Work, family, traffic, the six o’clock news…you name it, there is stress in every aspect of life. And the pace and demand of careers and culture have placed even more pressure on us to react and perform, leaving very little room for us to stop and take care of ourselves. Stress is the most commonly experienced and potentially life-threatening condition that we encounter today.
Historically, our society has not acknowledged stress as a chronic condition, with people ignoring its effects often until it’s too late. But we are getting smarter about stress; what it is, how it presents itself, how to prevent it, and how to manage it. We are also more interested in complementary and alternative medicine, and thus, the use of herbs to manage chronic health conditions, especially stress. Enter the most interesting and perhaps most effective natural solution to stress management: adaptogens.
“Adaptogen” is the popular term for herbs that help us adapt to stress. These plants, taken in various forms, work to increase our resistance and decrease our sensitivity to stress. The concept of using plants to improve our performance and response to stress is nothing new; studies conducted in the early 1900s on the use of berries and seeds by hunters in Asia revealed that the berries and seeds were used by hunters as a tonic that had the ability to reduce hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, all states that produce extreme levels of stress and lower performance. Around WWII, the use of herbal medicines to increase stamina and survival skills of soldiers was the first formal introduction of the adaptogen as a true method of stress management.
The key word here is adapt. Stress comes from many sources and presents itself in various forms. When we experience stress, it presents itself as alarm, resistance, or exhaustion, often in that order. The adrenal and pituitary glands release hormones that these non-toxic herbs react to, helping us to adjust to the level of stress hormone that has been released, essentially bringing us to us to a state of homeostasis, or balance. There is no one-size-fits-all herb that will provide a response to every type of stress, and not every plant qualifies as an adaptogen.
There are very specific criteria that a plant must meet in order to be welcomed into this special category:
The number of adaptogens and their function are as widely varied as the types of plants on the Earth. Some of the most widely-used plants are Maca, Lion’s Mane, Chaga, and Ashwagandha.
Maca is a nutty-flavored root from the Andes mountains. It qualifies as an adaptogen because of its ability to manage hormone levels – raising them when your body is sluggish and lowering them when your excitement level is too high. Maca’s other cool factor is that it qualifies as both an adaptogen and a superfood due to its high levels of protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium and certain amino acids. Maca has the ability to bring you to a state of mind/body equilibrium over time by stabilizing your hormones, and has been used for centuries to address fatigue, sexual performance and mood. The best part is that Maca’s peanut butter mimicking taste make it one of the easiest to take plants; Find it at your farmer’s market or health food store and add it to baked recipes, smoothies, or your oatmeal.
A mushroom that looks like its namesake, Lion’s mane has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. Its adaptogenic prowess comes from its ability to not only manage heightened levels of stress, but to also manage depression and anxiety, and improve mental performance and concentration, which can suffer as stress levels increase. This is another multi-talented plant,
used for both its culinary and medicinal properties. In addition to helping the body manage its stress response, the mushroom boasts anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and blood regulating properties. The mushroom can be taken in many forms, as a tea by steeping in water, as a tincture, in supplement form, or most people’s personal favorite, added to our favorite dishes. It can be sourced at most Asian markets.
Chaga is another adaptogenic mushroom, with the power to take the form of coffee when steeped in water. Its high melanin content gives it a charcoal appearance, and its cellular walls are usually broken down using water or alcohol. The dried and pulverized powder is typically taken as tea or coffee and was even used as a coffee substitute during WWI and II. Chaga has strengths as a powerful immune booster and an adaptogen, used as a tonic in Eastern Europe for centuries.
Ashwagandha has been widely known for its ability to reduce the stress hormone cortisol and increase adrenal function, resulting in decreased anxiety and increased sense of well-being. The herb has a positive effect on immune function by inhibiting tumor growth; as an adaptogen it improves memory and brain function, and stabilizes blood sugar, which helps maintain focus and energy levels. An ancient Ayurvedic herb, the Sanskrit meaning of ashwagandha is “horse smell”, with a strong taste that make it most popularly taken as a supplement.
Are adaptogens perfect for everyone? Like most “alternative” medicine, the jury remains perpetually out on whether the medical community should acknowledge the power of these plants. But their use over hundreds of years and around the world is enough to convince a growing community of users. No major scientific body has conducted research to negate the legitimacy of adaptogens, leaving their choice as a treatment up to you. The requirement that adaptogens be non-toxic and non-habitual is meant to classify them as generally safe; but when using any herb, it’s a good idea to consult your healthcare provider to ensure they are compatible with your health profile and complimentary to any other medicines you use.
Panossian, A., Wikman, G., Kaur, P., & Asea, A. (2009). Adaptogens exert a stress-protective effect by modulation of expression of molecular chaperones. Phytomedicine, 16(6-7), 617-622.
Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 3(1), 188-224. doi:10.3390/ph3010188 Winston, D., & Maimes, S. (2007).
Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co. https://www.amymyersmd.com/2018/08/adaptogens-stress-adrenal-fatigue/