List of Adaptogens and Benefits

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In this article, we’ll cover: 

  • What are herbal adaptogens
  • The benefits of adaptogens 
  • How adaptogens work in the body (hint: it has to do with your stress response)
  • The primary actions of adaptogens
  • 10 of the most common herbal adaptogen

What Are Herbal Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help the body (and mind) cope with daily stress. Simply put, they help the body “adapt” to stress. 

The beauty of adaptogens, and all the many benefits they provide when it comes to your health, resides in the very way they work.

An herb is an adaptogen if it exerts broad, non-specific effects. They do this by reducing the negative impact stress has on your body and mind, without disturbing normal function. An adaptogen provides ‘generalized resistance,’ to internal and external stressors. 

Adaptoens work on your adrenal system, more on that in a moment. But the way Ashwagandha, a popular Ayurvedic adaptogen impacts me will be different than the way it impacts you – IF our adrenal responses are in different places. Your adrenal response, aka your stress response, is how you react to stressful events over time and how those reactions have left your HPA axis. Don’t know what an HPA axis is, hang tight!

So say I’m in overdrive with my adrenal response. There is more cortisol floating around my body, because my system is on go mode all the time. I don’t have a lot of downtime and I crash at the end of the day. Now, say you are in a more under responsive adrenal state. You were in overdrive for a while OR you experienced a major trauma, and your stress response is subdued. Your HPA axis has gone into conservation mode. Well, one of us will take Ashwagandha and get amazing benefits, the other likely might not. 

This right here is the crux for understanding which herbal adaptogen is best for you! You’ve got to understand where your stress response (over the years) has left your body and what your HPA axis is telling you. 

Adaptogen Benefits

Can they really do all that?

Adaptogens have been commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), First Nations Traditional Medicine and Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine. Many of these herbs have gained popularity and lots of clinical research is being done on them, which is great! It’s important to always take into account both historical medicinal use and clinical research. Neither is more important. 

Adaptogens have long been described by traditional cultures as: restoring health, supporting vitality, promoting longevity and strengthening stamina. These generic phrases likely have to do with the fact that adaptogens really can do so much to support you. 

More specifically adaptogens have been reported to: 

    • Reduce anxiety
    • Boost mood
    • Enhance cognition
    • Promote focus
    • Provide more consistent energy
    • Reduce fatigue
    • Promote restful and deep sleep
    • Soothe muscles
    • Support the immune system
    • Promote calm

And much more…as you can see, their impacts are broad and they have effects on physical, mental and emotional health. 

We’ll review the benefits of each adaptogen below.

Adaptogen Stress Relief

Adaptogens Work on Your Stress Response 

Adaptogens  work through the Hypothalamus – Pituitary – Adrenal (HPA) axis. However, they have a myriad of effects on other systems including the nervous system, the broader endocrine system and the immune system. 

     >> H-P = brain = responder to stress, initiate internal stress system
     >> A = adrenal = responsd to communications from brain

Adaptogens will exert an effect on YOU, specifically where you experience symptoms related to stress. There is no one size fits all response to stress, and that’s because your reaction to stress is individualized. The symptoms you experience related to stress have to do with the state of your stress response through your HPA axis. 

You may experience stress symptoms such as: low energy, headaches, muscle tension and constipation. Whereas another person might experience stress as getting all worked up, feeling anxious, having muscle tension and loose stools. Some of those symptoms are the same, many of them are different. 

And if you both take the SAME adaptogen, likely one of you is not going to have a great experience. It won’t necessarily be bad, but you either aren’t going to get the results you are looking for, or you experience some unwanted side effect like difficulty sleeping, slightly more anxiety, or an unexpected crash in energy. 

Disharmony in the HPA axis causes problems with cortisol – and one of the main jobs of cortisol is to keep us in sync with circadian rhythms

     >> Cortisol says it’s time to wake up, it’s time to eliminate, it’s time to detox, it’s time to defend (immune), it’s time to cleanse the brain, it’s time to digest, etc. 

To fully understand the current state of your HPA axis, you could get a 24-hour salivary or urinary test run. 

Alternatively, you can look at your TOTAL symptom picture as it relates to stress. What symptoms do you experience when you are stressed out? 

  • Are you wired but tired? 
  • Are you anxious, overwhelmed, running a million miles an hour? 
  • Do you crash at 2pm, 7pm or stay up late at night? 
  • Do you struggle getting up in the morning?
  • Do you have trouble falling asleep? Trouble staying asleep?
  • Do you get sick more often than others?
  • Do you have trouble focusing? Concentrating? Or remembering things? 
  • And so on…

Once you understand the symptoms you are having from your response to stress (through your HPA axis), you can then look to see which adaptogen is best for you.

Remember, adaptogens may impact ANY area where stress can have a negative effect. This basically includes nearly all systems since cortisol influences close to every cell in the body (every cell with a nucleus):   

  1. Sleep
  2. Mood
  3. Immunity
  4. Focus
  5. Repair
  6. Stamina
  7. Reproduction
  8. Energy
  9. Digestion

So how do you know which adaptogen to take? Once you know what your stress related symptoms are, THEN you can match those up with the primary action and health areas supported by that adaptogen. 

To recap: in order to find the BEST adaptogen for YOU, you want to 

  1. understand your symptoms as they relate to stress and know what your HPA axis looks like over a 24-hour time period (I frequently run HPA axis testing with clients)
     
  2. understand the primary actions (energy and influence) of the adaptogen you’re interested in taking

Without taking both of these into account, is the most common reason you’ll see people talk about “adaptogens not working.” 

This synergy of finding the right adaptogen for YOU by combining the primary actions of the herb with your symptoms of stress, is when adaptogens truly become a powerful tool to build resilience and resistance in life. 

 

Actions of Herbal Adaptogens 

So let’s look at some of the primary actions of herbal adaptogens.

The primary actions (energy and influence) of adaptogens include: restore, nourish, tonify, invigorate, calm, ground, energize, and stimulate. Beyond this primary energy, each adaptogen has specific areas of the body it tends to influence. 

     >> By definition most adaptogens are tonifying which implies a deficiency state as there is always some level of deficiency being solved for when adaptogens are utilized (even when there are coinciding symptoms of excess).

Calming or grounding adaptogens: 

  • Ashwagandha
  • Shatavari
  • Holy basil 

Nourishing and restorative adaptogens: 

  • Ashwagandha
  • Reishi
  • Maca
  • Shatavari 
  • Schisandra 

Tonifying adaptogens: 

  • Astragalus
  • Reishi
  • Ashwagandha
  • Shatavari
  • Ginseng
  • Eleuthero 

Neutral to moderately energizing adaptogens:

  • Schisandra
  • Maca 
  • Holy basil
  • American ginseng

Stimulating adaptogens: 

  • Rhodiola
  • Eleuthero
  • Panax ginseng

 

And Remember: 

Adaptogens are not a panacea. They are also not an excuse for you to PUSH HARDER!

Pay attention to signs of burnout. Use adaptogens for periods of time and take breaks. 

Really you need a holistic plan to reduce your stress on an ongoing basis. You want to support and nourish the body rather than find things that can help you continually get by in go-go-go mode. 

The ultimate goal is to use your diet and lifestyle to bring your stress response into better balance on a daily basis. You will never remove stress from your life. That is not the goal. The goal is to pay attention to your response to stressful events, and use a holistic approach, including adaptogens, to help buffer the harmful effects of stress, to your body – mind – spirit. 

Using herbal medicine is one of the greatest ways I’ve found to take care of my health. For more than 20 years I’ve been personally using herbs with myself, friends and family, and for the last decade I’ve been using them with amazing results, with my clients in practice. 

Adaptogens, nervines and digestive herbals are probably the ones I use the most. And for good reason, so enjoy learning about adaptogens!

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