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.
1. Some adaptogens are stimulating.
In this way, they offer immediate relief. These are plants that give us a kick when we need to get up and out of the accumulation of stressful events and fast. The phrase most often associated with this type of situation is burnout: you are physically and mentally exhausted, meaning you are completely drained of resources. This kind of adaptogen includes plants like Red American Ginseng and White Asian Ginseng. They help you break through the stress fast, making it not seem so bad so you can just get through it and immediately make space to do literally nothing.
2. Other adaptogens are calming.
They are the “slow and steady wins the race” members of the group. They help us build resilience. Unlike stimulating adaptogens, we won’t have to “pay back” the boost they gave us to get through a tough time. Plants like Holy Basil and Ashwagandha soothe and support our central nervous systems throughout stressful events. They offer both relief and mildly uplift our moods so that we are better able to meet stressful circumstances.
3. Some adaptogens help to protect.
Stress can be so depleting! It can make it hard for us to remember to hydrate, it can overstimulate our bowels, and make us sweat. Over time, the water and oils in our body can dry up leaving our skin and the soft tissues in our body more susceptible to injury and infection, which can make more work for an already over taxed immune system. Adaptogens like Codonopsis and Shatavari are delightfully nourishing plants to the soft tissues in our bodies.
4. Other adaptogens diminish excess.
If the stress is piling up in your body, meaning you are plagued by excesses like anxiety and insomnia, certain adaptogens like Rhodiola and Schisandra can help to reduce experiences of overwhelm. They work to make situations feel manageable, greatly increasing your ability to exert control over what can often feel like spinning out. Adpatogens can help support you in upholding the boundaries you need to maintain in order to rest and recover from stressful events.
5. Adaptogens can help us get the rest we need to recover.
You don’t have to be experiencing a total health crisis in order to ask for help. Often stress manifests through sleep imbalances: you may be exhausted during the day for example and alert at night. Adaptogens like Ashwagandha help to support a balanced circadian rhythm. Combined with good sleep hygiene: getting off your phone, turning down the lights, avoiding stimulating subjects and conversations in the evening, Ashwagandha can help transfer energy back to your day so you can find the sleep you need at night.
6. Adaptogens can help us build long-term practices that bolster our body’s natural defense.
Through multiple mechanisms adaptogens help us get back to ourselves. Working with adaptogens over time can teach us about starting and sustaining practices that can help us avoid being overwhelmed by stress in the future. A commitment to taking adaptogens for 4-12 weeks can help us establish routines around sleep, diet, exercise, drinking water, getting outside, and spending time with people we love. A reminder to take our adaptogenic formula can also be a reminder to close the computer, step outside in the sunshine for 5 minutes, or make a cup of tea.
The goal of choosing and then working with adaptogens is to help our bodies manage the problem of stress enough so that we can prioritize and get back to the foundation of good health: water, rest, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, love and joy, gentle movement practices, and sunshine. And plenty of it.
Our Adaptogen Balance Kit is a good way to support your rejuvenation practice and restore balance if you're feeling disregulated. The kit comes with our best-selling Adaptogen Balance tincture & our (founder's fave) Earth Ship Tea, AND a Bamboo Tea Strainer for only $42.