Adaptogens are a class of herbal medicine which help the body deal with stress. They are a key part of a naturopathic tool-kit; there is no other modality which provides such a incredible treatment, natural or otherwise. Adaptogens have been used in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines for centuries to promote health, wellbeing and longevity. They help the body adapt to stress, by normalising or regulating the adrenal response, our stress hormones such as cortisol, and reducing the effects that stress has on the body such as inflammation, poor blood sugar control, insulin resistance and much more.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is our main stress pathway. It’s how we produce our stress hormones: adrenaline, cortisol and DHEA. The HPA axis is made up of the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands (in the brain) and the adrenal glands which are two little glands that sit on top of the kidneys in the lower back. Adaptogens exert their effects primarily by modulating the HPA axis.
Adaptogens, and all herbal medicines, have more than just one single action, and they exist on a spectrum. This is the amazing thing about herbal medicine – they have many actions; they wear many hats. This means that a single herb can be used for its adaptogenic properties, but it might also have digestive healing, blood sugar regulating and immune-stimulating properties – like Reishi. Another herb might be classed as an adaptogen, and an immune-stimulant, but also have benefits for the liver, such as Schisandra. You might be under a lot of stress but also be anaemic, so you could use an adaptogen which increases iron levels, such as Ashwagandha. Herbal medicine can be used as a true alchemy, and blending herbs can make a bespoke remedy so individualised to the person suffering with symptoms. It also means you can combat more than one symptom with a single herbal remedy.
Adaptogens are safe, gentle and non-toxic, even with long term use. Some adaptogens will work within a couple of days, but generally they are best taken for a minimum of a few weeks and can be taken for months at a time. Adaptogens are the perfect remedy for 21st century, stress driven illness. They are also an absolute non-negotiable for anybody experiencing chronic fatigue or burnout, due to their ability to rebuild the adrenal glands.
Some of my favourite adaptogens include:
Ashwagandha, also known as Withania or Indian Ginseng. Ashwagandha has gained huge popularity over recent years. However, it’s traditional use dates over 4,000 years in Ayurvedic medicine. As an adaptogen it is soothing, promotes sleep, reduces anxiety, builds iron, improves memory, supports the immune system and reduces inflammation.
Schisandra is another adaptogen which has a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is used to reduce anxiety, increase mental focus, support energy, and protect the liver.
Maca is a traditional medicine and adaptogen from Peru. It is used to support energy, increase libido and reduce anxiety and depression. It has incredible hormone modulating properties, especially regarding testosterone, hence its impact on libido.
Rhodiola is my favourite adaptogen. It supports the immune system, hormonal balance, reduces anxiety and supports energy levels. It reduces inflammation and the frequency of colds and flus. It also has mild anti-depressant activity.
Eleutherococcus, also known as Siberian Ginseng or Eleuthero, is a hugely researched adaptogen which is known to help increase alertness, reduce fatigue, support memory and support immunity.
There are many other adaptogens including all of the Ginsengs (Panax/Korean, Tienchi, American), Licorice, Holy Basil, Gotu Kola, Reishi and the medicinal mushrooms. Always speak to a herbalist or naturopath prior to taking herbal medicines, as you want to be sure you are taking the highest quality product, at the correct dose, for the right amount of time. Many of the products available online and in retail stores are very low dose and poor quality, and as with everything, quality is important for results.
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