The concept of adaptogens was developed by Soviet scientists in the former USSR during the 1950s. They defined an adaptogenic herb as one that increased resistance against harmful physical, chemical or biological factors, in both sick and healthy people, without unwanted side effects. Most adaptogenic herbs have been used for thousands of years as traditional herbal medicines.
What are adaptagenic herbs?
An adaptogen is a nourishing or tonic herb that helps the body adapt to the effects of physical or emotional stress. Soviet scientists found that adaptogens can protect cells against exposure to ultraviolet radiation and low oxygen levels, for example, but little of this original research was published in English journals.
Over the last ten years, adaptogens have captured the imagination of western scientists and researchers are now re-confirming the benefits of these traditional herbs in treating chronic diseases.
What do adaptogenic herbs do?
Adaptogens have wide-ranging benefits and boost cell resilience and immunity through several different actions rather than one specific effect. A common underlying theme is that adaptogens boost the uptake and use of oxygen and energy production in mitochondria (the equivalent of a cell’s batteries) to improve cell function and increase cell survival. Adaptogens also make the processing of cell wastes, such as lactic acid, more efficient.
In general, a single dose of an adaptogen mainly affects the sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands to provide a rapid response to acute stress, improving mental and physical performance.
Repeated doses of an adaptogen may work through an effect on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland group of hormones to improve the response to chronic stress.
Adaptogens have a long traditional use as herbal tonics to overcome tiredness, fatigue and burn out during prolonged periods of stress, ill-health or convalescence. This is often referred to as adrenal fatigue, although there is controversy in medical circles over whether or not the syndrome of adrenal fatigue (in which the adrenal glands function below the necessary level) exists.
Adaptogens are particularly useful for normalising the metabolic changes caused by persistently raised adrenal hormones (eg adrenaline, cortisol, noradrenaline) to rest the ‘fight or flight’ reaction back to the ‘rest and digest’ response.
Some adaptogens can lower blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol, while others bring low hormone levels back up into the normal range.
Adaptogenic herbs are widely used to counter the fatigue and loss of energy associated with stress and disrupted biorhythms.
Adaptogens are especially helpful for boosting energy levels when fatigue is not directly due to excess physical exertion but to an underlying problem such as poor or irregular diet, hormone imbalances, stress or excess consumption of coffee, nicotine or alcohol.
The best adaptogenic herbs
Based on traditional use and emerging science, the best adaptogens include:
- Black cohosh
- Brazilian ginseng (Praffia, or Suma)
- Chinese angelica (Dong quai)
- Panax ginseng (Korean and American ginsengs)
- Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus sentisosus)
- Yerba maté
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