Adaptogens are all the rage these days, it seems. For the last couple of years, everybody and their dog has been talking about adding adaptogens to their smoothies, consuming them in teas, tinctures, powders, you name it. What is all the hype about? What are these adaptogens and why would I want to take them? These are great questions and here are some answers.
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are substances that have the ability to help the body adapt to stress. In this case, we will be focusing on herb or plant adaptogens. In the past, this category of herbs has been called rejuvenating or restorative herbs, qi tonics or rasayanas. And, modern research has proven that these superior herbs, that have such a long tradition of use, are safe and effective.
Andrew Weil, MD, an Integrative medicine physician, describes adaptogens as herbs “that can ‘tone’ the body and bring it back to homeostasis,”. James Duke, PhD, scientist and ethnobotanist says, “All plants contain adaptogenic/tonic compounds, because plants have to contend with a good deal of stress themselves.” David Winston and Steven Maimes, in their book, Adaptogens, Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief, define adaptogenic herbs as “remarkable natural substances that help the body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic functions and help restore balance”. They also outline how the term ‘adaptogen' was coined:
“In 1947, Dr Nikolai Lazarev defined adaptogen as an agent that allows the body to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stressors by raising nonspecific resistance toward such stress, thus allowing the organism to “adapt” to the stressful circumstances.” Later, in 1968, Israel I. Brekhman, PhD, and Dr I. V. Dardymov formally gave adaptogens a functional definition, as follows:
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 by the stressor.
Now that we know what an adaptogen is, let's look at why you might want to use it.
Why Should I Use Adaptogens?
With so much stress in our world today, as well as the epidemic of chronic disease in western society, we need all the allies we can get! The non-toxic and stress relieving properties of adaptogens make them perfect for the majority of people. Here is a list of just five of the many benefits of adaptogens:
- Adaptogens help your body adapt to stress via the HPA axis (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal).
- Adaptogens are non-toxic and can be used as long-term tonic remedies.
- Adaptogens can enable the body’s cells to access more energy.
- Adaptogens can mediate inflammatory responses in the body.
- Adaptogens can regulate endocrine and neuroendocrine balance within the body.
Since stress, inflammation and endocrine disruption are some of the most foundational and widespread contributors to disease today, adaptogens might be the perfect addition to your daily health protocol.
Which Herbs are Adaptogens?
There are many herbs that are considered adaptogenic. In fact, there is some disagreement amongst herbalists as to which herbs belong in this category and which do not. Generally, however, there are several that are agreed upon. Included in this group are herbs such as ginseng, holy basil, ashwaganda and nettle seed, to name but a few. The below list is from Adaptogens, Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief and is more comprehensive:
- Eluthero – Eleutherococcus senticosus
- Asian Ginseng – Panax ginseng
- American Ginseng – Panax quinquefolius
- Rhaponticum – Rhaponticum carthamoides
- Dang Shen – Codonopsis pilosula
- Prince Seng – Pseudostellaria heterophylla
- Cordyceps – Cordyceps sinensis
- Rhodiola – Rhodiola rosea
- Jiogulan – Gynostemma pentaphyllum
- Amla – Emblica officinalis
- Astragalus – Astragalus membranaceus
- Licorice – Glycyrrhiza spp.
- Reishi – Ganoderma lucidum
- Holy Basil – Ocimum sanctum
- Shatavari – Asparagus racemosus
- Schisandra – Schizandra chinensis
- Guduchi – Tinospora cordifolia
- He Shou Wu – Polygonum multiflorum
- Ashwaganda – Withania somnifera
- Lycium – Lycium chinensis
There are several others that can be added to the list as well:
- Nettle Seed – Urtica dioica
- Gotu Kola – Centella asiatica
- Maca – Lepidium meyenii
- Milky Oats – Avena sativa
- Hawthorn – Crataegus oxycanthoides
- Devil's Club – Oplopanax horridus
That's a good, long list of herbs! But how do I know which ones might be best for me, you ask? That's a great question that I will answer in the next part of this series.
Do you use adaptogens regularly? Which ones are your favorites?