What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a group of plant-based, natural substances (predominantly from herbs), that can support the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems.
It is not uncommon to hear people say they feel bombarded, overwhelmed, and overloaded by modern-day life. We multitask our way through each day and can be reached 24/7 through multiple platforms. With increasing, daily exposures to a plethora of stressors it is becoming harder and harder to stop and take a breath. This is where adaptogens can help.
When the body encounters a stressor (physical, chemical, psychological, or biological), it induces an immune response. The most common experience and understanding of this is the release of cortisol, which helps us become more alert, putting us in to a state of flight or flight. During adverse or stressful situations (such as lack of sleep, relationship or work difficulties, pollution, pathogens), an adaptogen can help the body maintain homeostasis (balance), by assisting it in a non-specific way and helping to offset, resist or reduce harm caused by the stressor. A lovely addition is that adaptogens do not cause side effects or cellular damage. Instead, they work synergistically with the body acting like a support system.
Adaptogens are multifaceted and can be used for both stimulating and relaxing purposes; for example, Rhodiola can improve short-term memory, Ginseng can increase physical stamina and Ashwaganda can help you feel relaxed and sleepy. One way they can do this is by assisting the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. Typically, a cell is either in balance or adapting to an incoming stressor. Cellular networks (like the HPA axis) communicate with tissues, organs, and receptor sites by processing the incoming stress signals before co-ordinating the bodies adaptive response. For example, signalling pathways can be called on to increase the secretion of cortisol depending on the activity you are doing (high intensity workout) or the time of day (getting out of bed first thing).
Adaptogens & Sleep:
Many people suffer with sleep issues such as insomnia. This can be in part, attributed to stress which is the main-cause of sleep-related problems. Our circadian rhythm works in harmony with the secretion of hormones including cortisol, serotonin, and melatonin. The secretion of cortisol peaks in the morning, helping us to wake up and get out of bed and then decreases at night so we can fall asleep. If you are experiencing an imbalance in your cortisol levels, this can disrupt your biological clock and interfere with your natural sleep/wake cycle. Adaptogens, such as Ashwaganda, Valerian, Liquorice and Passionflower can be used to help decrease cortisol levels, relieve stress, and support your circadian rhythm, to help you get a better night’s sleep.
Adaptogens & the Adrenals:
Our adrenal glands house our stress hormones, which include cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline and work hard to ensure the body can re-stabilise following acute or chronic exposures to stress. Over time, and with ever-growing stressful environments, the excessive production and secretion of stress hormones can tire these glands and contribute to what is known as adrenal fatigue. Adaptogens can step in and apply beneficial stress-protective measures like reduce feelings of pressure or increase levels of attention to help regulate homeostasis and bring your body back in to balance. Adaptogens can also support the adrenals by inhibiting the enzymatic degradation of stress hormones which helps to minimise excessive hormone production in the first place.
Adaptogens & the Thyroid:
It is estimated that 1 in 20 people in the UK are now living with a thyroid disorder, however that figure could be higher. Both Hypothyroidism and Hyperthyroidism are associated with a plethora of symptoms which can be both transient and lasting. Along with nutrition and lifestyle changes there are a variety of adaptogens which can also be beneficial to the thyroid and help bring it back in to balance. Both hypo and hyper states can decrease energy and cause a sense of fatigue, so it is important to consider the adrenal glands when looking at the thyroid. Some adaptogens worth bringing in for support include Liquorice Root which can destroy Epstein Barr virus cells in the thyroid and liver and help restore the adrenal glands, Lemon Balm, which is a powerful immune booster and can also kill off viral and bacterial cells hijacking the thyroid, and Ashwagandha, which supports and stabilises the adrenal glands. The supplementation of the amino acid, tyrosine, which is necessary to synthesise thyroid hormones and feed healthy thyroid tissue, can also help reduce fatigue and improve stress-induced anxiety.
How can you incorporate them into your diet?
Adaptogens can be taken as a tincture, supplement, decoction, or tea. The easiest way is to add them to a glass of water, soups or stews or brew as a tea. Always speak to your doctor or a registered practitioner first for guidance, dosage, and timeframe before incorporating adaptogens into your diet, as an individual evaluation is necessary to determine which adaptogen is best suited to you and your specific health needs.
As opportunities for time-out and self-care appear to have narrowed due to our busier and more stressful schedules, we need to take stock of how this is affecting our health and what we can do to support the situations we find ourselves in. Symptoms, regrettably, are becoming the new normal, but we have the power to reclaim our bodies and our minds and live without pain, difficulty, and suffering. Adaptogens are a wonderful way to bring in that support system in a natural way. Everyone deserves to feel well and adaptogens may just be the gateway you were looking for.
Liao, L.Y. He, Y.F. Meng, L.L. et al. (2018). ‘A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng‑like herbs used worldwide’, Chinese Medicine.
Panossian, A. (2017). ‘Understanding adaptogenic activity: specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1401. pp.49-64.
Panossian, A. & Wikman, G. (2019). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity, Pharmaceuticals, 3. pp.184-224.
William, A. (2019). ‘Thyroid Healing’, Hay House.