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An Adaptogenic Guide to Better Health

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You know that feeling you get when you accidentally sleep through your alarm, arrive late to an important work meeting or forget to pack your charger during travel? I am talking about stress! Or as David Bowie & Queen said, being "Under pressure".  No matter your occupation, living situation or financial obligations, we all experience stress one way or another. We deal with stress while our body's find ways to adapt and try to keep us healthy and balanced. But sometimes we need a little assistance in responding more efficiently to those stressors. There is a category of herbs that help the body adapt, find balance in metabolic processes and function. These herbs are called adaptogens. It is a term known well in the herbalist community while recently gaining traction in the publics eye as a holistic approach to heal the body. Here, we are using food as thy medicine. Adaptogens naturally increase the resistance of the body to biological, physical, emotional and environmental stressors. Now you are probably asking your self...why am I not taking these super herbs?! Well, I am hoping by the end of this article you will find yourself ready to jump into an adaptogenic lifestyle.

History of Herbs

For centuries, herbs have been used for their healing properties by different cultures all around the world. The ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Native Americans were all herbalists, dating back over 5 thousand years ago. Herbs have become a central focal point in regenerating the whole body. Traditional medicine came from these ancient practices, with belief that the mind, body and spirit are interconnected and can be revitalized through plant medicine. In India, Ayurvedic practitioners use 70% natural derived products for medicine, which is the third largest medical system in the world. This approach has been adopted by over seventy different countries that now have national regulations and standards to maintain high quality herbal medicine. In fact, the World Health Organization has reported that about 75% of the world's population depends on botanicals to meet their daily health needs. To this day, 25% of modern medicine is derived from nature herbs that were first used in traditional therapies.

Adaptogens vs Stress Response

In the late 1950s a Russian doctor named Nikolay Lazarev introduced the concept of adaptogens to the scientific research world.  He based adaptogens around the theory that in response to stress, there are 3 phases:

  • Alarm Phase
  • Resistance Phase
  • Exhaustion Phase

Ultimately these phases result in the production of stress. But when introducing adaptogens into the equation, a stimulated response occurs and a higher level of equilibrium (homeostasis) is attained. Thus, the higher the equilibrium the easier it is to adapt to stress. The adrenal glands are also recharged, which are the body's mechanism for a stress response. These early findings lead to the use of botanical medicine, as a system of medicine that relies on the use of plant parts to promote health and mange stress.

Future of Adaptogens

Adaptogens should be looked at as nature's remedy to modern day stressors. No matter the health concern, adaptogens are something that most everyone can benefits from. To be labeled an adaptogen, a plant must fulfill at least three specific criteria:

  1. Generally safe in therapeutic doses
  2. Help the body holistically with stress management
  3. Work to maintain homeostasis (balanced hormones)
  4. Types of Adaptogens

Now that you have a better idea of what adaptogens are, it's time to reveal the different types of adaptogens and their true super powers! In China alone, there are over five hundred species of plants used as botanical medicine, but to spare you the long read, I have listed some of my top adaptogens for combatting everyday stress and restoring hormone balance. Keep in mind that not all the adaptogenic herbs listed have gone through enough scientific research to determine their true effectiveness and it's always a good idea to consult with your doctor before introducing adaptogens into your diet.

Maca: The Energizer

Maca is a root from Peru that is a rich source of vitamin C, making it great for boosting the immune system. There are three types of maca powders: red, yellow, and black (Red is the sweetest). This powerful root can also balance hormones, enhance libido and keep your thyroid healthy.

Rhodiola: The Peacemaker

Rhodiola rosea, also known as gold root or rose root can be a great tool to use for people struggling with adrenal fatigue and fibromyalgia. Early research shows that taking rhodiola extract daily for 2 weeks can improve anxiety and reduce mood swings. Makes a great replacement for caffeine, taken before 3 pm to align with the body’s natural rhythms.

Ginseng: The Pick-Me-Up

Ginseng helps eliminate fatigue, support the immune system, improve memory, mental alertness, and reduce insomnia. Research findings also show ginseng can improve anxiety and depression caused by stress.

Ashwaganda: The Immune Booster

Ashwagandha is considered a rejuvenator, and is often recommended to restore the immune system after being sick. The weakening of the immune system leaves the body susceptible to infection. But ashwagandha can act as a powerful antioxidant, increasing cytokine levels, an important indicator of immune response.

Cordyceps: Sweet Craving Crusher

Cordyceps is a medicinal mushroom that may help balance blood sugar within a healthy range by mimicking the action of insulin in the body. This will control sugar craves and can be beneficial to diabetics in regulating their blood sugar levels. Studies have also found cordyceps to be protective against kidney disease, a complication often associated with diabetes.

Holy Basil: Toxic Tamer

Holy basil or tulsi is a potent herb that cleanses the respiratory tract of toxins, and relieving digestive gas and bloating. The oils from tulsi have antioxidant properties that reduce the damaging effects of stress and aging on the body. Additionally, it has been shown to help people with acne, asthma, kidney stones and lung disorders.

Turkey Tail: Gut Healer

This adaptogenic mushroom is great for symptoms of bloat or inflammation. When the digestive system is exposed to yeast overgrowth it can not defend it's self, leaving the gut vulnerable to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or leaky gut syndrome. Turkey Tail contains prebiotics that support the growth of good bacteria in the gut microbiome thus preventing foreign substances or free radicals from invading the gastrointestinal tract.

New Routine

Time to restore your body's natural vitality! Adaptogens may assist in your ability to response to stress and emotional changes while nourishing your body. Start by learning which adaptogen is best for your individual health goals and needs.  Most adaptogens come in a powder form, always opt for organic and make sure the ingredients are singular. You can use adaptogens for a weeks to get through a busy time at work. Or take them short term for acute stress, when life is just too overwhelming. Adaptogens can be a great addition to your morning coffee/tea, smoothie, soup or even salad dressing. Remember that each herb offers its own unique benefit, so do your research to find high quality adaptogens and contact your healthcare provider before incorporating them into your routine. That way you can sip that mushroom tea with true peace of mind.  

Alexander P, Hildebert W. Adaptogens: A review of Their History, Biological Activity and Clinical Benefits. HerbalGram. 2011; (90)52-63.
Alexander P, Georg W. Effects of Adaptogens on The Central Nervous System. Pharmeceuticals (Basel). 2019; 3(1): 188–224.
David W. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press. 2019; (1)1-65.