What Are Adaptogenic Plants And Herbs?
Adaptogens are defined as a particular class of plants, mostly herbs that are able to decrease the level of stress, anxiety, fatigue and tiredness in the human body ( symptoms often associated with high levels of stress) In particular, adaptogens increase the ability of the human body to react and adapt to a wide range of stressors
Adaptogens according to their proponents, have a normalising effect on the body. This means that they don’t serve a single function, unlike many medicines and herbs, and this is what makes them unique. The belief is that adaptogens may be able to ‘adapt’ to whatever the body is dealing with (stress, anxiety, fatigue), and help alleviate or lessen the symptoms.
Adaptogens and how they can help manage stress and anxiety.
Can adaptogens help relieve the mental and physical effects of stress? We may think of stress and anxiety as being modern conditions. A by-product of today’s hectic lifestyles where we are constantly on the go, managing work inboxes, updating social media, trying to be the perfect parent and partner, whilst bottom of the list is the one about carving out some valuable time for ourselves.
In fact the human body has always had to deal with stress, be it from wars, potentially fatal diseases, poverty, predators. So while the sources of tension and fear have changed over time, the existence of stress—and the human body’s response to it—hasn’t.
It is likely that mid-life women are experiencing more stress than their mothers and grandmothers did. A longer life-expectancy is of course a positive thing. But the pressures that social and demographic change can bring mean that many women are having to work to support themselves as they cannot always rely on a pension, or that pension cannot now be claimed for several years later than was foreseen. The job environment is very competitive of course, and it can be hard to return to following time away to bring up children, if indeed you are lucky enough to have taken a break. Women in their fifties are still often supporting their children through university or college. They are also likely to be facing issues with their own ageing parents. Looking after yourself physically and mentally is so important, yet often gets pushed to the bottom of the list.
Personally speaking I am currently going through a period of extreme stress. It is no exaggeration to say that it has had a seriously deleterious affect on my mental and physical health. For the first time in my life I am having anxiety attacks that leave me gasping for breath in the middle of the night. I also have difficulty falling asleep, only then to wake up far too early. Don’t tell my boss, but my brain is in a continuous foggy state. Whilst I am aware of all of this, actually being able to do anything about it is proving difficult, especially as outside influences and my current situation demand a great deal of me simply to get through each day. I consider myself to be a pretty strong person but really there is a limit to how much anyone can actually take and I am pretty much there now.
I was googling and researching stress and anxiety, and came across information on Adaptogens. I had never heard the term before, so decided to find out more. I am glad I did, because as you will read, this particular class of plants and herbs works in a way like no other medicines, and actually might prove to be the solution to getting some mental and physical balance back into my life.
Stress—particularly when it becomes habitual—can have a very significant physical destabilising effect on us.This is because our bodies treat stress as a serious threat every time we feel it, triggering a series of mental and physiological changes to help address the perceived, or actual danger—either through staying put and confrontation, or by running away. Stress hormones like cortisol are produced and regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, an important network of glands that play a central role in the endocrine system. When it is constantly activated the HPA axis can easily get out of balance and put excess pressure on the adrenal glands in turn making us susceptible to experiencing anxiety and quite possibly some kind of illness.
It is believed that adaptogens can actually work along the HPA axis to help the body handle stress more efficiently, and regulate the stress response. It is thought also that they can have a positive effect on both the immune system and the brain: if you are feeling exhausted, and therefore weakened and less able to process information, adaptogens do appear to be of help in improving cognitive function.
As an illustration of how consumption of adaptogens can reduce tiredness levels, they have been proven to affect levels of both nitric oxide and cortisol, which are both substances produced in high quantities during times of fatigue.
Some of the most important adaptogens
There are around a dozen adaptogenic herbs, but several of the most important ones are: Asian Gingseng, Siberian Gingseng, Rhodiola, Astragulus, Holy Basil and Ashwagandha.
- Asian Gingseng (Panax Gingseng), which is primarily used in traditional Chinese Medicine, has shown to possibly interact with the HPA axis
- .Siberian Gingseng – Like its relative Asian Gingseng, Siberian Gingseng also seems to improve cognitive functions, decrease fatigue and improve sleep 
- Astragulus is common to many Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal formulations because it is believed to improve longevity. Studies suggest that it may have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Holy Basil – is considered sacred in India, as its name would indicate. Studies have suggested that Holy Basil may help to promote enhanced cognitive function, whilst helping to support the body’s response to stress in a healthy way.
- Rhodiola – is a herb that is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Rhodiola appears to reduce inflammation in the body, help to fight against stress-induced fatigue and to help with overall stress management.
- Ashwagandha – again, appears to work as an aid to stress-relief as well as offer support to the immune system.
How to Use Adaptogens to Relieve Stress and Anxiety
Although very few adaptogens are associated with adverse side effects, some can interfere with prescription medicines or aren’t advisable for individuals who have certain health conditions. Therefore, it is advisable to consult with your doctor before trying them (as with any new supplement), and then get further advice with regards to the correct dosage of the particular herbs in question.
Most adaptogens are available in capsule form and can be taken as a regular dietary supplement. Alternately, you can add powdered or liquid versions to smoothies or drinks.
Something worth bearing in mind, whatever dose you decide to take, is that adaptogens are not like regular drugs where a result is usually seen fairly quickly. So they really need to be used over a long term period, where the effects may be subtle but protective. In this way, adaptogens can be viewed as complementary to other self-care practices such as meditation or yoga.
After finding out this information, and sharing it on here, I think my next step is going to be making an appointment with a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner, to see what they suggest which adaptogens might work best for me.
You also might be interested in exploring further into managing stress through yoga, and this post will take you through some of the basic beginner poses: http://www.fiftyanything.com/7-great-beginner-yoga-poses/ .
And if you are experiencing difficulties with getting adequate rest and sleep you might find this post useful: http://www.fiftyanything.com/12-tips-for-better-sleep-tonight/
If you have any experience of using herbs such as these, and would like to share how they have helped, I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment or two below. Many thanks, Suzy xx