The herbal stage managers
Adaptogens have found their way into the mainstream market boasting many promises of reduced stress, improved sleep and even better sex. Yet, despite current saturation of the wellness industry, many people, including the sellers, don’t really understand how they work or how they might help. Could a herb really boost immunity, support energy and focus, promote relaxation and rest, as well as improve mood and overall wellbeing? That is a tall order, but one that a multi-tasking adaptogen can definitely fulfil.
So what is an adaptogen? Adaptogens are magnificent, non-toxic medicinal herbs that herbalists have been relying upon based on herbal wisdom accrued over thousands of years. They are prime body tonics used for their healing abilities of balancing, restoring, and protecting the body as a whole via multiple metabolic pathways. They address multiple imbalances; to not only nourish but also cleanse the body of poisons and supporting immunity in a balanced holistic way while enhancing physiological function. Adaptogens were granted their name because of their distinctive ability to "adapt" their function according to our body’s needs.
Think of adaptogens like they are the indispensable stage managers behind the scenes who orchestrate, coordinate and integrate all the different aspects of theatre to create the show. Adaptogens embody the real meaning of holistic in the way they pervasively infiltrate and harmonise the entire multi-layered human being.
Every Culture uses adaptogens
Although the term ‘adaptogens’ has only existed since the late 1940s, these wonderful plants have been revered for many centuries. Nearly every culture in the world has used these rejuvenating and restorative plants. In Daoism, for example, many of the herbs that achieve the same results as adaptogens are referred to as “tonic herbs.” In Chinese herbal medicine, they’re called “qi tonics” and immortality herbs. In Ayurveda, they’re known as “rasayanas.” Rasayana herbs or adaptogens are said to slow ageing, be revitalising, prevent disease and promote longevity by reducing the impact of physiological aging factors like stress and oxidation.
In Western herbal medicine, some of the herbs that fall under “nutritive tonics” and “trophorestoratives” essentially parallel adaptogenic herbs. In rainforest herbalism, herbs similar to adaptogens tend to be called “para-toda,” meaning “heal-all.”
“For every human illness, somewhere in the world there exists a plant which is the cure” Rudolf Steiner
Flux is the way of life
According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; nor is it the strongest; the species that survives is the one that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. Modern life has greatly compromised our ability to adapt and adjust to change despite fluctuation being a normal part of life and of all existence. Change is not a problem that we need to or fear or avoid, rather a process to support and welcome. If we observe nature we will see that finding protection to remain stagnant is not an option. All things in life are growing and all things are evolving from the blueprint or seed within. Without change, nothing in this world would ever grow or blossom and no one in this world would ever move forward to become the person they are meant to be.
Plants, the masters of adaptability, provide myriad therapeutic benefits to match our own shifting states. Many plants actually contain adaptogenic/tonic compounds because they have to contend with ample stress themselves. In truth all plants are adaptogenic to varying degrees, however, adaptogens are a certain type of plant that stands out as distinctly powerful because they work non-specifically yet profoundly affect every bodily system.
Adaptive humans and Plants
We humans are like plants in so many ways, responding to environmental stimuli in a very physical way. We are both organisms interacting with chemicals, gravity, light, moisture, infections, temperature, oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations, parasite infestation, disease, physical disruption, sound and touch. Just to negotiate the complexities of sustaining life in a natural world will require a coordinated response of all our faculties to any situation or stimulus that disturbs our normal conditions or function for survival. The sensing body is not a programmed machine but an active and open form, continually improvising its relation to things and the world. The body’s silent conversation with things is underway at the most immediate level of sensory perception. Its actions and engagements are ceaselessly adjusting themselves to a world and a terrain that is itself continually shifting.
“There is only one active ingredient in plant medicines, friendship. A plant spirit heals a patient as a favour to its friend-in-dreaming the doctor” Rumi
The dynamic balance of homeostasis
We can’t talk about adaptogens without talking about homeostasis. Homeostasis is the self-regulating process by which an organism tends to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are best for its survival. A healthy human body is capable of being extremely resilient and adaptive under a vast variety of conditions. This is homeostasis, the intrinsic dynamic state at the very heart of human life. Human health is not a static state; nothing that is alive is static. Health is a state of dynamic balance because there is constant fluctuation and constant interchange with our environment.
Every human being is a self-organised system, in a state of dynamic equilibrium, a living, ever-changing identity that has come into being of its own accord, just like a plant. We are continually taking in information from our environment, using what is nutritious and eliminating what is not. We are constantly adapting to the circumstances of each moment. Our needs are also in constant flux and our health, which is the visual manifestation of that always-shifting state, also shifts and changes. In fact the wellness of the human organism is such a dynamic state that we need to be aware of its process as it unfolds, reassessing at every step along the way to maintain and optimise its intrinsic homeostatic state. This is where adaptogens come into play.
Adaptogens – the plant yogis
The state of homeostasis is the ideal human way of being. We cannot halt the inexorable barrage of unexpected change that disappoints and generates stress in our lives. We can however develop our resilience and immunity to the toxic situations that corrode our wellbeing. The accomplished yogi remains adamantine, unfazed and calm in the midst of flux - life’s vicissitudes.
One of the basic tenets of yoga embodies this ongoing quest for intrinsic balance within the human physiology and psyche. This is Yoga Sutra 2.46: Sthira sukha asanam, which means balancing ease with effort and finding the sweet spot between stability and comfort. At the mental level, a balance of sthira (steadiness) and sukha (ease) can be experienced by a sense of peace and tranquillity while our minds remain focused and clear. When our connection to the earth is relaxed and powerful, health and abundance flows toward us. At the energetic level, we experience balanced sthira and sukha as an easy flow of breath and currents of prana (life force energy) throughout the body. Prana flows freely through the chakras or energy centres, along the spine but remains contained within the body.
The breath moves smoothly and effortlessly, flowing with fullness without holding or straining even during the most intense poses. At the spiritual level, we experience a balance of sthira and sukha as a connection to the divine while remaining present in our bodies. For millennium, yogis have sought out adaptogens from the plant world to help facilitate this idyllic homeostatic state. They discovered that certain plants fulfilled these functions quite admirably and incorporated them into their life and practice to catapult them closer to enlightenment.
The cascade of calamity with stress
Life of course does not always run smoothly and the human being cannot always adroitly negotiate the inevitable emotional and physiological jolts along the way without proper nutrition and physiological support. Chronic stress, the precursor to most disease, slowly but surely corrodes both physical and mental health and diminishes the intrinsic energy stores of so many people. Chronically elevated cortisol levels and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes. Every system in the body is affected causing adrenal fatigue, dysfunctional digestive tract e.g. irritable bowel disease, rapid aging, anxiety, cancer, chronic fatigue, common cold, hormone imbalance, auto-immune disorders, thyroid conditions and weight loss resistance. Over time, the repeated activation of stress hormones, aka the “flight or fight” response, can take a serious toll on the body; suffice to say, the body is way out of alignment with its own inbuilt homeostasis and is going to need some serious support from Nature – the plant world.
Plants to the rescue
Fortunately the plant world offers us the remarkable gift of adaptogens that allow the body to do what it does so well – that is to adapt and ride out life’s constant fluctuations intelligently and healthfully. Adaptogens build adaptive energy to keep the body balanced when affected by multiple stressors or harmful influences. Such herbs can support the innate human stress response to unexpected change, to evolve sustainably allowing us to function optimally in our life, whatever the chaos that may arise. They stimulate, activate or promote a response in multiple nonspecific ways. Of course this lack of specificity confounds medical science, which likes to put everything in its little categorical box and as a consequence, adaptogens still evoke a certain mystery. Also, adaptogens restore normal bodily functions rather than force physiological activity in one direction.
When adaptagens are ingested, the entire broad range of nourishing and restorative plant constituents, including the minor ones, are utilised by the body, mitigating the intensity of some of the more intense actives. Our bodies recognise and make good use of the bio-chemicals in these plants because we have evolved with them over millennia. Adaptogens can greatly increase the effectiveness of some modern drugs, including antibiotics, anxiolytics (anxiety relief) antidepressants and hypoglycaemic (blood sugar lowering) agents. They can also reduce and in some cases eliminate the side effects of some drugs.
While prescription drugs remain in our system and influence multiple organs, once an adaptogen has completed its job, what is useful is eliminated or absorbed into the body without any side effects.
So how do adaptogens work?
The rejuvenating adaptogens improve and recharge the health of our adrenal glands, counteracting the harmful effects of stress. More energy is accessible to cells and the ability to eliminate toxic by-products of the metabolic process to help the body use oxygen more efficiently. More cellular energy in combination with boosting the adrenal glands strengthens the body’s ability to cope with stress, anxiety and fatigue calming us down and boosting us up simultaneously.
Adaptogens target multiple locations in the body, yet they primarily work with the neuro-endocrine system in order to help regulate our bodies’ primitive stress software. The chemical compounds in adaptogens interact with our bodies’ stress-response systems, namely the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and the sympatho-adrenal system (or SAS). They also directly support and balance our organs, which shape our individual perceptions of the world and control basic survival processes like intuition, pain response, sexual function, blood pressure, circadian rhythm, stress response and many more.
The adaptogen’s intelligence
Adaptogens have a normalising effect and bi-directionality within the body that is indicative of their own intelligence to determine exactly what the body needs. Adaptogenic herbs work so closely with the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, that every person experiences the herb’s effects differently, because each person has a different internal process for balance. Each adaptogen attunes the body to a particular energy or set of energetic conduits, generating a non-specific homeostatic response within the body and mind. Adaptogens act on the blood current, cleansing and toning by adjusting the general homeostasis of the body. They are often immune stimulants, some of them containing phyto-hormones to enable, regulate and enhance the endocrine system’s hormonal secretions.
This means they reach far and deep into our physical and most importantly, subtle body systems expertly affecting us emotionally and spiritually; it is well understood that if we can improve our mental condition, we can improve overall health. Hormones are known as the ‘molecules of consciousness’ powerful bio peptides that control our awareness of reality, mood, perception, sleep-wake cycles and bonding. It can be said that hormones are the gateway through which we experience our self and life; they are one of the major links between the physical, emotional and spiritual worlds. The conjunction of the adaptogens essence with our own brings us knowledge, life and healing.
Ashwagandha, burdock root, ginsengs, rhodiola rosea, holy basil, maca root, red clover, prickly ash, damiana, echinacea, golden seal, sarsaparilla, dong quai, liquorice, elderberry, reishi, gotu kola, astralagus, schisandra, burdock root, milk thistle, bearberry, green tea, horsetail, lady’s mantle, raspberry leaf, nettle, shatavari.
Of course there are many more, the incredible chemistry of many other herbs parallels, complements and aligns with the qualifications of being an adaptogen. Certain adaptogens are also known to be faster acting than others. Mostly however we must be patient with most adaptogens because they work slowly, gently and subtly, but the benefits are undeniable and long lasting. Incorporating adaptogens into our daily regimen can help us feel a huge improvement in our energy and general health. Holistic healing is not just the process of finding relief from pain; it is the process of reconciling what is otherwise incompatible or unacceptable within ourselves. When we bridge these two otherwise conflicting worlds, we ‘heal’ and discover our unique gift.