Turmeric, ginseng, aloe vera, rosemary, milk thistle—our guess is that you’ve already heard of some of the more famous of the adaptogens, or non-toxic plants that can aid our bodies in counteracting stress. Others, though, may not have hit your radar. Bacopa? Gotu kola? Astragalus, anyone? No? Well, you’re in luck, because this blog is dedicated to telling you all about the history of the adaptogens, how to take them, and why these shriveled root- or orange polyp-looking things may help you find balance in this hyper-digitized, work-obsessed, eminently unbalanced time of ours. So mix some schisandra into your berry compote and sink back into this intro course on adaptogens.
A Brief History of Adaptogens
For all of the newfangled hype surrounding adaptogens, they’re some of Mother Nature’s more unglamorous offspring. We’re talking roots and herbs and fungi that have been scraped off trees or dug out of the ground and used in culinary and healing traditions for centuries—dating back to ancient Chinese medicines and ayurvedic practices. As recently as 1957, though, Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev coined the term “adaptogen” to refer to plants that boost the “state of non-specific resistance” in the body, protecting people who ingest them against a garden variety of stressors—everything (for instance) from the debilitating pain that sprang into the base of your spine last week to the eye-twitch-inducing sound of your neighbor’s dog scratching at the fence that you just paid off after four years.
Lazarev was building upon the work of Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist who posited the theory of general adaptation syndrome. Essentially, Selye thought that physiological responses to stress pass through three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Lazarev identified adaptogens as all-natural solutions that could help Russian soldiers adapt to the stress of, well, being a Russian soldier in the middle of the 20th century.
Fast-forward 60–70 years later, and local cafes from Moscow to Malibu are asking customers if they want to add chlorella powder to their smoothies or pop some Ashwagandha powder in their chai lattes. Many of the chews and capsules that today’s adaptogens come in are ground-up roots of these plants, which brings us back to ancient medicines: For thousands of years, they’ve been brewed and prepared to restore a sense of balance in people.
Adaptogens Help You Adapt to Stress
All that sounds nice, but the question remains: How do adaptogens work?
Anyone who lifts weights knows that each rep you perform exerts stress on your body. Once you rest, your muscles should heal and re-form with greater mass, making the same reps easier the next time you attempt them. Allow us, then, to strike a rough corollary here: Adaptogens are a class of herbs intended to exert a similar strengthening effect on your sympathoadrenal system, which coordinates your body’s response to environmental stimuli—helping to control your blood pressure, your sodium and glucose levels, and other metabolic pathways. This system is tantamount to your body’s fight-or-flight command center, and adaptogens help it regulate its hormone production so that your heart isn’t galloping out of your chest from the pent-up anxiety that comes with, you know, being a human.
Research has shown that adaptogens can train your body to function under stress—dialing up your energy levels when you’re tired and calming you back down when you’re panicking. Selye’s studies on the three stages of immunological response to stress are pertinent here, because adaptogens help users stay in the middle (or resistance) stage longer, counteracting the effects of cortisol, the hormone that your adrenal glands release to rev you up so you can handle a crisis.
In US society, the figure that rises to the occasion and cowboys up is often shrouded in a certain mythic aura. Outside of superhero movies, though, wstresses that persist too long can ignite a series of physical shocks—weight gain, impaired cognitive function, and a disrupted circadian rhythm among them—that may result in chronic illness. Some traumatologists believe that adaptogens could shield us from the consequences of stress and help us relax and rejuvenate.
Adaptogens Are Not a Cure-All
Now that we know how adaptogens work, another question must be faced: Do they work?
Our answer to that is a resounding yes. To quote a 2010 study that the Swedish Herbal Institute Research and Development conducted: “Adaptogens have a significant, beneficial effect on stress-induced symptoms under fatigue.” For the researchers, “the most convincing evidences of the efficacy of adaptogens were found in studies related to its neuro-protective effects, effects on cognitive functions and mental performance in fatigue, and on its efficacy in asthenia and depression. The evidence points to adaptogens may be beneficial on neurodegenerative disorders.”
The science speaks for itself—these things work. But we also want to tack on the caveat that adaptogens are not a substitute for medical care or time-tested stress management practices. Some adaptogens may help boost your memory and focus, but if you’re overworked, you’re getting two hours of sleep a night, you’re buried under credit card debt, and water cascades down the living room walls of your apartment whenever it rains, you’re probably still going to feel like you’re wandering around befogged in worry or fatigue.
Disparate cultures across the globe have been using adaptogens in medicines and cuisines for countless generations, in part because they tend to have a soothing effect on us. With that said, adaptogens are not a magic potion that you mix into your winter stew and—poof!—the root causes of your stress are healed or reversed. Adaptogens are not miracle elixirs. They’re not years of therapy or exercise in capsule form. But they are most effective when you take them to get through episodes of heightened stress—a divorce, a death in the family, the cyclical pain of tax season—or to stay balanced over the long term.
How to Take Adaptogens
Effective as adaptogens can be, you need to take them consistently to notice any results. If you knock back one turmeric smoothie every six weeks, don’t expect your arthritis to vanish overnight, or your body to transform into a citadel of hardihood fortified against inflammation. Certain adaptogens are also better taken during certain times of the day. Rhodiola, for one, is a stimulating adaptogen that dovetails with the body’s rhythms before 3 PM, say, when our cortisol levels are usually highest and before we ease into the evening. Holy basil, meanwhile, produces a more calming effect on users, so experts tend to recommend taking it both during the day and also before bedtime.
Which adaptogens you want to take will depend on any number of factors: Are you a morning person or a night owl? Does your stress start when your work starts—and when does your work start? (Are you a line cook who preps for the dinner shift at 4 PM or a trash collector who starts your truck at 4 AM?) In short, what effects are you hoping to achieve, and why?
At Raw Botanics, we pair the right adaptogens with each of our products so that you can take them at any time of the day: Our Rise softgels and tinctures awaken your senses, while the sedative blend in our Rest offerings can soothe you to sleep—and Relax and Restore you can take at any time of the day or night. To find out what the right dosage is for you, follow the instructions on the product information of any adaptogens you buy from other companies.
We use cutting-edge equipment, innovative testing practices, and best-in-class extraction methods like a nano-emulsification process that combines hemp-derived oil with terpenes and adaptogens for highest efficacy—and we do it without adding artificial flavors or sugars. Like most supplements in the US, however, adaptogens can be under-regulated, and many CBD companies don’t test or analyze their products with the same rigor that we do.
So consult your healthcare provider before starting on any herbal treatments, because some adaptogens may interact with your current prescriptions in unexpected ways. Ashwagandha, for one, boosts thyroid function, so if you’re on thyroid medication, talk to your doctor before taking ashwagandha on the reg. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also avoid adaptogens. Talk to your naturopathic doctor to adjust the dosage of adaptogens that you’re taking in order to achieve the effects you want. Or contact us for some tips on how to plan out an adaptogen regimen.
The Raw Botanics Adaptogens
Any self-respecting list that attempts to collate all of the adaptogens in one place is bound to be pretty extensive. Here’s our own culled-down version of the adaptogens that we use in our products—as well as the benefits they provide:
- Reishi: Sometimes called the “King of the Mushrooms” (or the “mushroom of immortality”), reishi has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Some of its phytochemicals—that is, non-nutritive chemicals that are found in plants and f that have disease preventive properties—such as polysaccharides help provide immunity support and produce anti-anxiety effects.
- Lion’s Mane: “Satyr’s beard,” “hericium erinaceus,” “bearded tooth fungus,” “monkey head mushroom,” or plain old Lion’s Mane—whatever you call this edible mushroom, it may be enjoying fame as a recently hyped nootropic in Western cultures, but, like reishi, it’s been a key ingredient in Chinese and Japanese medicine for centuries. We added Lion’s Mane to our offerings because it supports memory and focus, sharpening your overall mental acuity.
- Ashwagandha: An evergreen shrub that grows in India, parts of Africa, and the Middle East, ashwagandha has long been used as a medicinal herb in ayurveda. Supplementing with ashwagandha may help fight depression, reduce anxiety and stress, boost fertility and testosterone levels in men, and improve brain function.
- Chaga: At first glance, chaga looks not unlike a baby black bear clinging to a tree. Upon closer inspection, though, you realize that it’s a fungus that resembles a pile of still-smoldering coals. Those trees it clings to are birch, since chaga—AKA “inonotus obliquus,” which, yes, sounds either like a core workout or a Harry Potter charm—is found in the birch forests of the circumboreal biomes of the world. (Think Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Canada … and Michigan. It’s cold up there.) Some health benefits that chaga may provide include fighting and preventing inflammation and cancer, and lowering blood pressure and blood sugar.
- Cordyceps: Tibetan herdsmen have long used cordyceps—a caterpillar fungus that grows in the alpine pastures of the Himalayas—to support energy, stamina, and athletic performance. We incorporated cordyceps into our products because it lowers cholesterol, fights respiratory disorders, and fortifies a healthy immune system.
- Turmeric: We know you’ve heard of turmeric. You know—the deep-orange-colored powder, the rhizome exterior that could be mistaken for ginger, the warm, bright flavor that’s almost peppery, the “r” in its name that most of us fail to pronounce. Circumin, the main active ingredient in turmeric, has anti-inflammatory effects, may prevent heart disease, and improve symptoms of depression and arthritis.
- Turkey Tail: A medicinal mushroom that provides an array of health benefits, turkey tail contains antioxidants and other compounds that may improve your gut health, boost your immune system, and may enhance the efficacy of certain cancer treatments.
It’s All About Balance
Many of us don’t realize how much stress we’ve accumulated until we take a break—go on a vacation, walk out of that toxic relationship, return to the passions and interests that inspire us—and our bodies ease back into balance. At Raw Botanics, we consider adaptogens to be just one ingredient in our philosophy toward healthy living, which means getting enough sleep, eating whole foods, and following that ancient credo of wellness: “In all things, moderation.”