What Are Adaptogens

They’re all the rage these days – but what are “adaptogens” anyways?! Chances are you’re already more familiar than you think. In fact, if you’ve tried any of the medicinal mushrooms (for example: chaga, reishi, lion’s mane, etc.) or added maca powder to your smoothie…you officially have adaptogen experience! Essentially, adaptogenic herbs are non-toxic plants that protect our body from the impact of stressors – be it physical, chemical, or biological. They work by supporting the adrenal glands, which regulate our hormonal responses to stress, and their real superpowers lie in how they work to bring our bodies back into balance – otherwise known as our optimal “homeostasis”.

Beyond working to heal our stress response system and boost our resilience, these hardworking herbs also act to modulate our immune system and work directly on our nervous system to help bring us into a state of calm and ease. They are food grade herbs and can be taken for long-periods of time with minimal to zero side effects, produce a nonspecific response in the body (think: building up your “adaptive reserves”), and last but not least, they have a normalizing influence of physiology – irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor. This last bit simply means that they can “lift you up” or “bring you down” – depending on exactly what it is you need in the moment. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed and “flighty” and need some grounding, that’s what they’ll provide – but on the flip side, if you’re feeling fatigued and low-energy, they can help give you that boost of energy necessary to thrive.

That’s where the magic really lies: in adaptogens’ ability to work specifically to your body’s needs from moment to moment. While they aren’t a “cure-all” for everything, they are certainly a unique modulator for your own body’s optimal wellness state and levels.

Understanding Stress

In order to understand how adaptogens work to normalize and modulate your stress response system, it’s helpful to get a handle on what stress is, and how it manifests and operates in your body. First things first, stress isn’t inherently “bad”, but it does activate what’s known as the “fight or flight response”, which is our body’s way of getting ready to protect us from the perceived harm (even if that “harm” is really just your email inbox flooding!). Adrenaline and cortisol is released to help us mobilize and prepare for the stressor at hand, and while everyone’s particular response to stress is a little different, you may experience symptoms such as sweaty palms, tense neck and shoulders, and possibly a pounding head.

Once the stressor is gone, though, so should your stress symptoms! Just like when you watch the Discovery Channel and those frightened-to-death gazelles running from the hungry lion suddenly all resume back to their chilled out “normal” state after the seriously epic death threat – you should be equally able to “stop freaking out” when you’re safe and sound. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that many of us live in a prolonged state of stress, without any or ample resolution – and here’s when that very system designed to protect us actually ends up doing more harm than good (think: inflammation, high blood sugar levels, and a compromised immune system).

Types of Adaptogens

This is where ancient herbs can well and truly be your saviour for today’s modern stress. See, adaptogens help the adrenal glands respond more effectively and efficiently to the excess in hormones, and when stress stops, they help the adrenal glands shut down more quickly.

While I’d like to think you really can’t go “wrong” in adding these superherbs into your life, it’s best to be mindful when considering which herbs might be best for your particular circumstances and health goals. For instance, if you’re suffering from complete burnout and debilitating fatigue, it’s safer to stick with the more gentle and soothing adaptogens such as Reishi and Ashwagandha, which also act as nervines (helping to soothe and tone our nervous system). While both of these adaptogens can be calming, they are equally suitable for during the day and can bring about positive energy boosting benefits thanks to the way they help support healthy cortisol levels.

On the other end of the spectrum are the more stimulating adaptogens like ginseng and rhodiola, which work well if you’re looking to protect yourself from stress on the whole, or to boost either your cognitive or physical stamina (or both!). Working with a certified practitioner (such as a Naturopathic Doctor or TCM Practitioner) is recommended in order to find the adaptogen (or adaptogen blend) that’s most conducive to your individualized health and healing.

Adaptogens in Your REAL Life

With that said, adaptogens don’t have to be reserved for the doctor’s office – they are truly food-grade tonics you will likely experience noticeable effects from if implemented into your daily regime. There are several forms to take these herbs, whether it be as a tincture, capsule, powder, or even as drinking tea or broth. Personally, the easiest way I’ve found to incorporate them into my life has simply been to incorporate them into my food! You may already be familiar with throwing maca into your smoothies, or chaga into your collagen elixir, but how about cooking with adaptogens?!