By now, nearly all of us have heard the word adaptogen. But fewer of us understand their delicate nature. Just what are they, and how exactly do they work? We profile 10 of the most popular ones in the wellness world.
Even to Adriana Ayales, owner of Brooklyn’s Anima Mundi herbal pharmacy, adaptogens can be somewhat hard to define.
Touted as an essential element in securing clarity/balance, they have lured many of us (myself included) to hop on the wagon in an effort to EVEN OUT. But, as with so many things, where to begin? Through an extensive conversation with Adriana, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of 10 popular adaptogenic herbs, so that you can make informed decisions about which ones may work best for you. Please remember, however, to ALWAYS consult a health professional before taking ANY herbs/supplements!
What are adaptogens?
“Adaptogens are a very special class of herbs — natural compounds known as immunomodulators, which have been used worldwide for thousands of years, due to their profound healing abilities. The term “adaptogen” was coined on the more modern side of plant history, yet the understanding and impact of these master plants is ancient. What’s truly fascinating is that these plants all share a particular intelligence in common — they work ‘non-specifically,’ meaning they target multiple functions in the body — physically, mentally and biologically. The inherent intelligence of adaptogens also works by providing your body with what it particularly needs in that moment. For example, if you’re fatigued, adaptogens give you energy; or, if you’re anxious, they can calm you down. This is due to the infamous impact that these special plants have on our endocrine system, the HPA axis (hypothalamus + pituitary and adrenal glands). In a nutshell, they meet your body where it’s at, and match it by chemically remedying what’s needed to restore balance.
How do adaptogens work?
“The HPA axis continually assesses what’s happening in the body: gives feedback and calls for appropriate action, using hormones as its messenger molecules to bring homeostasis in the body. Although many believe that the main function of this highly complex glandular system is chronic stress management, it serves many other functions, and is even associated in Eastern traditions with subtle spiritual functioning.
The hypothalamus (H) is the command center of the brain, often called our “god” center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system and through an influx of hormones. H perceives, oversees and assesses everything going on in the body, then informs its “personal assistant”, the pituitary (P) gland, what to do. The personal assistant informs the “general managers” (the target organs), who then enlist the “workers” (particular biochemical processes) in the relevant tissues or organs in the body. The enlisted or activated tissues include the visceral organs — heart, lungs, intestines, kidneys, liver, pancreas (and their less publicized agents such as the gallbladder, spleen, blood vessels, skeletal muscles, etc.).
Are there certain adaptogens that are better than others for certain ails?
“All adaptogens have the common thread of targeting the HPA axis, and stress build-up, but each one has a particular focus. Here are 10 of the more popular adaptogens being talked about in the wellness community:
Although it’s an immune powerhouse and multi-targets several organ systems, and works for just about anyone’s constitution, reishi has a particular affinity to the lungs.
Known as the Queen, Reishi is one of our most highly revered medicines, as it’s appeared in many writings of Eastern tradition found from ancient times. It has appeared in recorded learnings for thousands of years.
- may reduce tumor growth
- high amount of antioxidants
- may reduce inflammation
- may regulate mood/improve anxiety and depression
- may serve as a lung tonic
- cited as anti-cancerous/inhibitor of cell and tumor growth — useful for both prevention and possible treatment
- may protect liver and kidney
- may aid gut health
Known as Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is also a multi-organ powerhouse.
- may stimulate the immune system, while also decreasing inflammation
- may reduce cortisol and damaging effects of chronic stress on multiple organs
- may aid in recovery from chemotherapy by restoring white blood cell count
- may boost immunity
- may assist in fighting infection
- may serve as brain tonic
- may aid in weight loss, building musculature — muscle performance, particularly in recovery — revered by athletes
- may provide anti-cancer effects
Tulsi is the Hindu name for holy basil, and is considered the “Golden Remedy of Ayurveda” due to its immeasurable benefits in handling stress, anxiety and inflammation.
- may lower cortisol levels
- nutritive + high in antioxidants
- may serve as digestive tonic
- may be anti-inflammatory
- may improve cognition
- may be used to increase mammary gland production
- may contain anti-cancerous chemistry
Astragalus is a foundation of Chinese medicine, heralded for its boost of the immune system through adrenal gland and liver support.
- known in Chinese Medicine as a “ Qi” or longevity tonic
- may act as an immunostimulant — increasing blood flow
- high in anti-oxidants.
- may possess anti-cancer properties, and assist in recovery from cancer treatments
Licorice has been used for centuries to combat gastrointestinal disorders, adrenal fatigue, PMS and pain relief. It is known equally as a “guide herb,” which means it can maximize the benefits of other herbs with which it’s taken.
- may provide anti-inflammatory support
- could regulate blood sugar
- licorice flavanoids known to protect against oxidative damage in the brain
- may possess anti-canerous chemistry
Cordyceps sinensis, which is actually a parasitic mushroom, offers a wide variety of benefits such as enhancing mood, lowering stress, enhancing athletic performance, and improving brain function and heart health.
- nutritional powerhouse: contains essential B vitamins, even B12 – great for those seeking plant-based protein
- contains medicinally important polysaccharides, proteins, sterols, nucleosides, and other trace elements
- may assist in anti-cancer activity.
- may protect the brain, adrenals and the kidneys
Maca hails from Peru, and is revered for its sexual stimulation, aiding in fertility, lowering blood pressure, decreasing stress and alleviating symptoms of menopause, among others!
- non-caffeine-based energizer
- contains a compound (MTCA), which inhibits monoamine oxidase (MAO) – an enzyme that breaks down certain transmitters, which may have the ability to mutate DNA
- may neutralize free radicals and protect against oxidative stress
Chaga, a nutrient-dense mushroom, yields many powerful benefits, including antioxidants which may help to slow aging skin. Chaga may also fight inflammation, lower cholesterol, boost immunity and has been said to give cancer a run for its money!
- may boost immunity
- may be anti-viral and anti-bacterial
- contains some of the highest antioxidant activity compared to other mushrooms
- may suppress tumor growth
Schisandra is a red berry native to China, and has been used for thousands of years to reduce cortisol in the body, address inflammation and skin health, as well as promote cellular health and proper liver function.
BENEFITS (and one of Adriana’s favorites — one of the few, if only herbs with 5-flavor properties –bitter, sweet, sour, salty and hot)
- may work as a blood nourisher and detoxifier
- may reduce excess cortisol
- may fight adrenal fatigue
Shatavari, a species of asparagus, grows throughout India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. It is touted as a wonder herb for supporting the female reproductive system, managing stress, promoting healthy energy levels, and keeping the lungs moisturized.
- reproductive powerhouse
- may reduce excess “fire” in the body, particularly in reproductive organs
- may boots milk production
- may promote healthy energy levels and strength
*It is very important to know how and when to take these precious medicines, as the common misconception is that because they’re tonics, they can be used daily in large doses. It’s always good to carefully read, educate and do self-research. And, of course, always consult with a healthcare practitioner to truly tailor your herbal prescription to not just feel, but to thrive.”
Do adaptogens carry any side effects?
Ayales can’t stress enough the importance of understanding possible side effects when researching and taking adaptogens. “The trendiness of these herbs can pose substantial health risks for those people who are using them because an Instagram celebrity is mixing them into her morning smoothie.” Below is a comprehensive chart, containing both benefits as highlighted above and possible risks to consider when using each one.
Immeasurable thanks to you, Adriana! XO