Welcome to Part 1 of our series on adaptogens! If you've seen all this before, to read Part 2, click here.
Ever heard of adaptogens? If not, then you might be missing out on some seriously life-improving little herbs that can help relieve long-term stress, prevent disease, and boost your energy. Let’s get the facts about adaptogens with the help of some hard science!
In this article, I’ll be answering the questions:
- What are adaptogens?
- How do adaptogens work?
- Why are adaptogens good for you?
- What are the best adaptogenic teas and tisanes to get you started?
Let’s begin our journey into adaptogen science!
What Are Adaptogens?
“Adaptogens” might be a funny-sounding word, but they are relatively straightforward. In short, Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help us “adapt” to stress, regardless of the origin of the stressor.
First, let's dive into a little history; adaptogenic herbs have been around for ages. The old herbalists likely would have referred to the adaptogenic action of these herbs as being “amphoteric”, meaning they have normalizing effects on the body.
The term “adaptogen” was coined in the late 1950s by a Russian toxicologist named Nikolay Lazarev. He based this new word off the famous work Hans Selye had been doing on stress and the “general adaptation syndrome”, which is the sum of the three response phases to stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
During this time, the Russians began looking at what herbs could help improve the endurance and stamina of athletes. Their research resulted in the recognition of adaptogenic plants.
Tulsi Holy Basil is one of the most famous adaptogens, and is considered to be a powerful plant for religious purposes in Buddhism and Hinduism. The above photo of a tulsi plant surrounding a small shrine on a street corner was taken during Elizabeth and Vientiene’s two-month-long visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
How do Adaptogens Work? Why Are They Good for You?
Buckle up folks, because we are about to science! Yes, I used “science” as a verb. Poetic license, am I right? Eh? No? Okay, moving on…
So how exactly do adaptogens work? Well, after much research, scientists have established that they affect two main stress-regulating systems: The HPA axis and the SAS.
The HPA Axis and Stress
The HPA axis is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The “hypothalamic” part refers to your hypothalamus, a part of the brain that maintains homeostasis and is responsible for multiple bodily functions such as regulating hormones, sleep and wake cycles, and body temperature. The hypothalamus interprets information from bodily signals and responds in a modulating fashion, keeping our bodies functioning at their best.
The pituitary gland sits below it, and is considered to be the “master gland” (although the metaphor works more accurately if we think of the pituitary gland as king, and the hypothalamus as its appointed royal advisor - the pituitary gland doesn’t decide everything!). It regulates vital bodily functions, commands the production of hormones, and ultimately regulates and maintains an appropriate, balanced internal environment.
Lastly, the adrenals produce steroidal hormones which regulate salt and water balance, sex hormones, and stress hormones.
When this three-part system is impacted by long-term stress, its function can become overwhelmed, and the system will struggle to maintain homeostasis. This can lead to issues such as the condition many people refer to as adrenal fatigue, where the affected person struggles with nervousness, sleep problems, digestive issues, and exhaustion.
The SAS and Stress
The body’s other main stress-regulating system is the sympatho-adreno system; SAS for short. It regulates our fight or flight (or freeze) response.
Think of this as the reaction you might have if you turn around and see an angry bear. Your body responds with a flood of hormones designed to save you from the threat in any way possible. It widens the blood vessels in your muscles, kicks your heart and lungs into high gear, and slows down or stops unnecessary functions. These measures are the SAS’s way of focusing solely on getting you out alive.
Great system, right?
Well, yes, if it isn’t abused. Unfortunately, with our modern lifestyles, many of us experience high rates of anxiety. Eventually, it begins to wear us down. The fight or flight response associated with this anxiety is meant to be a short-term response, but if it becomes long-term, it can be devastating for the body.
Chronic stress results in exhaustion, lethargy, weight gain, digestive issues, blood pressure problems, irritability, and even frequent illness and infection.
Remember how the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland regulate your bodily functions? Well, when chronic stress is present, the regulation of those processes and hormone production breaks down, and we ultimately suffer.
How Adaptogens Help Regulate Stress
This is the part where we find out why adaptogens are so good for you. Adaptogens act on those stress-regulating systems to aid them in their modulation and maintenance of homeostasis!
In other words, they give your body an extra boost in fighting chronic stress. This means they help fix adrenal fatigue and other symptoms found in an overstressed body.
Adaptogens also act on a cellular level to prevent mitochondria (the cellular “engines”) from becoming dysfunctional due to excess cortisol. Adaptogens increase the cell’s sensitivity to specific proteins and peptides, which helps it maintain proper mitochondrial function.
This is hugely important, because mitochondria provide the body with 90% of its energy! And when dysfunction sets in on these vital cellular components, chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, diabetes, and even cancer can occur.
In summary, adaptogens regulate and modulate hormone production, organ function, cell health and immune function. These plants are “intuitive” - it is said that the more you need them, the more they will work, and the less you need them, the less they will work. For example, a person with low blood sugar and a person with high blood pressure could both take therapeutic amounts of adaptogens and see their blood sugar balance out!
Which foods and teas contain adaptogens? Is matcha an adaptogen? Check out the next piece in this series to find out:
A Note from the Herbalist
From helping to regulate the production of hormones to promoting a good immune system, Adaptogens can help us reduce stress and feel better in so many ways. Shout out to those herbalists for doing the work to learn about these amazing herbs!
Tea has some amazing health benefits, and for certain teas adaptogens are the reasons why! Below are some of my favorite adaptogenic teas and tisanes from MatchaAlternatives.com to get you started.
Last updated September 2020, originally published June 2019
All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.