Local Food as Medicine: Adaptogens

Adaptogens are herbal remedies that increase our abilities to resist the effects of stress on our bodies and help restore our bodies to normal functioning by regulating the adrenal stress response.  Adaptogens also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that help protect cells from damage.  Adaptogens are generally non-toxic, even with prolonged use (but of course, be sure to check with your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns).

Our bodies have a stress response system that starts with our adrenal glands, which regulates our blood sugar, hormones, and moods.  When the adrenal glands are activated, they release adrenaline and cortisol as a type of protection by increasing blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, and insulin and activate our immune systems.  When the stress goes away, the adrenal glands calm down and all goes back to normal.  Or so, that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Unfortunately, many of us are under constant low-level stress, which our bodies view as danger.  This causes the adrenal glands to stay activated and overproduce cortisol.  The stress response system eventually gets worn out, reaching “adrenal fatigue.”

How do you know if you’re wearing out your stress response system? Some symptoms include fatigue, food cravings (especially sugar, carbs, and fat), high blood pressure, anxiety, immune dysfunction, and inflammation. Adaptogens can help mitigate the stress response by reducing the recovery time between stress events and decreasing the stress response system’s sensitivity.

Adaptogens work best when taken for a minimum of 3 months.  While you’ll need to take additional measures to ensure a balanced and healthy life (herbs alone can’t fix everything), adaptogens can help you cope with stresses that push our bodies over the edge.  To be considered an adaptogen, the herb must:

  • Be non-toxic regardless of dosage,
  • Be able to be taken daily
  • Be a naturally occurring substance (like a plant or fungi)
  • Have a resisting stress response
  • Have a balancing effect on the organ systems and promote homeostasis
  • Have a non-specific response on body (does not have one function)

Some adaptogens that you may want to try include ashwagandha, rhodiola, holy basil, schisandra, eleuthero, hawthorn, and reishi mushroom. Many of these work either as extracts, teas, or capsules.  Some adaptogens are more suited to warm constitutions over cool constitutions and vary in what they are best suited to support or mitigate.  The knowledge about how adaptogens work, on a biochemical level, is still fairly sparse, but herbalists have found success in patients when adaptogens are used to treat specific complaints in relation to the person’s overall constitution.

We encourage you to do a little digging of your own to learn more about adaptogens and which ones may be beneficial for you.  Interested in learning more and consulting with an herbalist? Sign up for a Free Herbal Consultation, hosted by Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism at City Market on most Mondays.

Note: These articles are not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.