#WTFWEDNESDAY: Adaptogens

My goal is #WTFWednesday is to provide information + guidance regarding health + wellness topics of interest, so that you can then do more research for yourself. For most of these topics, I wouldn’t consider myself a full-on “expert” - but I have familiarized myself enough with the basics to talk intelligently about the topic and to know where to look (or to look at all!) for more information. I’m always interested in hearing your personal experience or opinions based on your own research.

Adaptogens are one of those health trends that you have probably heard of, but don't realize it if you're not familiar with the technical name. Perhaps instead you've heard of: ginseng, reishi, ashwaganda, or rhodiola (or... maybe not).

Or perhaps you've just had the experience of hitting up the latest "wellness" oriented coffee + tea shop, and finding it to impossible to just get... coffee or tea. Everything on the menu seems to be "boosted," "enhanced," "upgraded," or frankly, ruined by the addition of a concoction of dark brown, grainy, nasty tasting powders.

Adaptogens have hit mainstream markets, in part due to such innovative companies as Four Sigmatic, Sun Potion, and Moon Juice. These companies have taken previously obscure plant-based "superfoods," mixed + matched them up to form "potions," "tonics," or "elixir" blends, and packaged them with some convincing branding to sell to you at a premium.

While I may sound wary (and you should be, too), in reality, I'm a HUGE fan of adaptogens - and have been for several years. I can't recall exactly when, but I'm fairly sure Dr. Frank Lipman first turned me on to the power of plants. And not in a hippie-dippie way; in a research-based, time-tested way, functional medicine doctor-approved way.

So enough what with hype - what ARE adaptogens?

RESEARCH NOTE Much of my research came from what can pretty much be called the adaptogen bible: Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston + Steven Maimes. These gentlemen - an herbalist/ethnobotanist and researcher/writer/herbal supplement company founder - are an incredible tag team of knowledge + experience when it comes to adaptogens. If you are interested in really diving into the history, science, and practical use of adaptogens, get this book. (You can also Google "research on adaptogens" and dig through the scholarly articles.)

One thing to realize: the word "adaptogen" may sound funny, but it originated by combining the word "adapt" and the suffix "-ogen," meaning "to generate." So the idea is adaptogens help the body ADAPT to stressors.

Adaptogens are NOT meant to cure or heal a specific disease, nor should they be prescribed in that manner. Instead, the intention of adaptogens is to help bring the body into balance.

Coincidentally, this is the goal of traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine: to bring the body back into balance, so it can then heal itself. This is an idea + an approach that very strongly resonates with me. (If you're body has the ability to heal itself without prescription drugs or other drastic interventions... wouldn't you want to explore that possibility first?)

WHAT ARE ADAPTOGENS?

Some background on herbal medicine + adaptogens directly from the book:

  • Adaptogens are: a "category of herbs...that help the human body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic processes, and restore balance. They increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stressors and promote normal physiologic function.”

  • Herbal medicine is one of the most ancient forms of health care known to human kind

  • 75% of world’s population depends on botanical medicine for basic healthcare needs (WHO)

  • 25% of modern medicines are still made from plants first used as traditional medicine

  • Most have been used as medicines either in Ayurveda or TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) → rich history + a strong credibility to their use + effectiveness

  • Approximately 500 species of plants listed as official drugs in China

  • 60% of registered physicians in India are involved in non-allopathic systems of medicine

  • Also: Germany, Russia, US (increased tenfold as of 2007)

  • There is actually a good amount of research into using plants as medicine; but then pharmaceutical companies try to isolate compounds and don’t understand that the whole is more important than the parts

HOW DO ADAPTOGENS WORK?

  • All display effects that help to regulate the neuroendocrine and immune systems, provide a defense against stress, and increase the ability of a person to maintain optimal homeostasis.

  • Criteria:

  • 1. Non-toxic to the recipient

  • 2. Produces a non-specific response in the body (not meant to cure)

  • 3. Has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from the stressor

  • Come from plants: Roots, stem, seed, fruit, mushroom

  • Most (if not all) have antioxidant properties

  • protect the liver (hepatoprotective) + heart (cardioprotective)

  • protest against chemo or radiation

  • have anti-cancer + anti-inflammatory propertie

  • “Broad-spectrum”: in other words, they rarely produce pronounced effects on only one organic or system.

  • Not “one drug one disease”

  • Often grow in crazy harsh environments (high altitude, cold weather), which suggests how they "adapt"

  • Best science-based explanation of how they work: they act by stimulating the body’s non-specific stress response via the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituatary-adrenal) and sympathoadrenal system → hormone-regulating

  • Work to stimulate the neuroendocrine + immune system via multiple metabolic pathways

Copyright: Ben Greenfield Fitness

WHAT ARE ADAPTOGENS GOOD FOR?

  • Most well-researched:

  • (American) Ginseng: mild CNS (central nervous system) stimulant, nourishing to HPA axis

  • Ashwaganda: calming, antihistamine, anti-inflammatory

  • Cordyceps: lung + kidney tonic, immune amphoteric, energy

  • Eleuthero: immune tonic, adrenal tonic, anti-fatigue, performance enhancer

  • He sho wu: supports the liver, kidney, blood, and male reproductive function (interesting because now commonly used for beauty/female products!)

  • Holy basil/tulsi: supports normal blood sugar/cortisol levels

  • Licorice: immunity, heals stomach + bowel

  • Reishi: immunity calms the mind

  • Rhodiola: immunity, cardioprotective

  • Shisandra: balance the nervous system, anxiotidant, hepatoprotective

  • TBD: shilajit, amla, astragalus, shatavari, sea buckthorn, maca, goji berries

  • Other favorites of mine that aren't technically classified as "adaptogens" (but share similar properties:

  • Chaga mushroom: immunity

  • Ginger: digestion, immunity, anti-inflammatory

  • Turmeric: anti-inflammatory

HOW DO YOU TAKE ADAPTOGENS?

  • If you are under the care of a qualified healthcare practitioner (such as a functional medicine MD, naturopathic physician, Ayurvedic practitioner, or acupuncturist), he or she may prescribe adaptogens in their powdered or leaf form, which you would consume in liquid or as a tea, or as a tincture.

  • You can purchase many singular adaptogens in powdered form (Sun Potion sells many), and mix them into tea, smoothies, or food; keep in mind they often have a strong, bitter taste.

  • Other companies also encapsulate adaptogens, either singularly or in blend. For example, I take capsules of ashwaganda + maca, as well as an immunity "blend".

  • More wellness trend-focused brands create blends of adaptogens (as well as other supportive ingredients) that you can mix with water to make tea or even coffee! Wyde One and Four Sigmatic make high quality, not terrible tasting products :)

  • While you should always work with a qualified healthcare practitioner before integrating adaptogens (or any supplements) into your routine, because they are not meant to cure disease, you are generally safe incorporating them on your own. The biggest challenge is finding the correct dose; it's very easy to take too little, or perhaps too much (and waste money).

  • Certain adaptogens (like maca) can have very strong effects on the body, however, and should be dosed properly.

  • It can be more effective to cycle adaptogens when you need them the most. For example, immunity blends in the winter season, or stress-mitigating formulas when you are going through a difficult time.

My interest in + passion for adaptogens shows in this video discussion, as I went on for 20 minutes! Skip to minute 13:30 to hear + see me share some adaptogenic products I've tried before, and ones I use + love.

Some favorite specific adaptogenic products:

Let me know: Have you tried adaptogens? If so, what benefits did you experience? Do you have a favorite adaptogen?

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