You may have heard about adaptogens, a class of herbs that help the body deal with numerous conditions, particularly related to the effects of stress. Let’s take a look at these natural, plant-based supplements and how they help support the body by supporting energy and vitality.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a group of plants that get their name from their ability to help the body adapt to adverse reactions to daily life, such as stress, fatigue, and anxiety. While adaptogens have been employed for thousands of years, especially in Eastern medicine, their use in the West is relatively new, coinciding with advances in alternative medicine like acupuncture and other natural remedies.
A Russian researcher named Israel Brekhman first used the word “adaptogen” when trying to classify these herbs. Most adaptogens are plants, with a few coming from fungi and other sources found in nature. Brekhman and fellow scientists discovered the many benefits of adaptogens:
- They help the body cope with stress.
- They can increase energy, reduce fatigue, and improve performance, both mentally and physically.
- They help balance bodily functions, including that of the immune system.
- They are generally safe to ingest, without the side effects associated with pharmaceutical products.
- They are efficacious in both short-term and long-term use.
Because stress is so omnipresent in our lives now, and because stress has such a broad effect on the body, adaptogens can assist with multiple biological functions, including those of the hormonal, digestive, immune, and musculoskeletal systems.
What Happens When You Experience Stress?
The science behind adaptogens is really quite straightforward, once you understand a little about how the body responds to stress. Imagine you have a big meeting coming up at the office for which you have to make a presentation. Since you don’t enjoy public speaking, and yet so much is riding on this work event, on the morning of the meeting you feel stressed: your palms are sweaty, you’re breathing faster than normal, your heart is pounding, and you feel a bit nauseous.
As undesirable as all those symptoms may be, they’re perfectly normal and a vestige of the body’s fight-or-flight response from a time when survival was much more precarious. All of these stress responses help your body to shunt blood to the places that need it most (the vital organs) and to react to potentially lethal threats.
The hypothalamus area of the brain initially recognizes physical stress and sends messages to the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. This communication triangle is known as the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal). Your body then produces hormones to regulate your various physiologic systems.
Sounds good, right? Except for a couple of problems. First, most humans today are no longer facing giant saber-toothed cats or woolly mammoths in the wild. And yet the same bodily systems from prehistoric days remain to respond to stresses like drawing on a flip chart in front of a dozen people in a perfectly safe boardroom where no one’s life is at stake.
You may be familiar with the glucocorticoid hormone cortisol, which is produced during times of stress and anxiety by the HPA axis. A little bit of cortisol is advantageous because it helps your body manage threats. Among other functions, it sends glucose to where it is needed in the body, including the brain, as a fuel source. However, in large or constant doses, cortisol can contribute to negative results, like obesity, and its production can deplete your adrenals, causing adrenal fatigue or exhaustion.
This brings us to the second problem with our ancient stress mechanism. What we perceive to be stressful situations in modern life are ongoing and in many cases even increasing. No longer are we humans only stressed intermittently when we’re out on the hunt for dinner. Thanks to the wonders of technology, many people feel tied to the office 24/7, and our schedules are ever more busy, crammed with work and activities that keep personal pressure mounting. Throw in economic woes, family responsibilities, inevitable tech meltdowns, and the half dozen giant coffee drinks or caffeinated sodas many people consume daily, and you have an internal stress response that’s permanently working overtime.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Stress?
There are long-term and short-term effects of stress. In addition to the instantaneous signs of nervousness mentioned above, stress can have enduring and more serious consequences:
- Adrenal fatigue or exhaustion
- Thyroid disorders
- Poor sleep
- Weight gain
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic pain
- Lowered immunity
- Immune disorders
- Extreme fatigue
- Loss of libido
- Heightened effects of aging
- Digestive disorders
- Foggy thinking and poor judgment
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Mood changes
- Mental illness
People who are predisposed to these conditions may find them worsened during periods of stress. Stress can come from any number of sources, including work, job loss, moving, financial worries, death, chronic illness, marriage, parenthood, and divorce, as well as from personal emotions like grief, anger, disappointment, guilt, and low self-esteem. Sometimes the effects of stress become so entrenched that it is difficult or impossible to reverse them.
How Do Adaptogens Affect the Body?
Fortunately, adaptogens can often mitigate or eliminate these stress symptoms and related conditions by helping the body react in a more appropriate way, commensurate with our modern lifestyle. There are many adaptogens and they work in slightly different ways. Some are better than others for various stress symptoms (see below).
Basically, adaptogens function like the volume knob on a stereo, turning the body’s hormones and other chemicals down when they overreact to a stressful situation and stimulating them when you need a boost. Instead of your body going on a roller coaster ride of hormones, it is kept in a constant state of ideal chemical balance, without the highs and lows of being jacked on adrenaline and then crashing with exhaustion. By adjusting your stress response, adaptogens can prevent or relieve conditions that are caused by stress, in addition to tempering those immediate symptoms of anxiety discussed above in the office boardroom scenario.
While they are generally considered safe, adaptogens shouldn’t be used if you are pregnant or nursing without a doctor’s permission. Because they are typically plant-based, adaptogens have the potential to cause an allergic reaction or sensitivity in some people. If you experience a rash, itching, hives, swelling, vomiting, or difficulty breathing after taking an adaptogen, discontinue its use immediately and consult your physician.
If you have any chronic serious medical conditions, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider first before using an adaptogen. Ashwagandha, for example, is from the nightshade group of plants and may provoke immune disorders in some people. If you start using adaptogens, begin with one first so you can monitor your reaction and know which herb is causing any unwanted symptoms. This also makes it easier to know which adaptogens are responsible for any positive outcomes and to adjust your dose accordingly.
What Are the Most Commonly Used Adaptogens?
There are a number of adaptogens available today, easily purchased at your natural food shop, vitamin store, or pharmacy, as well as online. Keep in mind that while adaptogens work well to combat the results of stress, you may want to use them in concert with other methods of stress relief, such as:
- Meditation and mindfulness work
- Home reflexology, like ear seeds (auricular acupuncture)
- Massage therapy and bodywork
- Water and heat therapy (bath, hot tub, sauna, etc.)
- Aromatherapy (essential oils)
- Anti-stress diet, with appropriate vitamin and mineral supplementation as needed
- Reducing caffeine consumption
- Limiting alcohol, which can have a rebound stress effect
- Staying properly hydrated
- Practicing good sleep hygiene
- Eliminating stress-producing conditions, like overworking and worrying
- Talk therapy with a counselor, psychologist, or life coach
- Light therapy
Here are some of the most popular adaptogens in use today. You may find them in capsule or tablet form, although some are also sold as a raw powder, in plant form, or incorporated into foods and beverages like smoothie powders or teas.
There are two types of ginseng. Both are used as adaptogens. Siberian ginseng is an ideal choice if you’re feeling chronically tired from stress. This plant, originally from the north of Russia, can improve endurance significantly, while also combating the mental fatigue that reduces cognitive function. A nice benefit of Siberian ginseng is that it also improves the immune system. Some people take Siberian ginseng every day, while others prefer it after a draining late night or heavy work day.
Most commonly found in Korean red and white ginseng forms, Panax ginseng has been popular in modern western culture longer than any other adaptogen. Panax ginseng is great for fighting mental fatigue, balancing blood glucose, improving mood, calming anxiety, increasing libido, improving sexual performance, and lowering blood pressure in people that have chronic hypertension. This form of ginseng is often found in tea as well as in capsule form.
Also called arctic root and golden root, rhodiola is a fabulous all-around stress buster. In addition to reducing fatigue, it lowers c-reactive protein (a blood marker for inflammation) and improves cognition, hence its popularity with night workers. Rhodiola also has mood-improving properties and helps with symptoms of depression. Rhodiola can be stimulating, so it’s best not taken at night before going to bed. It may take a bit of trial and error to find the right dosage at first.
Ashwagandha is another common adaptogen and has been long used in Ayurvedic medicine. This is one of the best adaptogens out there for reducing anxiety and therefore limiting the production of excess cortisol. Ashwagandha is known for improving memory and is being researched for use in Alzheimer’s patients. Many people take ashwagandha in their coffee.
Maca is a South American root that improves fertility and boosts libido. Some people find this adaptogen is perfect to counter the effects of antidepressants on their sex lives and prefer it to erectile dysfunction drugs. Maca works equally well in men and in women and is usually taken as a supplement.
Eleuthero has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to increase energy by stimulating the nervous system, to fight fatigue, and to make better use of body fat as an energy source. This adaptogen is a favorite with endurance athletes who appreciate its ability to improve cardiovascular function. Eleuthero boasts numerous other benefits, including improving concentration, regulating blood sugar, increasing immune function, and fighting respiratory disease. In women, eleuthero helps with the management of undesirable menstruation symptoms.
Astragalus is another adaptogen with many diverse benefits. It supports the kidneys and reduces c-reactive protein levels. Astragalus may actually increase longevity by lengthening cell life through the presence of cycloastragenol, a molecule that is heretofore only found in this particular plant. Astragalus works better in many cases than echinacea to boost immune function. Its only downfall is that it can be exorbitantly expensive in high quantities.
Holy basil is one of the few adaptogens used straight from the plant as a garnish or seasoning, although you can also purchase it in supplement form. This adaptogen is ideal for liver support, especially when combined with milk thistle. Holy basil boosts libido without increasing fertility. Additionally, it lowers stress, anxiety, and inflammation.
As more research is conducted on this fascinating class of supplements, new products are coming to market. While many of these adaptogens are plant-based, some are in the mushroom category and are even made in combination with caterpillars! Other effective adaptogens you may hear about include:
- Mucuna pruriens
- Bacopa monnieri
- Licorice root
- Gotu kola
- Dang shen
- He shou wu
- Pine pollen
Would you like more information about natural ways to reduce stress? Contact EarSeeds today. We can help you find an acupuncturist in your area and we can instruct you on how auricular acupuncture, using tiny seeds or beads to provide pressure on the exterior of the ear, can fight the effects of stress. Don’t be a victim of today’s high-adrenaline lifestyle any longer. Get in touch today.