Herbs for Health: Adaptogens

Kristyn Bango adaptogen adaptogens herbs for health series

Adaptogens are herbs that help us adapt to changes and stress caused by physical, biological, emotional, and environmental factors. They can assist in restoring balance within the body and help us defend against both chronic and acute stressors.

Documentation of the use of adaptogenic herbs exists throughout history. Many were used in traditional Chinese medicine and in Ayurveda for possibly thousands of years. This class of herbs gained attention in the 1940s in Russia as they searched for a substance that would provide strength, stamina and physical superiority. The term adaptogen was coined by Nikolai V. Lazarev, a Soviet scientist, medical doctor, and pharmacologist. According to Lazarev, an adaptogen is an agent that allows an organism to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stressors by raising non-specific resistance towards such stress, allowing the organism to adapt to stressful situations.

Criteria were set as research began and adaptogens had to be 1. non-toxic, 2. produce a non-specific response in the body, and 3. increase our bodies non-specific adaptogenic response. They must have a 4. normalizing influence on physiology, 5. must be able to both stimulate a hypo-functioning system, 6. calm/relax or stimulate a hyper-functioning system.

In order for an herb to be considered an adaptogen, it must meet all the qualifying criteria but there can be confusion about what actually qualifies a specific herb for the designation. Herbs may be made into tonics which are nutritive and can be taken to help strengthen one system with limited harmful side-effects but are not necessarily an adaptogen. An herb may also be rejuvenating or restorative, but that doesn't mean it fits into the classification of an adaptogen because they do not meet all the particular criteria that are required to be considered an adaptogen. Adaptogens aren’t tonics for one system of the body. They work to restore overall balance and strengthen the functioning of the body as a whole without impacting the stability of an individual organ or body system. To be an adaptogen, the herb must be able to facilitate changes by a wide range of actions, rather than one specific action, like balancing particular hormones or improving digestion.

Many adaptogens are also anti-inflammatory and reducing overall inflammation will increase energy, boost immunity, and increase cognitive function. All of these are affected when the stress response is induced.

What can adaptogens do for our bodies?
support adrenal function
increase tolerance of stress both physical and emotional minimize the harmful side effects of toxins
work on a cellular level to protect from oxidative stress

Adaptogens may also help:
produce energy on a cellular level regulate glucose
support metabolic functions
slow aging play a role in psychoneuroimmunology by regulating the brain and nervous system help restore the balance of the endocrine hormones
modulate the immune system
play a role in emotional and physical health

help maintain homeostasis in the body

Many adaptogens help improve focus, support immune system functioning, or provide some other broad-spectrum normalizing influence on unbalanced physiological processes. They create change in the body because of their ability to stimulate and balance several systems. They have a normalizing effect in the body by toning down a hyper-functioning system and strengthening the action of a hypo-functioning system although the mechanisms of action for these herbs are still not well understood. A great way to think of how adaptogens impact our bodies is that they are the positive mirror to the harmful effects of stress.

Now all this sounds wonderful, like a magic solution even, but our bodies are not meant to live under continued exposures to stress so while this class of herbs can help you reduce the effects of chronic or acute stress, in order to truly break out of the cycle, it is necessary to find the root causes of your stress and address them. Adaptogens are not meant to be taken years on end; they are made to assist our bodies as we work on implementing healthier lifestyle habits, or in times of situational stress. Many times, when we find ourselves taking a bunch of supplements and nothing is working; it's because there is something more profound at play, and more often than not its a combination of the before mentioned factors.

In addition to the changes caused by physical, biological, emotional, and environmental factors as well as their ability to reduce inflammation which will increase energy, boost immunity and increase cognitive function, adaptogens may also help to improve blood sugar imbalances, anxiety, depression, arthritis, and adrenal fatigue to name a few.

More on Adaptogens: 

Adaptogens for Healing & Support

Herbs for Health Series  - Ashwagandha

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