One of the treasures of herbal medicine is the group of herbs known as adaptogens. You might have heard of some of these referred to as “super foods” or seen them promoted in the supplements section of your local health food store. You are definitely familiar with some examples of this type of herb, such as ginseng, and have likely consumed some. But what are these herbs, exactly, and how do they work in the body? In this article, I hope to share with you the remarkable qualities of adaptogens, which have been fundamental to herbal medicine for centuries and are gaining recognition through modern scientific studies.
What Are Adaptogenic Herbs?
Adaptogenic herbs are non-toxic, non-addictive herbs that help the body adapt to all kinds of stress and encourage the body to return to homeostasis, or a state of balance. They were first classified as a group under this term in the 1940s by Russian scientist Nikolai Lazarev who studied eleuthero. These plants have been used for ages in traditional herbal medicine systems, and many of them have been researched extensively in the past century.
The most remarkable characteristic of adaptogens is that they are able to normalize physiological systems from any direction of imbalance, whether the system is over-active or under-active. For example, an adaptogenic herb can either raise or lower blood pressure, depending on the unique needs of an individual at a specific time. As the name suggests, they help adapt an organism to experienced stressors. This unique quality is what puts these herbs into a class of their own.
How Do They Work in the Body?
Adaptogens regulate the body’s physiology by bringing its systems back to center, or homeostasis. They accomplish this by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and mediators of the stress response. The HPA axis is a system of communication and response, part of the endocrine system, that uses hormones to send messages through the body. Stress stimulates a cascade of physiological events, including the release of cortisol and adrenaline via the HPA and the promotion of other stress-modulating molecules. Adaptogens regulate these steps, reducing the intensity of the overall reaction and potential side effects, such as fatigue and headaches.
Adaptogens help the body learn to better cope with stressful situations. They gently stimulate the body’s innate responses to stress to help build tolerance. The system is then able to adapt and reduce stress-induced damage to cells and the organism. This improved tolerance allows the system to function more optimally, with less fatigue and superior performance, when working under stressful conditions and accelerates the recovery process. (Source) (Source)
What Can They Be Used For?
Adaptogens are particularly effective at helping the body tolerate and recover from stress and fatigue, improve mental and physical energy, and enhance overall performance. These kinds of herbs are great for supporting the body through challenging periods, such as during moments of intense mental or physical work, when recovering from illness, or when generally run-down and suffering symptoms such as fatigue or reduced immunity.
They are useful for athletes in recovery from challenging training and to improve performance. Adaptogens help the body deal with extreme conditions such as high altitude or cold water. They can be taken prophylactically by students or workers who anticipate experiencing high-stress periods of finite length. And, because they are non-toxic and non-addictive, they can be taken long-term for health maintenance.
Adaptogens can alleviate depression and improve mood. Some have even been shown to improve cases of mental disorders such as schizophrenia. They can be helpful in reducing the side effects of drugs, such as radiation for cancer treatment. In animal studies, they have been shown to enhance longevity. (Source)
These incredible herbs are helpful for enhancing health and recovering from life’s big challenges. While they may sound like super herbs (because they are), they are not a substitute for basic self-care. Although they can help you recover from periods of stress or fatigue, they do not replace the need for healthy habits such as adequate sleep, eating well, and exercise. These ancient herbs make a great adjunct to a well-rounded health care regimen.
Schizandra: By English: Vladimir Kosolapov Русский: Владимир Косолапов (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Rhodiola: By Opioła Jerzy (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
Eleuthero: By Stanislav Doronenko (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
Ginseng: Public Domain