Adaptogens are natural substances that work with one’s body and help them to adapt, most notably to stress. A unique class of healing plants, they’re known for helping to balance, restore and protect the body. They don’t actually have a specific action as naturopathic physician Edward Wallace has noted, but instead they help one to respond to any influence or stressor, normalizing physiological functions. They not only increase the resistance to the adverse effects of long-term stress, which can include many different diseases, chronic illness, mental issues, obesity and more, yet the majority are also a tonic, strengthening the immune system and increasing a general sense of well-being, along with a multitude of other actions.
Numerous studies have been conducted on adaptogens over the years. Initially initiated by the Russians, by the 1960s, they became so popular that the study became its own field of biomedical research. Just two decades later, Russian scientists had published more than 1,500 clinical and pharmacological studies on adaptogenic herbs. Later research around the world demonstrated similar findings to what the Russians had uncovered, and that research continues today, giving us little doubt that adaptogenic herbs can have great effects on our physiology. Just some of those effects include increasing physical and mental stamina, reducing the incidence of infection, increasing resistance to chemical carcinogens, protecting against the effects of radiation, boosting the immune system, encouraging a more balanced mood and support for managing a healthy weight.
Let’s take a closer, more in-depth look at some of the most powerful adaptogenic herbs on Earth, and just what they can do for you.
Ginseng is the most well-known adaptogen, and Asian, or Panax ginseng, is considered to be the most powerful type of the 11 different varieties. It consists of a light-colored, forked-shaped root, a relatively long stalk and green leaves with an oval shape. American ginseng can’t be used for medicinal purposes until it’s at least six years old, and due to overharvest, it’s considered endangered in the wild as well as being rather expensive to purchase. While it does have similar properties, Siberian ginseng is not true ginseng. Most of the research that’s been conducted to date has involved Asian ginseng.
Asian ginseng offers numerous benefits that include:
Supporting heart health. Ginseng can help lower cholesterol levels and offers anti-hypertensive effects that protect against heart failure. It can also protect against symptoms of heart disease.
Lower the risk of stroke. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of ginseng have been found in studies to help prevent neuronal death as a result of stroke. It also decreases the damage of a stroke, should it occur.
Treating erectile dysfunction. Ginseng may also help treat erectile dysfunction, as shown in 2008 research from South Korea. It was also found to boost sexual activity and performance, while improving sperm production.
Increase alertness and improve thinking. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that early research found that Asian ginseng may “improve performance on such things as mental arithmetic, concentration, memory, and other measures.”
Reducing the instance of colds. Ginseng has been shown to stimulate the immune system, and research has found that those who take it generally experience fewer colds, and if they do catch one, they tend to be shorter in duration. A study published in Canadian Medical Association Journal, found participants who took 400 milligrams of ginseng a day for four months during the cold and flu season, reported fewer, milder and shorter colds, with fewer symptoms. Of the group that received ginseng, 10 percent reported having two or more colds that winter, compared with about 23 percent of those taking the placebo. Additionally, colds lasted about 11 days for the ginseng group and 16.5 days for the placebo group.
Ashwagandha, one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic healing, is frequently referred to as Indian ginseng. Used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years, It’s known to relieve anxiety and help regulate the immune system. Research has also revealed rather remarkable results when it comes to lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and balancing thyroid hormones.
Some of its benefits include:
- Improving one’s mood
- Preventing and treating cancer
- Supporting brain health
- Increasing sex drive
- Menopausal support
- Boosting memory
One 2012 study in which menopausal women supplemented with this herb, found a significant reduction in improvements of common symptoms like irritability, anxiety and hot flashes. Multiple studies have discovered one of the primary reasons that ashwagandha is so effective at supporting brain health, is that it contains antioxidants that can destroy the free radicals that lead to premature aging. Research published in Phytotherapy Research noted: “Several studies have revealed that natural antioxidants, such as vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene, may help in scavenging free radicals generated during the initiation and progression of this [Alzheimer’s] disease. But we found Ashwagandha afforded lipid peroxidation inhibitory effects more potent than commercial antioxidants.”
3. Holy Basil
Holy basil, or tulsi as it’s also referred to, is a member of the mint family that offers soothing properties that have been used for centuries to promote better health. Though it’s native to tropical Asia, it now grows in many tropical climates across the globe. Highly regarded in Ayurvedic medicine, it can be especially effective for treating fatigue. While it contains numerous anti-stress compounds, it doesn’t stimulate like ginseng.
In addition to relieving anxiety and fighting fatigue, it offers a number of other benefits, including:
Treating acne. Holy basil is commonly used for skin care, and particularly for treating acne. A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science which evaluated the effectiveness of three different kinds of Thai basil oil in the treatment of acne, including holy basil, found after testing its antimicrobial capabilities that a 3 percent concentration of holy basil essential oil was most effective against acne-causing bacteria. Researchers have noted that the main compound in this oil is eugenol, which is the active ingredient found in clove oil, widely believed to cure a host of skin problems.
Cancer protection. A review published in Nutrition and Cancer that outlined the research on holy basil’s ability to kill cancer explained that as it contains significant immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory processes which can protect the vital organs, relieve pain, stress, and fever, those who consume are are not as likely to have compromised immune systems. That also makes them less susceptible to developing cancer cells. The phytochemicals in this adaptogen are known to help prevent oral, liver, skin and lung cancers due to their ability to boost antioxidant activity, induce cancer cell death and prevent the growth of blood vessels that contribute to cell growth while halting metastasis.
Managing blood sugar. Holy basil’s ability to control blood sugar, and serve as a natural remedy for diabetics, has been well known for quite some time. Multiple studies have confirmed that it can help reduce or maintain blood sugar levels. For example, a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology proved that the extract of holy basil managed to lower blood sugar by over 36 percent in normal rates, and 18 percent in rats with diabetes.
Reducing cortisol levels. The hypoglycemic effects of holy basil may be due at least in part to its ability regulate cortisol levels. This stress hormone is said to be the root of an astounding number of diabetes cases, as well as contributing to weight gain and obesity, lowering immune function, negatively impacting bone density, and harming both memory and learning abilities.
Rhodiola, also sometimes referred to as golden root, is a standout when it comes to dissolving excess cortisol in the blood. As cortisol dissipates, it offers a calming effect, yet one often feels more alert at the same time. This potent adaptogen has been used by athletes, military personnel, and even Russian cosmonauts, so not surprisingly, it’s also been widely studied. A phytochemical called salisdroside is primarily what makes it so effective for relieving anxiety, as well as for its ability to combat premature aging. Research has discovered that it can restore normal patterns of sleeping and eating following stressful events, as well as help protect the liver and heart, improve memory, protect against exposure to toxins and possibly even extend longevity.
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Eleuthero, also called Siberian ginseng, which isn’t a true ginseng as we mentioned earlier, is a shrub that grows in China and Russia. Chinese healers have prized it for thousands of years, and while it isn’t actually ginseng, it does possess adaptogenic properties and has a well-established reputation as an energy booster and a supporter of brain health. A study out of the University of Iowa gave participants who suffered from chronic fatigue eleuthero or a placebo. Those who took the eleuthero for two months reported experiencing significantly more energy.
Other proven benefits of eleuthero include boosting the immune system, offering potent antiviral action to help one recover from colds quicker, supporting heart health by reducing triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and blood sugar as well as normalizing heart rhythms. Many herbalists and alternative health practitioners note that they prescribe eleuthero for chronic stress and stress-related conditions more than any other. While it’s especially effective, it doesn’t come without possible side effects, such as headaches, drowsiness or insomnia, and anxiety. Those who are pregnant, nursing, running a fever or have hypertension, should not use it.
Reishi is also known as the “mushroom of immortality,” as it’s a tonic that can promote longevity. The reishi mushroom is an edible type of medicinal fungus that’s been used for many various healing abilities for thousands of years. It’s extremely anti-inflammatory, which boosts the immune system. It can also help treat fatigue, cancer, heart disease, respiratory issues and liver ailments. A wealth of studies have proven its immune-enhancing abilities and recent findings have suggested that reishi can reduce inflammation and increase the release of natural killer cells, which are known to remove various types of mutated cells from the body, which makes it ideal for naturally treating cancer, as well as preventing heart disease. One study out of China found that reishi can prevent internal blood clots that trigger a heart attack.
In addition to reducing inflammation, treating fatigue, cancer, heart disease, liver problems and respiratory disorders like asthma, reishi is known to:
- Fight infections
- Relieve food allergy symptoms
- Resolve digestive problems and issues like leaky gut
- Halt tumor growth
- Treat diabetes
- Cure insomnia and other sleep disorders
- Fight viruses, including HIV and hepatitis
- Lower high blood pressure
- Relieve anxiety and depression
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In Chinese medicine, schisandra is considered to be a balancing herb as it contains all five flavors: spicy, salty, bitter, sweet and sour. While few are aware of it, schisandra berries are also a powerful adaptogen providing a stabilizing effect on the entire body, yet it rarely comes with any side effects. While it’s well known for boosting liver function and aiding adrenal function to help prevent adrenal fatigue, it offers many other benefits too.
Improving physical and mental endurance. Athletes particularly love schisandra as it helps them to perform at higher levels while also offering protection against internal and environmental oxidative stress. It has the ability to boost cellular energy by increasing nitric oxide levels in the body.
Detoxing the liver. Multiple studies done over the past four decades have demonstrated the outstanding abilities of schisandra for detoxing the liver, and even treating chronic hepatitis, especially when used with other treatments. As the hair, skin, and eyes are all a reflection of the liver’s health, it makes it a great choice for improving appearance too. Due to schisandra’s potent antioxidant properties, it also helps rejuvenate the skin by protecting the lipid membrane in skin cells from oxidative damage, which means fewer wrinkles, stronger joints and healthier tissues.
Healing illness and disease. Among the other benefits of schisandra are its ability to heal pneumonia, prevent fetal developmental problems, reduce allergic reactions, treat gastrointestinal disease, stomach ulcers, and chronic gastritis.
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