The Complete Guide to Adaptogens (Simon and Schuster, 2018) by Agatha Noveille is a guide to learning about the many different adaptogenic herbs that improve your body’s reaction to emotional and physical stress. Reader’s can gain access to safe, all-natural and long-term use recipes for improving sleep, mood, mental focus, general wellness and beauty.
What Are Adaptogens?
The concept of plants with revitalizing or restorative properties that can enhance health has been around for thousands of years, although “adaptogen” is a modern word that has only been used to describe them since the 1940s. Many of the herbs that we know as adaptogens today were first used generations ago in Ayurveda (the traditional system of herbalism in India) and in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
In Ayurveda, for example, herbs such as amla, shatavari, and holy basil are classified as rasayana herbs. Rasayanas are herbs that increase vitality and are believed to promote youthfulness and increase resistance to illness. In modern herbalism, we use these three herbs along with many other rasayanas as adaptogens.
One of the concepts of traditional Chinese medicine groups herbs into three categories based on their actions and safety of use. Many herbs in the first category, sometimes translated as “superior” herbs, are valued for their tonic and harmonizing influence on overall health. Many herbs that we know as adaptogens today belong to this class of herbs, such as he shou wu, eleuthero, and schisandra.
So how did we come to describe these herbs as adaptogens? In the late 1940s, the government of the then-USSR instructed its scientists to create a substance that could be used to increase the performance of the country’s athletes, military personnel, and even elite chess players, so that they could dominate and excel in every international arena.
We owe the modern word “adaptogen” to the Soviet doctor and scientist Nikolai V. Lazarev. In 1947, he created the word from the Latin word adaptare, meaning “to adjust.” He used it to mean a substance that raises the non-specific resistance of the body to stress so that the body is better able to adapt to stressful circumstances.
Eventually, the Soviet research into adaptogens — which had a strict focus on safety — turned away from chemical substances such as dibazol and began to focus on American ginseng. From there, research branched out to include other plants that also belonged to the Araliaceae family, such as eleuthero, and then to an even broader selection of herbs.
By 1968, Israel I. Brekhman, PhD, and Dr. I.V. Dardymov had developed the functional definition that has evolved into the understanding of adaptogens that we have today. According to the definition used by Brekhman and Dardymov:
- An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient.
- An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body — an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors, including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
- An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.
Although this is the first recorded functional definition of adaptogens, there is no “offcial” definition. But, like this original definition, most modern descriptions include the concepts that adaptogens:
- Are nontoxic
- Increase resistance to multiple stressors
- Help normalize physiological responses despite prior stress-related changes in the body
A pressing question for many people when they begin using adaptogens is: “Should I take a break from using adaptogens? If so, how often?” Adaptogens actually seem to work better with regular use, and you don’t usually need to worry about them putting a particular strain on the body or your body building up a tolerance. Personally, I like choosing one adaptogen to use at least once a day for a few months at a time before switching over to another or taking a rest. I find that it helps to periodically reevaluate my personal health goals and concerns when deciding which adaptogen to use. Our bodies change over time and it makes sense to change our adaptogens to match what’s going on with our health.
Thanks to their unusual influence on the body’s ability to handle stress, adaptogens can offer a unique way to support your health. They can offer you a way to support your best possible health and performance, but moderation is key. In other words, they shouldn’t be a substitute for good self-care practices, such as getting enough sleep and eating well!
It’s true that adaptogens and other herbs are “all natural,” but you should still take proper precautions. There is always the possibility of getting too much of a good thing, having an allergic reaction, or experiencing side effects when taking herbs alongside prescription medications. Some of the most important safety considerations are included in the profile for each herb in the glossary section (see Chapter 2), but it’s always a good idea to consult with your primary health care provider before including adaptogens in your diet.
Your current state of health and your health history are important considerations when deciding to incorporate any herbs into your diet, and this is especially true of adaptogens. For example, some adaptogens, like licorice, can increase blood pressure in sensitive individuals. Typically, this is only a problem if the licorice is consumed in large amounts for extended periods of time, but if you are prone to high blood pressure, you should use licorice with awareness and only after you speak with your doctor. Another example is holy basil. Although a wonderful adaptogen and nervine (an herb that supports the nervous system), this herb may not be suitable for use during pregnancy.
It becomes doubly important to know safety information on the herbs you work with if you are on prescribed medications. In some cases, herbs can affect your metabolism or alter the way the liver processes medications. Herbs, including adaptogens, may have a synergistic or antagonistic influence when taken with pharmaceuticals. It’s best to do some careful research and speak with your doctor or pharmacist before proceeding if you take a daily prescription medication.
By using these guidelines and treating adaptogens with the respect they deserve as potent allies for health, you can incorporate these wonderful herbs into your daily life and enjoy their many benefits.
Watch Serving Sizes
When you add herbs to your diet, it’s important to remember that more isn’t necessarily better. Each individual herb has a particular safe range that shouldn’t be exceeded, and you should be careful not to combine full servings of several herbs that have similar actions. For instance, it’s better to take one serving of a formula of herbs that promote a good night’s sleep than to take a full serving of four different individual herbs that all promote sleep. Adaptogens are no different. They are safe herbs, but taking too much of one or more at a time or over the course of a day can leave you feeling jittery or aggressive. With prepackaged, off-the-shelf herbal supplements, it’s important to follow the recommended serving size and directions that come with the product. Make sure that you know the basic guidelines on correct serving sizes for the preparations you choose to make at home. Be mindful of how many recipes you use and how many herbal supplements with adaptogens in them that you take on any given day, and keep your total servings (including any off-the-shelf supplements that include adaptogens) to three or fewer servings.
Amber Glass Bottles
Herbalists seem to have a bit of an obsession with brown glass bottles, but there is a reason for it. Brown glass helps keep out the light, which protects the extracts inside and preserves them better. If you do need to keep them in a clear glass canning jar (say, if you run out of empty bottles or you are on a tight budget), be sure to keep the extracts in a cool, dark cupboard when you aren’t using them. Personally, I prefer to skip the dropper-top bottles that are popular and use plain screw-top caps instead. I use either a set of measuring spoons or the cap of the bottle when measuring out a serving.
For Adults Only
It may be tempting to incorporate adaptogens into the diets of the whole family, but what may be a wonderful herb for an adult may be less desirable for a child. Some adaptogens appear to have a very potent influence on the endocrine system, and may alter hormone levels in adults. Because children are still growing and their endocrine system is developing, the use of adaptogens with preteens and even teens is a very complex subject. There are a few adaptogens that are exceptions to this rule, but in most cases it would be best to speak with a qualified herbalist about the child’s specific situation before making the decision to add adaptogens to his or her diet.
- Don’t rely on adaptogens to fulfill your body’s basic needs
- Don’t overdo it — too much of a good thing can be a bad thing
- Don’t use adaptogens without talking with your doctor if you have a chronic health condition or take prescription medications
- Don’t use adaptogens during pregnancy
- Do incorporate adaptogens into a healthy, balanced lifestyle
- Do enjoy creative ways to add adaptogens to your routines
- Do try different adaptogens and find the ones that resonate the best with your health needs
- Do be mindful that your health needs will change over time and adjust your routines as needed
May your journey to health and balance be a rewarding and creative journey!
More from The Complete Guide to Adaptogens:
Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Adaptogens From Ashwaganda to Rhodiola, Medicinal Herbs That Transform and Heal by Agatha Noveille Copyright © 2018 Adams Media, a division of Simon and Schuster, also available at Simon and Schuster. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Photographs by Harper Point Photography.