Updated: Jan 17
What is an Adaptogen?
Adaptogens are natural substances that can adapt to the genetic structure of a living organism, assisting in balancing and regulating the necessary hormones and most notably, the ability to deal with stress within the body. In short, they have the ability to work with the individuals body and help to restore its natural balance. They have a huge impact on the endocrine system which controls the release of hormones via the adrenal glands and digestion. Imbalanced hormone levels contribute to a number of modern day symptoms including insomnia, weight gain, sexual disfunction, chronic fatigue and mental conditions such as depression and anxiety. Many people believe that hormones are only vital in our sexual behaviours but in fact they are essential for mood, appetite, sleep, energy and motivation too.
Hormone levels play a huge role in our overall health and these issues are not addressed properly by western health care, where often pharmaceutical drugs will be given which in turn will cause more problems in the long term, and often causing further imbalances. Of course adaptogens do not have the ability to erase stressful situations from our daily lives, but they will help our bodies to handle these stresses (both mental and physical) easier.
The term 'adaptogen' was first coined by a Russian toxicologist named Nikolay Lazarev in 1957. He used the term to describe, "substances that increase the state of non-specific resistance" to stress.
Adaptogens can be found in many roots and herbs from all over the world and have many potential health benefits. The uses of adaptogens have been used for thousands of years in ancient medicinal cultures including Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). Many of the herbs and roots used in these ancient practices are still used to treat illnesses, discomforts and disease to this day, and their healing properties and therapeutic uses are now being discovered by the west (although not used in western allopathic medicine). Several adaptogens are now household names in the western world and their popularity is growing steadily. Tulsi (holy basil), turmeric, ashwagandha, ginseng and many types of medicinal mushrooms including chaga, lion's mane and reishi are all adaptogens.
Many of these plants are crushed and made into powders which can be digested in several different ways. For example, they can be drank in a tea or tincture, taken in a capsule or added to a smoothie. Some may be added to food as seasoning (such as turmeric and ginger) but others would be too bitter to add to food so would be best ingested another way. Many adaptogens are now available in supplement form which is the most common way to take them.
Adaptogens can perform many positive functions and therapeutic effects such as triggering the production of hormones, allowing for better sleep, giving an energy boost or increasing sex drive, but they can also alter the body’s response to various stresses. Stresses are not limited to emotional, but also for internal physical stress caused by consumption of toxins, injury or illness. These qualities help to maintain optimal bodily function, from cognitive to digestive and everything in between. The magic of an adaptogen is that it will treat every person differently, adapting to the requirements of the DNA structure and rebuilding as necessary.
Lion's Mane Mushroom
So what counts as an adaptogen?
To be classed as an adaptogen, a herb must be non-toxic to the physiological functions of the body, offering support and equilibrium. It must include the "Four N's":
- Nourishing - supply body with nutrients
- Normalising - restore balance within the body
- Non-Specific - ability to act on multiple areas simultaneously
- Non-Toxic - safe to take for extended periods of time without side effects
There are hundreds of different types of adaptogens and where as they all offer these qualities, they do all also have their own unique benefits too. Some can improve stamina, some can improve cognitive function, some may help with enhancing mood and some may help to stimulate digestion.
Many people take adaptogens daily, however they can take a little while to work their healing qualities. As each body has different requirements, the plants will need some time to figure out the job they need to do, but once they know, they will waste no time in getting to work. When starting a course of your adaptogen(s) of choice, be conscious that they may be slow to unleash their powers, be patient and in turn your body will start to heal itself from the inside out as you will start to feel balanced and comfort again.
Adaptogens can be categorised as a 'BRM' (biological response modifier) and the health benefits can be extremely positive. As the body depletes itself of internal stresses and balance is restored, the adaptogenic plants help to revitalise, rejuvenate and replenish.
Health Benefits of Adaptogens may include:
- Increased Energy
- Enhanced Mood
- Reduced Stress Response
- Improved Cognitive Function
- Improved Organ Function
- Increased Sex Drive
- Regulation of Hormones
- Improved Sleep
- Regulation of Protein Synthesis
- Decreased Cholesterol
- Reduced Inflammation
- Improved Immunity
Our Top 10 Adaptogens:
Unlike other adaptogens, Shilajit contains very high levels of fulvic acid. Fulvic acid is one of the most nutritional substances on the planet and can fully penetrate cell walls making sure that every bit of nutritional value can be transferred into the body with ease. Proteins, amino acids, vitamins and minerals can essentially piggy back on the fulvic acid molecules allowing for the maximum transfer of energy and nutrients.
Ashwagandha is a very popular herb used in traditional Ayurvedic practice. It is used as a vata (dosha) and sattva (guna) balancer, as it has a calming and therapeutic nature. It is used to reduce nervous tension and encourage a healthy sleep pattern as well as having anti-ageing properties and to revitalise the organs.
3. Reishi Mushroom
In ancient China, legend has it that the Reishi mushroom had the potential to significantly raise cognitive function and longevity. It is said that the royalty would hide the mushroom from the public to keep them in a lowered state of awareness. Studies show that reishi does have the ability to stimulate cognitive function and neurological nerve growth. It can improve memory, supports longevity and replenish the immune system.
4. Maca Root
Maca root is native to the Andes, in particular Peru, where it is used as a libido enhancer. It is a cruciferous vegetable which means it is related to broccoli and cabbage and kale. The health benefits of maca root are often related to improving fertility. Natives use it as an aphrodisiac for both men and women, reduce symptoms of menopause in women and raise sperm count in males.
Ginseng is a slow growing root that can be found in many parts of the world including China, Siberia and America. Depending on its location, ginseng can be either red or white when harvested. Both have varying effects on the body, the Asian Ginseng is thought to be more invigorating in comparison to the American which can be a relaxant. Health benefits can include anti-inflammation, expulsion of toxins and increased stamina. Ginseng has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine.
6. Astragalus Root
Astragalus root is native to China where it is known as 'Huang Qi'. There are thousands of species of astragalus and it grows all year round making it a very useful and available adaptogen. Traditionally astragalus has been used as an anti-viral, stress reliever and a mild diuretic as well as boosting energy and the immune system.
7. Tongkat Ali (Longjack)
One of the lesser known adaptogens, Tongkat Ali or 'Longjack', is a plant native to South east Asia, in particularly the rainforests in Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. Holistic uses of Tongkat Ali have been documented as far back as 1700s. Tongkat has a local reputation for being a sexual enhancer, often referred to as 'nature's viagra', as it has been proven to significantly improve sexual function and fertility for both men and women. But the benefits are not limited to the bedroom, Longjack can also encourage muscle growth, boost energy and efficiently regulate hormones in both males and females.
8. Chaga Mushroom
Chaga is a mushroom that thrives in birch forests across Northern Europe, Russia and North America. Its appearance is unappealing but this adaptogen contains some of the most potent antioxidant properties known to man. Traditionally it is brewed in a tea and is known to remove free radicals and toxins, treat diabetes, heart disease and even kill certain types of cancer cells. Studies show that the use of chaga can reduce cancerous tumours by 60% and play a big part in prevention of disease.
9. Acai Berry
Native to the Brazilian Amazon, the 'superfruit' acai berry (although technically not a berry as it contains a pit) is a staple in the Brazilian diet. It has a deep purple complexion and grows from palm trees. Acai can be consumed in a multitude of ways including fresh, dried, powdered extract or the most popular way locally is frozen. Acai is jam packed with nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants, improving immune health, digestion and heart health among many others.
Turmeric is now a household name in the west, but this root can do a lot more than spice things up the kitchen. Turmeric belongs to the ginger family and is native to the Indian subcontinent. Bright orange in appearance, the turmeric root has been used across Asia to treat many health issues, as it has a capability to reduce swelling and inflammation, detoxify and improve skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.