The growing hype around adaptogenic herbs have led to their use in sports products, healthy bars, juices, chocolates and supplements, but their use is far from being just a trend.
In fact, adaptogens have been used for their stress-modulating properties for centuries in traditional medicine practices, but the term "adaptogen" was only first proposed in 1940 by a scientist named N. Lazarev.
Here's what you need to know about this wonderful class of herbs.
What is an adaptogen?
An adaptogen is a non-toxic plant or herb that helps the body adapt to various types of external stressors by maintaining homeostasis in our bodies - or in other words, balance - under adverse or stressful conditions.
A little like what exercise does for our muscles, adaptogens "train" our adrenal glands to become more resilient towards physical, environmental, emotional or biological stressors, helping to restore normal physiological function to the body.
To qualify as an adaptogen, a herb has to be fulfill three criteria:
- Maintain homeostasis in the body by resisting a wide range of physical, chemical or biological stresses, including environmental pollution, climate change, radiation, and infectious diseases;
- Exhibit a stimulating effect and increase working capacity and mental performance under stressful and fatigue-inducing conditions;
- And are safe and do not harm the normal functions of the human body.
How do adaptogens work in the body?
Adaptogens are believed to have multi-targeted channels that play a role in the immune-neuro-endocrine system, helping to regulate the body's use of energy and maintain immune defenses.
Research also shows that adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a major neuroendocrine system that controls our reactions to stress and is central to our body's homeostasis. When this happens. adaptogens can normalise hormone levels and physiological responses to stress, bringing the body back into a balanced state. For example, if the body starts to produce too much cortisol in a stressful event, adaptogens may help to lower it. Conversely, when there isn't enough of a hormone, adaptogens can help to increase its levels.
But while it may be tempting to think of adaptogens as quick relief in a moment of stress, adaptogens are actually slow-acting. They build up the body's ability to come back to balance over time, building resilience for long-term wellness, so it can take two to three weeks of consistent use to see their stress-protective benefits come through.
When do we need adaptogens?
- Support recovery from stress
- Support normal levels of workload/activity
- Rebalance HPA axis after intensive exercise
- Adrenal support during short-term exposure to stress and anxiety
When avoid adaptogens?
- To enable an unhealthy lifestyle
- To increase an already heavy workload
- To avoid proper sleep and relaxation
- To mask the effects of burnout without lifestyle changes
- During acute symptoms of infection such as colds or flu
Our favourite adaptogenic herbs
Adaptogens as a class of herbs help the body adapt to stress on a whole, but each herb has a slightly different function and benefit - as well as a slightly different application to each individual. Here are some of our favourite adaptogens and what they're good for.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) has immune-modulating action and has traditionally been used to enhance immune resistance in people experiencing recurring upper respiratory infections as well as to restore, strengthen, and balance the body’s immune response.
Reishi has also been found in small studies to support healthy immune function, and is often used in TCM to relive coughs and tonify Qi.
For acute stress and fatigue
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has traditionally been used in Western Herbal Medicine as an adrenocortical restorative tonic to aid recovery from fatigue and exhaustion, as well as improve mental and physical performance after periods exertion.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has traditionally been used in Ayurvedic Medicine as an adaptogen to help the body to adapt to stress. Ashwagandha has been used traditionally in convalescence for people who are stressed and both physically and emotionally exhausted. It is considered a non-stimulating tonic allowing for the restoration of vitality.
For hormonal imbalances
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) - the word Shatavari is commonly described as “the woman who acquires 100 husbands”. It is a renowned reproductive tonic with a capacity to extend fertility and endurance. In Ayurveda this plant is also referred to as the “Queen of Herbs” as it is thought to encourage love and passion. It is the primary Ayurvedic revitalising herb for females as it is especially helpful if hormone imbalances are stress-related.
Liao LY, He YF, Li L, et al. A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chin Med. 2018;13:57. Published 2018 Nov 16. doi:10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9
Panossian A, Wagner H. Stimulating effect of adaptogens: an overview with particular reference to their efficacy following single dose administration. Phytother Res. 2010;19(10):819–838. doi: 10.1002/ptr.1751