Adaptogens are natural substances with a wide range of health benefits. What exactly are they and how can you use them? If you are experiencing stress, recovering from severe illness, frequently catching cold, or trying to stay healthy into old age (basically every one of us), then this story is for you.
Adaptogenic herbs are a prominent feature of most herbal medicine traditions around the world. From South to Central to East Asia, Africa to Europe, and North to South America, these herbs take a special place in health and healing. Adaptogens stand out because of their safety profiles, complex chemistry, and wide range of health benefits. Some have been used for thousands of years in far-away lands and were prized by the rich and famous, especially the emperors of China, for promoting longevity.
You have probably heard of ginseng, an important tonic in Chinese medicine, but numerous other herbs long in use have similar characteristics. Some examples are ashwagandha, astragalus, cordyceps, eleuthero, holy basil, reishi, rhodiola, schizandra, and shatavari. In many cases, the root of the plant is used, but leaves, flowers, bark, or the whole plant are the source in other cases. Some of the adaptogens are fungi, such as cordyceps and reishi.
Each representative of this class of herbs has a slightly different profile, so getting to know them better will be useful in deciding which one is a good match for you. It is also possible to combine a few of them to cover a wider range of benefits, or to rotate between different adaptogens over time.
How do adaptogens work? This is a good question and one that is not easy to answer precisely. Adaptogens generally do not work like pharmaceutical drugs or nutritional supplements by interfering with a biochemical process in the body or adding missing nutrients. Instead, they appear to stimulate the body’s own regulatory and functional systems, such as the nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems, to work more efficiently. For example, some adaptogens can help the body to both up- and downregulate immune function, depending on what’s needed. Someone who’s feeling stressed may be looking to feel calmer but not dull. Another who has insomnia wants to sleep better but feel spritely and alert in the day.
Think of adaptogens as superfoods. They don’t replace thoughtful nourishment through foods but they can enhance the effects of a healthy diet, just like a multi-vitamin doesn’t replace eating fresh fruit and vegetables. While adaptogens can improve sleep quality, they are also not a substitute for sufficient sleep, rest, exercise, and stress management.
I’d like to highlight two of my favorite adaptogens that I have recommended to many of my patients:
Ashwagandha (withania somnifera) belongs to the nightshades and grows in drier regions of Asia. It has been used in traditional Indian medicine (ayurveda) for hundreds of years to prolong life, stimulate the mind, and enhance sexual and reproductive function. It has a wide range of health benefits to make the body and mind more resilient to inflammation, immune dysfunction, cancer, stress and overwork. It is particularly useful if you feel anxious, fatigued, or experience cloudy thinking or sleeping troubles due to stress. And it is one of the few botanicals useful for treating iron deficiency. Research has shown moderate improvements in a wide range of functional symptoms, most notably when people experience overall nervousness. Discuss possible side-effects and appropriate dosages with your practitioner.
Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea) grows at higher elevations and in regions closer to the North Pole. It, too, has a long history of traditional use in the countries where it grows to promote recovery from illness, resilience, endurance, and longevity. It is particularly useful for people experiencing high levels of stress, living in colder climates or at altitude, and to prevent chronic disease. Rhodiola has been extensively researched in Russia since the middle of the last century, where it was recognized as a useful adaptogen among competitive athletes and cosmonauts. Rhodiola can aggravate bipolar disorder and cause sleep disturbances in sensitive individuals.
If you are interested in learning more about adaptogens, I highly recommend David Winston and Steven Maimes’ primer Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. To derive maximum benefit from adaptogens it pays to consult with an experienced clinical herbalists who not only knows the advantages of individual adaptogens well but also uses them in the context of broader herbal strategies and takes your personal health needs and concurrent pharmaceutical use into consideration.
Remember, just because adaptogens are natural medicines doesn’t mean that they are safe and appropriate for everyone at all times.