Would you like an enhanced immune system, reduced stress, and a slower ageing process? Welcome to the wonderful world of adaptogens! These compounds and herbs have the capacity to bring balance to our bodies and, potentially, to our world. Let’s explore what they are, how they work, and why they are so important.
What is an Adaptogen?
The study of adaptogens goes back thousands of years in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, which understood disease as simply being a body that is out of balance. Plants, herbal compounds, and exercises were prescribed as a means to restore balance and health to the body. Starting in 1947, Soviet researchers, Israel I. Brekhman and Dr. Nicolai Lazerev, were the first to clinically study and validate the healing properties of adaptogens.
Adaptogens assist our body in maintaining homeostasis – a stable internal environment, regardless of external conditions. For example, if we are tired they will energize us, if we are hyperactive they will calm our system. Brekhman and Lazerev studied more than 189 plants during 45 years of searching for adaptogenic qualities, but only found a few that could be classified as adaptogens.
How Do they Work?
First and foremost, adaptogens help our bodies by reducing inflammation and hormonal stress responses. They reduce cortisol and calm the stress enzyme (JNK), which causes inflammation. Adaptogens also have antioxidant action that counteract oxidative compounds that decrease ATP (energy) generation in the system. Oxidants are free radicals produced within the body or gathered from the environment which can help fend off viruses or microbes, but can also be very damaging to one’s health.
Unlike a specific phyto (plant) nutrient or vitamin herbal adaptogens are unique in the way they are able to protect the mitochondria from stress-induced damage because they actually stimulate the cell to produce proteins that help resist stress and enhance longevity. For this reason they are used in many anti-aging formulations. Another characteristic of adaptogens is that they help regulate the immune and nervous systems and have antidepressant and amphoteric effects on the body. – Anne Baker, Nourish Holistic Nutrition
What Plants are Considered Adaptogens?
Dr. David Winston lists 13 primary adaptogenic herbs:
American Ginseng root
Asian Ginseng root
Dang Shen root
Holy Basil herb
Wu Wei Zi berries/seeds (Schisandra)
Some herbalists also include Astragalus and Maca Root in this list. It is important to note that choosing fresh, organic herbs always yields the best results. Incorporating these into your daily diet and lifestyle is much better than rushing to the store when you are sick to buy a bottle of herb capsules. Tea is a great way to ingest them, and can be part of a daily relaxing and contemplative personal ritual. One of my favorites is Tulsi Rose Tea with a little honey or maple syrup before bed.
Adaptation is Key to Evolution
What can we learn from adaptogens? Much like how they bring balance to our bodies, we must we also adapt to our changing environment to bring balance to ourselves and our community.
We live in a dynamic universe that is always in flux, where change is the only constant. So clinging too tightly to anything fixed may leave you feeling left behind.
As we grow and develop, we face a variety of environmental challenges. By being equipped with an adaptive plasticity, we can develop new traits in response to imposed conditions. This is called adaptive plasticity.
One example is neuroplasticity, which applies to our ability to be mentally flexible. We also have practices like yoga, which allow us to be physically flexible. Both of these have benefits to our health.
The capacity to acclimate in any situation is based on our ability to learn, to take in new information, integrate it, and thrive. The concept of adaptive plasticity can also be applied to social, or even global, communities.
Effects on the Community, Society, and Planet
Our bodies are amazing in that they continuously strive to maintain balance – or equilibrium – internally, even when faced with external changes. This concept of equanimity (homeostasis) can be applied to our physiological system through healthy diet and lifestyle, our mental well-being through practices like meditation, and to our bodies through yoga or other disciplines. Homeostasis is also something that communities, and nations, strive for.
There is a constant dynamic tension between homeostasis and creative change. Too much change at once can disrupt internal balance. Too little change can lead to stagnation. – Psychology Today
Now that we understand the ways that adaptogens can bring balance to our body, mind, and spirit, how does this translate to our community, society, and planet? We know that the world is inflamed with fear and stress, that many people have lost their connection to balance.
When we take care of ourselves through healthy diet, meditation, yoga, time in nature, along with many other practices, we become balanced and more able to adapt to changing times. Each of us is also becoming more aware of the ways that we influence, and are influenced by, our friends and social relations.
World peace, and global homeostasis for humans, will only happen on an individual basis from within. Individually we can find communities dedicated to this process and together we can apply an adaptogenic property onto global affairs to restore balance.
Featured image: From an artwork by Sister Golden.
Read about How to Heal Yourself by Talking to Your Body.