ew superfood trends change as quickly as the seasons so if you’ve never heard of an adaptogen, I don’t blame you. Acai replaced goji berries as the powerhouse antioxidant and chia seeds captured our attention after quinoa’s long run. It’s hard to keep up, but one theme remains particularly consistent; superfoods aren’t at all newly made discoveries. Most have been used in ancient medicinal practices across the globe for centuries, only to be eclipsed by modern medicine, and brought back by an awakened focus on integrative health. Adaptogenic herbs have been prominent in the Ayurvedic herbal tradition for over 4,000 years, and they’re making a strong comeback.
So What Exactly is an Adaptogen?
Adaptogens are plants with specific properties that help your body adapt, most notably to stress. Integrative health guru, Dr. Andrew Weil describes adaptogens as substances (such as Asian Ginseng, Rhodiola, and Ashwagandha) that work in, “non-specific ways to increase resistance to stress, without disturbing normal biological functions.” Adaptogens promote homeostasis by activating the adrenal glands to balance your body back into its natural state of mental clarity and physical endurance. Russian toxicologist, N. V. Lazarev originally coined the term in 1947 to describe herbs that increase your body’s resistance to stress.
They sound pretty great, right? But you can’t help but wonder if they work. So far, the hard science on the physiological benefits of adaptogens is suggestive, not definitive. For instance, Dr. Weil notes a 2009 scientific review on Rhodiola Rosea (also known as golden root, Arctic root, or roseroot) that concluded that there was substantial evidence to support that Rhodiola improved cognitive function and mental performance in those with chronic fatigue. Rhodiola grows in dry, frigid and rocky environments, and like many adaptogens, it’s healing power is derived from its own molecular composition that has adapted over time to survive in such extreme landscapes.
It makes sense then that our ancestors used this herb 3,000 years ago to help cope with living in harsh, cold environments with the imminent need to protect themselves from large predators. In the modern era, external stressors may not come from a necessity to survive in wild terrain. However, today’s stressors happen at a faster, more frequent clip, sometimes putting the body in a constant state of stress. Proponents of adaptogens like functional medicine rockstar, Dr. Frank Lipman calls adaptogens, “nature’s miracle anti-stress and fatigue fighter.”
So which herbs are adaptogenic and how do they improve my overall wellbeing? Dr. Frank Lipman shares his top 4 adaptogens for our readers.
The Ashwagandha root has been a staple in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. It’s used to strengthen the immune system and increase vitality, energy, and stamina. Ancient healers and modern herbalist use it to treat exhaustion, anxiety, and insomnia.
Asian Ginseng is one of the most coveted and expensive medicinal plants in the world. It’s believed to promote healthy cell growth and help the body cope with stress.
The Eleuthero root promotes a feeling of well-being and is believed to improve memory. It’s used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat joint pain, fatigue, and stress.
Rhodiola Rosea is shown to promote brain function and combat stress by balancing cortisol hormones.
So, how do you take these miracle-workers?
There’s no right or wrong way to consume adaptogens. Take it as a pill that resembles a vitamin, a powder to put in water or a smoothie, or make a tea or tonic. Joel Einhorn, the owner of Hanah One, makes an Ashwagandha mixture geared towards top level athletes that are made with honey, ghee and sesame oil to promote faster digestion. What is essential is sourcing pure, non-contaminated ingredients. In a conversation with Bryan Caroll of the Summit Integrative Wellness, Einhorn likens adaptogenic herbs to wine, noting that the soil and natural terrain in which the adaptogen grows is paramount in the final quality of the plant.
If you find yourself coping with a lot of stress (really, who doesn’t feel this way?), then perhaps introducing an adaptogen is a positive step in the right direction. We all know that stress often leads to more serious maladies. Finding a way combat stress with lifestyle changes and nature’s medicine is a trend that will never go out of style.