All About Adaptogens

These nourishing herbs for energy, vitality, and immunity may be the keys to overall health in the fight against daily stress.

  • Nature has provided us with a category of herbs called "adaptogens" that can help calm us and heal the root of our energy crisis.
    Photo by Getty Images/swissmediavision
  • Adaptogens revive us rather than just boosting our energy, and they help to restore immunity and vitality.
    Photo by Getty Images/shironosov
  • Some adaptogenic herbs improve sleep and reduce anxiety and depression.
    Photo by Getty Images/ArthurHidden
  • The term "adaptogen" refers to the unique ability of these herbs to help you adapt to the stress in your life.
    Photo by Getty Images/pixdeluxe
  • Adaptogens can help you get through busy times without taking a health hit, but slowing down and creating time for inner peace is critical to overall well-being.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Rido
  • Rhodiola helps promote a calm emotional state and supports strong mental performance, optimal immune function, and hormonal balance.
    Photo by Getty Images/rezkrr
  • Ashwagandha improves energy and learning, promotes libido, and prevents premature aging.
    Photo by Getty Images/eskymaks
  • Holy basil calms the mind and spirit and promotes longevity, and it has been revered in India for more than 5,000 years.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/beinluck
  • Eleuthero increases mental alertness, enhances concentration, lessens fatigue, improves sleep, and promotes immunity.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/JRJfin
  • Reishi mushrooms are best known for promoting immunity, upping resistance to infections, and reducing inflammation.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Successo images

We live in a culture that demands constant achievement, productivity, and success, which means work — and then more work — on top of the financial and personal demands of daily living. In fact, the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation time! No wonder specialty coffees that promise to make us “bulletproof” are all the rage. I think it’s safe to say that we’re in the middle of a human energy crisis, with most of us swimming as hard as we can just to stay afloat. And it’s really taking a toll on our health.

The problem is that even glorious, organic, energy-boosting coffees, bars, and supplements don’t actually get to the root of the problem: that we’re burning up our reserves without ample replenishment. In fact, such supplements may just add the wrong kind of fuel to the fires of inflammation that eventually build up when we’re on the verge of — or past the point of — burnout.

The good news is that nature has provided us with a whole category of herbs called “adaptogens” that can help us get to the real root of our energy crisis — the chronic over-activation of our bodies’ natural survival mode — while cooling the flames of inflammation, reviving rather than just boosting energy, and restoring immunity and vitality.

Meet Your Survival Mode

Your body has an entire stress response system that’s hard-wired to protect you from danger. It starts in your brain and makes its way to its chemical production and release station: your adrenal glands. The adrenals are two tiny organs that sit one atop each kidney and serve as one of the regulators of your energy, immunity, hormone balance, blood sugar balance, and much more.

When the adrenal response system goes into action, it rallies to protect you by pumping out adrenaline and cortisol. These ramp up your blood sugar so you can run (for example, away from a tiger or unfriendly neighboring tribe); increase your blood pressure so you don’t go into shock (if that tiger bites you); raise your heart rate to keep those running muscles supplied with oxygen; crank out insulin to help clean up the sugar after the crisis is over; and activate your immune responses so you don’t get an infection (again, from that tiger bite). When your brain gets the signal that danger is over (such as when you realize that the tiger got the slower guy), you go back into your non-emergency mode, and all of those physiologic responses return to baseline. No lasting damage has been done.

The problem is that when you’re in a state of constant stress, as so many of us are, the survival response remains switched to the “on” position. When this happens, very real damage can occur.

7/31/2019 8:01:21 AM

I enjoyed reading your article but I am somewhat confused concerning Rhodiola. You state, "When your personal gas tank is already “below the empty line,” boosting your energy with the more stimulating adaptogens, such as ginseng and rhodiola, is a bit like drinking a triple shot of espresso when you’re already exhausted. However, you also say, "Rhodiola extract helps promote a calm emotional state and supports strong mental performance, optimal immune function, and hormonal balance. It’s a key adaptogen for reducing anxiety. It increases mental and physical stamina; improves sleep; and reduces stress, burnout, and irritability." So is Rhodiola calming and improves sleep or is Rhodiola stimulating?

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