Adaptogens are a group of plants that help us, as organisms, adapt to stress. Adaptogens do not eliminate stress, they don’t reduce stress, they help us to resist stress. But! Your body already has lots of defenses and you, as a person, have practices that help you respond to stress. Before we do any adaptogen discussion, we must first establish that it is entirely possible - and also highly likely - that you can rest and rejuvenate in the pursuit of restoration without the support of adaptogens. As much as the wellness industry would like us to believe that we all need adaptogens and we need them now, the truth is we don’t. What we do all need is water, rest, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, love and joy, gentle movement practices, and sunshine.
As herbalists, we think about adaptogens as a tool of support. By definition adaptogens are non-toxic in therapeutic doses, non-specific, and normalizing. This criteria comes from research performed in Russia, the word “adaptogen” didn’t even exist until the 1960s when a Russian pharmacologist, Dr. Israel Brekhman, coined the term. Adaptogens work through two major control systems in the body: the Hypothalamic/Pituitary/Adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympatho-adrenal system (SAS). The HPA axis and the SAS include the endocrine system, the immune system, the nervous system, and our fight or flight response - this is where “non-specific” comes from. The requirement that they’re “normalizing” is a clue that these are not plants that we rely on statically for the rest of our lives. They are plants that help us get “back to normal” after our bodies have been altered by stress. Because normal can look a little different for every person, certain adaptogens are best suited to certain people experiencing certain situations.
Because “adaptogen” is not a traditional concept, in the herb world, many herbalists classify adaptogens according to the research available. This means that a small group of herbs - exactly 9 - are accepted as definite adaptogens, others are “probable” and still others are “likely.” We include adaptogens from all categories below. For more information see David Winston’s and Steven Maimes’ Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
But, how exactly do adaptogens help us adjust to stressful circumstances? We are so glad you asked.