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Adaptogens – How your Body “Adapts” to These Herbs

Let’s be real. We’re all stressed these days. Our already busy lives have been out of whack for months and overall uncertainty is at an all time high. In looking for tools and methods to manage your stress, you might have come across adaptogens. They’re a buzzy thing in the wellness world. But what are they and how do they work?

Adapt-ogen

Adaptogens are a category of plants with properties that have been shown to help the body manage stress. They’re relatively new to the Western world but have deep roots in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines. 

While many herbs can have specific medicinal properties, adaptogens are celebrated for their adapt-ability to bring the body back to a state of homeostasis or balance. Think of your body like a thermostat. Your homeostasis or place of balance might be 70 degrees. Sometimes you’re alert and wired at 80 degrees and need to work to come back down from a place of stress. Sometimes you’re lagging at 60 and need a boost to bring back energy and focus.

How do Adaptogens Work and How Can They Help Our Bodies?

To understand how adaptogens help your body adapt to stress, let’s first talk about the body’s stress response.

Our body’s autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that controls and regulates the internal organs without any conscious effort) has three parts, two of which are relevant to our discussion here: the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. 

The parasympathetic system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” state. It’s a state of calm in which the body and brain are relaxed, and all systems are fully functioning.

The sympathetic system is often referred to as the “fight or flight” state. Imagine you’re in your car and a little kid darts out in front of you on their bike. Your heart beats fast, you might start to sweat, and your whole body gets tense. This is your body’s innate response to stress, designed to help you focus on the fight. 

Your body was designed to respond to acute stress by shutting down unnecessary systems so that it can focus on critical systems. Stress hormones spike, the digestive and reproductive systems slow, your pupils dilate so that you have better vision, and blood flows to your muscles and lungs. 

This is a normal response, but it’s only healthy if the body can return to the sympathetic state soon after the threat is over. And that isn’t always the case. When we become chronically stressed, not just from a kid on a bike, but from all of the competing priorities in our lives, our bodies get “stuck” in the fight or flight state. 

Chronic stress disrupts something called the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis. In a constant state of alertness, the HPA axis is continuously triggered to release stress hormones. 

Over time, the barrage of these hormones leaves the glands of the HPA axis desensitized and out of balance. This imbalance shows up in the body as fatigue, anxiety, lack of focus, sugar or carbohydrate cravings, difficulty falling or staying asleep, metabolic imbalances, digestive distress, and disrupted immune responses.

This is where adaptogens can help. They act nonspecifically in the body (i.e., not on one single body system or organ) to help improve its ability to respond to stress.  

OK, what are they?

Some of the most common and effective adaptogenic herbs include the following:

  1. Reishi: The Reishi mushroom is known as the “Queen of Mushrooms” and has been used for thousands of years to support sleep, stress, immune function, and overall well being. Jennifer from JBK loves taking this in supplement form! 
  2. Rhodiola: Rhodiola can help to balance the effects of mental and physical stress. It can lift the mood, increase libido and mental sharpness, reduce fatigue and anxiety, and enhance cognitive function and endurance. Rhodiola specifically supports the adrenals by balancing cortisol levels.
  3. Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha can help protect the immune system, mitigate the effects of stress, improve cognition, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, stabilize blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and reduce inflammation. Note that Ashwagandha is a member of the nightshade family, so skip it if you avoid these foods for health reasons. 

Ashwagandha can also stimulate the thyroid and may lead to excess levels of certain thyroid hormones, so if you have a thyroid condition, it’s worth talking to your provider about how it might affect you. Avoid it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

  1. Cordyceps: A favorite among athletes, cordyceps is known to support energy, stamina, and lung capacity. Try it next time you’re looking for a pick-me-up or a pre-workout boost!
  2. Siberian Ginseng: Also known as Eleuthero, Siberian Ginseng has been used for centuries in China and Russia to help adapt to stress, especially physical stress. Siberian Ginseng has been found to sharpen mental alertness and cognitive function, as well as enhance immunity and increase strength and endurance. It should be avoided by those with high blood pressure, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, mental illness (particularly mania and schizophrenia), and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  3. Tulsi: Also known as Holy Basil or “the incomparable one,” Tulsi is one of the most sacred plants in India. The herb has been valued for centuries as one that benefits the mind, body, and spirit. It particularly supports the immune system with powerful antioxidants and has demonstrated antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. It has also shown great potential to aid in stress relief and relaxation.
  4. Chaga: What makes chaga so unique is that it grows on living Birch trees and takes 15-20 years to reach maturity. During all of this time growing, it concentrates loads of important nutrients and enzymes from the tree and brings them into a form we can consume to support our bodies health. It is rich in B vitamins, zinc, flavonoids, enzymes, minerals, and contains some of the highest known concentrations of antioxidants of any food. It supports overall well-being and immunity.

It is also worth noting that research has shown that adaptogens must be consumed in consistent doses over a period of time for the optimal effect. As the market has become quite crowded with wellness products that sometimes make pretty lofty claims, it’s important to remember that the amount and type of herbs in these products can vary significantly.

The bottom line 

Chronic stress is a real problem and there are many ways to help manage it. Adaptogens are a great tool to add to your kit that can help bring balance back to your body.

Adaptogens are easy to consume, too. They’re available as a capsule or pill to swallow or as a powder that can be mixed into coffee, tea, or smoothies. Thanks to their growing popularity, you can also find lots of adaptogen-infused products out there, like coffee and coffee alternatives, creamers, tea, kombucha, and even protein powder. You’ll also see them mixed together in supplements for goals like stress and energy support.

The fine print 

Before we wrap up, we’ve got to say it: we aren’t doctors, so do your own research and work with a qualified practitioner as needed to incorporate adaptogens into a wellness protocol that works for you and your unique self.

 

About the Co-Author

Hillary Bennetts is the founder and owner of Purposeful Plate Nutrition, through which she provides nutrition consulting to individuals and businesses. She also provides business consulting and content creation services to companies in the health and fitness industry.

Prior to studying nutrition and launching Purposeful Plate, Hillary spent almost a decade in corporate consulting with Ernst & Young and KPMG. Purposeful Plate is the result of combining her lifelong passion for health and wellness with her business background and nutrition education. 

Hillary holds a BA in Economics from Washington and Jefferson College, an MBA from Emory University, and an NC from Bauman College.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

A marathoner, mountain climber, and mama, she lives in Denver with her husband, toddler son, and golden retriever. You can find her online at purposefulplatenutrition.com and on Instagram at @purposefulplatenutrition!