stressor or demand, adaptogenic herbs can help regulate your response so that the stress reaction does not overwhelm any of your important bodily systems and physiological functions. Adaptogens are kind of like “chill pills” for your internal compounds and hormones.
While some people assume most medicinal herbs are adaptogenic, that is not true. Plant expert and world-traveling medicine researcher Chris Kilham clarifies in his writing that adaptogens “specifically reduce stress, both mental and physical,” yet also must be totally safe and non-toxic to the body (3). A 2007 study conducted by the Swedish Herbal Institute’s Research and Development department found that rats that consumed adaptogen supplements (including but not limited to schisandra, ginseng, rhodiola) had mostly balanced levels of cortisol and nitric oxide (4). This week-long study revealed adaptogens to be quite the antidepressants.
Adaptogens are natural wonders. They essentially help your body adapt to situations and environments of stress, impacting not only energy, but strength, endurance and stamina as well. Adaptogens do this by working directly through the adrenal glands, endocrine glands that produce hormones.
Benefits of adaptogens:
Now that we all know that adaptogens can improve your overall well-being, keep in mind that different adaptogenic supplements can have different benefits. Some adaptogens and adaptogenic herbs can help to energize and stimulate the body and are great for people who feel tired or lethargic. Other adaptogenics and supplements can help to calm and soothe your nerves, and some can even strengthen the immune system.
Health Benefits of Popular Adaptogens
There are over a dozen different adaptogens, and each can have a different benefit or effect on your body. Here are some of the more popular ones and their benefits to the body:
Schisandra – Traditional Chinese Medicine has used these special little red medical berries for thousands of years to support adrenal function, improve digestion and skin, and boost energy. The superberry, considered to have five different flavors when consumed, promotes mental function and skin health. They’ve also been known to helping with libido and hormonal health, and lowering inflammation in the body!
Boswellia – Also known as Indian frankincense, this old Asian and African folk medicine has been used for its aid in the reduction of inflammation, thus possibly reducing pain as well. This herbal extract can be particularly helpful in treating the conditions found in osteoarthritis, asthma, and certain cancers.
Panax Ginseng – One of the several types of ginsengs, Panax ginseng can be found in various parts of Asia, including Siberia and northeastern China. Panax ginseng helps greatly with fatigue and mental clarity. Your concentration and memory may also feel enhanced. Consuming Panax ginseng every day for 12 weeks has been shown to improve the mental performances of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Tulsi – This holy basil, a sacred plant in the Hindu religion, has been used for 3,000 years. Ancient Indians have used the plant as medicine in order to reap the therapeutic benefits tulsi has to offer, including remedying anxiety, poor blood sugar, and adrenal fatigue. Tulsi also helps stimulate regeneration of the hippocampus, the part of the brain where short term memory converts into long term memory. So, tulsi can be helpful for breaking habits and recovering/rebuilding from trauma and chronic stress conditions.
Ashwagandha – Another ancient herb, ashwagandha is loved for its rejuvenating powers. The alleviative adaptogenic herb is quite the superfood, having not only antidepressant properties, but neuroprotective and thyroid modulating properties too! This stamina-enhancing, anxiety-controlling stress reliever is one of the more popular (and more thoroughly researched) adaptogenic herbs in the world. Ashwagandha is also immune modulating and circadian rhythm modulating. It can help people find energy during the day, and settle down at night-both factors that are affected by stress.
Astragalus Root – For thousands of years, Traditional Chinese Medicine has taken advantage of this disease-fighting adaptogenic superfood. Yes, this one is powerful! The anti-inflammatory astragalus root boosts the immune system all the while helping your body manage the adrenal glands.
Rhodiola Rosea – This arctic root can be found in cold areas of Eastern Europe and Asia. Found at very high altitudes, rhodiola is great for burning fat (especially belly fat) and increasing your energy! People have consumed rhodiola to help fight depression as well. Rhodiola can actually be quite energizing, so you may want to consider not combining this adaptogenic supplement with coffee, or doing so with caution until you know its effects are on your body.
Licorice Root – We’re not talking about the candy! Taking a look at the original root itself, licorice has actually been used as a leaky gut remedy and an anti-inflammatory adaptogenic superfood. Of course, because it is after all an adaptogenic herb, licorice helps improve stress response and reduce adrenal fatigue. Topically, licorice has a cortisol fixing effect, so you can infuse it in oil, or make a strong tea for a soak or a poultice and it can be super helpful for itchy skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis which often come along with chronic stress. Note that long term usage or high doses of licorice can raise blood pressure.
Cordyceps – Cordyceps is actually a fungus that is grown on the bodies of caterpillars that becomes nutrient dense with a wide variety of health benefits. Cordyceps mushrooms have been used in ancient Chinese and Tibetan medicine for centuries for good reason. This adaptogenic herb not only tastes good but it can help to improve energy and athletic performance. Additionally, these earthy adaptogenic mushrooms can help in supporting the immune system while also helping our bodies detoxify.
Reishi – Reishi is a health-boosting fungus that is also known as the lingzhi mushroom. This mushroom is popular in China and the surrounding countries, having a long historical use as an herbal remedy. Reishi has been used as medicine for colds, flus, and other illnesses. These tasty mushrooms also have antioxidant properties that protect you against free radical damage as well as chronic inflammation.
Moringa – The moringa leaf comes from the horseradish tree and can be found in Eastern countries like Pakistan, Nepal, and India. Moringa has grown in popularity as a “superfood” because of its ability to prevent and even treat diseases including arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. Full of nutritious amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, moringa has also helped treat skin, respiratory, and even digestive disorders. Moringa is known for supporting brain health in regards to Alzheimer’s disease, and mental health in general. People typically get these benefits through eating the leaf powder supplement, but you can also eat the roots, seeds, and flowers, too!
Elderberry – Elderberries have been traced back to as far as ancient Greece, in which the fruit was described as Hippocrates’s “medicine chest.” These small black fruits are widely used in Europe and North America, benefiting the immune system thanks to it being a great source of antioxidants – specifically flavonoids. Elderberries help boost cytokine production, meaning elderberries directly help increase the levels of proteins that support your immune response. What they are most known for is effectively treating colds and flu, reducing symptom severity and speeding up the duration of the sickness.
Maca – Native to the high altitudes of Peru, the maca root has grown in global popularity fairly recently as people regarded the vegetable’s high nutritional value and its ability to increase libido in both men and women alike. While research is still in the early stages for maca, studies have shown some benefits such as improved memory and learning, increased energy, better exercise performance, and increased fertility in men. Maca has also been shown to enhance mood, revealing associations with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Ginkgo – Ginkgo, or ginkgo biloba, comes from China and dates back thousands of years of medicinal use. Some say the ginkgo is a living fossil because it is the sole member of an ancient plant order that has survived. Naturally as an adaptogen, ginkgo is a fantastic source of powerful antioxidants that lead to the plant’s many other benefits. These benefits include and are not limited to supporting heart health and brain health, including helping to improve attention and focus, fighting inflammation, lowering anxiety, and improving blood circulation throughout the body.
How to add adaptogens to your diet:
The simplest way to add an adaptogen into your diet is to make a tea: simply mix a teaspoon of loose leaf or powder into hot water and enjoy. Powders can be easily added to nut butter, or to honey to make a paste that you can spread on toast or fruit. Or you can also easily mix in the powders into your savory dishes or baked goods. Here are some easy and tasty recipes using adaptogens:
Note that if you are using powders, make sure to use a high quality reliable brand because some powders will not dissolve well and can have an unpleasant texture.
It is recommended that you consume adaptogens every day in order to really feel the health benefits. Also be aware that while adaptogenic plants are amazing allies for the body, use them with caution, both in quantities and frequency. Adaptogenic herbs and supplements need to be part of a wellness plan that includes a healthy diet, exercise and stress relief. You may want to work with an herbalist or Ayurvedic specialist to help you find the proper adaptogenic herbs that work for you.
- Adaptogens provide support to the adrenal glands, which manage the body’s response to stress.
- Adaptogens help to normalize the body’s response to stress.
- Chronic stress can have long term negative effects on the body, both physical and psychological.
- Different adaptogenic herbs can have various effects on the body.
- Some adaptogens help to energize and stimulate the body, while other adaptogenic herbs help to calm and soothe the body.
- There are over a dozen different adaptogens, including Schisandra, Boswellia and many others.
- Adaptogens can be easily added into your diet. The simplest way is by making a tea, by mixing a small amount into hot water.
- Adaptogenic herbs can also be used for cooking and baking.
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