This is the first article of a two-part series on adaptogens. Here we explain what these potent, functional herbs and fungi are and how they support our well-being. In Part 2, we’ll review different types of adaptogens and their specific effects on our physiological systems.
If you scroll through health-focused social feeds, chances are you’ll come across a mention of adaptogens. Whether it’s brands selling powders, or consumers adding those powders to lattes and smoothies, you might be thinking “adapto-what?”
While this might feel like the newest health fad, the practice of utilizing plants for their restorative and healing properties has been around for thousands of years. Many of the plants and fungi that we know as adaptogens today were first used generations ago in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda (a traditional system of medicine with roots in India).
In this two-part series, we’ll unpack what adaptogenic herbs are and the health benefits of some of the most popular adaptogenic herbal supplements. We’ll also learn how you can incorporate them into your routine to support everything from a healthy stress response to healthy endocrine function (and about a million other things in between).
(Photo by Andrew Ridley)
So why all the hype about adaptogens now?
There are a few good reasons for that. While many adaptogens have been staples of Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for millennia, Western researchers only began studying these natural substances in the 1940s. (It was at this time that Russian researchers gave them the name “adaptogens” due to their effectiveness in helping the human body “adapt” to changes in its environment.) As the body of science builds and the word on their benefits spreads, so does the rate of commercial production and use of adaptogens.
Tied to the availability of adaptogens is our state of health. As a society, we're more stressed than ever before, and chronic stress can wreak havoc on both mental and physical health. In fact, long-term stress has been found to contribute to numerous health problems, including cognitive impairment, depression, anxiety, inflammation, digestive problems, weight gain, compromised immunity and heart disease. It’s estimated that up to 90% of visits to physicians are for stress-related complaints.
Stress and increasing rates of diseases are very bad news. And there's definitely no magic bullet to fix the problem, especially when so many of our stressors and health conditions are caused by the challenges of our demanding lives, environmental toxins and nutritional deficiencies tied to our food supply.
However, one piece of good news in this complex puzzle is that along with important lifestyle changes, adaptogens provide a safe, healthy and effective way to help the body manage stress and achieve overall balance, also known as homeostasis.
So what exactly are Adaptogens? What are their benefits?
Adaptogens are a category of non-toxic plants and fungi that:
- help the body adapt to the effects of physical, mental and emotional stress
- support normal metabolic + physiologic function
- help restore balance of the hormonal, nervous + immune systems
Some of the most impressive effects of adaptogens are their ability to “meet” the body where it is and help restore equilibrium. In other words, these herbs have the uncanny ability to adjust specifically to your body’s needs at a specific time. Regardless of whether your body is overworking or under-working, adaptogens “adapt” their action and help restore normal, balanced functioning.
Some of the most powerful and extensively studied adaptogens include herbs such as:
- Ashwagandha (aka Withania somnifera)
- Reishi mushroom
- Rhodiola (aka Rhodiola rosea)
- Holy Basil (aka Tulsi)
- American ginseng
- Asian ginseng (aka Panax ginseng)
- Siberian ginseng (aka Eleutherococcus senticosus or eleuthero)
We’ll talk more about these individual adaptogens in Part 2 of this exploration of adaptogens, but for now, let’s talk about how adaptogens work in a general sense.
Black and red reishi mushroom
Determining whether an herb is also an adaptogen requires some box-checking. In order for a substance to be considered an adaptogen, it must also be:
- non-toxic and safe
- non-habit-forming, even when taken over a long period of time
- helpful for a variety of systems in the body, working to strengthen the functioning of the body as a whole (a substance that focuses only on lowering blood pressure, for example, would not be an adaptogen)
How do adaptogens work?
Think of adaptogens as acting like a thermostat. Thermostats sense when the temperature has dropped too low or risen too high, and then kick in to bring the temperature back into balance. Adaptogens are much the same. Not only do they help the body “adapt” to stress — they’re also “adaptable,” sensing what the body needs at any given time, and adjusting their action as required to support wellbeing and restore overall balance in the body.
Fun Fact: In herbal medicine it is explained that the healing properties of natural substances are often reflected in their biological composition and properties. So is the case with adaptogens: these plants and fungi that manage to survive in harsh environments due to their unique, resilient composition, are similarly able to help the body defend itself against the harsh effects of stress.
(Photo by Andrew Ridley)
How exactly do adaptogens help fight stress and contribute to wellbeing?
The physiology of stress is quite complex. But to put it simply: when your body is stressed, your brain signals to your adrenal glands to produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol (aka the stress hormone), which activate the fight-or-flight response.. In small doses, this process is normal and beneficial. These hormones allow us to flee danger, focus and perform under pressure, and even strengthen brain health.
However, chronic cortisol production does not only drain and weaken the adrenals. It also suppresses the immune, digestive and reproductive systems, curbs growth processes and alters brain function. In fact, overexposure to stress hormones can disrupt almost all bodily processes and contribute to a slew of health conditions.
In come adaptogens with their hormone balancing quality: they can help the body defend itself against the damage caused by stress by regulating the release of stress hormones and protecting your adrenal glands.
This helps support your nervous system by enhancing your body’s ability to respond to stress, giving you more effective stress relief.
So adaptogens are like a quick fix?
Absolutely not — they're not a "one and done" deal.
Think of their effect on the body like exercise: one workout a week won't make you fit, and you lose strength when you stop exercising. Similarly, adaptogens require consistent and continuous use, as their benefit builds in the body over time, and this benefit doesn't have a "memory function" that lasts long after you stop using them.
Daily use of adaptogens is necessary to maintain the body's adaptive state.
It’s also crucial to remember that adaptogens (and healing plants in general) should not be used to push the body into dangerous territory. These healing substances support specific needs and overall long-term health. But they can’t replace — and should be part of — a holistic approach to health and wellness that includes diet, sleep, nurturing relationships and relaxation techniques.
How Can You Get the Most Benefit From Adaptogens?
Adaptogens generally work best when they’re part of a holistic lifestyle practice. That means that while taking adaptogens can help with stress, you’ll also need to adapt your lifestyle. This way, you can get the most benefit from supplementing with adaptogens.
Some lifestyle changes you can implement include:
- Get plenty of exercise (but not too much). Exercise helps our bodies thrive and also helps us mitigate high stress levels. However, overdoing it without giving the body a chance to recover can place a burden on the body that is unhealthy.
- Add in antioxidants. While most adaptogens have antioxidant properties, supplementing with more foods that are rich in antioxidants (like fruits and vegetables) can round out your wellness.
Antioxidants protect your cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals, which are often the result of stress. We’ll cover more on this in Part 2 of our adaptogen deep dive.
- Eat for your health. Life is busy, and a lack of time to prepare nourishing meals is often reflected in nutrient-deficient diets. But, highly processed foods are stressful on the body. That’s one of the reasons we created JOYÀ products. They easily fit into your busy lifestyle and make supporting your health accessible.
- Sleep well. Your body needs adequate sleep to thrive, as this is when our body and brain recover and regenerate. During sleep, our body heals tired muscles, strengthens the immune system, regulates hormones and reduces inflammation, and our brain recharges and clears unwanted information and toxins that accumulate while awake.
Suffering from sleeplessness can be more than exhausting — it can have profound effects on your mental performance and your ability to respond healthfully to stressful situations. Adaptogens can help, and we’ll cover which ones to turn to in Part 2.
Remember that consistency is key with adaptogens. These natural helpers aren’t directly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that there’s no generally recommended amount you should take. Use an expertly formulated supplement (JOYÀ Superblends are crafted with synergistic herbs and adaptogens using researched doses), start slow and listen to your body as you find the routine that works best for you.
Taking care of your emotional and physical health can be hard. Even the most health-savvy among us often struggle to regulate our work/life balance. In Part 2, we’ll cover which adaptogens help us fill in the gaps and get our bodies back into balance.
Ruth Elnekave is a Toronto-based chef, holistic nutritionist, culinary instructor, recovering corporate lawyer and founder of JOYÀ. Her projects are fuelled by one main goal: to spread the pure joy and wellbeing experienced when sharing and savouring delicious, real food.