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The Ultimate Guide to Adaptogens

Adaptogenic herbs, quite simply, are plants that help the body to adapt to stress. They can aid in regulating our stress response and enable us to function better even in our most difficult times.

With modern day living can come modern day problems, and if there’s one challenge that everyone faces, it’s stress. None of us are exempt from it and it is true that the pressures of life can sometimes feel overwhelming.

Short term stress, every now and then, isn’t an issue and can in fact be beneficial. The body responds to these stressors with physical reactions that help us to deal with the situation. For example, increased alertness can help us to focus and meet an important deadline, while increased heart rate and blood sugar can provide our muscles with the energy we need to escape a dangerous situation.

Once the stressful event is over, our body systems go back to normal and we can get on with our day. However, the type of stressors we usually encounter these days are chronic in nature. This means that the stress response is constantly being triggered and those, once beneficial, reactions can become quite disruptive.

It’s also important to note that while many stressors are emotional (like losing a job or experiencing a divorce), they can also come in the form of physical (lack of sleep and poor nutrition) and chemical (harmful chemicals in the environment) strain.

This is where adaptogens come in. You’ve probably already heard of them but here’s a breakdown of what they are, how they work and some instances of when they are used.

What are Adaptogens?

Adaptogenic herbs, quite simply, are plants that help the body to adapt to stress. They can aid in regulating our stress response and enable us to function better even in our most difficult times.

The term adaptogen was first coined by soviet scientists in the 1900s. For a herb to be considered an adaptogen, it had to meet 4 specific criteria:

  • Non-toxic - it must be safe when used over long periods of time.
  • Normalising – bring about balance by raising what is low and lowering what is high.
  • Non-specific - work in a generic way and on multiple body systems
  • Nourishing – have nutritive properties

They can be remembered as the four N’s.

Some examples of adaptogens include Ashwagandha, Holy basil and Rhodiola.

How do they work?

Adaptogens produce special plant chemicals that help the plants themselves adapt and survive in harsh conditions. These chemicals work in our bodies to help build resistance to stress and the negative effects it brings about. They help to normalise our stress response and regulate the release of stress hormones and their effects.

Adaptogens are said help:

  • Limit the overproduction of stress chemicals such as cortisol.
  • Regulate energy and metabolism during stress. This helps lessen the side effects that are caused by constant use of stored energy & nutrients and consistently high blood sugar.
  • Increase protein restoration and synthesis (during chronic stress protein is broken down to provide energy)
  • Modulate and optimise stress switch on and switch off systems
  • Activate protective cell mechanisms
  • Overall increase in energy, stamina, immune function and resilience.

Not all adaptogens are built the same

There are many adaptogens that each have the general properties mentioned above, but each have their own personality so to speak. Therefore, herbalists tend to pick the adaptogens that best suit specific needs.

Take Ashwagandha for example. It is relaxing in nature and is often used for people who experience anxiety, find it difficult to switch off and have trouble sleeping. Siberian ginseng (sometimes called Eleuthero) has traditionally been used to help optimise immunity, especially when under stress. Schisandra berries are generally useful for aiding focus and concentration, perfect for when studying for exams and work deadlines.

Whichever adaptogen you go for, you can count on it as the perfect partner during stressful times.

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