Adaptogens – What, Why, and How
Sometimes an herbal remedy explodes into the consciousness of the public and seems like something brand new. Usually, it isn’t new at all. Often it’s something that has been used in traditional herbal medicine for centuries.
As scientists study the ingredients used in herbal healing, they discover the substances and properties that made them remedies to begin with, and that research begins to make its way into the mainstream.
This is what’s happening with adaptogens. They have always been present in some herbal remedies, and now we’re learning what they do for our bodies.
Image by Angelo Rosa from Pixabay
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are plants that have been identified as having properties that help our bodies adapt to stress. Persistent stress can leave our bodies out of balance; adaptogens can help restore it, and with balance can come relief of stress symptoms like anxiety, fatigue, and insomnia.
Adaptogenic plants have been used in Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for thousands of years. The term itself came into being in the 1950s. The plants that contain adaptogens range from the exotic-sounding ashwagandha to the mundane seeming licorice.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
It is thought that adaptogens balance the hypothalamic, adrenal, and pituitary glands. As we go through the phases of stress, from initial alarm, to resisting the stress, to exhaustion, our bodies create substances to counter the stressor.
Adaptogens help our bodies remain in the resisting phase longer before we give in to exhaustion. We can think about this in terms of physical stress like exercise, when we get into a workout and feel good but not yet tired.
Emotional stress has those same phases and our bodies need to adjust and rebalance as we work our way through those stressors. We want to maintain that place where we’re most effectively dealing with the stress and prevent it from exhausting us mentally and physically.
Adaptogens may help people with anxiety, fatigue, and even support heart health.
What Are Some Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are present in a variety of plant forms, from herbs to roots to mushrooms. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Ashwagandha is an herb commonly used in Ayurveda (an Indian natural healing philosophy). It’s one that has recently made its way into the mainstream, but it has been around for 3,000 years. The leaves and roots are used to make powders and extracts.
Ashwagandha may be the best-known adaptogen used to reduce the effects of stress including insomnia, anxiety, and fatigue. It may also help reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, help control diabetes, and improve memory.
Ashwagandha is generally taken as a supplement, in powder or extract form. We use organic ashwagandha in our Stress Functional Support drops.
The chemical in the spice turmeric is called curcumin. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and may reduce stress-induced anxiety and help maintain hormone balance.
Turmeric curcumin is one of the few adaptogens available in food form. It is found in curries, soups, stews, and many other dishes and is readily available as a spice.
Turmeric, however, does not have a great deal of curcumin, and it isn’t particularly well absorbed by our bodies. Combining it with black pepper is thought to dramatically increase the absorption of this adaptogen.
Turmeric curcumin is also available as a supplement in either root powder or extract form.
Cordyceps mushrooms have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine. This fungus grows on insect larva so it is only available (thankfully) as a powder or extract.
Cordyceps mushrooms are thought to increase energy and boost our immune systems, as well as fight inflammation. It is believed that cordyceps improve our bodies’ use of oxygen and act as an antioxidant.
This versatile fungus may help us maintain balance and increase energy during times of stress, reducing fatigue and exhaustion. We use organic cordyceps mushrooms in our Vigor Functional Support drops that help increase energy.
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Also known as tulsi, holy basil is not the same as common basil. Holy basil is common in Ayurveda and the plant has its origins in India. Interestingly, dried holy basil leaves are sometimes used in grain storage to repel insects.
But in terms of our bodies, holy basil is no repellent. Holy basil leaves, in the form of extracts, powder, or even brewed as a tea, can reduce stress and its symptoms including anxiety and fatigue. It can also alleviate forgetfulness and insomnia.
Holy basil has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine and is one of the most respected and revered medicinal plants. It can be cooked with—it is very spicy, earning it the nickname hot basil.
As we wrote in our article about medicinal mushrooms, reishi mushrooms can be purchased as a food, but they are tough and bitter. Common in both traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, they are most often used in powdered or extract form.
Reishi mushrooms are thought to boost the immune system and may decrease tumor growth in addition to being adaptogens that can reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety and promote better sleep.
Red reishi mushrooms are the most potent variety and we use organic red reishi in our Sleep Functional Support drops.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but our toolbox for helping our bodies handle it increases every day. Traditional medicine offers a glimpse at what natural remedies may exist for the symptoms of prolonged stress.
Adaptogens are some of the many natural substances that can help our bodies maintain a healthy balance in times of stress.
Most adaptogens are not whole foods, they are taken as supplements. Common in herbal medicine for centuries, it is very important to understand the role of these plants in the context of a modern lifestyle.
Traditional herbal remedies can cause adverse reactions in some individuals and in combination with some medicines. Unlike whole foods such as antioxidant berries, it’s very important to talk to your doctor before using herbal adaptogen supplements.