Herbal Wisdom: 8 Benefits of Adaptogens
Herbalists use the term adaptogen to describe herbs that help the body adapt to stress, improve stamina, and increase resilience. Adaptogens increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stressors. They will also strengthen a weakened immune system reducing the chances of you catching the common cold or flu bug. Adaptogens have been used by athletes to increase stamina and reduce recovery time after strenuous exercise. Many adaptogens improve mental focus and clarity. Some adapotgens have an affinity for specific body systems, including the cardiovascular system and the male and female and reproductive systems. Historically, adaptogens were used to increase longevity and promote healthy aging.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
People have been enjoying the therapeutic benefits of adaptogenic herbs for eons. Much of our understanding of these potent plants comes to us from the ancient wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. Resting on the shoulders of this ancient wisdom, modern science and clinical research has helped us better understand how these plants work to increase stamina and improve health.
Though research is ongoing, we do know that adaptogenic herbs are loaded with a complex range of phytochemicals (naturally occurring compounds found in plants), including compounds known as terpenes, polyphenols, and polysaccharides. They act throughout the body to promote balance and have a pronounced effect on the body’s central stress response system known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). Of these phytochemicals, terpenes have a strengthening effect on the adrenal glands which help the body respond to stress, and also show anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating and liver protectant properties. Many of the polyphenol compounds have antioxidant properties which combat aging and age-related degenerative conditions. Polysaccharide-containing adaptogens stimulate the immune system, improve resistance to disease, and increase energy and vitality.
8 Benefits of Adaptogens + Why We Should All Be Taking Them
In our complex, fast paced world most people will benefit from the use of adaptogens. These are the eight reasons we should all be taking herbal adaptogens every day.
Acute and chronic stress can wreak havoc on our lives and on our bodies. Stress may show up in common symptoms like anxiety, irritability and insomnia while it drives illness and diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, high blood pressure and obesity. Cortisol, sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone” is often elevated, leading to immune suppression, rapid aging, and increased deposits of inflammatory belly fat. When cortisol becomes depleted and unavailable in normal amounts to moderate stress, the lack of cortisol allows inflammation to go unchecked.
While diet and lifestyle modifications are critical in reducing stress, herbal adaptogens can play an important role. Adaptogens help normalize excess cortisol levels and assist the body in maintaining a balanced stress response. If you work long hours or feel tense and stressed trying to juggle home, family, and work demands, adaptogens are an excellent way to support your body and a good way to start your day. Some of the best adaptogens for the complexities and stress of modern life are Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Eleuthero, Maca, Panax and American Ginseng, and Rhodiola. If you tend to feel anxious and worried when you’re experiencing stress, Ashwagandha may be an especially good choice. Unlike many adaptogens like Ginseng, Maca and Rhodiola, that are stimulating, Ashwagandha calms the mind and relieves anxiety. It can also be used to promote more restful sleep, especially when stress and worry make sleep a challenge.
Stimulating adaptogens are the best choice for individuals who want more energy without the draining effects of caffeine. Herbal adaptogens are also helpful in individuals whose lack of energy is driven by chronic fatigue syndrome and adrenal fatigue (a reduction in adrenal gland function). For chronic fatigue and adrenal support, consider adaptogens like Panax and American Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Cordyceps, Eleuthero, Holy Basil or Rhodiola.
Adaptogens can also be used to enhance athletic performance and have enjoyed a long history of use by Olympic athletes. Specifically, adaptogens have been shown to increase endurance and strength, help build muscle mass, improve the use of fuel by the muscles during physical activity, and shorten recovery time. For enhanced physical performance choose adaptogens like Panax Ginseng, Cordyceps, Eleuthero, Holy Basil, and Rhodiola.
Healthy functioning of the immune system is critical to our health, resistance to infection, and defense against certain diseases. Chronic stress suppresses the immune system’s ability to do its job and increases our susceptibility to disease. Frequent colds and flus may be an indication that the immune system is depleted and that herbal adaptogens are in order. Adaptogens act to stimulate the immune system, increasing resistance to many viral, bacterial and fungal infections. To strengthen immunity, choose adaptogens like Astragalus, Panax or American Ginseng, Cordyceps, Eleuthero, Reishi, Rhodiola, and Schisandra.
Research on Eleuthero shows that regular use may reduce the incidence of colds and other common infectious diseases, and for athletes, prevent the immune-depletion caused by excessive training. Astragalus root is a good choice for people who are run-down and need an overall immune boost. Used for long term strengthening of the immune system, its antimicrobial activity may improve resistance to colds, flus, and bronchitis. In Chinese medicine, Astragalus is said to strengthen the Lung qi, which is a protective energy that helps prevent illness caused by external forces.
If you are taking adaptogens to enhance immune strength and do get a cold or flu, Traditional Chinese Medicine principles dictate suspending use of the adaptogenic herbs during an acute viral or bacterial infection typically associated with a cold or flu.
Rich in antioxidants that combat age-related degenerative conditions, the daily use of adaptogens is a therapeutic routine for anyone wanting to live with energy and vitality. In parts of the world where herbal medicine is practiced by everyone, adaptogens are used daily, without any symptom of disease and long before the signs of aging. Astragalus and Panax Ginseng are two adaptogens used to promote and long, healthy life.
Modern scientific research has shown that Astragalus, long used in Chinese medicine as an adaptogen to promote longevity, works at the level of human DNA to combat aging. Astragalus contains compounds that boost production of an enzyme, telomerase, that plays a critical role in cellular health and anti-aging at the level of our DNA, the genetic material that contains the instructions all organisms need to develop, live, and reproduce. Specifically, telomerase controls the short bits of DNA known as telomeres, which ensure accurate cell division and replication. Telomeres are sometimes likened to the plastic tips that protect the ends of shoelaces to prevent them from unraveling. As telomeres shorten, errors in cell replication accumulate, causing a wide range of age-related conditions including certain cancers, cardiovascular disease including stroke and vascular dementia, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
Panax Ginseng, another highly esteemed adaptogen in Chinese medicine is another excellent daily adaptogen. One of the most heavily researched herbs, Ginseng’s legendary status as a longevity tonic has been validated by modern scientific research and clinical studies. Like Astragalus, Ginseng is an adaptogen and antioxidant. Considered the most stimulating of adaptogens, Panax ginseng can be used at any age to promote stamina and endurance, and improve cognitive function and memory. Panax Ginseng helps relieve adrenal burnout and exhaustion and reduce cortisol levels elevated by stress. For more about herbs for healthy aging, visit this blog, 7 Herbs for Your Holistic Aging Practice.
While it might seem paradoxical that herbs to increase energy and enhance athletic performance can improve sleep, adaptogenic plant’s ability to balance the nervous system and reduce the effects of stress also improves sleep. Stress, accompanying anxiety, and elevated cortisol levels can make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult. Adaptogens that balance excess cortisol and calm the nervous system are best for stress-related sleep problems. Ashwagandha before bedtime is especially useful where stress and anxiety go together to make sleep difficult. Eleuthero is also a good choice to improve sleep quality or nighttime wakefulness. American Ginseng is a good choice for sleep problems related to chronic fatigue syndrome. For other natural approaches to better sleep, visit this blog, 5 Herbs & Essential Oils for Better Sleep.
Adaptogens can support brain health and improve memory, focus, and concentration for people of all ages. Elevated cortisol and its inflammatory effects have a direct impact on brain health and appear to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Stress and mental fatigue also impact our ability to focus and learn.
For brain health, improved memory, mental clarity, better concentration and focus consider adaptogens like Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Ginseng, Rhodiola, and Schisandra. Rhodiola has been subjected to more than 180 published pharmacological, phytochemical, and clinical studies. A stimulating adaptogen, Rhodiola promotes brain function and memory and is used to relieve mental fatigue, reduce depressive syndromes, and ameliorate memory loss and cognitive dysfunction from a variety of causes, including brain injuries. It has been shown to have a positive effect on parts of the brain responsible for memory, perception and information processing, especially in healthy individuals working long hours in fields requiring complex analysis and critical decision-making.
Schisandra is a unique adaptogen with calming and stimulating properties. It calms the mind at the same time as it enhances reflexes, work performance and mental clarity. This combination is especially effective for individuals seeking relief from nervous tensions and anxiety who still need a high level of mental clarity and focus in their work. For other herbs for brain health and mental clarity that combine well with adapotgens see Brain Supplies: 5 Herbs to Remember.
Stress-relieving adaptogens like Schisandra help elevate mood and relieve anxiety. Ashwagandha is another good choice to consider especially when stress, anxiety, or elevated cortisol levels disrupt sleep. Unlike most other adaptogens that are stimulating, Ashwagandha calms the mind and relieves anxiety. It helps to nourish and rebuild a nervous system depleted by long-term stress or illness and reduces cortisol levels elevated by chronic stress. It promotes thyroid function and is beneficial for people with hypothyroidism, or a low functioning thyroid. Ashwagandha can also be helpful for mild to moderate depression as are Ginseng, Holy Basil, Maca, Rhodiola, and Schisandra. For more about other herbs that combine well with herbal adaptogens to calm the nervous system, see Natural Relief: 7 Safe and Effective Herbs for Anxiety.
Adaptogens’ stress-relieving, immune-strengthening, and anti-oxidant properties all help prevent cancer. While there are many factors that lead to the develop of abnormal, cancerous cells and the growth of cancerous tumors, stress is a contributing factor. Adaptogens ability to alleviate the effects of stress to prevent cancer offer yet another reason to incorporate adaptogenic herbs into your daily routine. Adaptogens’ ability to strengthen the immune system also helps the body defend against cancer. The body’s immune system can clean up abnormal cells before they become cancerous and form malignant tumors. Oxidative damage to cell DNA can also lead to cancer causing cell mutations. The antioxidant power of adaptogens helps inhibit this type of damage. Adaptogens with stress-relieving, immune enhancing, and antioxidant properties include Ashwagandha, Astragalus, Eleuthero, Ginseng, Holy Basil, Schisandra, and Rhodiola. Many of these herbs are also used to support individuals undergoing radiation and chemotherapy to treat cancer. Astragalus, for example, is also used to counter the immunosuppressive effects of chemotherapy treatment and possesses tumor inhibiting activity.
There is a wide array of adaptogens to choose from with similar and different properties. They can be combined for a synergistic effect or used alone. To choose, consider your own body, how you respond to stress, and your family-history-driven health risks. Of course, you can always ask an herbalist or another herbal practitioner to help you choose. As always, use common sense (more is not necessarily better) and consult with your healthcare practitioner if you are being treated for a medical condition.
Do you have questions about adaptogens or how to use them? Leave them in the comments below.
Wishing you health and vitality,
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