What are adaptogens?
Most likely you have been using natural healers in your life for awhile now. Herbs like Green Tea for antioxidants, Ginger for an upset stomach, or Garlic for its immune boosting effects.
However, there are some new kids on the block.
Rather, they are old kids, but they are getting a lot of attention these days.
They are — Adaptogens.
Haven't heard about them before? If not, you're about to learn something fascinating, and you will wish you knew about it sooner.
I first heard about adaptogens about 3 years ago when working with a new practitioner on my thyroid issues.
We used a few of them at the time and so began a “relationship” that still goes on today.
I started working with Linda (who wrote this post on the cause of thyroid disease) for thyroid and adrenal issues. While we were working on my protocols, Linda brought up adaptogens several times.
When talking with practitioners, typically I know much of what they are talking about, but sometimes I am kind of in the dark. In this case, I kept wondering, “What are adaptogens?” I really didn't what adaptogenic herbs were, though I had heard the term.
Linda explained that adaptogenic herbs help your body adapt to stress.
I hadn't thought about it before working with Linda, but stress comes from many places – both external and internal. Adaptogenic herbs can help regulate many kinds of stressors, plus they adapt both to the stressor, and also to the person taking them. As you can imagine, they can be quite helpful.
Adaptogens are getting a lot of attention these days for several reasons.
Number one, people are trying more and more to turn to natural substances instead of to pharmaceuticals for healing.
But the other reason that adaptogens are getting more attention these days is that they are quite useful for dealing with stress, and there is so much more stress today than in most of history.
Think about it…..
We're up waking up earlier, staying up later, the fast-pace of social media and technology are increasing at breakneck speed, the toll of the increase of illness on our society and families is putting more and more pressure on us to survive with stress.
It's just all. too. much.
So do adaptogenic herbs heal? They do in a way, since they help the body to adapt to stressors of many kinds, and too much stress causes many health problems.
What Are Adaptogens?
The term “adaptogen” comes from Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, a Russian scientist) who first coined in 1947, but Isreal Brekham, PhD and Dr. I. V. Darymovhe created the formal definition in 1968. The formal definitely includes the following criteria:
1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient.
2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body—an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor. (Source)
In other words, adaptogens must:
- Be safe
- Work by reducing your body's stress response
- Support overall health by helping the body achieve balance known as homeostasis
If you take apart the word, you can get a hint as to what adaptogens are.
Adapt, of course, means to change to what is going on.
Adaptogens are substances that help the body be more “normal”, or “balanced” in many arenas.
While working with the above-mentioned practitioner, I worked with 3 adaptogens, but I've recently been getting better acquainted with more of them and I am finding them to be fascinating.
Stressed Out Plants for Stressed Out People
Interestingly, adaptogens are mostly plants that have adapted to growing in very stressful conditions, which is what makes them so powerful. They give their strength and adaptability to us.
For example, maca grows in a harsh climate and at a high altitude, whereas rhodiola flourishes in harsh and mountainous climates of Asia.
So, these plants have innate abilities to adapt to stress that they in turn transfer to us to help us to deal with our harsh conditions in a healthier manner.
Which brings us to a good point about sourcing adaptogens. As with essential oils, I think that it is important to source adaptogens grown in indigenous locations (where they grow naturally), and to source them organically and sustainably grown when possible.
If you source adaptogens outside of their indigenous location, then you might not be getting the same ingrown quality that you would get otherwise.
What Adaptogens Do:
Now that you know more about the answer to the question, “What are adaptogens?”, let's talk about how adaptogens work.
David Hoffmann, in the Herbal Handbook, clarifies how adaptogens work
“….an adaptogen enables [the body] to avoid reaching a point of collapse or over-stress because it can adapt ‘around’ the problem.… The core of their action appears to be in helping the body deal with stress… Adaptogens seem to increase the threshold of resistance to damage via the support of adrenal gland and possibly pituitary gland function. By stretching the meaning of the word it can come to mean what in the past was called a tonic. This is especially when an herb can have a normalizing effect; that is, contradictory actions depending on the body’s needs. This restorative quality is a common and unique feature of herbal medicines.…”
But there is a biological function of how this happens. Here is the technical information: (source)
The beneficial stress-protective effect of adaptogens is related to regulation of homeostasis via several mechanisms of action associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the control of key mediators of stress response such as molecular chaperons (e.g. Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK1), Forkhead Box O transcription factor DAF-16, cortisol and nitric oxide (NO).
The key point of action of phytoadaptogens appears to be their up-regulating and stress-mimetic effects on the “stress-sensor” protein Hsp70, which plays an important role in cell survival and apoptosis. 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 and, possibly, increased longevity.
This is very complicated, but what it basically means, is this:
Adaptogens protect us against stress and help us achieve balance by several means that are associated with the HPA Axis and by acting on mediators of stress response, including cortisol and nitric oxide (NO).
There are many plants that fall under the rubric of adaptogens. Some are more commonly accepted as being adaptogens, whereas others are more “outliers.”
In future posts, I'll cover many of these in more detail, but following is a list of adaptogens that includes some of the most popular ones.
- Ashwagandha: grown in bushes that are native to India
- Eleuthero: – a small woody shrub native to Northeastern Asia
- Holy Basil (Tulsi): Tulsi is native to the Indian subcontinent
- Maca: Maca is native to the Andes mountains.
- Panax Ginseng: – used for much of ancient history for health benefits. This is different from Siberian ginseng, which has different qualities.
- Rhodiola Rosea: a perennial flowering plant that grows in cold regions of the world, including the Artic.
- Schisandra: a woody vine that is native to forests of Northern China and the Russian Far East
- Astragalus – comes from the root of a plant in the pea family. Typically grown in the northern and eastern parts of China, as well as in Mongolia and Korea.
- Licorice – a root native to Southern Europe and parts of Asia
- Moringa – native to the sub-Himalayan areas of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan
- Gotu kola – native to wetlands in Asia
There are many more plants that are considered to be adaptogens. I hope to touch on quite a few of these in more detail in the future.
Adaptogens can be taken individually, but often they are used in combination as they work synergistically.
My Experiences with Adaptogens
Personally, I have used a number of these. I've taken Rhodiola in this tincture form for many years (and still do), and take ashwagandha on and off as well. Moringa is something that I have in my home and have tried for a bit. Hoping to try it some more.
I used to not think that I tolerated maca and holy basil well, but I have been using them again and am doing fine.
Currently, I am really enjoying this Cocoa Complex from Neal's Yard Remedies. It's loaded with adaptogens and other supports for a healthy life. I only take a small amount in the afternoon (1/4 – 1/2 scoop) with some water or coconut milk and some stevia for a lovely pick me up.
I've been sleeping better since starting it, which has been a huge plus for someone who has had sleep problems for a long time.
As I mentioned above, adaptogens are often taken in combination since they work synergistically. This is what the people at Neal's Yard Remedies have done — put together a number of adaptogens that work well together.
I've mentioned Neal's Yard before, and for good reason. They are an extremely ethical company with fabulous products. You can read more about them here.
This Stress Manager from Herb Pharm is another good example of an adaptogenic blend made with herbs that work synergistically together.
1. Adaptogens are Not “One Size Fits All”: Different people might react differently to adaptogens, so take care in your use of them, just as you would with any new natural substance.
2. Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: There is mixed information about pregnancy and breastfeeding use about adaptogens. I hope to touch on this more in the future.
If you are taking medication (or any other medication, for that matter) that suppresses the immune system, please do not use adaptogens without consulting a physician about a potential herb-drug interaction.
Of course, the above concerns are very important to heed, but following is one that I think gets easily overlooked.
3. Don't Overdo It: The temptation in our modern day busyness would be to just take adaptogens and keep pushing through. That might work in the short run, but you need to always listen to your body. If you end up using adaptogens as a way to keep going when your body wants you to slow down, you might end up in serious burnout.
It would be best to use adaptogens as a short term support, or perhaps long term if you are an individual that is overly sensitive to stress. At the same time, some of their health benefits
Regardless of how you use them, I hope you look into them more and see what these powerful, health-giving adaptogens can do for you.
Have you heard of adaptogens before?
Have you used any adaptogens?