What is an adaptogen?
Let’s start with the basics.
Adaptogens are defined as “a nontoxic substance and especially a plant extract that is held to increase the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning” (Merriam-Webster).
Essentially, I like to think of adaptogens as agents that help deal and process the physical, environmental, mental, and emotional stressors life throws our way.
Adaptogens have a non-specific effect (like strengthening the immune system), a normalizing effect (such at increasing resistance to stress), and by definition must be safe (without disturbing body functions).
It can be difficult to relate specific physiological modes of action with adaptogens as they have various effects on the body but in general, they protect the stress system (the neuroendocrine-immunologic system). We know that stress is a defense response to various factors. In the body, this stress system “turns-on” formation of catecholamine, cytokines, nitric oxide, and other undesirable compounds. The “turn-off” switch protects cells and systems from overreactions and downplays the inflammation response. Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables are a great example of this “turning off” action. So are adaptogens. Adaptogens essentially reduce the reactivity caused by various stressors. This helps create homeostasis. Another way to think of it is that in homeostasis, the on switches are balanced with the off switches.
As humans, we’ve evolved in many ways over the last several hundred years but along the way we’ve lost how to coexist with our environment. Plants, trees, and herbs are unrecognizable to most Americans. The bioactive compounds that have allowed plants and herbs to thrive in harsh climates are the same compounds that may help people adapt and deal with stress of their own. For example, ashwagandha (a popular adaptogen for stress) is found in the harsh desert and maca (another well-known adaptogen) is grown on Peruvian mountain tops.
We eat processed packaged food without questioning the ingredients and take a neatly packaged white pill without knowing the contents, yet when someone starts talking about using plants and herbs as medicine, we turn the other way and think it’s some “hippy dippy non-sense.” Why is that?
Well, I can tell you adaptogens are starting to catch on and become more commercialized likely because physical, emotional, and mental stress are all things we can relate to. For example, now there are brands adding adaptogens into products to capitalize on this wellbeing shift. Calia farms has maca-‘nilla almond milk with maca from Peru, GTS kombucha created mate and turmeric flavors, and REBBL (a coconut milk based beverage company) has started to bottle ashwagandha and other adaptogen staples in their products.
But is this the ideal form for consumption? The jury is still out on that one but my experience says no. If you want to start consuming adaptogens, know that the source matters, freshness, and part of the plant being consumed matter. Adaptogens can be consumed in various ways and the most beneficial way is dependent on the herb or plant itself. For example, turmeric root is often used in cooking and also now the root powder is used in things like lattes. Holy Basil is an herb oftentimes used dried as a tea leaf. Maca is frequently added into juices and smoothies. Of course, the most common form of consumption for many adaptogenic plants and herbs is a dehydrated powder or capsule form.
Are you curious about adaptogens? Below are 10 adaptogens that as a dietitian I think you should be aware of and potentially take depending on many factors.
If you are interested in learning more about adaptogens, stay tuned because in the upcoming weeks I’m going to share with you the research and provide tips for how or why you may want to consider adding specific adaptogenic plants to your world. Did you know what adaptogens were before reading this? I’m curious – do you use/take adaptogens currently?