What are adaptogens and how do they work?
If you hang around wellness websites and social media, you have probably heard the buzzword of the year: adaptogens. For those who don’t know, adaptogens are plants that help the body combat stressors including physical, chemical, or biological (Ducharme, 2018). Many of these herbs have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years. Adaptogens have been clinically proven to ward off fatigue, increase mental capacity, enhance attention, and protect the central nervous system against stress (Panossian & Wikman, 2010). Recently trending adaptogens include ashwagandha, ginseng, reishi, astragalus, and holy basil. Each of these herbs perform different duties and are used for different purposes.
So what do they do? Adaptogens are like a regulator for your adrenals, acting to reduce the effect of stress on your body (Ducharme, 2018). By regulating homeostasis (or returning to a balanced state) in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, adaptogens act like the traffic cop that keeps everything moving smoothly during peak rush hour.
Adaptogens fall into three categories:
- enhance mental and physical performance – ginseng, Siberian ginseng, maca, reishi
- calms the body and sooth the adrenals – ashwagandha, holy basil, astragalus
- have an anti-inflammatory effect – turmeric
The herbs are typically sold for consumption in an extracted form, and are often blended into smoothies or infused into teas. Adaptogens are completely non-toxic and safe for most people to take every day, and they can be taken long-term. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), however, the herbs are rarely taken alone or for long periods of time, as each herb has its own unique properties and each property can be enhanced or tempered in tandem with other herbs. For example, astragalus or huang qi has properties in TCM as being sweet and slightly warm. It is often combined with ginseng to improve appetite and fight fatigue. Combining astragalus with cinnamon (or gui zhi), however, helps muscular pain due to obstruction of Qi or blood (Bensky, Clavey, & Stogger, 2004).
Adaptogens can be used in combination with other herbs to tailor an approach unique to your body. To derive the optimal benefit from adaptogens or any herbs, your combination of herbs should align with your own specific constitution and symptoms. This formula should change over time as your symptoms and body changes. While adaptogens are non-toxic, there still can be adverse effects if taken for too long or if the herb does not fit your unique constitution. With astragalus, for example, high doses can be problematic for someone with intense internal heat since the herb is slightly warming. Some herbs can also negatively interact with prescription medications.
The benefits of adaptogens are numerous, but talk to an experience herbalist before venturing into the trend. Make sure what you are taking is effective and right for you! Book your initial consultation today to find out what herbs can do for your body.
Bensky, D., Clavey, S., & Stogger, E. (2004). Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, 3rd Edition. Seattle: Eastland Press.
Ducharme, J. (2018, February 28). What Are Adaptogens and Why Are People Taking Them? Retrieved from Time: http://time.com/5025278/adaptogens-herbs-stress-anxiety/
Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress—protective activity. Pharmaceuticals, 3(1), 188-224.