Hi friends, welcome to my blog! Through this platform I hope to offer a variety of educational information on herbs and health, musings on plants, and retellings of my medicine-making and wildcrafting adventures.
As touched on in other parts of this site, the focus of my consultation practice is to offer information on how to support baseline wellness through nutrition, lifestyle, and gentle tonic herbs. In my mind, this can begin for everyone with stress-relief support through the use of herbal adaptogens. So without further ado...
What are adaptogens?
Simply put, adaptogens are a category of herbs that help the body to adapt to life’s many stressors. They provide stamina, strength, and resiliency in the face of stress and disease. They do so by having a positive impact on the nervous, endocrine (hormones), and immune systems. They can be used during times of acute or chronic stress to improve health, or preventatively to enhance overall wellbeing and vitality. By definition, they are nontoxic and balancing, and have a normalizing effect on the body and it’s natural processes.
Adaptogenic herbs have a history of use in China and India that dates back millennia (in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, respectively). Many of them are worshiped as the “king” and “queen” herbs of these traditions. Although some adaptogens have been used traditionally for centuries, scientific study of these plants and fungi did not begin until the late 1940s, when Soviet scientists began exploring these herbs for their ability to fight stress, prevent and reduce illness, and strengthen the body. During this time, the former USSR assigned the Soviet Academy of Science to develop a product that increased the performance of their elite personnel, including athletes, military personnel, and political officers. They began studying Eleuthero and Asian Ginseng as performance tonics and the term adaptogen was coined. Fast-forward to today’s fast-paced culture - adaptogens can benefit just about everyone!
What is the stress response?
When our body perceives a stressor (an agent or event that threatens the body’s normal balance) it enables a cascade of signals that tell it’s systems to prepare for the oncoming changes. These signals are referred to as stress-response hormones. Stressors can be biological, chemical, environmental, nutritional, physical, or psychological in nature. The release of various stress-response hormones from the brain produces a variety of changes in the body that allow us to properly adapt and respond, often including an increase in essential functions like heart rate and breathing rate, and a decrease in secondary functions such as digestion. Stress is managed in the body specifically by two physiological systems: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS) (more on this later!). At the end of the HPA axis and the SAS are the adrenal glands. These glands, when signaled to do so, produce a variety of hormones including glucocorticoids such as cortisol, and catecholamines such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. Proper release of cortisol, for example, helps our body maintain homeostasis. Too much or too little cortisol in the body however can lead to a host of imbalances and eventually diseases.
The stress response is critical to our survival, and is the very means by which we are all alive today (through evolution/natural selection). Modern stressors in the industrialized west however look very different from the stressors our early ancestors faced (think work deadlines, traffic, and the threat of climate change vs. predators, lightning, and starvation). More often than not, our dear stress response is being triggered by everyday tasks and is stuck in the “on” position, so to speak, for far longer than is necessary or healthy. Prolonged experiences of stress are now considered a leading cause of chronic illness. In the short-term, excessive stress can lead to more minor imbalances such as digestive disruption, anxiety, sleep issues, and fatigue. If left unchecked however, chronic stress can lead to more serious health issues such as autoimmune disease, hormone disruption, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Excessive and prolonged stress just may be the most important health imbalance we address in our time!
How do adaptogens work in our bodies?
Feeling stressed about the impacts of stress on the body? I feel you! Thank goodness for herbs!
Adaptogens work by normalizing our body’s natural stress response. They do this through a wide range of actions and energetics. In particular, adaptogens are said to help re-regulate, normalize, and enhance the function of the HPA axis and the SAS (the mechanisms of our stress response), and support healthy adrenal function. They specifically help alter the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the body. The use of adaptogens has been found to reduce the secretion of cortisol to appropriate levels, and limit the release of other adrenal hormones. Most also contain powerful antioxidants that help protect our cells from damage.
Through these actions, adaptogens support and nourish the brain, nerves, endocrine glands, and immune system, benefiting the whole system. In more simple terms, through their normalizing effect on our bodies, adaptogens help us to feel more energized, less overwhelmed, and generally more at peace with life. They help to enhance overall healing and prevent stress-induced disease.
What imbalances do they serve?
Adaptogens can be used to address a variety of stress related conditions, and they are particularly well-suited to either acute or chronic conditions of which chronic stress is a root cause. They are also incredible as preventative tonics. Adaptogens are a great complementary therapy to many chronic diseases, as increased immune, nervous, and endocrine system support is important to all aspects of healing. Their actions tend to be subtle, and best results are seen when used consistently over many months. Because each herbal adaptogen is unique, each offers a variety of secondary benefits such as protection of the liver, protection of the heart and cardiovascular system, digestive support, and protection against chemo- and radiation therapies. When trying to choose which adaptogen is right for you, work with an herbalist or cross-reference reliable herbal books and other resources to determine which best matches your unique body!
Examples of imbalances adaptogens might benefit include: frequent infections, anxiety, depression, insomnia, fatigue, blood sugar imbalance, loss of appetite, brain fog, unintended weight loss or weight gain, hormone imbalance, chronic pain, headaches, irritability, and many more.
What adaptogens can I use?
There are a wide variety of adaptogenic plants and fungi available to us for work with. They are generally used as a tincture or in a capsule, and some are even tasty enough to be drank as a tea. Each plant or mushroom profiled below helps support the body in response to stress, and can be used for acute or chronic stress or disease, or simply for prevention. I’ve detailed each herb’s other healing qualities as a way to highlight the variety of benefits each adaptogen offers. It should be said that although adaptogens are sometimes thought of as performance enhancers, they should not be used in lieu of healthy lifestyle habits as a way to push ourselves beyond our means. Healing from a period of excessive stress often requires a deep look at the patterns that allowed such stress to take hold of our lives.
Note: There is some debate in the herbal community as to what officially constitutes an adaptogen, and you may find some inconsistencies amongst herbalist and other resources. Some feel that the plant or mushroom must prove to have a positive effect on the human stress response (shown through scientific study) to be called a true adaptogen. Others believe that information about traditional use is sufficient (especially since not all herbs have been studied equally). For the sake of this post, I am going to side with herbalist David Winston. He honors both science and tradition in his definition. His full list is available at the end of this post for your viewing pleasure!
Holy Basil, Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum, O. gratissimum
Plant family: Lamiaceae
Part used: leaves, flowers
Taste/energetics: pungent, sweet, warm
Properties: adaptogen, antibacterial, antidepressant, antioxidant, antiviral, carminative, diuretic, expectorant, galactagogue, immunomodulator
Holy basil has a very long history of use in India and is considered a rasayana in Ayurvedic medicine, a title reserved for herbs that promote overall wellness, vitality, and longevity. It is neuroprotective and is thought to enhance cerebral circulation and improve mental clarity, making it a great remedy for brain fog, poor memory, and attention issues. It is known to help elevate mood, providing relief from anxiety and depression. It is a lovely aromatic, and the constituents that give the plant its delightful smell help to dispel gas and general indigestion, and sooth an upset stomach. Holy basil is also beneficial to the heart: it helps regulate blood sugar, is slightly blood thinning, and promotes circulation, which can all be beneficial in cases of high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Ashwagandha -Withania somnifera
Plant family: Solanaceae
Part used: root
Taste/energetics: bitter, warm, dry
Properties: adaptogen, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune amphoteric, antitumor, nervine, antispasmodic, mild astringent, diuretic
Asgandh in Hindi means “the smell of a horse”, which is thought to refer to the odor of the plant; it is also believed that this herb gives its users the stamina and strength of a stallion! Ashwagandha is another Ayurvedic rasayana, and has been cherished in India for centuries for its ability to promote overall vitality. Ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen, and is often used for those who struggle with fatigue, anxiety, depression, brain fog, and nervous exhaustion. Because of its calming qualities, it’s lovely for folks who struggle with insomnia, as it promotes deep, restful sleep. It is thought to enhance endocrine function as well, with a special affinity for the thyroid gland (stimulates the thyroid, making it useful for individuals with an underactive thyroid). Ashwagandha is also anti-inflammatory, making it useful in the treatment of musculoskeletal pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and general neck and back pain. It is also rich in iron and can be used in the treatment of iron-deficient anemia.
Reishi -Ganoderma lucidum
Mushroom family: Ganodermataceae
Part used: fruiting body, mycelium, sometimes spores as well
Taste/energetics: bitter, warm
Properties: adaptogen, cholesterol-lowering, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, heart tonic, hepatoprotective, immunomodulator, nervine
Reishi is the medicinal mushroom supreme! Revered for it’s health-giving qualities in China for over 2,000 years, Reishi is known to provide deep, nourishing restoration to the body, mind, and spirit. It is soothing to the nervous system and can help provide relief from anxiety, poor memory, irritability, fatigue, and insomnia. Reishi is an incredible immune system strengthener and balancer (immunomodulator). Because of this, it is supportive to both an under-active and overactive immune response. It is also deeply supportive to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and helps to protects the liver, particularly in response to toxic exposures. Reishi is gently anti-inflammatory and can be useful for people who experience allergies of all types.
Shatavari - Asparagus racemosus
Plant family: Liliaceae
Parts used: root
Taste/energetics: sweet, bitter, warm, moist
Properties: adaptogen, antibacterial, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, demulcent, diuretic, immune tonic, lung tonic, galactagogue, gastroprotective
Yet another Ayurvedic rasayana, Shatavari is a beloved tonic thought to provide physical strength, stamina, and balance to all who use it. This root has been used for hundreds of years in India as an aphrodisiac and fertility tonic (the word shatavari literally translates in Hindi to “she who has hundreds of husbands”!). Living up to its name, Shatavari has an affinity for the female reproductive system, helping to balance hormones, enhance fertility, and boost libido. Because of this, it can also help to sooth the symptoms of PMS, menopause, and general hormone imbalance such as irritability, dryness, and sleep disturbance. It is a highly nutritive immune tonic, making it useful in cases where lack of deep nourishment leads to overall deficiencies (examples of this are: fatigue and anemia). Shatavari also helps to relieve urinary, respiratory, and digestive irritation due to its moistening nature.
Eleuthero -Eleutherococcus senticosus
Plant family: Araliaceae
Parts used: root and stem bark
Taste/energetics: sweet, slightly bitter, slightly warm
Properties: adaptogen, antioxidant, immune tonic
One of the most well-researched adaptogens, Eleuthero is energizing and uplifting, without being stimulating and thereby depleting (in the way caffeine is, for example). It is used specifically to increase endurance and stamina, and reduce fatigue. Eleuthero provides strength and resilience to the immune system in the face of infection, improves cognitive function, and can help to provide relief from disturbed sleep. It is thought of by some as a performance enhancer and is often suggested for athletes, people who work long, odd hours, and other folks who put a high physical demand on their body. Eleuthero helps to speed recovery after strenuous physical activity, helps build muscle, and prevents muscles breakdown with aging. It can also be used to help relieve inflammation and arthritic pain.
List of confirmed adaptogens (as stated by herbalist David Winston):
American ginseng - Panax quinquefolius
Ashwagandha - Withania somnifera
Asian ginseng - Panax ginseng
Cordyceps - Cordyceps sinensis
Dang shen - Codonopsis pilosula, C. tangshen
Eleuthero - Eleutherococcus senticosus
Guduchi - Tinospora cordifolia
Holy Basil, Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum, O. gratissimum
Jiaogulan - Gynostemma pentaphyllum
Licorice - Glycyrrhiza glabra, G. uralensis
Reishi - Ganoderma lucidum
Rhaponticum - Rhaponticum carthamoides
Rhodiola - Rhodiola rosea
Schisandra - Schisandra chinensis
Shilajit - Asphaltum bitumen
From David Winston: “These do not have the same level of scientific research confirming their use as do the known adaptogens. More research is needed. These herbs all display effects that help to regulate the neuroendocrine and immune systems, provide defense against stress, and increase the ability of a person to maintain optimal homeostasis. In addition, they are all respected tonics with a long history of safety and efficacy.”
Amla - Emblica officinalis
Astragalus - Astragalus membranaceus
He shou wu - Polygonum multiflorum
Prince seng - Pseudostellaria heterophylla
Shatavari - Asparagus racemosus