A Master Herbalist’s Quick Guide to Adaptogens
“All plants contain adaptogenic compounds because plants have to contend with a good deal of stress themselves.”
- James Duke, PhD, Scientist and Ethnobotanist
Our ability to increase our resilience, expand our comfort zones and adapt to new environments, situations, experiences and stress levels in our lives is one of our greatest strengths. A little bit of stress in our lives can often be just the spice that’s needed to push us to greater heights and personal growth. On the flipside, chronic stress that settles in and lives rent free as part of our daily life is an uninvited guest that can sap our mood, energy and motivation. So many of our physiological systems are all about homeostasis, about balance – and chronic stress is a sign that the pendulum is definitely swinging too far towards being on edge.
Most would agree that there is a lot to be stressed about these days as our environmental, political and social systems have all been especially strained and challenged and in a state of flux. So challenging times demand that we dig a little bit deeper and pay more attention to our state of mind, our nervous system, our sleep quality and things that can help us restore balance.
The stress response is mediated mostly by hormones as part of our neuroendocrine system. Hans Selye, an Austrian-Hungarian endocrinologist, did a lot of pioneering research into stress at McGill University in Montreal and developed a theory and model to help us understand the stress response called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). This involves three steps: an alarm reaction, a resistance/recovery stage, and an exhaustion stage that occurs when the second step is unsuccessful and breaks down. It’s this prolonged, exhaustion phase that we see with chronic stress related problems in our lives.
There is a certain class of herbs that have become known as adaptogens for their ability to help us better adapt and deal with a heightened, chronic stress response. A true adaptogen must increase the body’s ability to resist physical, chemical, or biological agents, have a normalizing influence on the stress response, and be safe and without side effects at normal doses.
In the past few tumultuous years, people have been rapidly re-discovering adaptogens and how they can help with stress relief, stamina and mental resilience. For example, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) sales skyrocketed in North America with US sales alone spiking over 50% in 2020 at $198 million and projections of up to $250 million in yearly sales for 2021 and beyond.
At Flora, we opted to use KSM-66 Ashwagandha® in our Stressveda™ formula. KSM-66 is made by a family owned business in Rajasthan, India and has 14+ years of R&D behind it. They are a vertically-integrated company, meaning they oversee the creation of the root extract from farm to finished product. KSM-66 is made using only grade A roots and is extracted using ‘green chemistry’ with no use of alcohol or chemical solvents. It’s clinically proven to improve our ability to adapt to stress and improve our energy levels when we feel mentally or physically fatigued due to stress.
Some other well known adaptogens include Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosis), Panax (Asian) ginseng, Rhodiola rosea, Schizandra sinensis, Astragalus (A.membranaceus), and Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum). Many of these herbs have traditionally been used for millennia and much of the modern research on adaptogens comes from Asia and Russia (often in athletes and astronauts). These can be taken as teas, tinctures or standardized extracts in capsules. Their effects are cumulative and experiential. This means they need to be taken daily and consistently and that you can actually feel their effects and the difference they make. They help to modulate our stress response and nudge it more towards balance.
In Canada, Flora produces a Holy Basil 10:1 extract that supports a healthy stress response while also aiding digestion, immune and cardiovascular health. This is a great example of how herbs contain multiple active phytonutrients that have effects throughout various bodily systems. Reducing stress will have positive impacts on our immune health, digestive health and cardiovascular health as well.
Research on adaptogens has found that they seem to work on multiple fronts to help us deal with stressors in our lives better. These include: better regulation of stress hormones like cortisol, reversing stress induced decreases in ATP (adenosine triphosphate – the “currency” used by cells for producing energy) production, upregulating heat shock proteins (molecules the body uses to protect cells from stress induced damage or death), and providing increased antioxidant support. From these effects, you can see that adaptogens help with the balance, or homeostasis, of cellular functioning (on the small scale) and the neuroendocrine system (on the larger scale).
Overall, adaptogens help to smooth out the highs and lows of the stress response so that the alarm phase isn’t exaggerated, the recovery phase is more sustained and the exhaustion phase is prevented or softened. What this translates into, from your trillions of cells’ point of view to something more noticeable, is less fatigue, better mood, better energy levels, more restful, regular sleep, and proper immune function, to name a few. Adaptogens are an exciting class of herbs that science is slowly teasing some concrete mechanisms of action out of to corroborate what people have been noticing for thousands of years now.
Panossian A, Wikman G. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Curr Clin Pharmacol. September 2009;4(3):198-219.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Evidence-based%20efficacy%20of%20adaptogens%20in%20fatigue
Abascal K, Yarnell E. Increasing vitality with adaptogens. Alternative & Complementary Therapies 2003 April:54-60.http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/107628003321536959?journalCode=act
Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress-protective effect. Pharmaceuticals. 2010;3:188-224.http://www.mdpi.com/1424-8247/3/1/188/pdf