Adaptogens 101
Part 1: Everything You Need To Know

Dried herbs and spices in a line against a dark background.

This is the first article of a two-part series on adaptogens. Here we explain what these potent, functional herbs and fungi are and how they work on the body. In Part 2, we’ll review different types of adaptogens and their specific effects on physiological systems.


 

If you scroll through health-focused social feeds, chances are you’ll come across a mention of adaptogens. Whether it’s brands selling powders, or consumers adding those powders to lattes and smoothies, you might be thinking “adapto-what?” While this might feel like the newest health fad, the practice of utilizing plants for their restorative and healing properties has been around for thousands of years. Many of the plants and fungi that we know as adaptogens today were first used generations ago in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda (a traditional system of medicine with roots in India).

Aerial view of different varieties of wildcrafted mushrooms.
(Photo by Andrew Ridley)

So why all the hype now?

There are a few good reasons for that. Western researchers only began studying these natural substances in the 1940s. (It was at this time that Russian researchers gave them the name “adaptogens” due to their effectiveness in helping the human body “adapt” to changes in its environment.) As the body of science builds and the word on their benefits spread, so does the rate of commercial production and use of adaptogens.

Tied to the availability of adaptogens is our state of health. We seem to be more stressed than ever before, and chronic stress can wreak havoc on both mental and physical health. In fact, long-term stress has been found to contribute to numerous health problems, including cognitive impairment, depression, anxiety, inflammation, digestive problems, weight gain, compromised immunity and heart disease. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 90% of visits to physicians are for stress-related complaints.

It’s bittersweet.

Why? Stress and increasing rates of diseases are very bad news. And there is definitely no magic bullet to fix the problem, especially when so many of our stressors and health conditions are caused by the challenges of our demanding lives, environmental toxins and nutritional deficiencies tied to our food supply.

However, one piece of good news in this complex puzzle is that along with important lifestyle changes, adaptogens provide a safe, healthy and effective way to help the body manage stress and achieve overall balance.

So what exactly are Adaptogens? What are their benefits?

Adaptogens are a range of naturally occurring, non-toxic plants and fungi that can increase the body’s resistance to the effects of physical, mental and emotional stress, thereby having a balancing, normalizing effect on bodily systems and processes. 

In order for a substance to be considered an adaptogen, it must also be:

  • non-toxic and safe
  • non-habit-forming, even when taken over a long period of time
  • helpful for a variety of systems in the body, working to strengthen the functioning of the body as a whole (a substance that focuses only on lowering blood pressure, for example, would not be an adaptogen)

Think of adaptogens as a thermostat. Thermostats sense when the temperature has dropped too low or risen too high, and then kicks in to bring the temperature back into balance. Adaptogens are much the same. Not only do they help the body “adapt” to stress — they’re also “adaptable,” sensing what the body needs and adjusting their action as required to support wellbeing and restore overall balance in the body.

Fun Fact: In herbal medicine it is explained that the healing properties of natural substances are often reflected in their biological composition in properties. So is the case with adaptogens: these plants and fungi that manage to survive in harsh environments due to their unique, resilient composition are similarly able to help the body defend itself against the effects of stress. 

A red-capped mushroom growing in a mossy green forest.
(Photo by Andrew Ridley)

How exactly do adaptogens help fight stress and contribute to wellbeing?

The physiology of stress is quite complex. But to put it simply: when your body is stressed, your brain signals to your adrenal glands to produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol (aka the stress hormone). In small doses, this process is normal and beneficial. These hormones allow us to flee danger, focus and perform under pressure and even strengthen brain health. 

However, chronic cortisol production does not only drain and weaken the adrenals. It also suppresses the immune, digestive and reproductive systems, curbs growth processes and alters brain function. In fact, overexposure to stress hormones can disrupt almost all bodily processes and contribute to a slew of health conditions. 

In come adaptogens with their hormone balancing quality: they can help the body defend itself against the damage caused by stress by regulating the release of stress hormones and protecting your adrenal glands.

So adaptogens are like a quick fix?

Absolutely not. It’s crucial to remember that adaptogens (and healing plants in general) should not be used to push the body into dangerous territory. These healing substances support specific needs and overall long-term health. But they can’t replace — and should be part of — a holistic approach to health and wellness that includes diet, sleep, nurturing relationships and relaxation techniques.