Mindy Duncan | Clinical Naturopath
As Naturopaths we like to think of adaptogens as our secret weapons. Adaptogens by definition increase the resistance to physical, environmental, emotional or biological stressors, and restore normal physiological function to the body. They are known as ‘whole-body tonics’. In other words, during times of chronic or increased stress, adaptogens help to regulate normal bodily processes, allowing us to adapt to the situation rather than burnout or become ill.
Adaptogens typically have very broad therapeutic activity, impacting & supporting a number of body systems including neurological, immune, nervous, endocrine, metabolic & reproductive. To better appreciate the true benefits of adaptogen herbs & what they protect us from it’s helpful to understand the impact chronic stress can have on the body (read about the impact of stress here). Chronic exposure to stress can result in a significant imbalance of the neuroendocrine, autonomic nervous system (ANS) & immune system. This is especially important when considering the negative impact stress can have on our immunity and the rise of autoimmunity & lowered resistance against infection. Interestingly, many of the commonly used adaptogens also have immune-modulating activity.
Criteria for Adaptogens
All adaptogens must be exhibit the following activity to be considered ‘adaptogenic’:
- Harmless to the host
- General, non-specific effect
- Increases resistance of the recipient to a variety of physical, chemical, or biological stressors
- Acts as a general stabiliser/normalizer
Adaptogens protect the body against stress! Think of them as herbal life-jackets!
Which herbs have adaptogenic properties?
No two adaptogenic herbs are created the same, they all have their own unique set of actions & abilities. Before engaging with herbal medicines it’s always recommended that you consult with a qualified Naturopath or Herbalist (meet our Vive Practitioners here). That way you can really pinpoint the perfect treatment for you. Here are a few of our favourite (& well used) adaptogenic herbs & why.
Withania (aka. Ashwagandha or Indian ginseng)
Let’s start off with one of our personal favourites. Withania really should somehow be added into the water supply, we could all benefit from a little Withania in our lives. Seriously!
Withania is an Ayurvedic herb, also known as Indian ginseng which has been traditionally used for the treatment of debility, chronic stress, fatigue & recovery. In fact, in Ayurveda, Withania is referred to as a ‘Rasayana’, utilised to improve vitality & both mental & physical well-being. Withania is thought to possess not only adaptogenic properties but immune-regulatory, anti-inflammatory, calming/anti-anxiety, anti-anaemic & thyroid protective properties.
Modern Clinical Evidence
Considered to be a valuable adaptogen, Withania may improve the bodies resilience towards physical, chemical & biological stressors. Research has shown that Withania does this via its ability to counteract a number of negative changes which commonly occur during times of extreme stress including blood sugar fluctuations & increased cortisol, meaning reduced risk of stress-induced chronic fatigue, injury or illness (a true adaptogen). The way in which Withania has this capacity is thought to happen via a number of mechanisms. There are a few examples of the many proposed ways Withania illicits this effect:
- reducing levels of our master stress hormone cortisol & improving our resilience to stress by regulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the communication system in our bodies which responds to a stressor.
- improving dopaminergic & GABA receptor activity in the brain to assist with working memory, motivation & mood.
- improve T4 production in the thyroid to support thyroid function & stabilise energy production to minimise fatigue states.
Siberian ginseng also referred to Eleuthero root, is a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herb, with its usage dating back over 2000 years. It has been thought to possess the following activity: CNS stimulating (enhancing memory, learning & cognition), hepatoprotective (liver), gastroprotective (gut), antioxidant, cardio-protective & protective against atherosclerosis, anti-hyperglycaemic, anti-inflammatory & immune-modulatory.
Modern Clinical evidence
Siberian ginseng helps to restore mental & physical capacity, especially in times of exhaustion & recovering from fatigue. Siberian ginseng helps the body counteract & adapt to stress from many origins whilst specifically strengthening the body’s immune response. As we know chronic stress has a negative impact on the immune system, therefore any agent that is able to mitigate this process will result in more illness resilience. Siberian ginseng is also perfect for those who suffer cold sore outbreaks during times of stress, as it has been shown to display anti-viral effects specific to the herpes simplex virus.
To modulate the stress response Siberian ginseng has been thought to increase monoamines & catecholamines by inhibiting an enzyme referred to as COMT, which regulates dopamine, noradrenaline & serotonin in the brain. Siberian ginseng can be taken long-term to minimise the incidence of acute infection & improve overall well-being, however, it is not recommended to be administered during acute infections. Please consult your Naturopath for safest methods for utilising Siberian ginseng.
Rhodiola, grown in high altitude Arctic regions of Asia & Europe, was traditionally used to treat nervous system disorders & as a ‘tonic’. Commonly used in traditional medicine practices in Asia, Eastern Europe & even Scandinavia to improve physical & mental performance, improve resistance to high altitude sickness & protect the nervous system. Apparently, it was even utilised by the Vikings to enhance physical endurance & strength. I mean, if it’s good enough for the Vikings!
Modern Clinical Evidence
Rhodiola is a really useful herb to utilise where chronic stress has resulted in fatigue & lethargy. In fact, researchers found Rhodiola to exert an anti-fatigue effect whilst also increasing mental performance, concentration & reducing the cortisol response to re-occurring stress in those experiences burnout. In other words, it improves the bodies resilience & adaption to ongoing stress.
One proposed mechanism for Rhodiola’s stress-protective effects is its ability to engage directly with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the very system which modulates & controls our stress response. Not only is Rhodiola important for modulating the stress response but it also plays a role in protecting the body against the oxidative stress induced by chronic stress. Rhodiola was found to contain a high quantity of polyphenol compounds which have markedly high antioxidant capacity, which mitigate oxidative stress in order to reduce the risk of future health concerns induced by long-term stress. Polyphenols also act as an important fuel source for a number of our gut microbes, which help positively influence the diversity & quality of our microbiome.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) has traditionally been used as a ‘female tonic’ in many medicine system including Ayurveda (Indian Traditional Medicine) & Unani (Arabian Traditional Medicine). Shatavari was also regarded as aphrodisiac tonic, as the name Shatavari quite literally means ‘she who possesses a hundred husbands’.
Modern Clinical Evidence
Shatavari was shown to directly modulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis & sympathetic-noradrenergic system (the process which is activated during stress). Other studies show that when Shatavari is combined with other adaptogenic herbs such as Withania & Holy Basil dopamine, noradrenalin & serotonin were normalised & stress-induced mental/emotional unease & anxiety was alleviated. With regards to women’s health Shatavari is also an effective oestrogenic herb for ameliorating negative symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) & menopause, especially when oestrogen may be low.
Mindy Duncan is a Bachelor qualified clinical naturopath with special interests in women’s health, menstrual & hormonal health, thyroid function & self-esteem. Mindy is available for consultations via the Vive Clinic on Tuesday & Wednesdays.
References available upon request