Many of us aren’t very successful at reducing stress or mitigating the toll it takes on our bodies. That’s why there’s so much interest in adaptogens: amazingly effective substances that help to balance, restore, and protect our bodies. We asked Medical Herbalist Katolen Yardley, mnimh, rh (ahg), educator for Botanica whole food supplements, to help us understand what they are and how they work.
What are adaptogens?
The term “adaptogen” was coined in 1947 by Russian researcher N.V. Lazarev, who was looking at agents that help the body adapt to stressful circumstances. But their origins are rooted in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
Adaptogens help the body adapt to changes in the internal or external environment. They strengthen and tone the organs that interface with the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems, and work to enhance and improve our body’s resistance to:
Foreign agents, pathogens, bacteria: by normalizing internal metabolic functions, and improving their efficiency;
External agents, from environmental influences to disease: to reduce the body’s susceptibility to illness; and
Stress: by helping the body deal with raised blood pressure, lack of sleep, worry, and anxiety.
Do different types of adaptogens do different things?
Yes, there are numerous herbs applicable to each of our organ systems. For instance:
reishi mushrooms help to support and balance an overactive, or underactive, immune system, while also providing increased vitality—great for stress.
Siberian ginseng contains complex carbohydrates (immune-stimulating polysaccharides) that enhance immune system function. This root is also key support for nervous system stress: fatigue, depletion, and lack of vitality.
Are there adaptogens which are generally safe for everyone?
Yes, many adaptogen herbs may be considered foods in other cultures; their herbs are a good place to start. There’s a fine line between herb as food, and herb as medicine.
Holy basil or tulsi
Popular in Ayurvedic herbal medicine, it’s classified as a ‘rasayana’—a general tonic herb that has been said to help promote long life and ‘perfect health’. It is effective for respiratory health, minimizing mucus buildup, offering support for indigestion, providing anti-bacterial properties, and improving cognitive function, mood, and physical energy. It can also balance blood sugar, increase energy levels, and indirectly support the immune and digestive systems.
Known in traditional Chinese medicine as five-flavour fruit, this berry tastes salty/bitter/sweet and sour. Its astringent properties are used to tighten tissues, treating diarrhea or excessive fluids. It’s an antioxidant, full of nutrients to support our body’s enzymatic reactions and for immune system support; an anti-inflammatory; and a liver protector. Research shows it helps increase glutathione levels (an essential liver antioxidant), offering support for regeneration of healthy liver cells, and helping to protect the liver from incoming chemical and environmental toxins and drug-induced liver damage. Athletes also use it to improve performance and it may help with anxiety and depression.
Avena sativa (Milky oat)
Oats in liquid or pill form, or even ingested as steel-cut oats, are one of the best nervous system supports. Known as a ‘nerve trophorestorative’, oats help to nourish tissues, restore systems, and feed a depleted nervous system, jagged from high amounts of emotional disease, adrenal fatigue/overload, grief or trauma, chronic fatigue, or a panic disorder.
If beginning to use herbs, always start with food-related restoratives first—herbs that are gently nourishing and high in minerals—before moving on to more potent plants. If you’re on multiple medications, dealing with a genetic predisposition to a certain illlness, or have a pre-existing health condition or chronic health issues, consult with a medical herbalist or naturopath rather than self-treating.
Katolen Yardley is the author of the newly released book The Good Living Guide to Natural and Herbal Remedies, a practical compendium and medicine making guide containing herbal medicines found in the kitchen, garden, and forest. katolenyardley.com
Article was published in The Good Life magazine.