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Welcome to the first of a multi-part series, where I will be discussing a group of herbs called adaptogens and how I am personally using them on my healing journey. In August 2012, I started on a journey to better health. I decided that it was time that I put my health in the front burner, because we only have one life, and we should all strive to live it the very best we can. I have been chronicling my journey to health and you can read all of those posts here.
Herbs have played a forefront role in my journey so far. In January of this year, I started working with a chiropractic neurologist and they have a variety of herbal supplements that they use in their office. While I have always been a supporter of herbal treatments, I have not used herbs very much for specific health purposes, other than just the basics, like echinacea, goldenseal, peppermint, etc. There is a whole world of herbs out there that I never knew about until I started on this journey and adaptogens are a subset of herbs that I'd never heard of before last year.
Before we start in on this series, I want to share a few things.
1. No matter how much one can learn about herbs on their own, through books and the Internet, there is always a lot of value in working with a trained herbalist. It's no different than seeking medical advice from a doctor or naturoapth. Trained herbalists bring a lot of experience and insight from their practice that we do not otherwise have access to. Depending on where you live, herbalists in your area may sometimes offer public classes that you can attend for a reasonable price.
2. Many herbs work synergistically with other herbs, so even though I am going to outline individual herbs in this series, keep in mind that most of them, if not all, are going to work best when they are combined with other compatible herbs. This is also an area where an herbalist's training and skill can take healing to a whole new level. That said, there is also value in the practice of “simpling”, where you focus on using just one single herb. According to herbalist, Brigitte Mars, the art of simpling allows you to use a mild herb over an extended period of time, which is a great way to “deeply connect with all the aspects of a plant's power and to learn more about the unique flavor and properties of that individual plant.”(3)
3. Not all herbs are suitable for all people. The herbs that I am discussing in this series all fall into the “generally regarded as safe” category, but that does not mean they are safe for everyone. It's always best to check with your doctor, naturopath, etc., before introducing new things into your diet or supplementation regimen.
4. I highly recommend the book “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief“, by David Winston and Steven Maimes. This book has been an awesome resource and is a great jumping off point for anyone who is new to herbs and specifically wants to learn more about adaptogens. Read my recent review of this book here.
DISCLAIMER: Due to the FDA and FTC laws on health claims, I need to make this very clear. None of the information in this post is to be construed as medical advice. I am not a doctor or certified medical practitioner of any sort. I am simply sharing my own personal experiences, as I travel the long road to optimal health. Statements/products discussed have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease or illness. Every person is different and you should always consult your own certified health care practitioner before making changes to your current diet or before beginning any herbal or vitamin supplement regimen or exercise program.
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a special group of herbs that help us adapt to stress and restore balance in the body. This category of herbs helps our body support normal metabolic function and can also help in times of chronic and/or acute stress. According to Isreal Brekham, PhD and Dr. I. V. Darymov (1968), in order for an herb to be considered an adaptogen, it must(1):
1. Be nontoxic to the recipient.
2. Produce a nonspecific response in the body—an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
3. Have a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.
As a whole, adaptogens should be non-toxic to the body, meaning that their use must cause minimal side effects on a person's physical and mental health. There are lots of herbs out there that have adaptogenic properties, but they may also have higher risks of specific side effects, so those are not going to be part of my series, nor are they part of the commonly used adaptogenic herbs.
According to Winston and Maimes, when defining a “non-specific response in the body“, it means that “adaptogens stimulate, activate, or promote a response in multiple nonspecific ways, including the building of a reserve of adaptive energy.“(2) Adaptogens tend to work subtly and over a long period of time. While some people may experience noticeable improvements from the incorporation of adaptogens into their routine, it's not very common. Most people just notice that they are feeling better over time, maybe have more energy, feel more at ease, don't get “stressed out” as easily, etc. This has been my own personal experience with adaptogens. I have yet to incorporate an adaptogen that gives me an “Aha!” reaction. I have just noticed over the last year that I am becoming more resistant to stress and don't get as freaked out and stressed out as I used to. I was (am) very much a Type-A personality — always going and always worried about something. But over the last year, I have noticed a change in my overall ability to handle stress and not let things eat away at me like I used to. There are many factors that have gone into this, I'm sure, but proper nutrition and adequate herbal support has been a big component.
Lastly, adaptogens should help normalize the body and bring it back into homeostasis (balance). One of the fascinating things about adaptogens is that their unique normalizing influence on the body implies that it's almost like this group of herbs has “intelligence” and this impact on the body's homeostatic control mechanisms has totally baffled some of Western medicine's pharmacologists.(2) Winston and Maimes say:
“Adaptogens must demonstrate a normalizing influence on the body's regulatory systems, including the neuroendocrine and immune systems. Secondary sites of action for adaptogens include the liver, cardiovascular system, kidneys, and pancreas.”(2)
You will find that adaptogens are going to work differently for different people, depending on their body's specific needs. Some people will need to have certain systems stimulated, while others need to be calmed. The same adaptogen will do what it needs to do, depending on what that person's body needs. This is one of the most fascinating things about them — their “intelligence”. No wonder Western medicine is baffled! They do not like things that cannot be easily explained scientifically.
Adaptogens alone are not going to cure one's illness, but they are a great tool to help support your treatment plan. That said, they are not to be used as a replacement for any specific treatment, nor should they be used to take the place of things like good sleep, good nutrition, stress management techniques, exercise, etc. Kiva Rose, a traditional herbalist, says:
“One of the greatest problems in the modern use of so-called adaptogens is how they are promoted to help us push beyond normal stress capacity. So rather than working with the plants as helpers and healers, they are used as a kind of drug to keep us going when our body is telling us to slow down and recuperate. In this way, they become yet another coping mechanism and a way to speed us towards inevitable burnout. This is a suppressive method and one I don’t recommend, especially in the long term.“(2)
It is important to look at adaptogens as just one of the many tools in your toolbox to build optimal wellness. You can't win a basketball game on your own — you need a team, and adaptogens are a great addition to the team. I personally am using adaptogens alongside other supplements, focused stress management, focused sleep management, good nutrition, etc.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
We've defined what an adaptogen is and what it does to the body (brings it into balance), but how do they do this? How does an adaptogen work, once it's inside the body? Well, it is somewhat of a mystery, but most researchers say that:
“Adaoptgens act by stimulating the body's nonspecific stress response via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathoadrenal system”.(2)
Thankfully, there has been some significant clinical research on a few common adaptogens like Eleuthero (formerly called Siberian Ginseng), Asian ginseng, reishi, and others. As more of these clinical tests are done, we may be able to better understand how each of the adaptogens work within the body. Winston's and Maimes' conclusion is that:
“Various active constituents found in herbal adaptogens work to stimulate the neuroendocrine and immune systems via multiple metabolic pathways.”(2)
These constituents can affect everything from the brain, nerves, thyroid, adrenals, pancreas, ovaries, immune system, and more, by helping normalize their function and either calming them down or stimulating them. There are a lot of theories out there and scientists are still unsure exactly how they work. It's just another one of the amazing, beautiful things about nature!
What Herbs Are Included in the Adaptogen Family?
You may be familiar with some of the herbs in this category. A few of the most common adaptogens include:
- Eleuthero (formerly called Siberian Ginseng)
- Asian Ginseng
- American Ginseng
- Holy Basil (Tulsi)
- and more
Adaptogens are known to have adapted to their specific environments, like high altitudes, severe weather, and other biologically stressful conditions. It's these things that make this group what they are and why so many people are fascinated with them. If these herbs can adapt to their environments, can they also help us adapt to certain extremes in our own lives?
The majority of adaptogens grow in Korea, India, Russia, and China. There are some that are native to North America and Europe. With all of the plants out there, it is expected that the list of adaptogens will continue to grow as researchers discover new plants in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and other parts of the world. When I am looking for herbs to purchase, I always make sure that the herb is grown and harvested (organically) in the region where it is indigenous. Since adaptogens have adapted to their specific environments, I believe it is important for them to come from the areas they grow naturally. This goes for most herbs, in my opinion.
If you are looking for more info on adaptogenic herbs, I HIGHLY recommend this book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. It is one of my all-time favorite herb books and probably the one I reference the most. Find it on Amazon here.
Basic Herbal Preparations
If you’re new to herbs and are feeling confused about all the different preparations for them, don’t be! Let me help you out with this Basic Herbal Preparations post. You can also watch the videos below to learn more about a couple herbal preparations and about my favorite source for organic, sustainably harvested herbs.
Ready to Learn More?
This is a super brief run-down on adaptogens. There is so much more that can be said about this amazing group of herbs, but for the sake of not letting these posts get too long, I am going to end with this. Now that we have the overview of adaptogens, I will be sharing more posts on specific adaptogenic herbs and how they have been helping me along my healing journey. In the mean time, I'd love to hear from you! Do you use adaptogens? What has been your experience? Leave a comment below and let's start the discussion!
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If you're interested in learning more about herbs and would like to know who I recommend, check out my Resources page.
1. “Terms of the Trade: Adaptogen“, Bear Medicine Herbals Website.
2. “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief”, by David Winston and Steven Maimes. Healing Arts Press, 2007.
3. “The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine: The Ultimate Multidisciplinary Reference to the Amazing Realm of Healing Plants, in a Quick-study, One-stop Guide”, by Brigitte Mars. Basic Health Publications, 2007.