Adaptogens 101: What You Need To Know

February 8, 2023

You may not be too familiar with adaptogens are, but you will hear about them very soon as new research is continually being published about their health benefits, they are becoming a force in the health world. This class of incredibly powerful plants has been used in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, and now decades after scientists in the West discovered these plants during World War II, are seeing the limelight due to their stress-protective and energy boosting properties. Besides that, these plants also provide the body with a plethora of health benefits per plant and can treat a variety of ailments.

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens - or adaptogenic substances - like herbs, practices, and compounds are all part of a pharmacological concept that, when used, result in the stabilization of physiological processes and promote homeostasis such as a decrease in cellular sensitivity to stress. Essentially, adaptogens are a unique class of healing herbs and plants used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine that promotes the restoration, balancing, and protection of the body from adverse influences, such as stress.

The term adaptogen was first coined in 1947 by the Soviet Union's Ministry of Health and was specifically referring to a class of mushrooms and herbs offering incredible support for the body's natural resistance towards mental and physical ailments. One of the significant benefits of adaptogens is it works with the body's specific needs and adapts the plant's function to what nutrients the body needs to restore health and wellbeing for the patient.

How Are Adaptogens Supposed To Help The Body?

The human body was built to release various hormones depending on the circumstance. Cortisol - also known as the aging hormone - is released as a response to stress. However, elevated cortisol levels over long periods and chronic stress can affect every physiological system within the body, including the thyroid and adrenal glands. When cortisol levels increase within the body, an individual will experience a 'fight or flight' response which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands. When this event occurs, a decrease in digestive secretions and an increase in blood pressure takes place, the body and the brain are responding to the stressor, cortisol levels return to normal, and the body becomes balanced once again.

The key role adaptogens play is the minimizing of these effects and allow the body to respond to stress in a healthier way, without cortisol levels reaching a monumental level. The majority of adaptogens have universally proven to minimize fatigue and improve focus and endurance when feeling tired, boost immunity, protect against disease, increase energy and physical endurance, relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, balance moods, sustain mental focus and cognitive abilities, and restore balance to metabolic processes.

What Classifies As An Adaptogen?

Following the initial definition of an adaptogen, a plant or herb must be non-toxic to the human body to be considered one, not have one specific function but many, and have a normalizing effect on the physiology of the body. From a herbal medicine perspective, a natural substance is considered to help the body adapt to stress and strive to have a normalizing effect on the body's natural processes, with one of the well-known examples being ginseng. However, in a 2008 study conducted by the European Medicines Agency concluded there needs to be additional clinical and preclinical research into adaptogens and how they affect the body, therefore the concept of 'adaptogens' is not recognized by European medical professionals.

The Different Categories According To Experts

According to experts, there are different types of classifications for adaptogens. Specific adaptogens, such as eleuthero, Rhodiola Rosea, maca, and Asian ginseng, are known to stimulate the body and enhance mental performance and physical stamina, whereas others such as holy basil, reishi, and ashwagandha are taken to help relax the body and soothe the adrenals when they are experiencing stress. Astragalus is another adaptogen that has become increasingly popular lately due to its immune-boosting qualities, whereas some herbs, such as turmeric with its anti-inflammatory elements, have some adaptogenic properties, but is not classified as a certified adaptogen.

The Almighty Ginseng

One of the most well-known adaptogen, Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, is considered by experts to be the most potent and has proven to improve calmness and anxiety, as well as enhance memory performance in adults, while also providing valuable antioxidants and nutrients to the body. Panax ginseng has also be observed to reduce ulcer index, adrenal gland weight (associated with stress), blood glucose levels, triglycerides, creatine kinase (an enzyme associated with stress or injury-related damage of the circulatory system), and serum corticosterone (a stress-related hormone).

Overall, researchers have concluded ginseng possesses the necessary anti-stress properties that can be used to treat stress-induced disorders, such as anxiety, and that this ancient plant blocks ACTH action in the adrenal gland, which leads to stress.

All Hail Holy Basil

Holy basil - also known as tulsi - is one of India's most potent herbs and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over three thousand years. It is a delicious leaf that is used in some Thai sauces and dishes and is an antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and antioxidant believed to help with cholesterol, lower blood pressure, reduce seizure activity. Tulsi also fights bacteria and kills specific types of fungi, combats viral infections, protects the liver, reduces pain symptoms, and promotes healthy immune system function.

Holy basil is also known to help health-related problems related to the nervous system, such as supporting memory and cognitive function, recovery from head trauma, and as a treatment for depression. Its immune-stimulating properties are also believed to help with environmental allergens. It can be used in its traditional form as a tonic, but also as a tea to help fight bronchitis and to ease nausea and vomiting.

The Most Popular Plants That Are Adaptogens

There are a variety of plants and herbs considered adaptogens that can restore the body back to health and protect it against numerous diseases and illnesses. Some of the most popular adaptogens are maca, Rhodiola, American ginseng, Eleutherococcus, and ashwagandha. Maca is a plant from Peru available in most stores in its powdered form, and research shows evidence that maca is a natural energizer that can help with memory problems, sexual dysfunction, and can protect the skin against ultraviolet rays.

Rhodiola is known as the arctic root, golden root, and the king's crown as it is believed to contain anti-inflammatory properties, increase energy and memory while reducing stress levels. Similar to Asian ginseng, American ginseng is a highly beneficial root thought to lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels while also increasing energy and boosting the immune system, which makes it highly effective at fighting colds. Eleutherococcus, also widely known as Siberian ginseng, is believed to help fight colds and increase the body's immunity against viruses, while simultaneously increasing energy levels. Finally, ashwagandha is a powerful Ayurvedic herb believed to support the adrenal system, especially when a patient is experiencing stress, and can help with relieving anxiety, fatigue, menstrual problems and pain, and also aid with the effects of aging.

Adaptogens Worth Trying

Although not as widely popular as the comprehensive list from before, these adaptogens are just as valuable and offer the body incredible health benefits, and should be considered for consumption. Goji berries are thought to aid with neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, and are a natural form of antioxidants the body needs. Chaga mushrooms - also known as Cordyceps or Lion's Mane - are believed to provide the body with all the benefits of caffeine such as energy, mental clarity, and enhanced cognitive function, without the side effects of jitters and stomach disruption when combined with coffee. This is due to the fact that the adaptogens found within the mushrooms make the coffee more alkaline and less acidic. Cordyceps are also believed to support liver and kidney function, lower blood sugar, and potentially help fight tumors.

Schisandra is a vine native to China and has been used in ancient Chinese medicine for centuries, as it is thought to protect the liver and assist an individual with aging in a healthier manner. Astragalus is another ancient Chinese herb thought to help with liver and kidney function. Finally, spirulina is a blue-green alga believed to support immune function and protect against allergic reactions by slowing the histamine release when the body encounters an allergen. It also contains numerous vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants the body needs to function correctly. Find out how to include spirulina into your diet here: Give Yourself A Health Boost: The Best Ingredients To Add To Your Morning Smoothie.

How Do I Consume Adaptogens?

Adaptogens come in a variety of unique forms, such as in powders, pills or tablets resembling vitamins, tinctures that can be mixed with water, as well in its raw and natural state which may be more difficult to find. There is no specific way to consume adaptogens, as it is subjective and a matter of personal taste, although the easiest way to take them is in a capsule form or as a liquid extract. Experts also state adaptogens take time to show a difference within the body, as although they are powerful and highly valuable for the body, they are slow-acting, and can take a few weeks for a patient to notice any difference in their mental and physical health. Many of these adaptogens, such as maca, can be used in smoothies and teas if it is available in a powdered form, or if found raw, can be incorporated into a variety of dishes.

Many experts recommend not taking adaptogens every single day, but to take breaks, such as instead of taking it a full seven-day cycle, only take it for six days, and in a monthly cycle, do not take it for a break. The reasoning behind this is that it will also be present within the body's system, even if it is not taken every day, and gives the body a break and allows the adaptogen to be more effective.

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