What Are Adaptogens and How Do They Work?

A closer look at the history, functions, and benefits of adaptogenic herbs

These days you may be hearing about and seeing ads for plants that many businesses are calling “adaptogens”, yet so many are plain wrong.  While these plants have the potential to add so many strong benefits to your health, they also may be one of the most often misused and misunderstood terms in plant-based therapeutics today.
However, before jumping into adaptogens, it’s worthwhile to note that virtually all plants contain interesting chemical compounds (sometimes called phytonutrients, antioxidants, polyphenols, anthocyanins, etc.) that have beneficial effects on humans.  The few true plants that can be termed “adaptogens”, however, have a very interesting history as well as a very unique way of working with the human body.
According to a leading adaptogen expert, Research into adaptogens started in 1947 in the USSR and was funded by the Soviet military to boost strength and performance.  While the herbs have a long history of traditional use, the term is a relatively modern creation from scientific research.

The word “adaptogen” was first used to describe herbs that helped the body react to and recover from the effects of mental and physical stress due to lifestyle choices and environmental factors. Adaptogenic herbs were also thought to stimulate concentration, work capacity, vitality, and efficiency. Think of adaptogens like a thermostat that can regulate the body’s stress response, much like a thermostat controls the temperature in your home.

Some of the most well researched and confirmed adaptogenic herbs include:

  • Withania somnifera (ashwagandha)
  • Rhodiola rosea (rhodiola)
  • Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng)
  • Panax ginseng (ginseng)
  • Schisandra chinensis (schisandra)

For an herb to be an adaptogen, it must:

  1. Assist the body in adapting to stressors in our environment – things like environmental pollution, infectious diseases, and social conflict or tension
  2. Aid in recovering from physically strenuous activities, such as a difficult workout, physically demanding jobs, or even spending more time on your feet than you typically do
  3. Offset or resist physical disorders or diseases caused by environmental stress
    Be safe and non-toxic and not cause harm to the body

One very important function of adaptogens is their ability to help manage our body’s response when we feel alarmed, overwhelmed, or stressed. They work by reducing or calming negative reactions to stress and preventing the onset of exhaustion. The stimulatory and stress-protection effects of these herbs are common to all adaptogens. Certain adaptogenic herbs have also been shown to support a healthy inflammatory and immune response.

What are the benefits of adaptogens?

  • Enhance energy or physical stamina
  • Support a healthy response to stressors, helping the adrenal glands return to a calm state more quickly
  • Support optimal cognition, alertness, and concentration
  • Support a healthy immune response
  • Support normal cortisol levels
  • Reduce fatigue in a way that supports the body’s natural circadian rhythm

The powerful effects of adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha and rhodiola are now widely recognized in North America where stress-related health issues have reached epidemic proportions and show minimal signs of slowing down.

Rightful’s Co-founder and Chief Botanical Officer, Tieraona Low Dog, MD, said

“adaptogens could be the most important class of plants that we are going to find in the 21st century. On top of daily meditation, healthier eating and writing daily in a journal, these herbs could be an essential part of helping you manage your stress.”

While adaptogenic remedies have many beneficial properties and hold great promise as powerful herbal supplements, they should not be considered a “miracle cure.” Instead, they should be used as part of a holistic wellness strategy incorporating the three pillars of health: proper nutrition, regular physical activity, and adequate sleep.

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