Adaptogens 101: What are they and why we need them

Adaptogens are a class of healing plants that help to balance, restore, and protect the body from the prolonged release of stress hormones due to chronic stress.

They do this by doing the following:

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Supporting a healthy weight
  • Increasing physical endurance and mental focus
  • Reducing discomfort caused by poor health
  • Encouraging a balanced mood
  • Balancing hormones
  • Each adaptogen has its own unique properties that can help with specific types of stressors.

History of Adaptogens

The herbs we now call adaptogens have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Indigenous cultures, and traditional European herbalism for millennia (literally thousands of years). Adaptogens were used way before capitalism and Instagram made them trendy. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, Russian scientist Nikolai Lazarev was studying herbs (first, Asian ginseng; then eleuthero, its Russian cousin) to find something that would give Russian supersoldiers and elite athletes an edge without the crash. He partnered with pharmacologist Israel Brekhman, and together they deployed a team of 1,200 biologists, scientists, and physicians to do over 3,000 clinical trials on 4,000 plants and herbs (source: Rasa Adaptogen Guide)

Why do we need Adaptogens? 

The National Institute of Mental Health lists stress as a common reaction to everyday pressures that may be brought on by things like work, school, finances, or family matters. Although stress typically carries a negative connotation, not all stress is bad. In fact, the body’s reaction to stress can actually help motivate you to perform better, say in preparation for an upcoming job interview, or pending exam. It can also be life-saving in a situation where you need to react to danger. The body prepares to face a threat or flee danger by quickening the pulse, tensing muscles, and increasing brain function to help with survival.

The problem with stress is when the body doesn’t have the ability to recover from it. Prolonged stress can cause the body’s hormones to become unbalanced, and that can result in illness and disease.

Do you know which hormones are associated with stress?

Cortisol, a steroid hormone, is often called a “stress hormone,” because of its connection to the stress response. The secretion of cortisol triggers the fight-or-flight response. This process also stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands and decreases digestive secretions while increasing blood pressure.

In a healthy individual, the body and brain respond to the stressor, and cortisol levels return to normal. However, elevated cortisol levels over long periods of time due to chronic stress can negatively affect every physiological system in the body.

Adrenaline is another hormone released as a stress response. What comes to mind when you think of adrenaline? A racing heart perhaps? Adrenaline is commonly known as the fight or flight hormone, due to the immediate reaction to stress. If you’ve ever experienced a car pulling out in front of you out of nowhere, or see a child about to run out in the road, the sensation you experience is a surge of adrenaline. It’s produced in the adrenal glands anytime the brain senses danger and sends a message to the glands to create it.

This is a natural response to stress and only presents a problem when the adrenals become fatigued when they receive constant messages from the brain to produce adrenaline. This is what happens in cases of chronic stress.

So what’s the difference between chronic and typical stress?

Acute stress is the most common type of stress, and it is often brought on by everyday occurrences driven by both past and future anticipations, pressures, and demands. It can be thrilling and exciting, like the feeling you experience on a rollercoaster ride.

Whatever the cause, whether it be a near-death experience, giving a speech in public, or jitters leading up to a race, acute stress is characterized by coming on quickly and dissipating soon thereafter.  However, you can experience too much of this type of stress, and that can lead to exhaustion. Think about riding that rollercoaster over and over again.

Due to the release of hormones, such as adrenaline, acute stress can cause the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pains
  • Breathing difficulties

Next, let’s take a look at Episodic Acute Stress. Any ideas what may cause this type of stress?  Acute stress becomes episodic due to the frequency of the episodes. We all know someone who always seems to be living in chaos or complete disorder. That person may always be running late, rushing, or experiencing a constant string of crises that puts them in a constant state of acute stress. A constant worry is also a form of episodic acute stress.

The symptoms of episodic acute stress may include:

  • Persistent tension headaches or migraines
  • Hypertension
  • Chest pain
  • Heart disease

Chronic stress refers to interminable periods consisting of unrelenting stress. Often a person experiencing chronic stress is someone who is not able to see their way out of a miserable situation. Pressures from work, a bad living situation, or childhood trauma can lead to chronic stress as these pressures are often internalized and therefore constant. In fact, one of the most dangerous aspects of chronic stress is that it becomes a natural state, despite the havoc it creates on the body’s systems.

Based on the research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, all bodily systems can be affected by chronic stress, and if untreated, it can suppress the body’s immune system, which can ultimately manifest as illness. If left untreated, long-term chronic stress can cause adrenal fatigue and many more potentially dangerous issues. So, what are the potential dangers?

For many of us, we consider stress as the cause of tight shoulders and headaches, but chronic stress can wreak havoc on the entire physical body. Here’s how:

IMMUNE SYSTEM: Acute stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a good thing for immediate situations when the body needs to fend off infections or to expedite healing after physical trauma. However, chronic stress weakens the immune system due to the constant release of stress hormones. Those under chronic stress may become more susceptible to colds, viral infections, and infections.

REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM: For men, chronic stress can lower a man’s testosterone levels, which can interfere with sperm production, and it can cause erectile dysfunction and impotence. For women, stress can lead to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also cause problems with fertility.

MUSCULAR SYSTEM: When the body experiences stress, your muscles tense up to protect the body from injury. Once the threat has passed, the muscles release as you relax, but when under constant stress, the muscles never have the chance to relax and recover. This can lead to tight muscles and joints, headaches, shoulder pain, and other body aches.

CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM: The central nervous system is in charge of the stress response in your brain that stimulates the hypothalamus that tells your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

DIGESTIVE SYSTEM: The rush of hormones, caused by stress, can cause rapid breathing and increased heart rate, which can upset the digestive system, causing symptoms like heartburn, acid reflux, diarrhea.

Back to Adpatogens…

Adaptogens have a balancing effect across our entire physiology, from mood to immunity, keeping our body’s cortisol level (i.e., our response to stress) in the optimal range. Plus, they make us more resilient and adaptable (see where the name comes from). Consuming adaptogens daily can be an incredible tool for maintaining optimal health.

My go-to adaptogen support products* are:


* Links are through Amazon and might earn me a small affiliate commission if you purchase. TIA for your small business support!