Adaptogenic Herbs: What's All the Hype About?

I love working with adaptogens during the Autumn transition.

Remember when we used to have Autumn??

Photo by Erik Witsoe

What ever happened with that? Here in the PNW we went straight from 80 degree weather through October, to snow in November! After having a wet Spring that lasted until June, it's clear nature is struggling with handling transitions smoothly lately.


Photo by Ian Schneider

Guess what that means... It's okay if you are too! This time of year can be so challenging for regulating our moods.

Autumn is the time when I start thinking about all the stressful self imposed or societally "deadlines"... Holidays. Family. Goals I set for the year...

On top of that, the days are now shorter, it's dark out, and seasonal affective disorder and depression starts looming its ugly head.


That's where ADAPTOGENS come in to play.

Adaptogens are herbs that help our bodies and minds manage the stress response.


Photo by Annie Spratt

Now, that doesn't mean they BLOCK the stress response or delete the things in our life that are stressful... But adaptogens have shown to smooth out the highs and lows that come along with stress. Over time we can see a normalization of stress hormones and a generally decreased predisposition to stress.

Are adaptogens a new discovery?

Well, the term "adaptogen" is relatively new, but the plants have been worked with (especially in many parts of Asia) for ages. The term adaptogen was coined in 1964 by soviet scientists who were seeking out plants that could produce an increase in physical performance and resistance to stress. These qualities were highly sought after beginning in WWII and after, in attempts to improve stamina and vitality, especially of Russian soldiers and athletes.

They ended up performing thousands of studies and clinical trials on several plants with a long history of traditional use in the area. These plants showed the ability to increase the body’s general capacity to withstand stressful situations, therefore guarding against diseases that are caused by over-stress.

Hmm can't imagine why they'd want that! Could it be they were concerned for the health and wellbeing of their soldiers and athletes? Or was it more likely nationalism and the military industrial complex...

Photo by Emma Simpson

The ultimate goal with these herbs is typically to:

1. Reduce stress reactions during the initial alarm phase of the stress response 2. Prevent or delay exhaustion 3. Provide some protection against long term stress. Adaptogens are not known for blocking the stress response, but rather smoothing out the highs and lows that come along with it. Over time we can see a normalization of stress hormones and a generally decreased predisposition to stress.

Three qualities that contribute to a plant being considered adaptogenic are:

  1. Showing non-specific activity. It increases the body’s overall ability to resist any physically, chemically, or biologically harmful agents (not just certain ones)

  2. Having a normalizing influence It can increase or decrease the function of a system, organ, or process that is over or under active as needed, bringing it to a more ideal level no matter the original state.

  3. Being innocuous It doesn’t cause harm or influence normal body functions more than is required to return balance.


Photo by Loic Leray

There are a number of possible biological processes by which they may do this, the most likely of which is by altering hormone function of the pituitary-adrenal gland axis. Our adrenal glands—small organs located above the kidneys—help us manage stress by producing hormones like cortisol.


When we are stressed and our adrenals are stimulated to secrete cortisol, this impacts countless bodily functions in nearly every system of the body down the line such as:

  • Increasing the blood glucose levels,

  • Regulating blood pressure,

  • Regulating metabolism,

  • Enhancing the brain's use of glucose,

  • Controlling sleep and wake cycles

  • Suppressing inflammation

  • and increasing the availability of substances that repair tissues.

  • Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation, such as digestion.

This stress response helps to keep us alive in acutely stressful situations, such as emergencies, physical attacks, natural disasters, or other times when our lives are in danger. When we experience chronic or long-term elevated cortisol levels, however, this begins to wear on the numerous bodily systems that cortisol affects. The immune system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, musculoskeletal system, respiratory system, and reproductive systems all can suffer from prolonged exposure to stress hormones.


Photo by Max van den Oetelaar

When not to work with adaptogens

It is important to note that, while adaptogens have developed a reputation in modern use with situations of recovering from exhaustion and burn out, the original studies and intentions for working with adaptogens had the goal of improving performance under unnaturally excessive loads of stress. Now, we may look at this and think “my life has unnaturally excessive loads of stress, and I’d like to be able to manage it without succumbing to the diseases associated with that lifestyle”, because, after all, we live under capitalism and must survive. On top of that, most of us carry around residual and/or unprocessed trauma that activates the body’s stress response as well.

  • Race,

  • gender,

  • sexual orientation,

  • physical ability,

  • socioeconomic status,

  • and the intersections of all these various identities can add to the mix.

Those with marginalized identities navigate daily microaggressions (subtle, indirect, or unintentional discriminations) as well as systems of oppression that increase stress levels that can impact health.


Image of adaptogenic Tulsi Ocimum tenuflorum

Taking all that into account, we can ask ourselves: Do we want to treat ourselves like soviet soldiers?

Should we be expected to "tough out" abusive, oppressive, and/or exploitative conditions just because we have adaptogens at our disposal? Adaptogens should never be employed as a justification to continue burning the candle at both ends.

We can’t simply start popping ashwagandha and expect ourselves to be happier with a work/life balance that isn’t serving us (whether that is due to our own choices, societal expectations, one of the numerous reasons listed above, or, most likely, a mix of all of these things). Adaptogens should always be incorporated into a holistic approach to managing stress, including taking appropriate rest and setting boundaries with our time and energy. As tonic herbs, adaptogens are best worked with consistently over a period of several weeks, usually in tincture form. Some adaptogens, however, have shown to function immediately before a stressful situation to help regulate the body’s response.


Photo of adaptogenic Schisandra Schizandra chinensis

Some of the most popular adaptogenic herbs are:

  • Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) [find it here]

  • Ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera) [find it here]

  • Schisandra berry (Schizandra chinensis) [find it here]

  • Tulsi leaf & flower (Ocimum sanctum) [find it here]

  • Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) [find it here]

  • Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

  • Rhodiola Root (Rhodiola rosea)

  • Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng)

  • American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

  • Dang shen (Codonoposis pilosula)

To learn more about herbal actions such as this, and to learn how to grow, harvest, and make medicine out of up to 70 medicinal plants, check out my Rootcraft Herbalism Courses!


Links to studies that have been performed on adaptogens: Ashwagandha: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10956379/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26306935/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24882401/ Eleuthero: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378874121005018?via%3Dihub Rhodiola: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32178272/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20378318/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29325481/ Schisandra: Menopause trial: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27763802/ Hepatoprotective animal study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23201450/ Neuroprotective in vitro study: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0014299912004736 Neuroprotective research review: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29136774/ Russian research findings: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S037887410800216X?via%3Dihub

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