Adaptogens: what can they do for you?

Adaptogenic herbs help the body respond to stress and achieve a better balance for improved physical and mental functioning.

Life rarely runs out of new demands and challenges. It can be starting a new job with a steep learning curve, welcoming a new child into the family, taking one’s athletic training to a new level, and so much more.

Situations like these activate the body’s stress response, in which the nervous and endocrine systems trigger a series of physiological changes to help us survive the new “emergency.” The adrenal glands release three major stress hormones, adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, which direct the body to create more energy and to increase blood flow to the muscles at the expense of less urgently needed body functions. As a result, we experience a surge in energy, muscle strength and mental focus as we work on the challenges at hand.

When we’re chronically under stress, however, the body never returns to its normal physiological state, and our health can begin to suffer. Symptoms such as fatigue, headache, irritability and poor sleep, along with a host of potentially serious physical and mental health problems, can develop. While stress-inducing situations cannot be easily avoided, there’s a special category of plants called adaptogens that may be able to help.

Adaptogens are plants (or substances derived from them) that can improve the body’s response to stress and help the body return to a state of balance known as homeostasis. According to the Russian pharmacologist who pioneered the concept, N. V. Lazarev, an adaptogen must be nontoxic to the body, must increase the body’s resistance to stressors in nonspecific ways and must have a stabilizing effect on physiological functions. More specifically, adaptogens have the following unique features and benefits:

  • Adaptogens target the body’s stress response. Adaptogens can stimulate the protective aspects of the natural stress response, and once these protective mechanisms have been activated, the body is better able to tolerate the harmful effects of stressors in general. This explains why adaptogens appear to strengthen the body and enhance performance in a variety of demanding or stressful tasks, from physical endurance to cognitive function.
  • Adaptogens can regulate the endocrine, nervous and immune systems. In chronic stress, the chronically elevated stress hormones weaken the immune system, and the imbalanced activities of the endocrine and nervous systems can harm the organs and tissues they regulate over time. Adaptogens have the ability not only to enhance immune function but also to interact with and adjust nervous and endocrine elements involved in the stress response so that their activities are closer to normal.
  • Adaptogens have a balancing effect on body functions. Unlike most drugs, adaptogens don’t drive physiological processes in one direction only. Rather, each adaptogen is capable of exerting multiple complex effects depending on the body’s current physiological state. That’s why adaptogens are simultaneously energizing and calming, as well as able to promote a healthy balance in body functions like metabolism and mood, under conditions of stress.

Different adaptogenic plants originate from different natural medicine traditions. Examples include Panax ginseng, eleuthero, reishi mushroom, rhodiola, astragalus, goji, Cordyceps and Schisandra of traditional Chinese medicine, holy basil and ashwagandha of Ayurvedic medicine and the Peruvian plant maca. Interested in reaping the benefits of adaptogens? Start by looking into specific adaptogenic plants in more detail, and try the one(s) that seems to be the best fit for your needs. You just might find greater resilience and sense of well-being.

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