Adaptogenic herbs are plants that have been used as rejuvenating and restorative tonics in the ancient herbal medicine systems of different cultures around the world. They are characterized by their relative safety as well as their generalized action on the whole body, rather than individual organs or disease conditions. Their use brings about both physical and mental wellbeing and equips the person to handle stress and difficult situations.
Our body has specific homeostatic mechanisms that regulate everything from body temperature to blood glucose levels with the help of a biofeedback system. When blood glucose level rises following a meal, the hormone insulin produced by the pancreas pushes more sugar into the cells to bring it down to a normal range. When blood glucose is low, it is replenished by a reverse mechanism. Likewise, the hypothalamus in the brain controls the body temperature by releasing extra energy to warm up the body and activating sweat glands to cool it down as and when necessary.
Adaptogenic herbs emulate the natural homeostatic system of our body while enabling us to adjust to both physical and mental stress, including stress due to emotional problems in life, hectic schedules, strenuous activities, extreme heat and cold, debilitating diseases, and injuries. They are known to influence:
- Production of stress hormone
- Nervous system and neurotransmitters
- Body’s immune system
- Inflammatory responses of the body
- Glucose metabolism
- Energy production and release
Of all the medicinal plants known to man, only a few are recognized as adaptogens because, as per definition, the herbs should promote general health, with special focus on stress reduction, and they should have high levels of safety. This term was only coined in 1947 by the Russian pharmacologist Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, but adaptogenic herbs were often used by warriors, athletes, and travelers embarking on long and difficult journeys over mountains and rough terrain.
1. Chinese/Asian ginseng
This herb is so well known as an adaptogen that the term ‘ginseng’ has become a common suffix for many unrelated adaptogenic herbs from across the world. The fleshy roots of the plant Panax ginseng are the medicinally valued part of Asian ginseng––also known as Chinese and Korean ginseng depending on where it comes from.
Panax stands for ‘panacea of all ills’ and ‘ginseng’ for ‘man – root,’ referring to the forked roots that resemble the lower parts of a person. True to its name, it has been extensively used in Chinese medicine for treating all kinds of ailments, although it was earlier popularized as an aphrodisiac and longevity herb. Dried ginseng root is available whole, sliced, or in powder form. It is a common ingredient not only in many therapeutic formulations but cosmetic and hair care products. It is considered safe to use in small doses, but the presence of phytoestrogens precludes its use during pregnancy.
2. American ginseng
Belonging to the same genus of Asian ginseng, the roots of Panax quinquefolius or American ginseng has similar medicinal properties, and is used much the same way as the Asian herb. The active agents or ginsenosides in American ginseng are similar to those contained in the Asian ginseng, so they can be used interchangeably for all medicinal purposes. American ginseng extract – Cold fx, is a popular cold remedy, thanks to its immune boosting action, but is now under scanner.
Although the Native American Indians have been using the herb in their medicinal preparations, it came to be prized as an important medicinal herb due to high demand in the 18th century from the Chinese, who paid handsomely for the root gathered from the wild. In fact, it has become quite rare in many of its native states due to overexploitation, and is now listed as an endangered plant there. However, it is now widely cultivated in many parts of America and Canada.
3. Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng
Siberian ginseng or Eleutherococcus senticosus is a plant from the same Araliaceae family of the Asian and American ginsengs, but it is not considered a true ginseng as it doesn’t belong to the Panax genus. The plant habit is different too, Eleuthero being a thorny shrub with woody roots.
Siberian ginseng is actually a native of Northeastern Asia, but probably got its name from its popularity in traditional Russian herbal medicine. Chinese medicine also makes extensive use of this herb. The active ingredients in this herb are eleutherosides, not ginsenosides. Hence, they may have an entirely different action and effect in the body, so it is not legal to project it as ginseng.
Eleuthero is used to treat various problems such as joint pain, muscle spasms, mild depression, insomnia and chronic fatigue syndrome. It not only improves concentration and enhances memory power, but improves overall mental and physical wellbeing.
4. Ashwagandha – Indian ginseng
Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, is a medicinal plant widely used in the ancient Ayurvedic medicine stream of India. Although commonly referred to as Indian ginseng because of its adaptogenic properties, it is entirely unrelated to ginseng. Nevertheless, it has many beneficial effects similar to ginseng. As a matter of fact, Ashwagandha is generally regarded as a longevity drug and aphrodisiac, often prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners to treat impotence and age-associated decline.
The Sanskrit name of the plant ‘Ashwagandha’ literally means ‘horse smell,’ and it comes from the distinct musky smell of the aerial parts of the plant, but it is the root that is mainly used in medicinal preparations.
Ashwagandha is used to treat insomnia, which is very evident from its scientific name ‘somnifera’ which means ‘sleep inducing.’ It is known to regularize blood pressure and balance mood. The herb is also used to improve general health and vitality, and to get relief from anxiety, chronic fatigue, and many other debilitating conditions.
5. Maca root – Peruvian ginseng
Maca root resembling a turnip is an adaptogen from the highlands of Peru as the common name indicates. However, it is no relative of ginseng. The plant Lepidium meyenii is a biennial herb belonging to the cruciferous family of vegetables to which turnips, mustard, and cabbage also belong.
The energy boosting effect of maca roots is thought to be the reason for the courage and strength of Inca warriors who consumed it in large quantities during conquests. It is thought to have increased their sexual appetite too.
The highly nutritious maca root has been a staple of Andean cuisine, probably for thousands of years, so the herb could be one of the safest. It is usually roasted or boiled before consumption and is made into various dishes. The flour is used to make bread and pancakes. The leaves are also eaten as a vegetable.
Maca root is usually available in powder form and is widely used by athletes to increase stamina. It provides stress relief and improves mood. The plant hormones in maca root help relieve female issues like PMS and problems associated with menopause.
6. Arctic root – Rhodiola rosea
An herbaceous perennial from the Arctic regions, Rhodiola rosea supposedly gets its name from the rose-like smell of its roots. The aerial parts of the plant are eaten in salads, but it is the thick, fleshy root that has medicinal importance.
As an adaptogen, Rhodiola has the backing of several hundred years of use by Russians and Scandinavians who used it to survive the harsh conditions of the Arctic region. It has a place in Chinese medicine too, which recommends it for overcoming altitude sickness. The herb, usually available as dried root or as Rhodiola extract, can be used for stress relief as it has a balancing effect on the stress hormone cortisol. It also improves heart and brain function.
7. 5-flavor berries – Schisandra chinensis
This is a woody vine native to Northern China, bearing clusters of bright red berries which are said to have sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and bitter flavors combined together. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine for improving health and stamina, and to treat various ailments and inflammatory conditions.
Schisandra has been shown to have stress protective effect against various conditions from heatstroke to frostbite and from irradiation to heavy metal poisoning. It has beneficial actions on cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems. The Chinese consume a wine made from the berries as a general health tonic and the Japanese use it to prevent seasickness.
8. Tree of life – Moringa oleifera
Commonly called horseradish tree and drumstick tree, this tree is mainly grown for its nutritious leaves and tasty pods cooked as vegetables by natives in Asia and Africa. All parts of the tree, from the roots to the bark, have well known medicinal uses. Ben oil extracted from Moringa seeds has many unique properties, including cell rejuvenation. This expensive oil is an ingredient in many high-quality anti-aging products. However, the dried and powdered leaves are most popularly used as an adaptogenic herb.
Moringa leaves are used to treat high blood pressure, improve digestion, regulate blood sugar and reduce inflammation. It is considered a thyroid and liver tonic. Frequently used in curries, the leaves are not only safe for all ages but actually recommended for nursing mothers for its property of enhancing milk production. It is often given to children to get rid of intestinal worms.
What makes Moringa an adaptogen is its ability to reduce stress and to equip people to face physical and mental challenges. Regular consumption has been associated with higher energy and stamina, restful sleep, and resistance to illnesses.
9. Milk vetch – Astragalus spp.
More than one species of this low growing leguminous plant have excellent health benefits, but Astragalus membranaceus seems to be the most popular. The manifold action of this herb includes immune system stimulation, regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure, and improving the function of the heart and the circulatory system. It has a beneficial effect on the respiratory system too, hence it is commonly used to treat asthma and upper respiratory infections.
When used as a dietary supplement, Astragalus root extract has been found to have excellent antioxidant action. In cytological studies, an active constituent of the herb called cycloastragenol has shown telomerase activation in immune cells, which translates to an anti-aging effect. This has generated widespread interest in this herb among the scientific community.
10. Licorice root
Dried root of Glycyrrhiza glabra, an herbaceous plant of the bean family, is the liquorice or licorice used as a sweetener and flavoring agent, as well as medicine. The common use of licorice flavor in candies, which actually contain no licorice, may have brought down its importance as a healing herb, but it has a long history of being used for specific problems as well as a cure-all.
The Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut) even had it buried with his body for afterlife use. The Greek physician Dioscorides who authored the De Materia Medica on medicinal plants made the army of Alexander the Great chew on licorice roots to give them stamina and endurance during their long military expeditions to far off countries.
The herb is native to parts of Europe and Asia, but various ancient cultures from across the world have included it in their traditional medicine systems. The fact that the roots were often given to cranky young children to pacify them and provide relief from various common childhood troubles from a sore throat to stomach problems, shows that it is considered safe for use by all, although you should educate yourselves on the side effects, warnings and interactions here. It is now recommended for liver diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune conditions like lupus and osteoarthritis.
How do adaptogens work?
The exact mechanism of the working of adaptogenic herbs is yet to be fully understood, but they could be bringing about beneficial changes through their action on the thyroid, thymus, and adrenal glands, and by modulating our immune system and neuromuscular pathways.
Many modern medical practitioners and people firmly rooted in mainstream Western medicine––or allopathy— often question the effectiveness of herbal medicine. But anyone who has ever experienced gastric relief by drinking a mint tea or mental alertness after a cup of strong coffee should have no issues recognizing the potential of herbal preparations. As a matter of fact, a large number of allopathic drugs, including the common analgesic aspirin and the L-dopa used for treating Parkinson’s disease, were originally derived from plants.
The main differences between herbal preparations and the drug molecules isolated from them are their mode of action and potency.
Individual drug molecules have precise and well-defined action. But they produce severe effects and often harm the body while they treat a specific disease condition. That’s because they lack the support of other natural substances present in the same herb, which were meant to polish off their rough edges.
Always use herbs with caution
Herbals have a generalized and holistic action, thanks to the different active molecules present in them. They work synergistically, moderating the effect of one another. That is not to say that herbal medicines are devoid of side effects. They are highly potent, and people react differently to them because of the differences in their body constitution. You should only take them according to the dosage prescribed by qualified herbalists.
Adaptogens are generally recognized as safe with thousands of years’ of use acknowledging their safety and efficacy. However, young children, pregnant and lactating women and those taking medication for specific conditions should avoid taking any herbal medicine, including adaptogens, without discussing it with their physician or certified practitioners of herbal medicine.