In the areas of natural healing, adaptogenic herbs are growing in popularity. For those that are new to herbal remedies, you may have some questions about their effectiveness, safety, and usage. In this article, we will dive into just what adaptogenic herbs are, how they work, and some of the most frequently asked questions about adaptogenic herbs.
Adaptogenic herbs are a collection of plants and their actions that specifically assist the body in coping with stress more healthily. Also known as adaptogens, adaptogenic herbs work to support the body's ability to accommodate physical and emotional stress, which is common in the world we live in today (1). The stress we experience can cause physical changes in the body and result in negative effects on your neurological, endocrine, and immune systems (2). These herbs were first studied during World War II. They were used to help pilots with exhaustion and stress by providing numerous benefits to our body's stress response system. The Soviet Union discovered using these herbs reduced thirst, hunger, exhaustion, and even improved night vision. (3)
These herbs are also widely used in Ayurvedic medicine, which stems from India more than 3,000 years ago. Ayurveda is one of the world's oldest holistic healing systems which believes the balance between the mind, body, and spirit determines a person's health and wellness (13). Herbal medicine (and specifically adaptogens) play a big role in this practice.
Adaptogenic herbs work at a molecular level. They help regulate the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands which are all involved with our natural stress response system. When we are experiencing a situation that puts stress on our body such as working out, traumatic events, even daily life stressors like paying bills and meeting deadlines at work, our stress systems kick into gear. This is when our adrenal, hypothalamus, and pituitary gland secrete hormones like adrenaline and cortisol as a reaction to the stress. The effects of stress will cause an increased heart rate, muscle tension, and quickened breath. Once our body reacts to the stress hormones, it goes into a state of fatigue(2). Now, adaptogenic herbs go to work during the initial part of our natural stress reaction. Adaptogens will relieve stress by modulating the release of stress hormones, that I previously mentioned are released from the adrenal gland. By doing this, the adaptogenic herbs help restore, and balance the stress hormones and help our body respond better to different stressors. These herbs will cause an energetic, clear-minded effect to resist the response of our stress hormones and push back the state of fatigue that occurs. This results in a healthier, happier, stress response and improves overall well-being. According to studies, these are the overall health benefits of adaptogenic herbs:
Adaptogenic herbs take time to build up in the body. It is said to take them for 2 to 3 weeks to start feeling the effects.
Yes, adaptogenic herbs are safe. There is little evidence to suggest otherwise. It is also important to note that if you are taking prescribed medication, herbal supplements such as these can sometimes interact negatively (4). You should speak to your healthcare provider if you are taking other medications, or have allergies before taking adaptogenic herbs.
Studies have shown that adaptogenic herbs can help with ailments affecting our central, endocrine, and immune system such as (3):
Side effects of adaptogenic herbs are uncommon according to evidence, however it can happen. Just like any plant, an allergic reaction is possible, as well as gastrointestinal distress.
Adaptogens are best if used by adults. These herbs affect the endocrine system and children’s endocrine system is still developing until adulthood. If you are pregnant or taking prescription medications it is important to consult your doctor before taking adaptogenic herbs.
Ashwagandha is one of the most widely known adaptogenic herbs. It has been around for thousands of years and can help with numerous areas of your health such as:
Holy basil, also known as Tulsi, is a native plant from Southeast Asia that has been used for centuries to treat multiple health conditions. The leaves and seeds of this plant can both be used to heal and treat ailments of the body and mind. Along with the therapeutic value holy basil has, it is also consumed for its nutritional value. This plant contains vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, Zinc, Iron, and chlorophyll. One of the most important benefits of holy basil is its adaptogenic ability to reduce stress and anxiety. This plant assists the body naturally to help mental health and shows pharmacological properties to balance and handle physical and emotional stress (6). Studies have shown that holy basil leaves have anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties that are comparable to commonly prescribed drugs used today. You can add this plant to your diet by making tea using the leaves, or adding it to stir-frys and soups. This herb has a spicy property to it, so if the taste is not of your liking you can take it in supplement form.
This root is derived from the Andes mountains and is best known for its sweet flavor. Maca has been used for both therapeutic and culinary purposes for thousands of years. The range of benefits the maca root provide are as follows:
Ginseng, also known as eleutherococcus, is an adaptogenic herb that supports a positive stress response and increases energy levels (1). Ginseng also works to boost the immune system. According to a study done, patients who were suffering from stomach cancer and post-surgery chemotherapy consumed ginseng for 2 years, showed significant immune function, and a decrease in reoccurring symptoms (8). Along with these benefits, ginseng is an adaptogenic herb that is very easy to incorporate into your diet. It can be eaten raw or lightly steamed. It can be made into a tea, added to many recipes like soups and stir-fries, or taken in supplement form.
Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb that comes from the mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. This herb has been used in Russia and Scandinavian countries for centuries and is known for its ability to treat anxiety and fatigue. According to a study done, many people dealing with life and work-related stress consumed Rhodiola Rosea for four weeks and found significant improvements with their stress levels and anxiety in just two weeks (9). Rhodiola Rosea also contains properties that combat physical and mental tiredness by alleviating the symptoms of fatigue. This results in improved mood and mental performance during stressful, and tiring days. Consuming this herb is most popular in supplement form, however can be made into tea as well.
Schisandra has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to provide benefits to our heart, lungs, liver, brain, and kidney health. Schisandra is best known for its range of flavor as it is a fruit-bearing vine and is said to hold sweet, salty, bitter, or sour properties. One of Schisandra’s important benefits is its ability to improve liver health. Studies have shown that pollen extracted from this herb is a strong antioxidant that fights against damage to the liver, and also works as an anti-inflammatory against nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of Schisandra also decrease the risk of Alzheimer's disease, depression, and kidney disease. This herb is mostly taken in powder and supplement form, but can also be taken as dried berries or juice.
Licorice root has been used traditionally to treat various conditions that stem back to ancient Assyrian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. One well-known benefit of this root is its ability to alleviate digestive problems and symptoms that can occur from food poisoning and heartburn. It does this by speeding up the repair of the stomach lining with its anti-inflammatory properties (10). As mentioned before, the adrenal gland is part of our natural stress response system and produces our stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Licorice root has an adaptogenic effect by giving the adrenal gland relief and promoting healthy levels of cortisol released in the body, therefore causing a healthier, less stressful response (11).
Astragalus is another herb that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. One of the major benefits of astragalus is its ability to boost your immune system. Some evidence shows that this herb can increase the production of white blood cells, which are the cells in our immune system that help fight illness and disease (14). Astragalus is also used to improve symptoms of physical, and mental fatigue. This herb can be consumed through supplements, powders, and tea.
Cordyceps Sinensis has been used as a medicine in old Chinese medical books and is extracted from the mushroom. According to studies, this herb provides multiple benefits to our physical, and emotional health such as (12):
To add Cordyceps Sinensis to your diet, it can be taken in extracted powder form, capsules, or added to any dish you enjoy mushroom in.
Adaptogenic herbs can provide various benefits to our mental and emotional health, immunity, blood sugar, hormones, and disease-fighting abilities. These herbs are safe, convenient, and can be added to smoothies, your favorite dishes, or taken in a supplement form to incorporate into your daily routine. Hopefully, this article sheds some light on the commonly asked questions about adaptogenic herbs. If you are pregnant or taking other prescribed medications it is important to consult your doctor before taking these adaptogenic herbs.