What in the heck is an Adaptogen?
It’s your lifesaver when you are drowning in the stressors of everyday life!
Adaptogens are plants that help the body resist stressors of all kinds, whether physical, chemical, or biological. These herbs, roots, and mushrooms have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions, but here in America, the general public is just finding out about these awesome herbs. Some, like Tulsi (holy basil), (my favorite adaptogen) can be eaten as part of a meal, and some are consumed as supplements or tinctures or brewed into teas. Each one claims to do something a little different, but on the whole, adaptogens help your body handle stress. They’re meant to bring us back to the middle.
Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants: They help balance, restore and protect the body. An adaptogen doesn’t have a specific action; it helps you respond to any influence or stressor, normalizing your physiological functions. Adaptogens may do for your adrenal glands what exercise does for your muscles. When we exercise, it’s a stress on our body. But as we continue to train and exercise, our body becomes better at dealing with the stress of it, so we no longer get as tired or as high a heart rate. When you take adaptogens, meanwhile, you’re training your body to handle the effects of stress. The plants do this by interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system, both of which are involved in the body’s response to stress. Adaptogens may tweak hormone production and physiological responses to stress to ensure that your body, from your mind to your immune system to your energy level, functions as it should.
What plants are considered Adaptogens?
We will start with a few of my favorites that I make into a tea
Also called Tulsi, Holy Basil is known in India as the a powerful anti-aging supplement. Holy basil benefits have long been an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine to treat a large number of conditions, such as infections, skin diseases, hepatic disorders, common cold and cough. There is also evidence that holy basil may help to prevent recurrence of canker sores, which are thought to be induced by stress, as well as other types of ulcers, such as gastric ulcers. In addition to these stress-related benefits, holy basil may potentially help to lower blood pressure, reduce seizure activity, fight bacteria, kill certain fungi, combat viral infections, protect the liver, promote immune system function and reduce pain response.
Ashwagandha is often referred to as Indian ginseng. Its effects on cortisol, stress tolerance and internal stress responses have been studied for decades. ashwagandha root extract seems to stop the rise in lipid peroxidation caused by bacteria-induced stress. Lipid peroxidation is the process by which oxidative stress can eventually cause cell damage within blood cells. Also, ashwagandha may prevent stress-related gastric ulcers, prevent weight increase of the adrenal glands (a sign of chronic stress), help stabilize cortisol levels and aid in the non-specific stress resistance.
Ashwagandha has been shown to calm the mind, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and enhance the activity of immune cells known as natural killer cells that help you fight off infections and cancer. Ashwagandha is the only adaptogen proven to enhance thyroid function, increasing serum concentrations of both T3 and T4. Its anti-inflammatory effects may also help relieve pain associated with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Ashwagandha helps the body cope with stress by boosting adrenal function. It is widely used to balance stress hormones, relieve anxiety, and increase energy in those suffering from adrenal fatigue.
As you know, chronic stress contributes to inflammation and can trigger many illnesses due to an imbalanced immune response and hormone dysfunction. Ginseng is superior in its ability to significantly reduce chronic stress by regulating the HPA axis, effectively decreasing depression, anxiety, and other HPA axis disorders. Prevents and reverses a number of inflammatory conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma. Ginseng also has neuroprotective effects, which can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. It even has the power to prevent autoimmune disease by suppressing proinflammatory cytokines generated by chronic stress.
Eleuthero (Also known as Siberian Ginseng)
In addition to helping the body cope with stress, eleuthero acts as a stimulant, increasing nervous system functioning and boosting energy levels. Eleuthero contains compounds that combat fatigue and burn fat for energy. Eleuthero offers a whole host of other benefits, including enhanced immune function, stabilized blood sugar levels, improved concentration, and reduced duration of respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza. It can even help you manage menopause symptoms by binding to estrogen receptor sites, thereby decreasing fatigue, insomnia, memory problems, and loss of strength caused by low estrogen levels during menopause.
Used in Chinese medicine, astragalus has been known to boost immunity and potentially buffer the effects of stress.
Astragalus root may actually temporarily increase cortisol levels to allow the body to positively respond to certain types of stress. This quick boost in temporary cortisol then lets the hormone level out as soon as the stressor has been removed.
It improves immunity and antioxidant levels. Astragalus improves physical performance, helps the body get rid of disease-promoting free radicals, improves the use of glucose in the blood and the liver.
Licorice root (left)
Other benefits of licorice root include the potential for fat reduction and decrease of androgen and testosterone in women.
Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea), or golden root, is a potent adaptogen that has been the focus of much research. Like the other adaptogens, rhodiola provides a biological defense against stress — a study in roundworms suggests that it actually acts as a mild stressor when ingested, allowing the organism to boost its stress defenses (similar to how astragalus root works)
Cordyceps, reishi, shiitake and maitake mushrooms are fungi with antioxidant properties. That means nutrition-rich mushrooms have all the benefits of antioxidant foods. They may not be adaptogens in the classic sense, but each has adaptogenic, anti-tumor and immune-enhancing properties. In particular, cordyceps have been observed for their impacts on cortisol levels and oxidative stress. Sedentary adult males had better regulated cortisol levels after exercise-induced stress and that the supplement had anti-fatigue qualities.
Maca root is unique in that it is both an adaptogen and a superfood. Grown in the Andes Mountains, maca is a root vegetable rich in protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, and amino acids such as glycine and arginine. Maca has been used medicinally for hundreds of years to improve libido, fertility, mood, and symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
As an adaptogen, maca raises hormone production when your body is under-producing hormones and lowers hormone production when your body is over-producing hormones. When used over time, maca nourishes and enhances the function of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which restores balance to the adrenals.
Unlike ashwagandha, maca is extremely tasty and therefore can be used as a food as well as a supplement. It has a nutty, butterscotch-like flavor that can easily be mixed into smoothies or even baked goods for a potent energy boost!
While it’s probably safe for most people to take adaptogens, doing so may be more of a bandage than a cure. People are basically wanting to take these adaptogens all the time for their chronic stress that they’re not managing otherwise, as it’s easier to take a pill than change your lifestyle. Eating well, getting proper rest, staying active, writing down what you’re grateful for and maintaining social connection all help protect you from chronic stress, which can kill your quality of life. Adding adaptogens to your routine can make you even more resilient to the damaging effects of chronic stress and give your body protection against perpetually high cortisol levels.
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