Adaptogens are a class of plants and mushrooms believed to promote homeostasis and stabilize physiological processes. The Soviet Union created the term “adaptogen” in 1947, however, many of these plants and mushrooms have been in use for millenia to enhance overall well-being. Essentially, adaptogenic herbs supposedly extend the adaptation phase of stress. This is a positive phase during which the body is highly resistant to any noxious agents. Most people relate to this phase when they are extremely busy and do not get sick until their schedule begins to calm down. Then they almost immediately feel the symptoms of an illness.
Scientists believe adaptogens could possibly hold a wide range of benefits. Ancient Indian medicine, commonly referred to as Ayurvedic medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine heavily rely on adaptogenic plants for promoting overall well-being. A recent systematic review of studies on adaptogens set out to determine whether these benefits are statistically significant or whether the benefits reported in both these medicinal systems are primarily due to the placebo effect. The way adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the peripheral nervous system most likely cause the majority of their beneficial effects. Different adaptogens affect these systems in different ways resulting in a wide range of possible benefits from the various adaptogens.
The main adaptogen used for managing anxiety and stress is Ashwagandha. Small communities throughout the world use this herb for a wide range of issues not limited to anxiety and stress. Users believe Ashwagandha balances a person’s cortisol levels to help alleviate the negative effects associated with stress and anxiety. What we don’t know however is whether it is the herb or a placebo effect that produces these results, however, there are countless anecdotal reports of individuals receiving tremendous benefits from incorporating Ashwagandha into their daily routine.
Sleep-related problems such as insomnia affect the daily lives of countless individuals throughout the world. The primary cause of these sleep-related problems stems from external stress causing fluctuations from a normal secretion of circadian cortisol. This cortisol secretion in a healthy individual peaks shortly after they wake then decreases throughout the day allowing for a restful sleep. Adaptogens help stabilize the secretion of circadian cortisol to regulate it throughout the day. Studies have suggested various adaptogens act as sleep aids through this effect. These adaptogens include Panax quniquefolius, Schisandra chinensis, and Sedum rosea.
Adaptogens work in three primary ways to promote immune health. First, they stabilize biological responses that remodel the immune system, enhancing the body’s non-specific resistance to pathogens. Second, they promote bone marrow production which enhances blood cell counts. More blood cells, in the long run, will help other cells in our bodies have nutrients to keep fighting efficiently against pathogens. Third, adaptogens decrease the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, that the adrenal glands secrete. Cortisol in excessive amounts weakens our immune system. Adaptogens help the body use it more efficiently.
The primary cause of fatigue is external stress resulting from the adrenal gland secreting an excessive amount of hormones. Once the adrenal gland secretes these hormones it can no longer achieve normal homeostasis due to a lack of regular hormones. Adaptogens can increase the effectiveness of adrenal gland secretion helping it build back up to normal homeostasis. This allows the adrenal gland to stop producing excessive amounts of hormones. The most effective adaptogens for reducing adrenal fatigue are Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus.
Scientists believe Panax ginseng inhibits 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase and Eleutherococcus senticosus inhibits catechol-O-methyl transferase. Both of these reside in close proximity to various stress hormone receptors and catalyze the degradation of stress hormones into inactive compounds. This reduces the excessive secretion of stress hormones by the adrenal gland. They also accelerate the closure of the adrenal gland in the absence of stress, increase cellular energy levels, and prevent oxidative damages. All of this promotes the healthy function of the adrenal gland which reduces fatigue levels in healthy humans.
Adaptogenic Herbs List
- Panax ginseng, also referred to as Korean or Asian ginseng
- Panax cinquefoils
- Rhodiola rosea, also referred to as arctic root or golden root
- Astragalus membrananceus and Astragalus mongholicus
- Withania somnifera, commonly referred to as Ashwagandha
- Glycyrrhiza glabra root, commonly referred to as Licorice root
- Schisandra chinensis and other species within the Schisandra genus
- Silybum marianum, also referred to as milk thistle
- Uncaria tomentosa, commonly referred to as Cat’s claw
- Centella asiatica, commonly referred to as Gotu kola
- Camellia sinensis, commonly used to make green tea
Adaptogenic Mushrooms list
- Grifola frondosa, commonly referred to as Maitake mushroom
- Ganoderma lucidum, commonly referred to as lingzhi or reishi mushroom
- All species within the Cordyceps genus, militaris being the most common species