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  • Ellen Brown L.Ac. DACM

Adaptogens – the Swiss army knife of herbs to help you combat stress

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

The idea of using tonic herbal remedies to restore balance, vitality and health is an ancient idea. While the concept of “adaptogens” is a relatively modern way of describing this type of medicine, such remedies have been the foundation of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic and Native American medicine for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Adaptogens represent an elite class of herbs that help make us more resilient to the damaging effects of stress across all aspects of our life — mental, physical, emotional and environmental. By improving our ability to adapt to stress, adaptogens work with our body to help us regain our strength, stamina and endurance, as well as improve mental clarity and focus. They have the unique ability to help us re-establish balance and restore energy when stress disrupts our equilibrium, depletes our vitality, and drains our resilience.

“Stress” can be broadly defined as anything that poses a challenge or a threat to our well-being. While we tend to think of stress as being primarily emotional or psychological in nature – fear of losing our job, the end of a relationship, a crisis in our faith, or the death of a loved one – that’s only part of the story. Excessive alcohol consumption, insufficient sleep, a poor diet, exposure to toxic chemicals, extreme environmental conditions, or the lingering effects of an illness are all physical aspects of stress that wreak havoc on both the mind and body. Amazingly, adaptogenic herbs work regardless of the underlying cause of stress. As their name implies, they’re called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to our body’s specific needs. So regardless of whether our stress is caused by a demanding boss, an excruciatingly long commute, or training for a marathon, adaptogens can help us replenish and ‘optimize’ our health and well-being.

Stress poisons every inch of the body – it cripples the immune system, upsets the mind, disrupts the delicate balance of our hormones, disturbs our digestion, and dials up inflammation. By targeting our adrenals – the system that’s in charge of managing our body’s response to stress – adaptogens help to naturally regulate the production of hormones and neutralize the destabilizing impact of chronic stress. They enhance our ability to respond to and cope with stress slowly and gently, without jolts or crashes. Unlike caffeine, a stimulant that encourages a specific response within the body, adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt to stress by gently nudging it toward balance. Because of their ability to calm us down or boost our energy without being overstimulating – depending on what the body needs at that particular point in time – adaptogens can be thought of as the “great equalizer.”

In addition to their ability to normalize levels of cortisol, our primary stress hormone, and support worn out adrenal glands, adaptogens also have impressive anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Some of the wide-ranging ways that these herbs naturally help our body deal with stress include:

  • Boosting the immune system

  • Normalizing the nervous system and blood sugar metabolism

  • Increasing physical endurance, energy and resilience

  • Improving muscle tone and strength

  • Sharpening mental focus and clarity

  • Supporting the management of a healthy weight

  • Encouraging a balanced mood and soothing anxiety

Any stressful event – be it physical, mental or emotional – triggers a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that prompts our “fight or flight” response. These hormones surge through the body to speed up our heartbeat and the circulation of blood, mobilize fat and sugar for fast energy, focus our attention, and prepare our muscles for action. Ideally, we need the adrenals to produce stress hormones when we’re under genuine threat or attack, but then want them to stop as soon as the stressful event passes. Unfortunately, most modern-day stress is chronic, keeping our adrenal system in a state of constant alert which throws our hormones out of balance. Adaptogens help mitigate the consequences of such prolonged or repeated stress by encouraging the mind-body return to its natural state of equilibrium. Adaptogens can be thought of as a thermostat – helping to keep our body’s stress response at a relatively constant, desirable level – similar to the way it would automatically adjust the temperature in a room to keep it from becoming too high or too low. In much the same way, adaptogens work to normalize our body’s internal barometer.

Interestingly, adaptogens are largely derived from plants whose own survival has required them to adapt to growing under very stressful conditions. For example, rhodiola flourishes in harsh, mountainous climates. No doubt, this intrinsic, enduring characteristic is part of what makes them so powerful and allows them to share their strength and adaptability with us. Just as these plants possess an innate ability to adapt to stress themselves, they transfer that wisdom to help us to deal with harsh, stressful conditions – and flourish – as well.

The term “adaptogen” was first coined in the 1940’s by Russian scientist, Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, who was under grants from the military to investigate substances that could produce a “state of nonspecific resistance” and help the body adapt to physical and emotional stress. At the time, his aim was to find ways to enhance the productivity and performance of soldiers, athletes and workers without using dangerous stimulants. To be considered a true adaptogen, Lazarev argued that it must:

  • Produce a nonspecific (total body) response that increases resistance against harm from a broad spectrum of physical, emotional and environmental stressors (disease, anxiety, harsh climate, etc.)

  • Have a normalizing (amphoteric) effect on the body to help restore optimal physiologic function that has been altered by stress (for instance, helping to re-regulate an immune response that has become overactive due to allergies)

  • Be non-toxic, with no significant side effects

For millennia, taoists, yogis, rishis and mystics have praised these miracle plants for their incredible physical, mental and spiritual benefits. In India and China, soldiers have relied on adaptogens for centuries to handle the stress of combat, recover faster, and increase their energy. Many athletes, miners and deep sea divers in the non-western world have long used adaptogens to improve their performance in fast-reflex, high-risk occupations.

Although all true adaptogens meet the above three conditions and work via the same pathways within the body, many still have unique properties: some are stimulating, while others are calming. Some cool, while others warm. Still others moisten or dry. And because different species of plants have different chemical makeups, some also have additional, specific uses. For example, astragalas is especially good at boosting immunity, while licorice root is well known for its ability to fortify energy and endurance. Asian ginseng and rhodiola are both stimulating, while schisandra and reishi are calming.

Admittedly, the concept of adaptogens remains controversial in western medicine, where the idea that one drug — or herb — can have such a broad range of physical and mental health benefits is met with great skepticism. Yet, when you consider that stress is thought to contribute to as much as 90% of all illness, it’s easier to appreciate how adaptogens can, in fact, have such a wide-ranging, tonifying impact on the mind-body. Moreover, some experts believe that adaptogens remarkable bi-directional ability to either calm us down or revitalize us represents a kind of “intelligence” that is innate to these plants.

Of the 20,000 medicinal plants on the planet, only a handful qualify as true adaptogens, and the vast majority of these have been used extensively in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. Below are several of the most widely used adaptogens you might consider adding to your daily routine to help relieve stress – all are well-regarded, well-researched and generally easy to find. Herbs such as these are traditionally prepared as part of a formula, rather than taken as individually. While they can all be thought of as “general purpose” stress-relievers, some also target specific issues like fatigue, memory loss or immunity better than others to help you handle whatever life throws your way.

For maximum benefit, adaptogens are often taken for at least three months. While these herbs are generally free of side effects, there is no plant on the planet that is 100 percent safe for everyone, all the time – there are no “one-size-fits-all” herbs. In particular, you should not take adaptogens if you are pregnant or breast feeding since their safety under these conditions has not been established. Caution must also be used if you are already on prescription medications to make sure there are no unintended herb-drug interactions. As always, consult your doctor of Chinese medicine before taking any herbs, and if you experience any unusual symptoms while taking adaptogens, discontinue their use and discuss your experience with a health care professional.

While the above cautions are important, there is one more that often gets overlooked: don’t over-do it. There is the temptation in our fast paced, modern day world to take adaptogens so we can keep pushing through. While that might work in the short run, you always need to listen to your body – if you end up using (and ultimately abusing) adaptogens as a way to “ignore” stress and keep going when your body wants to slow down, you’re likely to worse off and burnt out. Adaptogens are not a replacement for a healthy lifestyle. Adequate sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and stress reduction techniques such as meditation are the foundation of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

Ginseng: total body tonic

For thousands of years, ginseng has been one of the most valued (and expensive) medicinal plants in the world. In China, where it is called Ren Shen, it has gained an almost magical reputation for promoting health, renewing vigor, and prolonging longevity. Officially known as Panax ginseng, it is sometimes referred to as “true ginseng” to distinguish it from other lesser or non-medicinal ginsengs. It is often called Asian, Chinese or Korean (“red”) ginseng depending on where it’s grown.

Herbalists have long relied on Asian ginseng to restore and strengthen the body’s immune response, promote energy and endurance, and enhance the growth of healthy cells. Not surprisingly, ginseng’s Latin (botanical) name Panax comes from the same Greek root as the word “pancea” meaning all-healing or “cure all” – and that’s not much of an exaggeration. Ginseng is one plant that lives up to its name: it truly is the king of adaptogenic herbs.

Among its long list of proven health benefits, ginseng has been shown to improve mood, cognitive performance, focus and memory, sleep and sexual function. It is often the lead ingredient within herbal protocols designed to heal exhaustion and many other conditions characterized by marked deficiency. Recent research indicates that ginseng’s influence extends to the central nervous system, endocrine and adrenocortical systems, metabolism, blood pressure and sugar, gonadotropic activity and cellular aging. There is even some indication that ginseng may protect against certain cancers.

Ginseng is among the most stimulating of all adaptogens. While this makes it very good at fighting fatigue or depression, people who are prone to overstimulation may find that regular or prolonged use of ginseng makes their anxiety or insomnia worse. Notably, overuse of ginseng can disrupt sleep, exacerbate anxiety, and increase blood pressure.

Astragalas: premier immune booster

Astragalas has been recognized for thousands of years in Chinese medicine as one of the most powerful immune-building plants on the planet for its ability to restore and strengthen the body’s defense against foreign invaders and external pathogens. Numerous clinical studies reveal how astragalas not only boosts the immune system, but also encourages an increase in the production, activity and function of immune cells (T-cells, natural killer cells, macrophages and immunoglobulin). In particular, astragalas appears to trigger immune cells to go from a resting state into one of heightened activity – the number of macrophages (immune cells that ingest foreign antigens to protect against infection) has been shown to increase after administering a decoction (tea-like formula) of astragalas.

Referred to as Huang Qi in Chinese medicine, astragalas is actually a root (rather than an “herb” per se) that buffers the effects of stress by strengthening the immune system, fighting inflammation, and supporting the kidneys/adrenals. The herb’s anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties help contribute to its effectiveness preventing colds, battling respiratory infections, and bolstering the body’s natural defense system. Traditionally, the Chinese have considered astragalas to be a superior Qi tonic that enhances energy, especially for those recovering from illness or exhausted by fatigue.

Astragalas is particularly interesting since it is the only natural substance that contains cycloastragenol, a molecule that activates telomerase production to lengthen telomeres – the structures on the ends of chromosomes that help keep our DNA from degrading. While telomeres inevitably grow shorter as our cells replicate and die off, by lengthening these structures, we may be able to delay cell death, and potentially age more gracefully and live longer.

Schisandra: brain tonic and liver protector

Schisandra has been used for millennia to increase energy and fight fatigue, slow the aging process, and prolong life. Its significant anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activity helps maintain healthy cells throughout the body, making it one of the most highly protective of all medicinal plants. Indeed, research shows that its powerful anti-oxidant properties can help the body stay balanced, and is frequently used as part of a treatment protocol for chronic fatigue, stress and depression.

One of the oldest uses for schisandra is promoting mental clarity – for centuries, Chinese herbalists have relied on it to naturally improve mental capabilities and promote greater focus, memory and mental energy. Clinical studies show that schisandra extract helps prevent mental fatigue while improving concentration, accuracy and quality of work.

In addition to its mind-sharpening powers, research also shows that schisandra is hepato-protective and can help improve liver function. By stimulating liver glycogen and protein synthesis, this herb helps boost glutathione production (the body’s most powerful detoxifying nutrient) in the liver to offer particularly effective liver-cleansing and liver-protective benefits. It also enhances bile production, improves liver regeneration, and has been observed to help lower fatty liver disease and fight chronic hepatitis.

Referred to as Wu Wei Zi in Chinese medicine, schisandra is a particularly unique berry because it contains all five flavors: sour, bitter, sweet, salty and acrid. Indeed, its complex flavor profile is one of the secrets to schisandra’s power – its affinity to all five elements in traditional Chinese medicine means it can target multiple “meridians” to restore internal balance and health. This likely explains its unique ability to mildly stimulate CNS activity while at the same time produce a calm, focused state of mind.

Rhodiola: stamina restorative

Rhodiola is one of the most popular adaptogenic herbs and shines in its ability to increase physical stamina and dissolve excess cortisol in the blood. It is also great for increasing cardiovascular capacity and decreasing recovery time from intensive exercise or physical labor. Sometimes referred to as golden root, rhodiola has a long history of use in Eastern Europe and Russia as a rejuvenative tonic that helps people perform better under pressure. Originally from Siberia, rhodiola has helped the Russians survive cold winters due to its ability to improve circulation specifically to the extremities. Interestingly, rhodiola is popular among the Sherpas who work on Mount Everest because of the way it supports regular energy levels and fights altitude sickness. Records show that even the early Vikings used rhodiola to enhance their physical strength and mental stamina.

Ashwagandha: ayurvedic antioxidant

Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years in India and is one of the premier restorative remedies in Ayuvedic medicine. Often called “Indian ginseng” because of its similarity to Panax ginseng, Ayurvedic healers have long prescribed the herb to treat exhaustion and anxiety brought on by both physical and mental strain. It is known to improve memory, focus and endurance, while reducing the effects of stress on the body. Interestingly, ashwaganda is one of the few calming adaptogens – making it ideal to treat those suffering with anxiety, mild OCD, insomnia or nervous exhaustion. Ashwaganda’s anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties have been found useful in treating fibromyalgia, muscle spasms and restless leg syndrome, mild Tourette’s syndrome and osteoarthritis.

Cordyceps: anti-aging wonder

Referred to as Dong Chong Xia Cao in Chinese medicine, this caterpillar fungus (winter insect, summer plant) is one of the more unusual adaptogens. While the very expensive parasitized larvae are still available, most cordyceps is now cultivated on soybeans. It is considered one of the most valuable traditional herbs in China, equaling Panax ginseng as a restorative tonic in its ability to promote endurance and balance in stressful situations. Prized for its natural ability to fight free radicals, infections and inflammation, cordyceps has been used for centuries to fight respiratory disorders, liver damage, and the effects of aging and stress. Cordyceps has also been shown to enhance circulation, cardiac output and lung capacity. Its hepato-protective and nephron-protective properties make it very useful for treating degenerative liver and kidney disease. Considered a type of natural “immuno-potentiating” remedy, cordyceps is often used to bring the immune system back to normal following life-threatening infections or illnesses.

Codonopsis: poor man’s ginseng

Codonopsis, is frequently used as a milder and less expensive substitute for Panax ginseng. Referred to as Dang Shen in Chinese medicine, it is often used to combat digestive as well as lung issues including poor appetite, fatigue with weak limbs, shortness of breath, dry cough, and frequent respiratory tract infections. Codonopsis is commonly used to strengthen the immune system (especially in cases of cancer, HIV or mononucleosis) and is often a key component of Fu Zheng therapies that aim to offset the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation.

Licorice Root: the great harmonizer

Licorice root has traditionally been used to promote many aspects of wellness, including normal metabolic function, and is considered the premier “harmonizer” in Chinese medicine because of its ability bring out the properties of other herbs within a formula.

Referred to as Gan Cao in Chinese medicine, licorice is a versatile and commonly used herb that can help treat autoimmune disorders (Lupus, Scleroderma, Crohn’s Disease, RA) as well as immune deficiency conditions (cancer, HIV, CFIDS). It helps to strengthen adrenal function and is often used in combination with Panax ginseng and Cordyceps to treat a range of conditions.

Because of its energizing effect, people with high blood pressure should not use licorice root. In addition, excessive doses of licorice can produce a hyper-aldosterogenic effect (increasing retention of sodium and excretion of potassium).

Reishi: longevity master

Often called the “mushroom of immortality” or the "mushroom of spiritual potency," reishi have been used for more than 2,000 years in Chinese medicine, making them perhaps the oldest mushroom to be used medicinally. Referred to as Ling Zhi in Chinese medicine, reshi have been shown to combat fatigue, reduce anxiety, and promote longevity. Considerable research shows that reishi mushrooms possess potent anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant action to enhance immune function, fight infection, heal leaky gut, and potentially suppress the growth of several cancers, including breast, prostate and colon.

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