List of Adaptogens and Benefits
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 benefits of herbal adaptogens are many. And by the end of this article, you’ll have a great list of adaptogens and benefits to help you feel less stressed on a daily basis.
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.
The beauty of herbal adaptogens, and the many benefits they provide when it comes to reducing your stress, resides in the very way they work with your specific stress physiology.
The way Ashwagandha, a popular Ayurvedic adaptogen impacts me will be different than the way it impacts you. This is because both of our adrenal responses are unique, or simply in different places.
This is why some folks find amazing benefit from Ashwagandha to reducing their stress and improving their sleep. And why other folks report having poor sleep or over-stimulation from Ashwagandha.
The way an adaptogen will impact you depends more on the state of your body and personal stress response. In order to figure out the right adaptogen for you, its wise to know your “stress symptom picture.”
Benefits of Adaptogens on the Adrenal System
Adaptogens work on your adrenal system and your adrenal system governs your stress response. Your response to stress is unique to you and simply defined: is how you react to stressful events. The symptoms you experience from stress make up your “stress symptom picture.”
Knowing what your symptoms are from stress will guide you to the best adaptogen.
Over time, your responses to stressful events may leave your adrenal system in a less than ideal state. These states may be defined as either ramped up, drained, or perfectly healthy – if you have learned to incorporate stress reducing habits into your daily diet and lifestyle.
Your Unique Adrenal Response
When the adrenal system is ramped up, clinically this is seen as an overdrive or excessive adrenal response. When the adrenal system is drained, symptoms present in an under drive state where the adrenal system has gone into conservation mode.
Say you’re in overdrive with your adrenal response. There is more cortisol floating around your body, because your system is in go-mode all the time, responding to perceived stress as though your life is in danger. You don’t have a lot of downtime and you crash at the end of the day. You’re likely going to need a more calming, soothing and nourishing adaptogen.
Now, say you are in a more under responsive adrenal state. You were in overdrive for too long OR you experienced a major trauma, and your stress response is now under active or subdued. Your hypothalamus’ response to stress (your brain) has gone into conservation mode to protect you physiologically from on-going excess cortisol as it is so catabolic (breaks things down). You’re likely going to need a more nourishing but potentially invigorating herb.
In the above scenario, one person may take Ashwagandha and get amazing benefits, the other likely may not get the same great results. It simply means the right adaptogen was not picked for the “stress symptom picture.”
In order to find which herbal adaptogen is best for you, you’ve got to understand where your stress response is on the scale of overdrive, normal, or under drive.
Benefits of Adaptogens
Can they really do all that?
Adaptogens have been used commonly for centuries 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 than the other.
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 holistically! While they may not have had the words to define the stress response, traditional practitioners routinely saw the myriads of benefits adaptogens provided.
Adaptogens have been shown 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.
Adaptogen & Stress Relief
Adaptogens Work on Your Stress Response
Adaptogens work on the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. They have a myriad of effects on “sister” systems in the body, including the nervous system, the broader endocrine system and the immune system.
>> H-P live in the brain = responder to stress, initiates internal stress system
>> A is for adrenal = responds to communications from brain (H-P) to release and direct cortisol, the main stress response hormone
Your Stress Response Dictates Which Adaptogen is Best
Adaptogens will exert an effect on YOU, specifically where you experience symptoms related to stress. There is no one size fits all stress response, and that’s because your reaction to stress is individualized.
The symptoms you experience related to stress have to do with your response to stress, which is a learned behavior over time.
Each of us internalizes stress uniquely. There is no one size fits all picture of the “stress response.”
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.
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, agitation, or an unexpected crash in energy.
Stress and The Circadian Rhythm
An overactive or under active HPA axis can cause problems with how much or how often cortisol is released around the body – and one of the main jobs of cortisol is to keep us in sync with circadian rhythms.
The circadian rhythm naturally regulates the sleep-wake cycle, releasing hormones that support sleep during sleep time and wakefulness/energy during the daytime, over a 24-hour period.
Cortisol is a major player in the circadian rhythm.
>> Cortisol tells the body 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.
If you want to understand how in balance or out of balance your HPA axis is, you can get an Adrenal Stress Index run that looks at the secretion of primarily adrenal related hormones over a 24-hour period. Both salivary and urinary labs work, and measure free hormones.
You can also just simply look at your TOTAL symptom picture as it relates to stress to get a good idea of the state of your HPA axis: overdrive, healthy, or under reactive.
Symptoms of Stress:
- 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…
Your Symptoms Help You Understand the Best Adaptogen
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):
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 an adaptogen. See below for a list of adaptogens and benefits.
To recap: in order to find the BEST adaptogen for YOU, you want to
- understand your symptoms as they relate to stress, and know your HPA hormones release over a 24-hour period (using a functional lab test)
- understand the primary actions (energy and influence) of the adaptogens
- match up your adrenal response with the RIGHT adaptogen’s benefits
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.
So read on for a list of adaptogens and benefits
List of Herbal Adaptogens and Benefits
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:
- Holy basil
Nourishing and restorative adaptogens:
Neutral to moderately energizing adaptogens:
- Holy basil
- American ginseng
- Panax ginseng
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 on-going 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 I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the list of adaptogens and benefits!
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