It’s no secret that life has been mighty tough for the majority of humans these days. From a pandemic, to outrageous acts of systemic racism, and political upheaval, and the inability to see those you love, or even get a simple hug. Times have been downright hard!
Whether these times have you suffering from stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, immune health issues, or emotional trauma, adaptogenic herbs can offer a grand helping hand to support your body through these trying times.
The term adaptogen was first coined by Soviet scientists back in 1964. They wanted to describe herbs that produce an increase in bodily resistance and vitality, helping the body adapt to and defend against environmental stressors.
So, I know it’s a word that is spread all over the place these days, but what exactly is an adaptogen?
An adaptogen is an herb that helps your body to adapt to various stressors in life. Whether these stressors are physical, environmental, spiritual or emotional, adaptogens can be your friend. They can help support your body’s metabolic function, and restore balance to your body and its systems.
There are a few guidelines as to what an adaptogen is and the three initial ones were clarified by Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, Israel I. Brekham, PhD. and Dr. I.V. Dardymov in 1968. These doctors determined that an adaptogen must follow these guidelines:
⦁ When taken in normal therapeutic doses, adaptogens are non-toxic, so they must cause minimal side effects on physical or mental health.
⦁ They produce a non-specific state of resistance to stress, meaning that it keeps the body balanced while facing multiple stressors or harmful influences as they build a reserve of “adaptive energy”.
⦁ An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, regardless of the changes caused by the stressors. Meaning that adaptogens almost have an innate intelligence to them. They can either downregulate hyper-functioning body systems, or upregulate hypo-functioning systems, thus having a normalizing effect on the body. Adaptogens can have this normalizing effect on the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.
Those are the three requirements determined back in 1968, which are followed by many. But today, in order to be considered an adaptogen, the plant must also have the biological activities that have been discovered and attributed to adaptogens since then.
In 1999, it was declared that adaptogens work by re-regulating two master control systems in the body. The HPA axis, or Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis, and the Sympatho-Adrenal system, or SAS. The Sympatho-Adrenal System (SAS) is responsible for our fight or flight response to acute or very intense stress, which is your body’s response to danger. Like when your heart starts beating super-fast because you see police lights flashing behind you. That sudden jolt you feel is your SAS at work.
The HPA axis regulates most endocrine function, digestion, major aspects of the nervous system, cardiovascular function, the immune system, and our physiological response to chronic stress. The HPA axis also regulates the sex hormones and sexual function through the Hypothalamic Pituitary Gonadal axis (HPG axis).
Adaptogens are amazing for their ability to modulate the nervous system, and the immune system, balance endocrine hormones, and allow your body to maintain homeostasis, which is to keep balance and stability within the body and its systems. It helps to build energy reserves and boosts your body’s vital energy.
Some adaptogens can help protect the heart and liver, and even protect cancer patients from the effects of radiation and chemotherapy, as well as having anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory factors. It’s important to iterate that not all adaptogens have these properties, but it is commonly the case.
So what does that all mean for you, and today, and how do these adaptogens help you again? Well, if you’ve been having a hard time dealing with all of the stressful situations that have been brewing up lately, finding the right adaptogen for you can help support your nervous system, your immune system, and your body’s overall function to keep you as strong as can be, and ready to navigate the challenges that life throws at you. It’s not that adaptogens block your stress response, but they help smooth out the highs and lows, which conserves energy.
As a small business owner, mother of a young child, woman who does too much, and as a human who has had to adapt to various stressors thrown at me in my 42 years of life, I have absolutely benefited from adaptogens.
Some of my favorite adaptogenic herbs are Ashwagandha, Tulsi and Reishi mushrooms, which I’m about to dive a bit deeper into.
Reishi is something you may or may not have heard of. Ganoderma lucidum, and also commonly called Ling Zhiwhich means “Spirit Plant” or “Tree Of Life Mushroom”. It’s a beautiful conk mushroom, that’s a glossy yellowish-red color. It has been used in Chinese medicine for over 4,000 years, and is one of the oldest known medicinal mushrooms.
The famous 16th century physician, Li Shin Chen, spent 26 years writing ‘The Great Pharmacopoeia’. In it he says “continued use of Lingzhi will lighten weight and increase longevity...it positively affects the life energy or qi of the heart, repairing the chest area and benefiting those with a knotted tight chest. Taken over a long period of time, agility of the body will not cease, and the years are lengthened to those of Immortal Fairies!”
It’s historically been known to be beneficial for enhancing vital energy, strengthening cardiac function, enhancement of memory, anti-aging effects, and overall tonifying effects. Reishi, meaning “Divine or Spiritual Mushroom”, mannentake “mushroom of immortality”, or “good fortune mushroom”. It’s also known as the “plant of longevity”.
Reishi beers and wines are commonly drunk in Japan and China; talk about a fun way to get some adaptogens in your body! The actual mushroom in the wild is a rarity which made it only used by the privileged and elite for many millennia. Today, the majority of reishi you find on the market has been lab grown, making it more readily available to the masses.
More recent studies and uses of reishi are specific to the typical American suffering from constant stress. It can improve both energy and sleep. It’s been used to treat excessive fatty substances in the blood, chronic bronchitis, and leukopenia. It enhances overall immune function by increasing white blood cell count, platelets, hemoglobin, and various tumor fighting cells. It’s a cardiovascular tonic, it can protect the kidneys and liver, and help to reduce stress.
Be cautious of who you’re getting your Reishi medicine from. There was a study done on 11 commercial reishi products that are sold on the market today. Of all 11, zero had more than 2% terpenes, and they should be at 4%, and most of the products in the study had less than 10% polysaccharides, which should be at a level of 10-14% polysaccharides.
Ideally when taking reishi mushroom as medicine, you’re doing it as a purified extract, powdered extract, or in a strong decoction, maybe turned into a soup or stew. To get the proper ratios of extraction, it’s a special dance between water extraction, to bring out the polysaccharides, and alcohol extraction, to bring out the terpenes in the mushroom.
Another adaptogen that I love so much is Ashwagandha! Seriously, it is one of my absolute best friends. This incredible plant has helped me so much along my journey in life. As a matter of fact, I just processed my latest batch of Ashwagndha literally this morning. And man oh man, I’m not sure what I do, but when I make my own medicine, it is just soooo much better than any other ashwagandha tincture I’ve ever had. I buy the roots from local farmers, this year was from Skeeter Pliarski of Friends of Trees, and I use a folk method of making the tincture with some organic cane alcohol from Organic Alcohol Company in Ashland, Oregon. I typically make about a gallon per year, but somehow didn’t do it last year, and I’d been using other peoples ashwagandha, and just got nowhere as happy as I do when I make my own. Anyway, gushing over here - this tincture is just so delicious!
Ashwagandha has helped me through my absolute toughest times in life. One which, thankfully, I’m seeing my way out of now. It helped me to handle the immense amount of stress I was going through as I feebly attempted to run 3 different aspects of my little business all on my own, was raising a young child, lost the house I thought I would be living in forever, moved five times in two years, with 3 dogs, and yes some of those moves were in actual tents. So yeah, those times were crazy stressful for me, and when I took my Ashwagandha regularly, I was able to handle the stressors in a much smoother way. I wouldn’t break down crying like I would during the times I neglected to take this precious medicine.
Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic practices as a Rasayana which is to (rejuvenate or invigorate the body). It has been one of their elite herbal medicines to promote physical and mental health, and increase the body’s ability to resist disease, and adverse environmental factors, as well as to revitalize the body in debilitated conditions and increase longevity!
Ayurvedic use has been traced back to 6,000 BCE. It’s commonly called Indian Ginseng, though it's not at all a ginseng. Its name, Ashwagandha, means “strong as a horse” while its botanical species name somnifera means “Restful Sleep”. This precious plant is one of the primary adaptogens and is also known to help with a huge range of conditions from anxiety, arthritic inflammation, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions, insomnia, nervous disorders and gynecological disorders including low libido, impotence, and infertility. It’s considered a premier herb for all adverse conditions related to aging, including helping to prevent dementia and arthritis. It’s really something that would be amazing to just put into the water for the world these days, seriously!
Ashwagandha is rich in antioxidants and one study showed that the withanamides in Withania Somnifera, or Ashwagandha, are more potent free radical-scavenging antioxidants than most commercial preparations, thus it is thought that Ashwagandha may play a role in preventing the development of Alzheimer’s. It is for this reason, and several other, that I use this mighty and powerful herb in my ‘Where Is My Mind???’ tea blend, which is for mental clarity, focus, memory enhancement, and more.
Seriously, this herb has so much going on for it, I could talk about it for the next decade, and I likely will!
On to another incredible, and absolutely delicious herb that I love so! I’m actually sipping on a cup of this tea right now. It’s Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi. Which means “The Incomparable One”. Which is much of the reality of this sacred herb. Hindus often placed this herb on their altar and used it in morning prayers to ensure personal health, spiritual purity, and family well-being. In Ayurveda, it’s another Rasayana, an herb known to nourish a person's growth to perfect health and enlightenment, and promote a long life.
In India, most traditional homes have at least one Tulsi plant. And some followers of Krishna have such a high regard for this herb that they would never actively consume it as a medicine, but they would rather choose to receive its healing power from the vibrations of being in its presence!
Traditionally, Holy Basil is one of the main herbs used for asthma or bronchitis or other cold and flu issues. It’s also used to help bring down a fever. A traditional folk remedy to use it for reducing a fever is to cook onion and Tulsi together and place it on the head of the person with fever, once it cools. Tulsi can be a great digestive aid too, particularly when combined with ginger as a tea, it can be a great help for indigestion. It can promote great circulation, normalize blood pressure and even help with a myriad of skin conditions when used topically.
Research today has shown that Holy Basil can be amazing for its adaptogenic properties, incredible immune support, and anti-stress activities. It helps to modulate the stress response, elevates the spirit and increases adaptive energy. It has been shown to enhance the endocrine system, increase endurance and physical performance, it normalizes cortisol levels & lowers stress-induced release of adrenal hormones. It protects the liver, and can protect eye health.
It normalizes blood pressure, nourishes the cardiovascular system, and normalizes lipids. It works to balance blood sugar and insulin metabolism. It can normalize the HPA axis and support withdrawal issues from nicotine and drug addiction.
And, best of all, Holy Basil can relieve mild forms of depression, as it elevates the mood and spirit, and promotes cheerfulness!
And you know what?? I LIKE CHEERFULNESS!!!
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*Always remember to contact your healthcare provider when considering the use of botanical medicine as a possible treatment option and the medical considerations. While the information in this article is absolutely relevant, herbs work differently for each person and each condition.
**I am a trained herbalist and not a licensed or registered healthcare practitioner. I cannot diagnose health conditions, nor prescribe medicines legally; I am not a medical doctor. However, I will recommend or suggest medicinal herbs for various health complaints, as I do believe in the safety and efficacy of botanical medicine.
***The information I’ve provided is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.
About the Author: Melissa Mutterspaugh
Melissa lives in Oregon, in the foothills of Mount Hood. She's a clinical herbalist, environmental educator, mother, wilderness therapist, lover, nemophilist, music loving maniac, and the founder of Mountain Mel's Essential Goods. She is passionate about inspiring others to take better care of our planet, through taking better care of themselves, naturally!