Stress is nothing new. Even though our ancestors didn’t have to deal with a constant flow of work emails and social media–fueled feelings of FOMO, they still had plenty of their own challenges (predators, famines, infections). So while the sources of tension and fear have changed over time, the existence of stress—and the human body’s response to it—hasn’t.
Ancient medical traditions like India’s Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine have long sung the praises of adaptogens—certain herbs that may help the body adapt to stress. Despite the long use of adaptogens in other cultures, they’re something of a new phenomenon in the U.S. as researchers are starting to look into claims that traditional healers have been making for a long time. Below, we’ll get you up to speed on adaptogens, what they're believed to do, why they’re gaining popularity in the Western world, and how to incorporate them into your self-care routine.
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a special class of plants (mostly herbs, though there are some exceptions) that, according to proponents, have a normalizing effect on the body. While that may sound vague, it’s precisely what makes them unique—they don’t serve a single function. The belief is that adaptogens may be able to adapt to whatever the body is dealing with (stress, anxiety, fatigue), and help alleviate or lessen the symptoms.
By now, many of us are aware that stress—particularly when it becomes habitual—can really throw us out of whack. That’s because our bodies treat stress as a serious threat every time we feel it, initiating a series of behavioral and physiological changes to help address the danger—either through confrontation or by making a run for it! Stress hormones like cortisol are regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, an important network of glands that play a central role in the endocrine system. When constantly activated, the HPA axis can easily get off balance and tax the adrenals, making us more susceptible to experience anxiety and get certain illnesses.
The good news is that adaptogens are thought to help the body handle stress more efficiently, working along the HPA axis to regulate the stress response. The same study noted adaptogens help “increase endurance and attention in situations of decreased performance caused by fatigue.” In other words, whether you’re feeling high-strung and frazzled, or, conversely, overwhelmed and lethargic, adaptogens appear to help. In fact, there are several recent studies suggesting that adaptogens may help positively impact the immune system and improve cognition.
4 popular adaptogens and what they do
There are more than a dozen herbs that are considered adaptogenic—here are a few of the most popular. If you’re interested in adding adaptogens to your natural stress management arsenal, this list would be a good place to start.
Holy Basil (Tulsi)
How to add adaptogens to your wellness routine
Although very few adaptogens are associated with adverse side effects, some can interfere with prescription medicines or aren’t recommended for those with certain health conditions. Therefore, we suggest consulting with your doctor before trying them (as with any new supplement)—a medical professional can help determine which herbs are right for you and suggest appropriate dosages, too.
Most adaptogens are available in capsule form to be taken as a regular dietary supplement. Alternately, you can add powdered or liquid versions to a daily smoothie, or brew special tea blends.
Regardless of how (or how often) you decide to take them, keep in mind that adaptogens don’t work like pharmaceuticals. Champions of adaptogens find them to be really effective in maintaining energy and managing stress—but note that the effects are subtle and felt over the long-term. So think of them not as a quick fix, but rather, a complement to other self-care practices like yoga, meditation, and aromatherapy.
Be advised that research is still ongoing, and the FDA has not evaluated any of these claims. Additionally, we are not, in any way, suggesting that adaptogens are intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Photo credit: Ella Ciamacco