Adaptogens are hot right now. From drinks to snacks to supplements, this class of herbs has been popping up everywhere on my social media feed lately, and there’s a good reason for that. People are stressed out, more than ever, and adaptogens can help.
Let’s start with understanding how the stress response works. When we face a stressor, whether physical or mental, our bodies respond in three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Alarm occurs when we first perceive something as stressful. This can be anything from a work deadline to unexpected news, to an actual physical threat. If the perceived stress continues, the body will then enter the resistance stage. This stage activates many physiological changes such as increased heart rate, pushing blood to the muscles; the release of stored sugar into the bloodstream for energy; as well as the activation of various hormones. The body cannot maintain the resistance stage forever and eventually will deplete itself of resources. Then enters the exhaustion stage. This stage involves the weakening of many functions of the body, especially the immune system.
Temporary stress is something our bodies are well adapted to handle, but chronic low-grade stress can take a serious toll on our health. This is where adaptogens come in. Simply put, adaptogens are a class of herbs that help our body adapt to stress. They essentially help us stay in the resistance phase longer, aiding in both short- and long-term physical and mental stress. These botanicals are so powerful in their ability to help reduce stress, they have gained the reputation as “herbal pharmaceuticals”.
My first introduction to adaptogens was while studying herbal medicine in school. At the time I was working full-time and in school part-time, essentially pulling 60 hour weeks. I was zapped for energy and leaning on coffee to get me through my days. I started experiencing sleep troubles for the first time in my life. Not only was it impossible for me to fall asleep, but staying asleep was out of the question. At the time I didn’t feel like I had an option for reducing my workload so when I was introduced to adaptogens I was ready to try anything. I started slowly, taking holy basil as a tea in the evenings. At the time I didn’t feel like it was helping any more than any other calming herbal tea (like chamomile, or peppermint). Yet, over the course of a few weeks, my sleep started to improve. I started to feel more balanced throughout my day and more stable in my emotions. It wasn’t until I began healing that I became aware of all the small ways in which stress had been impacting me. It seems so obvious to me now but, looking back, it is not normal to have a little stress cry in the morning before getting on with your 14-hour day.
There are plenty of ways to naturally manage stress and adaptogens are at the top of the list for me. Although stress support is the primary function of adaptogens, there are many other supplementary benefits. Adaptogens can also generally fall into two categories, stimulating or calming. For example, Siberian Ginseng is more stimulating and is better suited for people who are burnt out and exhausted whereas Gotu Kola can be more of a calming adaptogen and might be better utilized by people experiencing anxiety. Let’s deep dive into a few of our favorite adaptogens and get to know these herbs a little better…Key terms are at the bottom of this post.
Parts used: leaves, berries, and flowers
Properties: diuretic, cardiovascular tonic
Used for: cardiovascular health
Found-in: Move 01
Hawthorn is a small thorny tree native to countries across the northern hemisphere. It has a long recorded history of use in North America, China, and Europe. Use of hawthorn dates as far back as first century AD.
Hawthorn has significant potential as a remedy in the treatment of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Studies have shown it to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate heart failure, especially when utilized in the early stages of the disease. As a cardio-tonic, hawthorn can help to dilate the major artery of the heart increasing blood supply to the heart. This can improve overall circulation.
As a member of the rose family, hawthorn has been used energetically as a heart opener. It helps one open their heart to giving and receiving love and can assist in healing heartache. It encourages self-love and acceptance.
Parts used: bark of the root
Properties: adaptogenic energy tonic, antirheumatic, antispasmodic
Used for: low energy and increased endurance
Found-in: Woke 01 and Woke kofe
Siberian ginseng is a small woody shrub native to northern China, Korea, Japan, and southeastern Russia. It has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for roughly 2,000 years. It is said to invigorate qi, the vital life force that flows through every living thing.
Typically Siberian ginseng is used to combat fatigue. It has even been used to aid those dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. Siberian ginseng does this through several mechanisms. It assists in physical performance by improving cardiovascular health as well as blood flow and pressure. It has a positive influence on cognitive function. One study even showed a potential reduction in cognitive decline in elderly persons. It has also shown the potential to decrease glucose (sugar) consumption during exercise.
Energetically, Siberian ginseng is used to maintain harmony, while providing energy. Traditionally it is used to ward off evil and negative spirits.
Parts used: leaf and root
Properties: alterative, anticatarrhal, brain tonic, nervine
Used for: cognitive function and healing of the skin
Found in: Calm 01, Calm 02, Glow 01, and Glow 02
Gotu kola is a traditional medicine of both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is native to India, Japan, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the South Pacific. In Ayurveda, it is regarded as one of the most rejuvenating herbs.
Gotu kola is most commonly known for its cognitive-enhancing effects, but it is also beneficial for cardiovascular health, skin and wound healing, as well as anxiety. The main way it assists in cognitive enhancement is through its ability to increase neuronal growth (neurons are the basic working unit of the brain). One study even showed gotu kola’s promising ability to help restore memory and brain function after a stroke. Its ability to assist in wound healing is through its ability to increase the rate that collagen is synthesized. Collagen is the main structural protein found in our skin. Increased collagen synthesis means tighter, more youthful-looking skin. This is the main way that gotu kola helps to restore skin.
Gotu kola is known as the herb of longevity. In India, it is regarded as one of the most spiritual herbs. It is said to help develop the crown chakra and is even used by yogis to assist in meditation.
Parts used: the whole plant
Properties: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant
Used for: developing a healthy response to stress
Found in: Heal 01
Holy Basil, also known as tulsi, is native to India and grows throughout Southeast Asia. It is used widely in Ayurveda and folk medicine. Historically it has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments. It is most commonly used to promote a sense of calm and is considered one of the best herbs to help cope with stress. It can also be used as a culinary herb. As a member of the basil family, it is slightly more herbaceous than traditional basil.
Holy basil is excellent at maintaining equilibrium with stress in the body. It mainly does this by reducing inflammation and assisting in helping the immune system function properly. Holy basil has strong antioxidant properties as well. Meaning it is excellent in supporting some of the more harmful effects of stress.
Holy Basil is considered a symbol of fidelity and helpful in attaining spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism, it is considered sacred, and is described as “the incomparable one”. It is considered to be the earthy incarnation of the god Tulasi, hence its alternative name “tulsi tea”.
Now that we’ve gotten to know some adaptogens a bit more, you’re probably thinking, “I need some of these in my life”. Time for a little disclaimer, herbs are a powerful form of medicine. When used incorrectly in high doses, herbs have the ability to aggravate conditions, potentially worsening symptoms, as well as impact the effect of certain medications. This is why it is so important to work with someone who is educated on the intricacies of botanicals, like a herbalist, TCM practitioner, and/or a naturopath when taking high doses.
After a few weeks of using adaptogens consistently, I began to get my sleep back on track and feel more balanced in my emotions. This restored sense of balanced allowed me to make other changes to support my stress levels that I did not have the capacity to do when I was at my max level of stress. Cutting out that third or fourth (or fifth, or sixth) coffee, building periods of rest and calm into my routine, and finding other ways to add adaptogens into my diet were a few of the basic changes I made. My point being, when you are under chronic long-term stress, it can be extremely difficult to break your routine. This is part of why adaptogens are so great, you can add them into your diet, without making any other lifestyle changes, and they will still help bring a sense of calm and balance into your life.
Danielle Wiens C.N.P.
Alterative: substances known as blood purifiers. They help the body to assimilate nutrients and eliminate waste products of metabolism.
Anticatarrhal: substances that eliminate or counteract the formation of mucus.
Antioxidant: substances that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that the body produces as a reaction to environmental stress.
Antispasmodic: substances that help to prevent or relieve muscle spasms.
Antirheumatic: substances that help to relieve symptoms associated with rheumatism (inflammation and pain in the joints, muscles, or fibrous tissue).
Brain Tonic: substances that have a favorable effect upon the action of the brain and the nervous system as a whole.
Cardiovascular Tonic: substances that have a favorable effect upon the action of the heart and the cardiovascular system as a whole.
Diuretic: substances that increase the flow of urine. They are used to treat water retention, lymphatic drainage, and nerve inflammation.
Nervine: substances that calm the nervous tension and nourish the nervous system.