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What Are Adaptogens? - Guide to Adaptogenic Herbs

03/02/2021 6 MIN. READ Alyssha Bal
03/02/2021 6 MIN. READ Alyssha Bal

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and sick of dealing with stress and anxiety, you’re not alone, not even close. In fact, one in every five European workers endures work-related stress. With more talk about stress-related diseases and work-related burn-out,  people are showing a strong interest in herbal supplements which are able to reduce the stress hormone and improve health. While this trend may be fairly new in Europe, in the rest of the world this idea never left. According to the WHO, 75% of the world’s population rely on botanical supplements to help the body with health and wellness needs, as they have always done. China and India are examples of the largest users of natural supplements. In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of adaptogens. They’re said to carry a wide range of benefits, mostly centering around adapting to stress, support metabolic and immune functions, and restoring hormonal balance. Due to the mentioned health benefits, it’s no surprise that adaptogens are beginning to gain attention. Nowadays, adaptogenic herbs are being offered in everything from supplements to coffee, hot tea, and smoothies. But what is an adaptogen, where can we find it, and does it work?

So, What Exactly Is An Adaptogen?

Adaptogens are herbs that claim to strengthen the body's stress response system and its resistance to all types of stressors. It is a concept used for centuries to battle stress and fatigue. The use of adaptogenic substances had its roots in Chinese and Indian medicines to treat or prevent severe medical conditions that are caused by mental or emotional strain. In Chinese medicine, adaptogens are considered as super tonics and are used to boost energy and improve the body's universal health. In Ayurveda or the Hindu traditional medicine, the use of adaptogens is combined with a healthy lifestyle to improve one's standard of health, physical ease, and happiness. While various herbs are adaptogenic, not all herbs are created equal.

For an herb to qualify as an adaptogen, the herb should not affect the body function to a harmful extent, and it should have the capacity to alleviate stress as well as improve mental performance.

The characteristics of adaptogens are as follows:

  1. The herb should be completely non-toxic
  2. There should be no significant side effects
  3. Should work to increase the body's resistance to stress.

With the stress levels rising worldwide, it is no wonder why adaptogens are becoming more popular and for all the right reasons.

Adaptogens may be regarded as substances that:

  • Improve attention
  • Increase endurance (in situations caused by fatigue)
  • Lower the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands
  • Balance hormones
  • Combat the impact of stress on cognitive function
  • Bring homeostasis and normalize body functions
  • Boost the immune system (that has been impacted by stress)
  • Fight the symptoms caused by elevated cortisol levels (such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and obesity)
  • Increase physical stamina (improve energy levels)
  • Improve the function of organs (such as the liver)
  • Improve the function of body systems (such as the gastrointestinal system)

 

A little History...

Although adaptogens have been used for hundreds of years in Ayurveda and Chinese healing, today adaptogens are becoming more popular for use in the western world as well. The term “adaptogen” was coined by Soviet scientist Dr. Nikolay Lazerav to describe substances that increase the body’s nonspecific resistance to stress. Stress can include everything from the physical stress of a workout to the mental stress of work, or the biological stress of being ill. This is because although the situation is different, all stressors activate the same part of the brain and the same stress pathway.

Initially, in his research on adaptogens, Nikolay Lazarev looked to synthetic substances. It was not until his colleague, Israel Burkham realized that they were looking in the wrong place. While synthetic stimulants could provide a burst of energy, they saw in WW2 soldiers given amphetamines that over the long term, they tended to be counterproductive and lead to burnout. Burkam realized that the key may lay not in the lab but rather outside in nature and the traditional herbs we now know as adaptogens. First, they researched Asian ginseng, but the problem was that this herb was not found in Russia and was expensive to import. For these reasons, they continued their research using Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) which also shares many properties with Asian ginseng.

Their first research paper was published in 1960 and it had a huge impact on the field. Two years later, Siberian ginseng was approved by the USSR Ministry of health to be sold as a new type of stimulant. As their research into adaptogens continued, they searched for new herbs to study. For their criteria of an adaptogen, a herb had to be absolutely safe with no side effects, especially with continued long-term use. It had to have a broadly positive impact on the body, and have a normalizing effect. This definition still stands today, with researchers around the world joining the hunt for adaptogens in herbs. We now have a solid list of well-researched adaptogenic herbs.

If we take a look into the modern research on adaptogens, along with their ability to adapt to general stress, research has also shown that many of these adaptogens have unique health benefits as well.

What Do Adaptogens Do?

General Adaptation Syndrome is your body's reaction to stress, and it has three stages. The first phase is the initial response when your body will experience an adrenaline rush while deciding whether to fight or flee in a stressful situation. In the second stage, your body will undergo a recovery phase where your vitals will normalize. The third and final stage is when your body gets exhausted, and your immune system starts to weaken. Adaptogens will help your body cope with stress by allowing you to remain in the second phase for a longer time. It enables you to get immuned with that stress level to balance the negative and positive effects of stress, thus attaining equilibrium. Adaptogenic substances will prevent your body from advancing in the final stage level that can eventually lead to fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

Do Adaptogens Actually Work?

Many holistic and alternative doctors and practitioners are recommending adaptogens as supplements to their patients to improve stamina and relieve stress. Studies have shown that adaptogen consumption plays a significant role in helping the human body adjust and survive longer. It can work as better and healthier alternatives to steroids, sugar, and caffeine.

 

What Are Adaptogenic Plants?

Adaptogenic foods are a select group of herbs, mushrooms, and foods that support and protect the body against the harmful effects of stress. It can be consumed as supplements that you can add to your dish or drinks.

The best adaptogenic plants that can help your body:

Ginseng

Ginseng is one of the most popular adaptogens because of its proven healing effects. It can increase the body's energy and cognitive function. Ginseng can also act as an anti-inflammatory that can block the pain from signaling to the brain. The prevention of flu, lowering of blood sugar, and treatment of erectile dysfunction are just a few of the benefits that you can get from this adaptogenic food.

Schisandra

Schisandra is an adaptogenic plant that can also help your body adapt to stress. Schisandra supports your body’s fight against stressors of all sorts with its apoptogenic properties. Studies on Schisandra berries have shown that these berries play a role in central nervous system health. According to research, schisandra can increase neurotransmitters in the central nervous system – a key aspect that affects digestion, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and more.

It’s no secret that adaptogens are sought after to help fight fatigue, and Schisandra is no different. One study found strong evidence that Schisandra supports mental & physical well-being in patients suffering from fatigue. Further studies from the same source allude to adaptogens being directly related to increased physical performance and mental health.

Moringa

Moringa is one of the most powerful adaptogens which is known as a 'tree of life' for its various medicinal properties. This adaptogenic food contains plenty of antioxidants that can protect your cognitive faculties against decline. It can help the body in coping with stress as well as treat diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Holy Basil (Tulsi)

Holy Basil otherwise known as Tulsi is an herb from the mint family. There are a lot of benefits that your body can get out of this herb but it is commonly consumed to promote relaxation and alleviate stress. Holy Basil is proven to help ease anxiousness and prevents depression. It also helps in resetting the body's circadian rhythms, thus, allowing you to sleep better.

Maca root

Maca root is a cruciferous vegetable that is of the same group as cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage. These vegetables are known for their various benefits for human health. It is popularly used to boost the body's energy and to lower anxiety. Maca root is a powerful alternative to caffeine.

Reishi Mushrooms

The consumption of this adaptogen helps in the production of immune cells that can help you in coping with stressful situations. It is known as the 'mushroom of immortality' that can increase the body's ability to heal. Its calming effect is also known to help you sleep better and longer.

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