Adaptogens: What are they and how can they help?

As a budding herbalist, I practice on myself and study my health, my mind, and body, and its patterns. I experiment with plants to aid my healing. The last few times I have been sick, I noted that they followed family stress and traumas. Headaches, stomach aches, and fatigue kept wiping me out, often for days. Then I reflected that a lot of times in my past, stress, drama, trauma and even a lot of socialization would leave me emotionally, mentally, and physically strained and drained. 

Then dawned on my marble head, I need adaptogens!

There are many plants with herbal actions that are beneficial to our mental health, such as nervines, sedatives, calmatives, anxiolytics, anti-depressant, and more.

This article focuses on Adaptogens. They have increased in popularity recently and it’s important to know what they are and how they can help. 

What Are Adaptogens?

According to Oxford languages, the definition of adaptogen is (in herbal medicine) “a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes.” 

“The classic definition of adaptogenic herbs is they have a non-specific action that increases the body’s natural resistance to stressors. These could be external stressors that are either environmental or internal stressors triggered by exercise, diet, lifestyle factors, and the stresses of modern life.” {1}

Basically, adaptogens can improve the body’s ability to adapt to stress, helping to avoid collapse or overstress.

In China and in the East adaptogens are used as a preventative approach to health and well-being. They are a relatively new concept to western medicine and herbalism.” {2}

“There are three main qualities an herb must have to be considered an adaptogen: 1) It must be non-toxic at normal doses. 2) It should support the entire body’s ability to cope with stress. 3) It should help the body return to a state of homeostasis regardless of how the body has changed in response to stress.”{3}

How adaptogens can help.

When we encounter stress we go through three stages:

  1. The Alarm Phase: Our bodies produce adrenaline to improve our ability to focus on the task at hand.
  2. The Resistance Phase: While our bodies are enjoying the adrenaline boost, we are literally resisting the stress.
  3. The Exhaustion Phase: The end result is our bodies inevitably reach exhaustion.

Adaptogens don’t block the stress response but rather bring balance to the extremities in energy and mood during these phases of stress.

Adaptogens are said to work on a molecular level on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis is a term used to represent the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands; it plays an important role in the body’s response to stress {4}, the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and a significant in immune regulation, digestion, and metabolism.

“Studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS {Central Nervous System} stimulating activity.”{5} 

In addition, a number of clinical trials demonstrate that not only do adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect, but they also increase mental work capacity despite stress and fatigue, particularly intolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention. 

Conclusion: Adaptogens can increase energy & mental focus, nourish the adrenals, strengthen the immune system, aid in digestion & metabolism, and boost overall vitality.

Adaptogen plants:

If you’d like to try including adaptogens in your self-care, please speak to your doctor and/or clinical herbalist to make sure you find the right plant for you, as not all adaptogenic plants work the same way, and what works for one may not work for another.

Here is a brief list of adaptogenic plants and their effects:

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) 

Ginsengs are nervine stimulants, used to support the nervous, endocrine, and immune system, and improve the resilience of the physical body. 

Asian ginseng has been used for thousands of years in China, Korea, and India for its ability to strengthen the body’s natural defenses to cure and protect from illness. American ginseng was cultivated in the 1700s and was used by several Native American tribes before Europeans discovered it for themselves. Today it is rare and even endangered in some areas, due to overharvesting.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus)  

Eleuthero works with the urinary, nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular body systems. It’s been used traditionally to increase vital energy, improve sleep, and appetite, and treat lower back and kidney pain, as well as rheumatoid arthritis. It is also commonly used for spastic bladders.

It was formerly known as “Siberian ginseng,” but this created confusion because it isn’t in the Panax genus. 

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha works with digestive, urinary, nervous, and endocrine systems. Not only an adaptogen but also an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and restorative. It has a calming effect rather than being stimulating like ginseng. As an adaptogen, it can improve focus, and help those who are fatigued during the day but have a hard time sleeping at night, the wired, tired type.

Ashwagandha is a powerful herb in Ayurvedic healing, known as an “Indian Ginseng.”

Caution! This plant is a nightshade, so if you are allergic to tomatoes, eggplant, and other nightshades, this adaptogen is probably not a good choice for you.

Astragulus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Working with the nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems, Astragulus can strengthen the body against viral infection of the respiratory and heart and is used to protect the body from physical, mental, and emotional stress by supporting the immune system. It can help with fatigue and lack of appetite as well.
Astragalus (or Huang qi) is rich in Chinese and Asian cultures and has been traditionally praised for its ability to stimulate the body’s protective energy (qi), fight fatigue, and prevent diseases such as cancer.

Schisandra (Shisandra chinensis) 

Schisandra berry works with our nervous, respiratory and endocrine body systems., It is a stimulating herb found to increase physical stamina and can be beneficial for improving concentration, coordination, and endurance. Also known to provide protection from stress, and protect the liver from a variety of toxins.

It is known as the five flavor berry, with sour, sweet, bitter, warm, and salty notes, and is one of the 50 fundamental herbs in Chinese medicine, and in Chines folklore known to “calm the heart” and “quiet the spirit.”

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) 

Rhodiola is an adaptogen that works with our nervous and endocrine systems. Found to be similarly effective to prescription anxiolytics in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, and improve symptoms of depression such as low mood, insomnia, and mood instability.

Also has been used to treat chronic fatigue syndrome, as it improves fatigue and mental focus and decreases the cortisol response to stress.

It grows naturally in wild Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, thought to have been used by Vikings to improve physical strength and endurance.

Holy Basil/Tulsi  (Ocimum sanctum or tenuiflorum)

Works as a calmative and adaptogen with our nervous and respiratory system. An uplifting herb for those with mental fog, and those with significant fatigue. It has been used to treat anxiety, depression, and stress-related symptoms and has been used to treat asthma as well, especially stress-induced asthma.

Holy  Basil (or Tulsi) is native to India and has long been revered as sacred and used in Ayurvedic Healing

These are only a few of the wonderful adaptogens available. Others include; Reishi mushroom, Burdock, Ginger, Blueberry, Aloe, Licorice root, Gotu kola, Royal fern, Milk thistle seed, and more!

I encourage you to do your own research.

This post is meant to educate and inspire.

It is not medical advice.

If you decide to try adaptogens, Please discuss with your medical team which plants are best for you.

References

Oxford Language&Google

{1} Evolutionary Herbalism pdf https://www.evolutionaryherbalism.com/

{2}The Herbal Handbook, A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman

{3}Whole Health Library https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTHLIBRARY/docs/Adaptogens.pdf

{4}Simple Psychology https://www.simplypsychology.org/hypothalamic%E2%80%93pituitary%E2%80%93adrenal-axis.html

{5}National Library of Medicine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

{other}

https://www.healthline.com/health/adaptogenic-herbs#effectiveness

https://thebeet.com/what-are-adaptogens-herbs-and-plants-that-can-help-reduce-stress-and-anxiety/

My materia medica from my herbal apprenticeship with Misty Meadows

My Gifted Garden Space

Grateful this summer a dear friend gave me the best gift ever…garden space! Living in an apartment I don’t have much room to garden and what I do have is pretty shaded from the large lovely Pines we have growing here. It fills me with joy to have the opportunity to develop my gardening skills, and to deepen my relationships with these sacred plants. I love spending time with them, giving them offerings, and talking to them, and it makes me so happy to please the bees, though I think I annoy them by trying to take their pictures, I back off when they tell me to!😁🐝In this post, I thought I’d share some pictures of my babies, like any proud mama!😊💚

Pictured are St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Lemon balm (Melissa Officinalis), Nettles (Urtica dioica), Greek mullein (Verbascum olympicum), Tulsi kapoor (Ocimum tenuiflorum), Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Motherwort (Leonurus cardiac), and a row of kale and a row of pot marigold for pest repellent.