The word adaptogen literally means to fit for a purpose and bring to birth. What makes adaptogens so unique as natural remedies is that they work to benefit the body as a whole. They are anti-aging in the sense that they benefit the body.
As a holistic medicine, they do not have one specific purpose, but instead serve the purpose to bring the body back to balance by balancing various physiological functions. To put it simply, adaptogenic herbs help the individual adapt to the stresses one encounters.
Holism: Treating The Body As A Whole
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a practitioner treats the body as a whole, rather than treating symptoms. Ancient practitioners of holistic medicine have known for thousands of years that everything in the body is intrinsically connected.
The use of herbal adaptogens is a popular element of these traditional systems and is where they originate. However, you might wonder why people continue to use other lower-quality herbs that are designed to treat the body symptomatically.
(Read: 9 Ways to Beat Chronic Stress)
While adaptogenic herbs are excellent for strengthening the body overall, since they’re not specific to any one task, it is common to use other herbs to address specific symptoms in certain cases.
For example, one might need specific herbal remedies for eliminating parasites, quickly expelling toxicity, or to deal with acute infections. However, these are often still used in combination with adaptogens to strengthen the immune system as a whole.
The Best Adaptogens & Their Benefits
While there are many adaptogenic herbs one can take, the main benefit of these herbs is that they can restore the body to homeostasis. Homeostasis is a state of self-repair. It is a state of balance, and, when achieved, the body is able to heal itself.
Remedies often do not help the body achieve homeostasis, but instead work systemically to ease a symptom. Continual use of these herbs will result in a strengthened immune system that is more capable of self-healing and less reliant on medicines. They do this by increasing the state of non-specific resistance in stress and decreasing sensitivity to stressors, which results in stress protection, and prolongs the phase of resistance (stimulatory effect). Instead of exhaustion, one experiences a higher level of equilibrium. (1)
Out of all the adaptogens, there are a few that get the most praise:
- Gynostemma: This is known as the most powerful adaptogen. This is a big claim, but it is backed by research. It contains the highest concentration of saponin on the planet! A saponin is a chemical that is both water- and fat-soluble, making it very easy to digest, and that’s what is responsible for the adaptogenic affect. (2)
The number one reason it’s so popular is that it tastes amazing. For an herb, this is a very good thing, as many medicinal herbs are not always tasty. It has potent anti-aging, anti-stress, anti-inflammatory and anti-obesity benefits. (3) It is a digestive aid, respiratory tonic, and an immune-regulator.
Best of all, it’s highly studied. There are over 30 years of backed research about these benefits.
- Ginseng: There are actually multiple varieties of ginseng: American, Asian, and Siberian. American ginseng is a tan root that contains ginsenosides, which are thought to be the source of its medicinal benefits. In TCM, this type of ginseng has been used for thousands of years, and is considered to be a calming tonic. (4)
Asian ginseng is also referred to as Korean ginseng, and also contains ginsenosides. However, it contains different proportions of this medicinal compound compared to its American version. In TCM, Asian ginseng is more of a stimulant than a calming herb. Lastly, Siberian ginseng – another adaptogen – has been used to improve energy levels, stimulate the immune system, and enhance longevity.
Most research has been done on the American version of ginseng. This variety provides antioxidants and may boost immune function, and also acts as an anti-inflammatory. Research also suggests that it is effective as a versatile stress tonic. (5)
- Astragalus: Traditionally, astragalus was used to treat diabetes and also to support rapid healing of injuries. This powerful adaptogen has been documented to support many other bodily processes. It regulates the metabolism by maintaining an ideal metabolic rate. This also helps with fatigue, as an efficient metabolism supplies our body with enough energy to function at its best.
It also aids the circulation of the blood while providing the body with oxygen. Research shows that astragalus provides significant protection against heart, brain, kidney, intestine, liver and lung injury in various models of oxidative stress-related disease. (6) Astragalus aids in alienation of joint problems and is therefore recommended for patients suffering from arthritis.
Astragalus is also a kidney tonic and diuretic – this means that it helps to increase the rate of urination, which may aid in detoxification. This may also make it useful to those suffering from problems of the urinary tract. Certain claims have been made saying that astragalus is useful for prevention of heart diseases. Astragalus also curbs the production of free radicals and thereby increases the longevity of a person’s life. It also helps one to feel and look more youthful. (7)
Who Should Take Adaptogens?
The great thing about adaptogens is that they are intelligent. While most supplements have a very specific function, adaptogens will adapt to the body to serve the function it needs. For example, if the body is in need of sleep, the adaptogen will help the body to relax. If the body is preparing to perform physical activity, it will help it to create energy.
This makes adaptogens great for anybody, as their functions will serve fit to the individual’s needs. Anyone interested in optimal wellness, balance of mind and body, and longevity could benefit from these adaptogens mentioned, and many others. As always, speak within your healthcare practitioner and do your research before you begin an herbal treatment. Even better, work with an experienced herbalist or TCM practitioner.
Athletes around the world frequently use herbal adaptogens. They are safe and considered legal for aiding performance, much in the same way one would use an optimal diet and rest for performance.
A fun fact is that Cordyceps – another adaptogen – was supposedly Chinese Olympic athletes’ “secret weapon” in recent years to gain a competitive edge.
In addition to general wellness, adaptogens have displayed a beneficial effect on sexual libido. If you’re looking to spice up your love life, adaptogens might help! (8)
Before You Begin
What needs to be understood before someone begins a regimen of adaptogenic herbs is that these herbs are used by traditional systems that treat the body as a whole. They can be used safely by anyone who does not have proper training but is interested in optimal wellness.
That being said, continue your own sleuthing and consult with a professional to gain a deeper understanding of the world of these therapeutic herbs.