What are Adaptogens?

Posted on March 16 2022

Adaptogens refer to any natural substance that helps the body “adapt” to new stressors. All over the world, different cultures and various old traditions employ natural-growing herbs and mushrooms to support optimal physical and mental health. But how do we know about different adaptogens, and do they work? Are adaptogens any good for us? This blog post explores what adaptogens are and explores how different adaptogens can be used to supplement our daily health regimens.


What are Adaptogens?

So then, what exactly are adaptogens? The term “adaptogens” broadly covers any natural herbal (or fungal) product that can help the human body better adapt to stress. Take a second to reflect on what contributes the greatest stress in your life (e.g. your job and work, family responsibilities, household chores and maintenance, chronic health issues, or simply current events). All of these things (and more) make up the mental and physical pressures that we confront each day.  

Over time, chronic and repeated stress take their toll on our minds, bodies, and overall health, reducing our general resilience and making us more susceptible to more problematic symptoms of stress (such as indigestion, falling sick more easily, not sleeping properly, bodily discomfort, and worrying or feeling anxious all the time). People with extra stress in their lives often find that adaptogens may help meet new demands without some of the physical and mental side effects of stress that can pile up in our lives.  


Effects of Adaptogens

As a category, adaptogens include any substance that is believed to help the human body adapt to stress. For example, when faced with imminent danger, our stress hormones can cause our bodies to tense our muscles, ready to either defend ourselves against a threat, or to run away from it. This “fight or flight” response is a natural response that has evolved in us over time to protect us from danger. However, many stressful situations in our present-day lives can trigger this same kind of “fight or flight” response, which can leave us tense, on edge, and with tightened muscles and expressing fear.

In the human body, this kind of repeated stress response is the opposite of the ideal state known as homeostasis, when the body’s various physiological processes have reached optimal function. In principle, adaptogens are broadly defined as those substances which can aid the body in returning towards homeostasis.

How does this work?  Humans have adrenal glands (located right above our kidneys), which produce important hormones to regulate physiological processes. Among its many jobs, the adrenal gland produces a stress hormone called cortisol, which gets released into our bodies during times of stress (such as a fight or flight response).

For example, high blood pressure is a condition that may appear as a symptom of chronic stress. Thus the idea behind adaptogens is that by fortifying the body’s regulatory processes, we are better able to address stressful situations without triggering some of the negative physiological effects that are normally associated with stress.

Adrenal fatigue is the result of unrelenting demands on the adrenal gland, which causes abnormal function or an over-reactive response that may also disrupt other body processes. While scientific research is ongoing, traditional healers believe that adaptogens can help respond to adrenal fatigue.


Types of Adaptogens

So, what are adaptogens and how can they serve us in our everyday lives? Adaptogens come in many different forms and are often added to herbal supplements. Some examples of adaptogens that are found in nature include:

  • Boswellia is often used to help aching joints and tendons bounce back from physical stress (such as exercise). Believed to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties, Boswellia is often used to support the body as it adapts to the pressures of aging.
  • Ashwagandha is a root herb common among ayurvedic practices that date back thousands of years. As an adaptogen, ashwagandha is still used to help reduce the effects of stress on the body, supporting healthy sleep, and a balanced physiology. The herb is also known for contributing to mental alertness and better brain function.
  • Siberian Ginseng is an herb native to northeast Asia that can help alleviate stress. Many cultures use Siberian ginseng to boost the entire immune system, to improve overall energy and to beat fatigue.
  • Rhodiola rosea is a flowering herb that grows in extreme northern environments that has been used as a traditional supplement to help people adapt to long-term stress related to colder climates and prolonged winters.
  • Holy Basil (or “Tulsi” in Ayurvedic practice) is a traditional flowering herb that is sometimes called a “potent adaptogen” due its wide range of benefits to the human body. Some people take holy basil as a regular tonic, believing that the herb offers a pre-emptive boost against physical and psychological stress, as well as improving the way our mind and body react to anxiety.
  • Reishi Mushrooms (“Ling Zhi” in Chinese) are known as the “mushrooms of immortality” as many Asian cultures believe the fungus can help prolong life and enhance well-being. Today, reishi mushrooms may be included in herbal supplements to help strengthen and boost the immune system. While more data is needed, reishi mushrooms are also frequently used as a natural preventative against high blood pressure.


How Adaptogens Can Help You

Knowing what adaptogens are and how they might help you is instrumental to finding the right adaptogen for you and your needs. Rather than seeking stress relief after the fact, adaptogens buttress the body’s natural stress response, working to align the natural regulatory processes, and to help us better repair the harm that may come from prolonged or recurring physical and mental stresses.

Finding the best adaptogen for our individual needs can lead us towards more optimal functioning of the stress response, while encouraging a more natural approach to addressing stress as part of our daily wellness regimen.