Adaptogens – What are they and why do we want them?
If you are on a journey of self care and wellness, chances are you are doing some digging on natural products, ingredients and herbs. If you are doing any amount of research or online shopping to support your wellness journey, you’ve most likely come across the word “Adaptogen”. The ads promoting adaptogens make them sound like a unicorn of an ingredient and something we all really want but has anyone ever told you what the heck they actually are? The term “adaptogen” first came about in the 1940’s by a scientist from the USSR, N. Lazarev. Since then, adaptogenic plants have been further studied and our understanding of them has deepened. Now they are widely recognized and available for anyone to use.
Let me share a story of how I first became acquainted with an adaptogen. It was 2018 and I was in the midst of a very intense healing journey where I was recovering from the most traumatic event of my life (another story perhaps). It had been 7 months since I had my last period. Pregnancy had been ruled out and lots of bloodwork had been ordered by my OB/GYN. After my results came in, I sat in her office and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Your bloodwork is all normal.” I sat there with probably a blank expression on my face trying to make sense of this. My thyroid levels were prefect, my hormones all in check, no chance of pregnancy, no sign of early menopause. So how could it possibly be that at age 28, with 7 months of no period, that all my bloodwork was “normal”? Well, here’s the thing. I know now and I also knew then, that any testing done in a conventional western medicine office, your results are compared to the national average. NOT your own personal average. Unless you’re being monitored regularly, your doctor is not going to know what’s a normal healthy lab result for you. My doctor acknowledged that this was my body responding to the trauma and suggested that I had a chance of entering into an early menopause because of said trauma. This devastated me because at only 28 years old, the thought of going into an early menopause and not being able to have any more children if I wanted to, being powerless over that made me feel so defeated. She said we could start hormone replacement therapy to try to kickstart my body back into having a cycle again. Knowing the risks of said treatment, I told her I would think about it.
Fast forward to a girls weekend with my mom and sisters a couple weeks later. We were visiting one of my favorite towns, a hidden spa gem, called Berkely Springs, West Virginia. I decided to pay a visit to my favorite herb shop, Sage Moon, and see if the wise herbalist woman there could maybe give me some direction. I had visited her before and loved how educated she was in natural healing, with still a strong respect for modern medicine. I knew she wouldn’t steer me wrong. After spending time talking with her and answering all her questions about my condition, she gave me a recommendation. Ashwagandha and Shatavari roots. Boil them to make a decoction of the roots and drink up to 3 cups a day, regularly and see if I get my cycle back. She explained that ashwagandha is what’s called an adaptogen, which means that it works with your body to regulate levels and proper functions. If your body needs more of a hormone or chemical, ashwagandha can help stimulate that, and if it is overproducing a hormone or stress chemical, it can bring that back down. Paired with the shatavari root, it targets regulating female hormones specifically. I followed her instructions strictly and within a month, had gotten my cycle back. I continued the regimen for about 6 more months and was completely regular again! Coincidence? I think not!
Up until this point my understanding of herbalism was limited to the “one herb for one illness” approach. If you couldn’t sleep, you could use valerian. If you had a headache, willow bark. If you had a coldsore, lemon balm oil. I had no idea the vast multi-faceted power of plants and their healing abilities. They are complex. As powerful as modern-day drugs, but not as simple or black and white. I now know that when treating insomnia, you need to dig deeper to find out the cause. Is it stress, hormonal, pain or a lifetime of poor sleeping habits that need to be addressed? Once you have your answer, then you find your plant. If you have a headache, what kind of headache is it? Stress, migraine or vascular, tension, or allergy related? THEN you find your plant!
Because an adaptogen is a very specific type of plant, and there are only a number of plants that function that way in the human body, the desire to use them forces us to take a deeper look at our bodies and brains and understand the importance of getting to the root cause of what ails us and not just treating the symptoms. Once you break out of the “one disease, one drug” mindset, you can finally begin to understand the world of plant medicine, and let me tell you, it is magical!
There are 3 criteria for a plant to be considered an adaptogen. First, their function in the body must be non specific. Basically this means that they help the body handle a wide variety of ailments and stressors, not just treat one symptom. Second, they must maintain homeostasis in the body, meaning they keep the body in a stable state. Thirdly, they cannot cause harm to any other part of the body or disrupt any body function. How they work in the body is intricate and quite profound! They promote an optimal response to stress, an optimal recovery process of the body’s stress response and optimize the body’s energy use to carry out these functions.
Adaptogens are for everyone. One of the most popular uses of an adaptogen is to help us handle stress. A common misconception is that if you take an adaptogen supplement, you will feel relaxed. It’s not a Xanax! An adaptogen will work with your body over time to help it handle the physiological effects of stress and yes, that means that over time you will not experience the side effects of stress such as adrenal fatigue, insomnia, high cortisol levels, thyroid imbalance, chronic inflammation etc. So, if you can stick with it and let it do it’s work, the payoff is much much higher than only treating the symptom. IF you do need immediate relief from your stress there are a number of herbs that can help with that as well – (*ahem – Ali’s Apothecary Inner Peace Tea*).
There are a number of adaptogens that have been used in plant medicine for many years with great success. One study on three different adaptogens, Schisandra chinensis, Rhodiola Rosea, and Eleutherococcus senticosus, found that these adaptogens showed significant improvement in attention, focus and mental clarity without potential side effects that other stimulants taken for the same purpose can have – addiction, fatigue or crash. These adaptogens also showed anti-toxic effects in the body and immune boosting results as well. For Ashwagandha, – 16 week double blind study in males Ashwagandha intake was associated with an 18% greater increase in DHEA-S and 14.7% greater increase in testosterone, compared to the placebo.
Testosterone and DHEA both have many important roles in the body. They are essential for cognition, bone density, and sexual health to name only a few.
Studies on Schisandra have shown that it can enhance the activity of the antioxidant glutathione (essential for our cells mitochondria), ATP production (cellular energy), enhance and increase longevity of cognitive function, ensure healthy levels of mitochondrial antioxidant status that naturally decline with age.
Rhodiola Rosea was found to have profound neuro-protective abilities, stimulates the central nervous system, protects against oxidative damage during fatigue and improve cognition. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/)
These adaptogens are well-studied and proven to have desirable effects on the body and brain and most importantly – they are safe! Remember an adaptogen cannot inhibit or disrupt any of the body’s other normal functions and must keep the body in a stable state. That being said, if you have any hormone disorders, are taking thyroid medication, or have any other conditions, always check with your medical provider before trying an adaptogen. Yes, they can improve these types of issues within our bodies but if a person is already taking a medication for a thyroid condition, it is important to understand that an adaptogen can interact with that medication.
So we’ve learned a great deal about adaptogens here, and I have attempted to explain them in a way that makes sense to a new user. So where to start? After consulting with your medical provider to determine these are safe for you to use, feel free to visit my apothecary and grab a bag of Ashwagandha. You can boil a couple teaspoons in 8-12 oz of water, steep for another 5 minutes and enjoy the earthy brew up to 3 times a day. Remember, it’s not an anxiety pill! So take daily and give it time to work with your body, adaptogens know what they’re doing!
Check out the sources and studies here!
A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide
A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Study Examining the Hormonal and Vitality Effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Aging, Overweight Males
Ashwagandha by Krystal Thompson –