Adaptogens 101 | What Are They, How They Work, and Why We Love Them
Apr 14, 2020
First thing's first, what are adaptogens?
Put simply, adaptogens are plants that help your body deal with stress. They are typically herbs or roots that help us “adapt” to all kinds of stressors and bring us back to a level of homeostasis. Stress can be mental, physical or emotional and affect many different systems in the body.
Some adaptogens are better for keeping the immune system strong, while others are helpful for easing mental stress and anxiety. Alternatively, in a situation of fatigue, adaptogens can help restore normal energy levels.
Common adaptogens include Ginseng, Maca, Turmeric, Ashwaganda and Reishi.
How do adaptogens work?
The chemical compounds in adaptogens interact with the stress-response systems in our bodies, namely the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis (HPA) and the sympathoadrenal system.
When we see a tiger in the wild (hey all you cool cats and kittens), our brain tells those systems to pump out cortisol – a hormone that prepares us to fight or flee when faced with danger. Our brain also tells them to pump out cortisol when we look at our to-do list, watch troubling news, or don’t get enough sleep.
We don’t need to be prepared for a fight in those situations, but our stress response system has only one gear.
Adaptogens act like a modern-day update to this primitive stress software.
Brain sees a long line at the store→ sends the signal to pump cortisol because it’s do-or-die, baby → adaptogens calmly explain that waiting in line is not a matter of life or death and dim the response → less cortisol is produced.
For the visual learners, here's a look at our stress levels with and without adaptogens:
Image by We're In This Together
Through this mechanism of reducing the stress response, adaptogens have been used for calming anxiety, improving sleep, boosting immunity, improving memory and focus, and balancing hormones. This makes sense, as anxiety, sleep, brain function and immunity are all deeply affected by stress.
True to their name, adaptogens help us adapt to the lows just as well as the highs. Some adaptogens can be stimulating and improve mental work capacity if we are fatigued. Ginseng and maca are good for a natural energy boost.
Why is keeping stress low important in times like these?
In the short-term, stress can weaken your immune system. Stress can also disrupt sleep, which further drives up cortisol levels and weakens immune cells. A fatigued immune system cannot properly protect you from illness.
And in the long run, overexposure to cortisol can be pretty toxic. While occasional stress is normal, it becomes a problem when cortisol is released in heavy doses every day.
Chronic stress causes prolonged inflammation, which leads to weight gain, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep disorders, a weak immune system and damage to the structure of the brain.
The impact of long-term stress on the brain is reduced cognition, memory, and concentration. Research has found endless damaging health effects from chronic stress.
The power of managing it naturally.
While adaptogens won’t cure the source of stress, they can help your system become better adapted to deal with it. Adaptogens are NOT anti-anxiety medications. They don’t “work” right away, but they gradually help your system operate in a calmer, more balanced way.
Consistently using adaptogens can gradually reduce the severity of the response to stress and ultimately support a longer, healthier life.
Some of the most well-known adaptogens and their benefits include:
Ginseng - reduce overall stress and help balance hormones, boost immunity. Find it in Slay All Day.
Ashwaganda - reduce overall stress and help balance hormones. Find it Chill the F* Out.
Maca - boost energy and libido. Find it in Seal The Deal.
Reishi mushroom – boost immunity and a powerful anti-inflammatory. Find it in Mind Over Matter.
Cordyceps mushroom - boost energy and stamina. Find it in You Dew You.
Schisandra berry - supports liver health and is a natural anti-ager. Find it in Schisandra Berry.
Astragalus - boost immunity and can even help ease allergy symptoms. Find it in Follow Your Gut.
About the Author | Danielle Schaub, RD
A registered dietitian, Danielle is a menu writer, chef motivator, and Territory Foods' Senior Manager of Nutrition & Culinary Product. Based in the DC area, she loves a hard workout, baking, and hanging with her dogs.