Adaptogens are plant-based elements. They act as a back-up for the body's natural ability to tackle stress. Their name is self-explanatory. Adaptogens can conform and work according to your bodies' specific needs. They are important for your overall health and well-being. Acting at the cellular level, they help restore balance:
Stress can be extremely beneficial, but only when it acts as a driving force. It initiates your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response when subjected to risk or threats. For example, a piece of broken glass lying on the floor is a threat (stress agent) to your feet. You must pick it up to avoid injuring yourself or your loved ones (the fight-flight mechanism).
When stress starts to affect your everyday life activities, it becomes a problem. The not-so-healthy condition may develop into a state of ill-health. Severe or chronic stress can directly cause depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and other behavioral issues. If left untreated, chronic stress results in the development of physical ailments—for example, heart disease, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, and so on.
There is hardly anyone who could claim to live a stress-free life. People have different ways of handling stress. Some may go on an eat-what-you-can spree while others may go bungee jumping. Before you decide to get on with any such excursions, take a look at what adaptogens can do for you.
What’s the deal with adaptogens?
Traditional medicine is well on its way back into our lives. The buzz word for modern-day wellness gurus you keep hearing about is ‘adaptogens’. How do you like the idea of:
waking up fresh in the morning
taking on tasks with exuberance
spending an energized afternoon with family
flaunting glowing skin and a rejuvenated spirit
Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, that's what research of adaptogenic herbs shows.
Adaptogens act as modifiers of our stress response pathways. They help us cope via adapt-and-survive mechanisms against specific stressor elements. Besides that, they exert excellent healing and immune-supportive properties.
What makes a herb an adaptogen?
What makes these herbal ingredients have such powerful benefits and seem almost magical?
The health experts define adaptogens as any plant-based substance that:
• is non-toxic
• does not disturb body function
• has the ability to influence bodily systems
• enhances the body’s resistance to physical, chemical, or biological agents
• has a stabilizing and regulating effect on a disease state
The history of adaptogens
Adaptogenic ingredients might be new in contemporary medicine. Yet, they enjoy established footings in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Adaptogens were royal elements reserved for the elite class. Their history dates back to 3000 B.C. traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine where they were used as a primary therapeutic remedy.
Historical records of adaptogenic herbs were written in ancient inscriptions and scriptures, such as the classic Charaka Samhita of Ayurveda. The content recognizes about 350 plant varieties as having medicinal value.
Shennong (The Divine Farmer) is the legendary originator of Chinese herbal medicine.
The Lessons of Shennong: The Basis of Chinese Herb Medicine is a famous text that mentions about 262 medicinal herbs. Asian Ginseng, Astragalus, and Reishi are among the prominent ones.
That is not all, Greeks also hold the research title in this regard. Their famous physician Dioscorides gets the credit for it. He explains the benefits of about 600 medicinal plants in his De Materia Medica. A renowned medical text was all about herbs, including Rhodiola and Licorice.
So if you think Greek Vikings had battle-hardened genes, give it a second thought. Historians speak of their use of specific adaptogens and superherbs to enhance physical strength and endurance. You want to know what helps Shaolin monks meditate with single-mindedness and focus? Adaptogens.
It wasn’t until 1948 when research of adaptogens began. A Russian scientist named Dr. Nikolai Lazarev came up with the term 'adaptogen.' It was during his quest to increase performance for the Soviet Union during the Cold War that he researched the perfect ingredients for making an all-natural tonic. The Russian athletes participating in the Olympic Games (the late 1970s) used adaptogens to aid their performance.
The research work on adaptogens continued and were brought into the spotlight in the year 1986. Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen won the Nobel Prize when their research led to the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor in the brain. The consumption of Lion's Mane, an adaptogen, was the possible link to this discovery.
Then, Dr. Brekhman introduced a cognitive-support supplement in 1994. Called the 'Prime One.' It was a combination of many adaptogenic herbs. Some of the notabal herbs included Eleuthero, Schisandra, Rhaponticum, Rhodiola, and Licorice.
There has been no halt to the research into the immense power of adaptogens. Researchers are continuously looking into these powerful herbs.
How do adaptogens work?
Adaptogens work by getting involved with the processes of how your body reacts to stress.
Your stress response is because of your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is a very dynamic axis in your body. The HPA axis acts as the primary response unit to stress stimuli, which links the central nervous system and the endocrine system. The goal is to generate an apt response to stress. Here’s how:
Your Hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).
CRH binds to specific receptors on the anterior pituitary gland.
The binding of CRH to its receptors results in the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
ACTH binds to receptors on the adrenal cortex.
This stimulates the release of cortisol
The release of cortisol continues even after hours of a stress attack. A time comes when the cortisol levels become high enough to trigger negative feedback to the hypothalamus. The negative feedback helps to let your body know it needs to work its way back to homeostasis.
It’s plausible to think, what is the role of adaptogens when the HPA axis is so efficient?
With time, continued exposure to stress stimuli, our bodies get used to the protocol. The HPA may not respond with the same vigor every time. Cortisol has a role in maintaining the sensitivity of the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. So the levels must remain in check.
This is where adaptogens come to the rescue. They keep the balance by hacking the stress response. Adaptogens play a role at various levels of the HPA axis.
Let’s review one example of how adaptogens work their way through the HPA axis. There are two stress sensors in your body. These are Hsp70 and Hsp72 proteins. Both of them interact with an enzyme called c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase or JNK. In response to this enzyme-protein reaction, the levels of cortisol take a dip to the lower side. As cortisol goes down, your levels of concentration, endurance, and performance swing upwards.
Now here is the exciting thing, your levels of JNK is directly linked to nerve degeneration, chronic inflammation, and disease. JNK also decreases the amount of ATP molecules, the energy bundles of your body. This is why your energy levels sink during stressful situations.
JNK is a stress-activated enzyme that regulates many actions in the body. These include complex processes like gene expression, energy production, and cell death. So high levels of JNK contribute towards disease initiation and progression. So you understand why continued stress culminates into chronic disease states.
Adaptogens regulate the production of JNK, thereby bringing down the stress levels. When your body is stress-free, you are in a state of health and well-being. That is the mainstay of adaptogen herbs' working in your body.
Why do you need to incorporate adaptogens into your lifestyle?
There is mounting scientific evidence and many noticeable studies that support the tall claims associated with adaptogens. Pharmacological Studies on brain cells show adaptogens exert the following actions:
nerve cell protection
enhance mental endurance
stimulate the nervous system
Adaptogens induce a state of homeostasis in the body via:
modulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis
regulation of crucial mediators of the stress response
Science supports the old saying, you are what you eat. There is an infinite amount of research to this regard. Plant-based elements have a diverse way of influencing your life.
We, as a society, need to take adaptogens because we’re all stressed out. Consistent stress levels result in adrenal fatigue. When adrenals are overworked and tired, it results in different disease states. Adaptogens help your adrenals by supporting via the HPA pathway. Homeostasis ensues. Internal body balance shows itself as:
refreshed energy stores
improved focus and cognitive performance, and so on
Who doesn't want all that's listed above?
All adaptogenic herbal extracts carry distinct properties. They cater to a range of benefits for your body. Lack of scientific research on some herbs does not mean adaptogens lack effectiveness. A bit more analysis in the coming years may identify promising results in this regard.
One of the best ways to incorporate adaptogens into your lifestyle is through supplements. The benefits of adaptogens are best when taken daily and on an empty stomach.
Take home message
Adaptogens truly have a way around your bodily systems. Their ability to 'lend a hand' helps build and maintain resilience in your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.
A majority of hospital visits are due to stress-induced ailments. There is an association between high cortisol levels and chronic diseases, which adaptogens address effectively.
Adaptogens are the key to being able to handle the stressors of life. Taking care of your health is wealth.
Shop Jua Herb's adaptogenic superherb blend to protect your body from the damaging effects of stress.
About the author: Dr. Maimoona Hul is a medical doctor with degrees in surgery and medicine, as well as diet and nutrition.