All About Adaptogens

By Aviva Romm and M.D.
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Nature has provided us with a category of herbs called "adaptogens" that can help calm us and heal the root of our energy crisis.
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Adaptogens revive us rather than just boosting our energy, and they help to restore immunity and vitality.
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Some adaptogenic herbs improve sleep and reduce anxiety and depression.
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The term "adaptogen" refers to the unique ability of these herbs to help you adapt to the stress in your life.
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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.
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Rhodiola helps promote a calm emotional state and supports strong mental performance, optimal immune function, and hormonal balance.
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Ashwagandha improves energy and learning, promotes libido, and prevents premature aging.
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Holy basil calms the mind and spirit and promotes longevity, and it has been revered in India for more than 5,000 years.
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Eleuthero increases mental alertness, enhances concentration, lessens fatigue, improves sleep, and promotes immunity.
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Reishi mushrooms are best known for promoting immunity, upping resistance to infections, and reducing inflammation.

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.

Are You Stuck in Survival Mode?

When we get stuck in survival mode, the short-term beneficial responses backfire; it’s a case of too much of a good thing. Here are some of the symptoms that will tell you whether you’re already paying the price of your stress response being in overdrive:

• Blood sugar problems; insulin resistance
• Brain fog; concentration or memory problems
• Difficulty falling asleep (you feel “tired and wired”) or restless sleep
• Digestive symptoms, such as constipation, gas, bloating, IBS, or reflux (heartburn)
• Fatigue; chronic fatigue syndrome
• Chronic overwhelming stress; burnout
• Food cravings, especially for sugar, carbs, or fatty foods
• Afternoon sugar or caffeine cravings
• Frequent colds and infections
• High blood pressure; high cholesterol; diabetes
• Hormonal imbalances; PMS; fertility problems; menopause symptoms
• Inflammation; joint pain; fibromyalgia
• Irritability; anxiety; depression
• Weight gain (especially around the waist)

If you have any of these conditions, pay attention to what’s going on in your adrenal stress response system and take action to restore balance.

How We End Up in Survival Mode

The following are examples of the types of situations that can put you, and keep you, in survival mode:

• Constant work stress
• Stress at home
• Relationship stress
• Financial stress
• Chronic illness in yourself or a family member
• Regularly skipping meals or undereating because of time constraints, forgetfulness, or overly restricted food intake
• Poor sleep
• Feeling chronically overwhelmed
• Constantly running late or rushing around without pause

These are all real stressors that activate the stress response, and which are even more activating if you’ve been fired from a job; experienced relationship trauma as a child or adult; been exposed to vulnerability because of severe financial stress; or been through any other past trauma or perceived potential disaster, because your perception of each incident as a possible threat will be even higher.

Adaptogens: Herbs for Modern Times

Adaptogens are a special class of herbs that reset the stress response system from the brain to the adrenals, helping to regulate the amount of cortisol and adrenaline our bodies produce. These herbs have been highly prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries because of their ability to promote vitality, longevity, stamina (of all sorts!), and a sense of well-being. The term “adaptogen” specifically refers to the unique ability of these herbs to help you adapt to the stress in your life.

Remarkably, adaptogens can reduce inflammation, improve immune response, and help reverse damage caused by exposure to environmental chemicals, as well as the internal damage from exposure to our own stress hormones. By definition, adaptogens have to be balancing and nontoxic, and numerous scientific studies have been published since the 1940s supporting their positive properties. They’re ancient herbs with benefits for the stresses of modern times, and some even improve sleep and reduce anxiety and depression.

Meet the Adaptogens

While it’s important to have a proper medical evaluation if you’re experiencing any of the imbalances listed previously, many of my patients receive an adaptogen as part of their overall health plan, as most are struggling with several of the common stressors we all face. Adaptogens are well-tolerated by most people, but check with your health care practitioner before using these herbs or supplements. This is particularly important if you have an existing medical condition or are taking medications, especially those that are immunosuppressive, regulate mood or blood sugar, or aid anxiety or depression. Adaptogens aren’t considered appropriate during pregnancy.

There’s also some overlap in their actions. Most help with immunity; however, some are more geared toward reducing blood sugar and boosting energy (such as ginseng), while others are more relaxing (such as ashwagandha or reishi). Adaptogens work best when taken for a minimum of three months, and for as long as a year.

Remember that taking herbs cannot restore complete balance to your life, which is the ultimate goal when getting out of survival mode. Adaptogens can help you reset internally and get through busy times without taking a health hit, but slowing down and creating more time for inner peace is critical to overall well-being.

Here are 5 of My Favorite Adaptogens for Resetting Your Stress Response:

1. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): for reducing chronic anxiety and boosting immunity.

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. It also boosts the immune system, decreasing the frequency of colds and infections, and reduces exercise-induced inflammation. Rhodiola is used in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as fibromyalgia. It can be beneficial for poor appetites and as part of a treatment plan for chronic stress headaches.

Dose: 200 to 400 milligrams in capsules or tablets daily, or 2 to 3 milliliters (40 to 60 drops) of tincture in water 2 to 3 times daily. Use products standardized to 2 or 3 percent rosavin and 0.8 to 1 percent salidroside.

Cautions: Avoid if you have bipolar disorder with manic behavior.

2. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): for greater inner calm, reduced inflammation, and improved mental clarity.

Ashwagandha has more than 4,000 years of traditional use in India. It’s considered both a food and a tonic medicine for improving energy and learning, promoting libido, and preventing premature aging. Ashwagandha is calming and anti-inflammatory. It’s used to improve sleep, lower anxiety, improve memory, and reduce oxidative stress. It boosts the immune system, is often included in the treatment of arthritis, and can be beneficial in the treatment of fertility challenges.

Dose: 3 to 6 grams of the dried herb in capsule form daily, or 1 to 4 milliliters (20 to 80 drops) of tincture in water up to 3 times daily.

Cautions: Though not likely to be a problem, use cautiously if you’re sensitive to plants in the nightshade family. Avoid with pharmaceutical sedatives and pain medications.

3. Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum): for greater life balance, to improve blood sugar and cholesterol, and to boost mood.

Holy, or “sacred,” basil has been revered in India for more than 5,000 years as an herb that calms the mind and spirit and promotes longevity. In Ayurvedic medicine, it’s called “tulsi,” which means “incomparable one.” It’s used for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions; to improve energy and relieve fatigue; and to lower blood glucose, triglycerides, and cholesterol. Holy basil may also protect the liver, help with nicotine withdrawal, and elevate the mood, especially providing relief from mild depression. While this herb is related to common basil, it’s a different species, and common basil isn’t a substitute.

Dose: 2 to 3 milliliters (40 to 60 drops) of tincture in water up to 3 times daily.

Cautions: Because holy basil can modestly reduce blood sugar levels, be cautious if you take hypoglycemic medications.

4. Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus): for mental and physical stamina and to improve immunity.

Eleuthero is one of the most well-researched adaptogens available. It’s used to increase mental alertness and performance, enhance concentration while boosting energy and stamina, lessen stress and fatigue, reduce dream-disrupted sleep and insomnia, and promote immunity while improving detoxification. It’s also anabolic, which means it helps build muscle and prevents muscle breakdown as we age.

Dose: 2 to 3 grams of dried root in capsules daily, or 2 to 4 milliliters of tincture in water 2 to 3 times daily.

Cautions: Rare cases of insomnia have been reported with eleuthero; if you have insomnia, consider taking only before noon. Eleuthero is not recommended for those with high blood pressure.

5. Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum): for improving immunity and sleep.

Reishi mushrooms are highly regarded in TCM to nourish and support adrenal function. While reishi is best known for promoting immunity, upping resistance to colds and infections, and reducing inflammation, it also helps support the body’s natural ability to detoxify from environmental exposures, and it calms the nervous system, promoting deeper, more relaxing and restorative sleep. (For more about the properties, history, and benefits of reishi, see “Reishi: An Ancient Medicinal Mushroom.”)

Dose: 3 to 9 grams of the dried mushroom in capsules or tablets daily, or 2 to 4 milliliters of reishi tincture in water 2 to 3 times daily.

Cautions: Avoid with blood thinners and medications that lower blood pressure, based on theoretical risks of drug interactions.

Picking the Right Adaptogens for You

Sometimes I hear someone say, “I tried adaptogens, and they don’t work for me.” Or, “I tried adaptogens, and I just felt more stressed out.”

Here’s why that is: Adaptogens can help heal your stress response system and boost your reserves and resilience, but they exist on a spectrum, from the calming, soothing, gentle, nourishing ones to those that are stimulating and arousing. 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.

If you’re already in burnout, go with the most gentle adaptogens to soothe and repair your nervous system and heal any damage that’s been done. I typically start with the most gentle — ashwagandha and reishi mushroom — combined with herbs such as lemon balm and motherwort, which are used to calm the nervous system. I do this for 2 to 12 weeks, while also adding a daily meditation or yoga practice to my routine and eating a nourishing diet that pays special attention to blood sugar balance. Only after this do I add the next spectrum of adaptogens, those that are most energizing. I reserve the more stimulating adaptogens (for example, ginseng) for patients who aren’t actually burned out at all, but need extra immune support for high-demand times in their lives — for travel, during athletic training, while working night shifts, or when under a great deal of cognitive demand. Typically I give a combination of up to four adaptogens, but I prefer starting with one and adding more only after seeing how the first one is tolerated.

My experience is that these ancient herbs can be tremendous allies as we navigate high-demand modern lives. They can keep us in better balance, better health, and better moods. I hope you find one or more that helps restore your energy, outlook, and vitality.

For boosting adaptogenic recipes, see:

Energizing Granola Bites Recipe
Rhodiola and Rooibos Latte Recipe

Dr. Aviva Romm is an experienced midwife and herbalist. She’s also a Yale-trained, board-certified family physician who specializes in women’s health and obstetrics, and she’s the author of the book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, which is available at our Mother Earth Living Store.

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