Though many of us think that oriental medicine, with its reliance on herbal remedies, is nothing more than an outdated oddity, chances are you’ve used some of those same remedies yourself. In fact, some herbal remedies are so common that we don’t think about how we use them in our day-to-day lives. You don’t exactly need to be an expert in eastern medicine to have chewed garlic for an upset stomach, sipped green tea to ward off a cold, or rubbed Aloe vera on a sunburn.
But there’s a new class of old world herbs that promise benefits greater than most home remedies. They’re called adaptogens, and they just might change your life.
What Are Adaptogens?
A term first coined in 19471 by the Soviet scientist Nikolai Lazarev, adaptogens are a fascinating and promising form of herbal remedy. Even the name “adaptogens,” gives us a hint of the power of these herbs. Much of their benefit is derived from their ability to help our bodies maintain balance even during periods of duress.
Two early researchers who studied these herbs, Isreal Brekham and I.V. Darymovhe, gave us the following three rules for adaptogens:2
- Adaptogens must be nontoxic, which is to say safe for human consumption.
- Adaptogens must produce a nonspecific bodily response, and this should be related to a reduction in your body’s stress levels (i.e., increased resistance to stressors).
- Adaptogens must have a normalizing response on physiology, meaning that they work to maintain homeostasis (the body’s state of balance) regardless of outside factors.
Researchers were fascinated by the properties of these herbs, and wanted to answer an intriguing question: How can herbs have the power to adapt in any way a body could require?
Those who have studied adaptogens believe that the answer may have to do with the environments in which these plants are found. Adaptogens grow in very harsh and stressful conditions – mostly mountainous regions in Asia and Europe. As such, they need to be resilient and, well, adaptable. The qualities that these plants possess are passed on to humans when consumed.
It’s an ancient remedy that still packs a punch against 21st century stressors.
Why We Need Them
Like the Himalayan mountaintops on which these miracle plants grow, we exist in a world full of stressors. We’re dealing with more time spent at work3 and longer commutes than ever.4 Tuning into the news might tempt you to tune out for a while.
So if you’re stressed, you’re certainly not alone. Unfortunately, your body is constantly reacting to the effects of stress. This means ramping up adrenaline and cortisol production, which in turn increases blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rate. Additionally, insulin production is boosted in order to give us a little extra energy.
Your body’s ability to go into this “emergency state” is a good thing. Early on in human history, it was even crucial to our survival. But high blood pressure can’t get you out of a traffic jam. Instead, constantly being stressed has been tied to insomnia, headaches, and back pain5 as well as a multitude of other longer term health problems.
The effects of stress cannot be overstated, which is why adaptogens are such a potentially revolutionary remedy.
These Adaptogen All-Stars
Have Been Used for Centuries
Ashwagandha has long been used in the Ayurvedic medicine community in India to lower cortisol levels and balance hormones. Also known as Indian Ginseng, the herb is commonly used to help patients bolster their immune systems after an illness.
Rhodiola Rosea was first used in traditional Nordic and Russian medicine, and is still commonly taken in order to combat fatigue as well as memory and concentration problems. A 2007 study in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry also showed the herb to have antidepressant effects.
Licorice Root is grown in Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean. Practitioners of Chinese medicine have believed in the root’s healing ability for centuries. Users have seen its effects which vary from beating a sore throat to reversing adrenal fatigue.
Gynostemma Pentaphyllum is one of the most popular herbs in Asia, and has antioxidant, in addition to, adaptogenic properties. In addition to supporting the immune system, Gynostemma also supports cardiovascular and digestive functions. The herb is found growing in high altitudes around Asia.
Reishi Mushroom, a fungus found in Asia and nicknamed the “king of mushrooms,” has traditionally been used in teas and soups by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Its adaptogenic properties not only reduce inflammation and cortisol levels, but are also thought to act as an anti-diabetic.
Maitake Mushroom, which means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, can be found in Europe and Asia as well as the Northeastern US. The mushrooms contain a compound known as beta-D-glucans, which not only strengthen the immune system, but also has anti-carcinogenic properties.