Super herbs. Miracle medicinals. Adaptogens. Suddenly, everywhere you turn, there they are. But what are they, exactly?
Despite adaptogens' sudden rise to fame, they are nothing new. In fact, many of the adaptogens you are about to learn about have been in use for hundreds and even thousands of years for precisely the purposes they are being touted for now!
In this article, discover what the word "adaptogen" really means, learn about different types of adaptogens and find out why these super substances are quite likely here to stay.
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What Are Adaptogens?
According to Pharmaceuticals Journal, the term "adaptogens" was first introduced into the medical lexicon in 1957.
The term's inventor, a toxicologist from Russia named Nikolay Lazarev, coined the name to describe a group of substances that could help the human body adapt to different stressors.
According to Lazarev, this theory was influenced by the work of Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye, who broke out the body's stress response into three phases:
Selye called this system GAS, or the General Adaptation Syndrome. Here is just one example of how Lazarev's theory of adaptogens fits in with Selye's theory of GAS.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
Alarm Phase: Fatigue
Let's say it is noon and you are at work. Suddenly, you notice you are feeling so tired. But you are only halfway through your day and you still have so much on your to-do list.
The feeling of fatigue you experience is your body's way of sending up an alarm to say "I may not have enough energy to keep up with this pace."
Resistance Phase: Adaptogen
So you apply the appropriate adaptogen (which we will talk more about in later sections here) to help your body fight back against or resist the feelings of fatigue.
The adaptogen doesn't artificially boost your energy from the outside in. Rather, it marshalls your body's own inner resources to fight off fatigue from the inside out.
Exhaustion Phase: No Adaptogen
Without introduction of the adaptogen during the resistance phase, you would likely move into the exhaustion phase.
It is in this phase when the body may be weakened by a number of factors and may fall prey to viruses, bacterial or fungal infections, exhaustion, cortisol buildup and other factors.
But with the introduction of the adaptogen, you are able to rally and feel re-energized to continue your day in a way that strengthens your body rather than weakens it.
This is just one highly general example of the role of adaptogens as Hans Selye and Nikolay Lazarev's work outlines it.
What Are Adaptogens Good For?
The example in the preceding section here outlines one possible benefit to be gained through use of adaptogens.
But what else can adaptogens be good for?
In the Selye/Lazarev example, the adaptogen was introduced as a way to support the body's own ability to resist fatigue from the inside out - not from the outside in.
An example here would be to find an alternative to traditional "energy boosters" such as sugar-packed energy drinks, caffeine, eating high-carbohydrate foods or other outside-in artificial enhancers.
But caffeine, sugar and junk food gives a lot of people the jitters, as well as delivering issues with blood sugar, weight gain, insomnia and eventual systemic fatigue.
You know you need to boost your body's energy so you can get through your day and make your best effort. So what you need is an adaptogen that is not sugar, not caffeine, not carbs and won't come with jitters or other unpleasant side effects.
Today's modern medicine has termed the use of natural substances like plants and herbs "phyto-therapy," which loosely translates to mean "plant therapy."
In the New York Times, one example that is given is ashwagandha, an adaptogen that is well-known in Ayurvedic medicine. Ashwagandha can boost the body's ability to stay energized without the jitters associated with caffeine.
As this example highlights, different adaptogens have different potential uses and benefits, which we will explore in more detail here shortly.
Are Adaptogens Safe?
One question that frequently arises among those who are new to using adaptogens is: "Are adaptogens safe?" This is a great question.
Adaptogens are generally perfectly safe when they are used according to the manufacturer's dosing recommendations.
But just because an adaptogen is naturally-occurring, whether its original source is a plant, an herb, a mushroom or some other substance, this doesn't necessarily mean it is safe for everyone to use at all times and under all circumstances.
This is especially the case with substances like adaptogens that are relatively new in modern Western medicine circles, because not a lot of research data exists about possible interactions between adaptogens and better-known, more commonly used Western drugs.
For example, some modern medicine staples such as aspirin are actually derived from naturally-occurring substances (aspirin comes from white willow bark). Adaptogens deserve to be taken as seriously as any other better-known health remedy - just like the humble aspirin!
If you are taking any medications to manage a health condition or are already taking other health supplements you don't wish to stop using, it is always wise to talk with your provider before adding any new substance or supplement to your existing daily health regimen.
This is especially the case for children, women who are pregnant and the elderly.
How Can You Use Adaptogens?
So now let's get down to the really interesting details about how you can use adaptogens in your own life to achieve your health and wellness goals, support your body's resistance to toxins and look and feel better.
Add Ashwagandha to Boost Energy & Ease Stress
You just met ashwagandha in an earlier section here, but now let's learn how to use this potent herb to improve your energy levels naturally by easing systemic stress.
Ashwagandha is a root that is sometimes called "Indian Ginseng." In Sanskrit, the definition of "ashwagandha" is "smell of a horse," which thankfully refers more to the root's energy-boosting powers than to its actual scent.
While Ashwagandha can be added to foods, it is most commonly taken in capsule form.
Ashwagandha is contraindicated for women who are pregnant and anyone being treated for thyroid imbalance.
Enjoy Turmeric with Curcumin to Reduce Inflammation
Turmeric is a spice that contains minute amounts of the active ingredient curcumin.
Curcumin is actually the true adaptogen, and it needs to be taken together with black pepper to help the body absorb it fully.
Black pepper contains the active ingredient piperine, which can increase absorption of curcumin by up to 2,000 percent.
What is so amazing about curcumin is that it is able to reduce systemic inflammation as well as some modern medications.
Curcumin is best taken in supplement form along with piperin, since it would be challenging to consume sufficient quantities of turmeric and black pepper to get a beneficial amount of either active ingredient.
Ease Depression with Holy Basil
Also called Tulsi, Holy Basil is fairly well known as an antidote to depression. Like Ashwagandha, Tulsi is also well-known in Ayurvedic medicine circles and is just now becoming more well-known in modern Western medicine.
Holy Basil has anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and immune system-enhancing properties that can help the body detoxify against systemic stress.
A review of available literature published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that Holy Basil can be effective in managing stress-based anxiety and depression that arise from chronic disease such as diabetes.
Along with capsules, Tulsi tea is one of the more popular ways to take Holy Basil.
Take Licorice Root to Improve Digestion
Licorice root, which is sometimes also called sweet root, is best-known outside of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a sweetener and a flavor agent.
Interestingly, in areas where licorice grows naturally, such as Europe and Asia, the plant is widely regarded as a weed. However, its use as a medicinal aid dates back to the time of the ancient Egyptians, who were particularly fond of licorice tea.
Today, licorice root is known for its ability to ease digestive upset, alleviate heartburn and even suppress toxic gut bacteria.
In western medicine, licorice root is often marketed under the name DGL (a form of licorice with the active agent glycyrrhizic acid removed). DGL is considered the safest form of this adaptogen since overdose of glycyrrhizic acid can cause side effects.
Licorice root or DGL can be taken as a tea, tincture (liquid extract), powder or in capsule form.
Improve Immune System Response with Siberian Ginseng
Siberian Ginseng, also known as Eleutherococcus senticosus, isn't really in the ginseng family at all.
The active ingredients, Eleutherosides and polysaccharides, can stimulate the response of the body's immune system to combat a variety of issues, most prominently the flu and the common cold.
Siberian ginseng is also said to be effective at combatting herpes simplex virus.
Siberian ginseng is a Russian shrub. The root is the part used to make supplements, including tea, tincture (liquid or solid extract), powder, capsule and tablet forms.
Siberian ginseng should not be given to children. This adaptogen has several known interactions with Western medicine drugs and should not be taken without first consulting with your health provider.
Combat Physical and Mental Fatigue with Astralagus Root
Astralagus root is well known in TCM circles but not so much in modern Western medicine. Because there are over 2,000 known varietals of astralagus root, it is vital to choose a supplements manufacturer that is reputable and trustworthy.
Astralagus root has been shown to reduce cortisol (aka the stress hormone) levels in the bloodstream and consequently ease stress-related systemic inflammation.
Astralagus is a popular choice among athletes for its ability to increase resistance to physical stress.
The most common ways to take astralagus are as a tea, in a powder, as capsules or tablets or as a flavor agent in soup.
Increase Sleep Quality with Rhodiola
Rhodiola, or golden root, has been the subject of numerous research studies with both animal and human participants.
Unlike some of the adaptogens you have met here, Rhodiola has few known interactions with other medications and also has its own antioxidant properties that protect the body from toxins and chronic stress.
One of Rhodiola's more exciting benefits is its ability to ease insomnia and sleep disturbances.
There are many more adaptogens in addition to the ones you just learned about here. But you don't have to start using them all right away!
Rather, scan through the list and simply try the one that you feel most interested in. By taking one step at a time, you can find the adaptogen that works best for your wellness needs.
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Shannon is a freelance writer and author of three books. Shannon is passionate about crafting knowledge-based, science-supported articles that provide readers with practical, actionable tools to make healthy life choices.