Guide to Adaptogens and Adaptogenic Herbs

Guide to Adaptogens and Adaptogenic Herbs
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Table of Contents

Adaptogens are a class of plants and mushrooms believed to promote homeostasis and stabilize physiological processes. The Soviet Union created the term “adaptogen” in 1947. However, Ayurvedic and ancient Chinese medicine already used many of the plants to help with an individual’s overall well-being. Essentially, adaptogenic herbs supposedly extend the adaptation phase of stress. This is a positive phase during which the body is highly resistant to any noxious agents. Most people relate to this phase when they are extremely busy and do not get sick until their schedule begins to calm down. Then they almost immediately feel the symptoms of an illness.

What are Adaptogens?

Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, a Soviet scientist, first coined the term “adaptogen” in 1947 under grants from the military. The grants provided funding for him to research substances that would produce a state of nonspecific resistance or SNIR. They were hoping a substance that produced this state of nonspecific resistance would enhance the productivity and performance of soldiers, athletes, and workers at a lower cost than stimulants. This research led them to adopt the term “adaptogensis” which describes any remedy that increases an organism’s resistance to biological stress.

In 1969 Brekhman and Dardymob further defined adaptogenic substances based on three pharmacological properties. The first property requires the substance to be relatively non-toxic to the recipient allowing for safe consumption and use. An adaptogen must also have “non-specific” activity meaning the substance must increase an organism’s resistance to a wide range of adverse biological, chemical, and physical factors. Finally, the substance must help regulate and normalize an organism’s organ and system function.

Currently, scientists believe an adaptogen produces these pharmacological effects through the way they affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and peripheral nervous system.

Adaptogenic Herbs List

Common adaptogenic herbs include:

  • Panax ginseng, also referred to as Korean or Asian ginseng
  • Panax cinquefoils
  • Rhodiola rosea, also referred to as arctic root or golden root
  • Astragalus membrananceus and Astragalus mongholicus, also referred to as huang qi
  • Withania somnifera, commonly referred to as Ashwagandha
  • Glycyrrhiza glabra root, commonly referred to as Licorice root
  • Schisandra chinensis and other species within the Schisandra genus
  • Silybum marianum, also referred to as milk thistle
  • Uncaria tomentosa, commonly referred to as Cat’s claw
  • Centella asiatica, commonly referred to as Gotu kola
  • Camellia sinensis, commonly used to make green tea

Adaptogenic Mushrooms list

Common adaptogenic mushrooms include:

  • Grifola frondosa, commonly referred to as Maitake mushroom
  • Ganoderma lucidum, commonly referred to as lingzhi or reishi mushroom
  • All species within the Cordyceps genus, militaris being the most common species

Common Ways of Using Adaptogens

Adaptogenic Tea

Green tea made from Camellia sinensis is the most popular adaptogenic tea. But one could make teas from any of the other adaptogenic herbs, whether it’s the root or actual leaves that have the adaptogenic properties. To make a tea from cordyceps, for example, bring water to a boil, stir in the mushroom, then strain out the mushroom while pouring the water into a cup. This is an effective method of consuming adaptogens, particularly for individuals who do not enjoy the taste of mushrooms.

Maitake, linzhi, and reishi mushrooms are commonly sold as a tincture. A tincture is an extracted form of the mushroom using various alcohols that are then boiled off. This leaves just the chemicals that produce the adaptogenic effect. It makes for an easy method of consumption by simply placing a couple of drops under your tongue or in any beverage.

Adaptogen Coffee

Some users started mixing adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms into their morning coffee. These users find mixing adaptogens with their coffee reduces the anxiety and jitteriness of caffeine while still providing a boost in energy levels. The most common adaptogens mixed with coffee are ashwagandha and cordyceps as it effectively masks the bitter taste of these mushrooms. This trend has become so popular that some companies have begun selling pre-mixed powder containing coffee and ashwagandha.

Adaptogen Supplements

Supplements are the easiest way to take adaptogens as they contain accurately measured doses in an easy to consume pill or tincture. This allows you to figure out the dosage that works best for you. With over 1,000 results on Amazon for “adaptogen supplement,” this is one of the easiest and most popular methods of consumption.

What are the Benefits of Adaptogens?

Scientists believe adaptogens could possibly hold a wide range of benefits. Ancient Indian medicine commonly referred to as Ayurvedic medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine heavily relies on adaptogenic plants for promoting overall well-being. A recent systematic review of studies on adaptogens set out to determine whether these benefits are statistically significant or the benefits reported in both these medicinal systems are primarily from the placebo effect.

The way adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the peripheral nervous system most likely cause the majority of their beneficial effects. Different adaptogens affect these systems in different ways resulting in a wide range of possible benefits from the various adaptogens.

Anxiety and Stress

The main adaptogen used for managing anxiety and stress is Ashwagandha. Small communities throughout the world use this herb for a wide range of issues not limited to anxiety and stress. These individuals believe Ashwagandha balances a person’s cortisol levels to help alleviate the negative effects associated with stress and anxiety. What we don’t know however is whether the herb or a placebo effect produces these results. However, there are countless anecdotal reports of individuals receiving tremendous benefits from incorporating Ashwagandha into their daily routine.

Sleep

Sleep-related problems such as insomnia affect the daily lives of countless individuals throughout the world. The primary cause of these sleep-related problems stems from external stress causing fluctuations from a normal secretion of circadian cortisol. This cortisol secretion in a healthy individual peaks shortly after they wake then decreases throughout the day allowing for a restful sleep. Adaptogens help stabilize the secretion of circadian cortisol to regulate it throughout the day. Studies have suggested various adaptogens act as sleep aids through this effect. These adaptogens include Panax quniquefolius, Schisandra chinensis, and Sedum rosea.

Immune Health 

Adaptogens work in three primary ways to promote immune health. First, they stabilize biological responses that remodel the immune system, enhancing the body’s non-specific resistance to pathogens. Second, they promote bone marrow production which enhances blood cell counts. More blood cells, in the long run, will help other cells in our bodies have nutrients to keep fighting efficiently against pathogens. Third, adaptogens decrease the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, that the adrenal glands secrete. Cortisol in excessive amounts weakens our immune system. Adaptogens help the body use it more efficiently.

Fatigue

The primary cause of fatigue is external stress resulting in the adrenal gland to secrete an excessive amount of hormones. Once the adrenal gland secretes these hormones it can no longer achieve normal homeostasis due to a lack of regular hormones. Adaptogens can increase the effectiveness of adrenal gland secretion helping it build back up to normal homeostasis. This allows the adrenal gland to stop producing excessive amounts of hormones. The most effective adaptogens for reducing adrenal fatigue are Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus.

Scientists believe Panax ginseng inhibits 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase and Eleutherococcus senticosus inhibits catechol-O-methyl transferase. Both of these reside in close proximity to various stress hormone receptors and catalyze the degradation of stress hormones into inactive compounds. This reduces the excessive secretion of stress hormones by the adrenal gland. They also accelerate the closure of the adrenal gland in the absence of stress, increase cellular energy levels, and prevent oxidative damages. All of this promotes the healthy function of the adrenal gland which reduces fatigue levels in healthy humans.

How Long Does it Take for Adaptogens to Work?

The length of time an individual needs to consume adaptogens prior to receiving the various beneficial effects has not been confirmed by modern science. However, anecdotal evidence suggests they take time to build up within the body and produce any noticeable effects. The founder of Hanah Life, a popular brand of adaptogens, suggests consuming them for at least two to three weeks before assessing whether or not they are effectively helping your lifestyle. He also recommends consuming adaptogens alongside breakfast or another meal as opposed to on an empty stomach.

How Long Should You Take Adaptogens?

The length of time an individual can take adaptogens for has not yet been studied in a modern, scientific setting. However, the recommended frequency of use depends on the specific adaptogen consumed and the method of consumption. Typically, tinctures have a recommended consumption rate of three times a day, with Rhodiola having a recommended consumption rate of twice a day. Dosages for other methods of consumption vary greatly based on the strength of the individual adaptogen used. For instance, doses for tea can range from one teaspoon to six teaspoons of the adaptogen being used. Capsules and extractions also range widely based on the strength of the individual capsule or extraction.

What are the Potential Side Effects of Adaptogens?

One of the largest concerns surrounding the use of adaptogens is the lack of scientific research. Clear evidence of the beneficial effects of adaptogens has not yet been published. Furthermore, there are currently no long-term clinical studies on the effects of adaptogens. Critics also question the idea that controlling the human body’s stress response generally produces positive effects. All in all, the overall mechanisms behind the stress response remains largely a mystery. So, whether or not regulating that response positively impacts an individual cannot be definitively determined. Some users even report an increase in anxiety and stress after implementing adaptogens into their daily routine. They may also cause heart palpitations, insomnia, overstimulation, burnout, and mania.

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