What are adaptogens and their health benefits?

What are adaptogens and their health benefits?

Team ErbologyErbology

A plant that can give you a boost of energy, or help you relax? It sounds almost too good to be true, but some plants do possess the amazing ability to adapt to exactly what our bodies need at the time. These are called adaptogens - and there are plenty of reasons why you might want to add them into your diet.

April 27, 2022 4:52 pm

What is an adaptogen?

A Russian scientist, Lazarev, coined the word ‘adaptogen’ in the 1950s. The term brings together plants and herbs that have been used medically for many, many thousands of years. However, they never really got the recognition they deserve in the West – until recently.

In short, an adaptogen is a compound which can intervene in the stress reaction and alter it.(1)

However, there are a few more criteria that a plant must meet in order to be called an adaptogen.

  • Firstly, adaptogens must work in a general way, rather than acting only on specific symptoms. In other words, they must be able to help ward off stress from any type of source. This includes environmental stress, physical illness, unhealthiness and even emotional stress caused by interaction with others.
  • Secondly, adaptogens must be able to help people get back into ‘balance’, or retain your sense of healthy equilibrium.
  • Lastly, adaptogens must not affect or disrupt the other functions of our bodies.

The definition has since been altered and sometimes expanded. However, these are the characteristics which are central to adaptogen classification.


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How do adaptogens work?

The human body reacts to stressors by first raising an alarm. This sets off a hormone called cortisol.

Let’s say you’ve just heard a piece of alarming news: your department at work is making cuts.

Cortisol prompts the fight-or-flight response and other related responses. These include increasing your heart rate and blood pressure; you’re feeling panicked that your job might be on the line.

Next comes the ‘resistance’ stage. It continues to fight off stress for a prolonged period. During this stage, you might be trying to remedy the source of your stress. For example, you might try to find out more about the job cuts in your department, start looking for other jobs, or speaking to your manager.

If you can’t find a resolution to the issue, your body keep on in the resistance stage for a long period of time, and the cortisol keeps coming. This can be harmful if it continues for too long.

That’s when the exhaustion stage kicks in. This is just what it sounds like. Your immune system suffers. You are left without energy. In our job-related example, this is the point at which flop onto the sofa at home, feeling more upset and helpless than anxious about the job cuts.

In serious situations, depression and anxiety may come into play.

Adaptogens and stress

Stress is normal and necessary. However, we live in chaotic times. Our bodies experience increased stress.

This stress may come from situations which we struggle to adapt to emotionally and mentally.

However, there are also physical stressors in our environment, such as toxins from pollution, cigarette smoke, and even in our food. While they might not cause you to feel stress, they put stress on important bodily functions.

When physical and emotional stress become too much, we can lapse into a state of semi-permanent exhaustion. We feel rubbish, our immune defences are down and we’re tired all the time. In common parlance, we’re really stressed out.

Adaptogens can help increase our resistance. They work by decreasing the severity of our initial ‘panic’ response, and lengthening the amount of time we can stay in the resistance stage. In short, they help us deal more calmly with situations of stress.

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