What are adaptogens?

Have you heard of adaptogens? If you haven’t yet, you will soon. In fact, there are a few you probably already know, but didn’t realise they were called adaptogens – do you recognise maca, ginseng and licorice?

Why do we care so much about adaptogens? In a nutshell, they’re a powerful group of food and herbs that help your body adapt to stress. They also help to boost the immune system and support stamina & energy, two areas that can be significantly depleted by stress.

There are different kinds of stress – physical, emotional / psychological, environmental (noise, temperature, pollution). Hans Selye, a Canadian professor that specialised in stress research, defined stress as ‘the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it’. And to be clear, there is good stress and there is bad stress. Recent research discusses how some stress can be good for you, depending on how you perceive it. And this is a great TED talk on how to make stress your friend.

We can add in adaptogens when the ‘bad’ stress is too much.They help the body get back into homeostasis, or more simply, they help you get back to a status quo, where you can more easily manage whatever is causing the stress.  Adaptogens can help to stabilise the hypothalamus – pituitary – thyroid – adrenal (HPTA) axis, which then helps to regulate hormone production.

Each adaptogen has unique properties, and can help you deal with specific types of stressors. David Winston and Steven Maimes, two of the leading authorities in this area, classify adaptogens into four areas:

Stimulating: red ginseng, white asian ginseng and rhodiola

Calming: schisandra, ashwagandha (Indian ginseng), reishi, cordyceps

Moistening: american ginseng, codonopsis, shatavari

Drying: rhodiola, schisandra

What adaptogens should you consider adding in to your daily routine? It’s always best to get a tailored recommendation from a herbalist or naturopath, as adaptogens are powerful herbs. In clinic, I see these herbs recommended most frequently:

Ashwagandha for adrenal support and cortisol management

Licorice for liver support and as an anti-inflammatory

Maca for hormone balance and sexual function

Reishi, cordyceps and schisandra for immune support

Rhodiola for energy and mitochondrial ATP support

Have you ever used an adaptogen? What did you think?

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