What are they?
Adaptogens are a wide variety of plants that can have a number of beneficial effects on the body. The term originates from herbalists who used it to describe plants that support the body, as an adrenal and nervous system tonic, and that help us deal with times of mental, physical and emotional stress. Other names for adaptogens are: rejuvenating herbs, Qi tonics (traditional Chinese medicine), rasayanas (Ayurvedic medicine), or restoratives.
Some non-herbal nutrients are also loosely referred to as "adaptogens" for their similar and complementary effects. Some examples are vitamin B5, and adrenal glandular extracts.
In addition to helping us cope with stress, adaptogens also help to regulate and protect the immune system, by boosting lowered immune resistance and reducing excessive or inappropriate immune responses such as those that occur in autoimmune disease. Certain adaptogens can also function to regulate hormone levels, and can be used to help treat conditions such as PMS, low libido, and sexual dysfunction. Most commonly, adaptogens are used to boost energy levels and help maintain mental and physical stamina in times of increased stress. For more information on adrenal support, please see our adrenal gland support article.
Adaptogens and the Adrenal Glands
By definition all adaptogens affect the adrenal glands, which are small pyramid-shaped glands located on top of each of our kidneys. They are responsible for producing a number of different hormones in the body. The inner core of the adrenal gland is called the medulla, and is responsible for producing epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline and noradrenaline) which are the hormones responsible for our response to immediate stressors, and result in our "fight, flight or freeze" responses. The outer layer, called the cortex, has three different sub-layers that release steroid hormones such as: aldosterone, cortisol and sex hormones. The hormone cortisol is responsible for our body's ability to adapt to chronic stressors, which are those stressors that continue past the effects of the immediate (adrenaline) stress response. Although in our evolutionary history it was likely more important to have the immediate adrenaline response to protect us during brief attacks by animals or other humans, it is chronic stress that is prevalent in most of our lives today. After prolonged chronic stress, our adrenal glands' ability to sustain the release of cortisol may diminish. At the same time, this drain on resources can also affect the gland's ability to produce its other steroid hormones, such as aldosterone, which regulates blood pressure, and sex hormones. The sex hormones produced by the adrenal glands are those that complement the hormones released by our gonads (ovaries or testes). When adrenal sex hormone synthesis is affected, a wide variety of symptoms can occur, ranging from impotence and disinterest in sex, through to PMS, acne, and fertility issues (amongst many others). Adaptogens can help to nourish the adrenal glands and to provide cofactors and precursors necessary to continue the release of these hormones.
Hormonal Effects (Stress and Sex)
In addition to supporting the adrenal gland in the endogenous synthesis of hormones, many adaptogenic herbs contain active constituents that resemble hormones present in the human body. Some constituents resemble cortisol, the major long-term stress hormone in our body, allowing them to support our own depleted responses to long-term stress. Other constituents resemble sex hormones, and can help to balance the effects of hormonal dysregulation. Non-herbal adaptogens may contain components like these, or may simply act as a cofactor in important chemical reactions in the body.
Energy Boosting Effects
Adaptogens improve energy by regulating the cellular activities that produce and utilize energy molecules in our bodies. They help to improve liver detoxification pathways, thus allowing us to handle a higher load of toxic insult, and also support the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands release a number of different hormones that affect our energy levels, attention span, and our ability to cope with stress. Helping to regulate the function of the adrenal gland can help to normalize (often by increasing) energy levels without having the extreme swings in energy that occur with the use of caffeine or other stimulants. This also avoids the anxiety and shakiness that can occur with overuse of many commonly used stimulants.
The powerful antioxidant capabilities possessed by many adaptogens help to protect the body against free radical damage. Free radicals are unstable molecules with an unpaired electron that are extremely reactive and damage surrounding cell membranes, fats, and fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients. We encounter free radicals through environmental exposures, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and ultraviolet radiation from the sun (UV rays). In this way, adaptogens increase our resistance to, and protect our bodies against, a large number of physical stressors.
Adaptogens also strengthen the immune system, and protect it against stress-related depletion. Research has shown that this isn't a mindless boosting of the immune system, but rather a modulation effect. If current immunity is low, adaptogens will help to boost the immune response and will be beneficial in preventing infection and illness. On the other hand, if immunity is currently excessively active, as in the case of autoimmune disease, adaptogens can help to reduce the immune response and regulate it to aim at appropriate targets.
Yin and Yang
Traditional Chinese Medicine acknowledges that there is a delicate balance in the entire universe and everything in it between two forces known as yin and yang. Yin represents females, rest and regeneration while yang represents males, action and energy. The same universal balance exists within each of our bodies that can be disturbed by excess or deficiency on either side (yin or yang), resulting in illness. Each herb can be classified as yin or yang by its properties and actions. It is generally considered beneficial to complement your current nature or the nature of your condition or illness with a medicine that contains the opposite properties, thus restoring balance to the system. Although yang is generally associated with males and yin with females, characteristics of each can be found within both sexes. This is best represented by the popular yin-yang symbol where yin (black) and yang (white) swirl around each other, and yet each contains a piece (small circle) of the other. Yang type people and are warm-blooded, they rarely feel cold and often overheat. They are active (fidgety), thin and wiry. Yin type people are cooler, and tend to feel chilly. They are more calm and even-tempered and tend to be larger, thicker-built people. Illnesses can also be classified as yin or yang depending on their symptoms. For more information see: "Herbal Properties in Illness" below.
Cooling vs. Warming
Another means of viewing the properties of herbs is traditional to most societies on Earth with roots in Indian, Chinese, American (North and South), and European cultures. This categorizes the herbs on a sliding scale between cooling and warming. Some obvious examples familiar to most are mint as a cooling herb and cayenne pepper as warming. This is important information for treatment, based on the inherent nature of the condition for which each particular herb is being used. For example, warming herbs are better used for cold, stagnant conditions such as a head cold with stuffiness and chills. On the other hand, cooling herbs are better used for hot conditions such as excessive fevers, and anxiety. The requirement for heating or cooling may also be determined by the seasons for those in climates where the weather changes with the seasons. Warming herbs are better used in the winter, and cooling herbs in the summer.
Herbal Properties in Illness
There are large differences between the natures of each of the adaptogenic herbs. Some are stimulatory and some are nourishing, some are warming and some are cooling, and some are yin and some yang. Although in general the concepts of yin, cooling, and nourishing go together and yang, warming and stimulatory also correspond, the particular nature of each herb can actually vary and result in very different treatment profiles. This fact is important to keep in mind when selecting the herb you wish to use. The same principles of yin/yang or hot/cold apply to illnesses as to the herbs. Yang/hot illness tends to include heat, redness, and eruptions such as rashes and sores. Yin/cold illness tends to show chilliness, pale skin, swelling, and slowing of bodily functions. Using an herb with properties that are directly opposite those of the illness can further speed recovery. The underlying nature of the person being treated and the season of treatment all come under consideration when an appropriate herbal selection is made. Although simple conditions can be treated with a basic knowledge of the herbs, it is generally a good idea to consult with an experienced physician or herbalist before attempting to treat more extensive conditions, particularly with patients depleted by chronic or more severe diseases.
Examples of Adaptogens
The following is a list of some examples of popular adaptogens, although this is not an exhaustive list. You can click on any of the highlighted names below for more information on each particular herb.
• Adrenal glandular extract
• Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
• Chinese ginseng
• North American ginseng
• Korean ginseng
• Brazilian ginseng (Suma)
• Siberian ginseng (Eleuthero)
• Indian ginseng (Ashwagandha)
• Peruvian ginseng (Maca)
How can I take adaptogens?
Each adaptogen is often supplemented in powder or capsule form and they can often be found in combination formulas for immune support, energy boosting, athletic performance, antioxidants and hormonal regulation. Dosing of each herb can be found by clicking on the links above.
Adaptogens can have various hormonal effects and use should be cautioned in those with hormone sensitive conditions and cancers. Some adaptogens can only be taken for certain lengths of time in order to avoid exhaustion. Many adaptogens have not been sufficiently studied for their use in pregnancy or lactation. Please see specific pages for details by clicking the links above