Understanding Adaptogens: Herbs for Stress & Immunity
Adaptogens are herbs and plant extracts that work to counteract the harmful effects of stress in the body. While adaptogenic supplements and powders have seen increased popularity and market saturation in the last few years, many adaptogens have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine.
In today’s stressed-out and overworked world, it’s no wonder that adaptogens have caught the attention of the wider public. Not only do adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms increase the body’s resilience to stress, but they also support optimal health.
The Influence of Adaptogens on Stress & Seasonal Health
While a certain degree of stress is to be expected in our busy, on-the-go lives, prolonged stress can adversely affect our sleep, mood, energy, skin, digestion, immune health, and so much more. Adaptogens can help us remain balanced while experiencing chronic stress or during temporary instances of heightened stress. Their ability to keep us centered in our daily lives makes them an excellent choice for year-round support, but they are especially beneficial during seasonal transitions.
In our last blog on Late Summer, we discussed that the arrival of Fall marks the start of cold and flu season. The transition to cooler temperatures and more time spent indoors challenges both the immune and nervous systems. Adaptogens help smooth the transition between seasons through their positive influence on mood, energy, sleep, mental clarity, and immune health.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a unique category of herbs and mushrooms that help regulate the body’s response to stress and restore balance to its systems. These herbs adapt to what your body needs, enhancing your resistance to a wide range of physical, emotional, and environmental stressors. Broadly speaking, adaptogens work on many levels to strengthen the functioning of the whole body and promote overall wellness.
Brief History of Adaptogens
Many of the herbs that are recognized as adaptogens today have a long history of usage dating back thousands of years. Reishi, Ashwagandha, and Tulsi have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. In traditional medicinal systems, these remarkable herbs are considered restoratives, qi-tonics, rasayanas, or rejuvenating herbs, and are used to improve overall vitality and encourage natural harmony.
The term “adaptogen” was coined in the 1940s by Soviet toxicologist, Dr. Nikolai Lazarev. Another Soviet scientist, Dr. Israel Brekhman, is considered the “Father of Adaptogens” because of his extensive research into adaptogens. In the 1960s, Dr. Brekhman and his colleagues defined qualities and characteristics that herbs must possess to be considered an adaptogen.
Criteria for herbs to be classified as an adaptogen:
- Nontoxic – have minimal to no side effects; do not disrupt the body’s normal functions
- Nonspecific – able to assist the body in resisting a broad spectrum of stressors; do not work on one single body system or organ
- Normalizing – help the body maintain or return to a state of homeostasis
Some of the original and most widely studied adaptogens include Panax Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, and Schisandra. The list of true adaptogens is continuously updated as more research studies emerge.
How do Adaptogens Work?
Adaptogens function mainly by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) system. The HPA axis is a central component of stress response system, and it regulates the function of the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Both systems are triggered by stressors, but the SAM system produces the instantaneous “fight or flight” response, while the HPA axis regulates longer term stress and works to restore homeostasis once the stressor is resolved.
Adaptogens have a balancing and regulatory effect on the stress systems, encouraging an adaptive response that can be either stimulating or protective. The chart to the right demonstrates the what the stress response can look like with and without the addition of adaptogens.
The Stress Response
The stress response, also called the flight-or-fight response, is an automatic physiological reaction to a perceived threat or challenging situation. The coordinated activity of the SAM system and HPA axis results in our body releasing a surge of hormones into the bloodstream, including adrenaline and cortisol. During the fight or flight response, your system is focusing all its energy on the most crucial functions needed for survival, giving your body a burst of energy and strength.
Physical indicators of the fight or flight response can include:
- Rapid heartbeat and breathing
- Tense muscles
- Dilated pupils
The fight-or-flight response is also recognized as the first stage of the general adaptation syndrome. Three phases of stress were proposed by endocrinologist Hans Selye: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. These three stages outline the body’s reaction to stress and this framework can be used to highlight the activity of the SAM system and HPA axis during the body’s stress response.
General Adaptation Syndrome:
Stage 1: Alarm – A stressor disturbs homeostasis, SAM and HPA activity increases, and the fight-or-flight response initiates.
Stage 2: Resistance – HPA activity takes over and the body begins to adapt and repair. When the stress passes, the body returns to homeostasis. If the stress continues and the Resistance stage goes on for too long without a pause to recover, this can lead to Exhaustion.
Stage 3: Exhaustion – Prolonged or chronic stress will result in depletion of your mental, physical, and emotional resources. Bodily functions will deteriorate, and your immune system is weakened.
How Adaptogens “Hack” the Stress Response
Adaptogens “hack” the body’s stress response by modulating the stress systems in a way that improves the body’s resistance to stress and decreases its sensitivity to stressors. Adaptogens exert their stress-protective effect during the Alarm and Resistance stages by moderating the intensity of stress reactions. The stimulating effects of adaptogens help to keep you in the Resistance phase for longer, providing a boost in energy and mental performance that delays the onset and reduces the severity of the Exhaustion stage.
But, how does stress impact our overall health?
Mild stress is an inevitable part of daily life. Our systems are constantly resisting external and internal stressors. Urgent deadlines, running late to a meeting, working out, fear of failure, the need to be perfect – all of these are examples of stressors.
Our body’s natural stress response can positively benefit us by boosting our energy, keeping us alert, or producing a feeling of strength. Problems arise when we are in a constant state of stress. Chronic stress and overexposure to stress hormones can negatively impact our immune system and cognitive function, disrupt sleep and hormone balance, and lead to low energy and poor digestion.
Best Adaptogenic Herbs & Mushrooms for Immune Support
To be considered an adaptogen, herbs need to be non-toxic, offer widespread support, and help restore balance to the body. Within that broad definition, each adaptogen has unique properties and additional health benefits. Some are stimulating and invigorating, while others calm the mind and encourage deep relaxation. While you can’t really go wrong with any adaptogen for immune support, certain ones offer potent immune boosting qualities.
Medicinal mushrooms – including chaga, reishi, lion’s mane and cordyceps – can also be adaptogens. All mushrooms contain polysaccharides called beta-glucans which have been shown to strengthen and stimulate the immune system.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) help boost energy and brain function without causing a low when they wear off, making them fantastic coffee alternatives. Panax Ginseng is considered far more stimulating than its American counterpart and has traditionally been used to increase vigor and athletic performance. Both herbs offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits and help support immune function.
Function: Energy Boost, Immune Support, Mental Clarity, Blood Sugar Support
Eleuthero, also known as Siberian Ginseng, is traditionally used to counteract fatigue, stimulate the immune system, and improve athletic and mental performance during periods of stress. It is commonly recommended for individuals who work physically or mentally demanding jobs or suffer from insomnia.
Function: Athletic Performance, Mental Clarity, Immune Support, Sleep Support
Product: Siberian Ginseng Root
Ashwagandha is a multipurpose adaptogen with potent antioxidant properties that can help support the nervous system and immune health. Ashwagandha has generally calming effects including promoting restful sleep and regulating mood and stress levels.
Function: Stress Reduction, Sleep Support, Energy Boost
Astragalus has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine for invigorating qi, increasing resistance to stress, and boosting immunity. Containing three beneficial plant compounds – saponins, flavonoids, and polysaccharides – astragalus offers potent antioxidant, anti-aging, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Function: Immune Support, Anti-Inflammatory, Anti-Aging, Heart Health
Ban Lan Gen
One of the most popular antiviral herbs in Chinese herbal medicine, Ban Lan Gen is traditionally used to combat early cold symptoms, support overall respiratory health, and clear heat and toxins. Its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulating effects help the body maintain balance during the changing seasons.
Function: Respiratory Support, Immune Support, Anti-Inflammatory, Detoxifying
Product: Ban Lan Gen Powder
Traditionally used as a harmonizing ingredient in Chinese herbal remedies, Licorice supports healthy digestion and respiratory function. Effective as both an expectorant and demulcent, Licorice alleviates cold symptoms by soothing coughs and sore throats. Licorice root helps the body adapt to stress and supports adrenal function by regulating cortisol levels.
Function: Immune Support, Digestive Aid, Anti-Inflammatory, Adrenal Support
Product: Licorice Root
Tulsi, or Holy Basil, is a calming and uplifting herb with benefits that are comparable to that of a yoga practice. Regular consumption of Tulsi tea has been shown to reduce the harmful effects of stress in the body, foster a feeling of deep relaxation, and enhance memory and cognitive function. As a rasayana and adaptogen, Tulsi maintains balance in the nervous system, supports a healthy stress response, and boosts the immune system.
Function: Immune Support, Stress Reduction, Mental Clarity, Blood Sugar Support
Product: Organic Tulsi Leaf
Chaga is a wood-like fungus that has been used as a folk medicine in Siberia, Northern Europe and Asia for centuries. In the last several decades, many scientific studies have confirmed incredible medicinal properties of this mushroom. Considered an immunostimulant, Chaga mushrooms offers potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Function: Immune Support, Anti-Inflammatory, Heart Health, Stress Reduction
Product: Chaga Mushroom Powder
Energizing to the body and mind, Cordyceps is used to support athletic performance, promote mental clarity, and increase libido. Cordyceps mushrooms have a high concentration of beta-glucans and cordycepin that offer anti-inflammatory and immune boosting benefits.
Function: Energy Boost, Athletic Performance, Immune Support, Anti-Aging
Product: Cordyceps Mushroom Powder
Commonly used in both Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine, Lion’s Mane is best known for supporting brain health and cognitive performance. This adaptogenic mushroom is said to promote immune health, positively impact mood, and reduce mild anxiety.
Function: Mental Clarity, Stress Reduction, Anti-Inflammatory, Immune Support
Product: Lion’s Mane Mushroom Powder
Known as the “mushroom of immortality,” Reishi is ideal for daily wellness and immune support. This adaptogenic mushroom is considered a qi tonic in traditional Chinese medicine and modern uses include sleep support, stress management, and cognitive performance booster.
Function: Immune Support, Energy Boost, Mental Clarity, Sleep Support
Product: Reishi Mushroom Powder
There are a number of ways we can mitigate stress in our lives: starting a meditation or yoga practice, eating nutrient-rich meals, reducing screen time, and getting adequate sleep. Adaptogens can be invaluable allies for coping with the daily challenges and stressors that disrupt our internal balance. While all adaptogens share the same primary function, the different herbs and mushrooms have positive effects that extend beyond regulating the body’s stress response.
If you are newly exploring adding adaptogens in your daily routine, keep in mind that usage and effects may vary from person to person. Before attempting to treat yourself with adaptogens or include them in your nutritional program, consult your physician.
By Nicole Briel
This information in our blog is intended only as a general reference for further exploration and is not a replacement for professional health advice. This content does not provide dosage information, format recommendations, toxicity levels, or possible interactions with prescription drugs. Accordingly, this information should be used only under the direct supervision of a qualified health practitioner.