How often do you hear someone say, “I’m a little off today” and know the exact feeling? Because frankly, as humans, there isn’t one of us who doesn’t have that occasional “off” day.
Those who are mindful of their health and well-being will equate “off” to “out of balance,” and balance is a key health concept. In medical terms, its synonym is “homeostasis,” when the body is in balance, ergo, healthy. (Oh, and feeling a little “off” is nothing to worry about; it could be that your body is telling you to slow down for a little bit, take it easy, enjoy some comfort food while snuggled on the couch, binge-watching your favorite TV show).
So, what does this have to do with adaptogens?
If we look at the key word within the word—“adapt”—it encapsulates perfectly what needs to happen to regain that balance.
But there are numerous forces both seen and unseen that knocks us awry, off kilter, imbalanced. Each of those forces is called a stressor, and collectively they cause stress.
Stress is a fact of life but it can be lessened. A researcher named Hans Selye was the first to describe the three-stage process describing the physiological changes the body endures when encountering stress/stressors—he called it the general adaptation syndrome. You don’t quite feel it happening, but you will feel the results (eg, irritability, insomnia, daytime sleepiness, inability to concentrate, shortness of breath, and abnormal appetite, where you are either hungrier than normal or can’t eat). The three stages of GAS are alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
A sworn enemy of stress is adaptogens. They help the body built up non-specific resistance to stress. According to a published paper, the stress-protective effects of adaptogens are related to regulation and control of the mediators of stress response. The specific complex chain of molecular events that protects the body from over-reaction to internal and external stressors, the author writes, “may explain the traditionally reported increase in longevity among people who consume adaptogens on regular basis.”
According to another paper, studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells (in vitro) have shown that adaptogens exert neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, anti-depressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity. Numerous other clinical trials demonstrate that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect that elevates mental work capacity in an environment of stress and fatigue, particularly in tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention.
Overall, adaptogens—which, by the way, are herbs only—help maintain body balance (homeostasis) through regulating the body’s numerous adaptive reactions. According to herbalist David Winston in his book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, adaptogens “produce changes in the body due to the stimulation and balancing of several systems, including the neuroendocrine and immune systems. … Maintaining homeostasis also contributes to the proper regulation of biorhythms and circadian rhythms within the body.”
Authors of a study investigating the immunopotentiating effects of common adaptogens state that this class of botanicals “maintain perturbed homoeostasis, augment adaptations to noxious stimuli (exposure to cold, heat, pain, general stress, infectious organisms) and offer endurance to attenuate several disorders in human beings.”
Adaptogens function mainly by affecting the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA axis) in response to stimulation by external stress. Primary adaptogens can not only maintain or recover homeostasis and allostasis but can also promote anabolic recovery. Primary adaptogens can produce positive stress response and the associated hormone expression. Primary adaptogens strengthen the functioning of each systems, promote optimal response, promote recovery of function, and help regulate energy use by improving the function of neuroendocrine system and enhancing cellular energy transfer, which can make body utilize oxygen, glucose, lipids and proteins very effectively, thus providing us with a steady supply of energy
Ashwagandha: This root is showing up in many beverages and supplement gummies and chews. It has well-documented traditional use in India (Ayurveda). Its modern use and that for which solid scientific evidence shows, is to help the body ameliorate the effects of stress. In one study of 64 individuals with chronic stress, took either a placebo or one 300 mg capsule of full-spectrum ashwagandha extract for 60 days. The study findings showed that those in the ashwagandha group had lower serum cortisol levels as well as a significant reduction in scores on all the stress assessment scales by the study’s end. The authors concluded that ashwagandha “safely and effectively improves an individual's resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
Schisandra: A more recently recognized Eastern European herb, schisandra has been established as a reliable adaptogen. According to one paper, studies have shown that schisandra “increases physical working capacity and affords a stress-protective effect against a broad spectrum of harmful factors” such as heavy metal intoxication, heat stress, sunburn, exposure to excessive cold (eg, frostbite) and irradiation. As an adaptogen, the herb has widespread in vivo activity: it has been shown to work on the central nervous, sympathetic, immune, respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and endocrine systems.
Schisandra, write the authors of this paper, exerts an effect on the central nervous, sympathetic, endocrine, immune, respiratory, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems.
Panax ginseng: Ginseng is a common herbal supplement that many people associate with improved energy. But it is also a potent adaptogen, as it positively impacts the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, resulting in elevated plasma corticotropin and corticosteroids levels. Its use for overall health and energy is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, in which it was used to increase resistance to stress and strengthen cognitive acuity/mental capacity, as well as for regulating inflammatory response.
Rhodiola: Another commonly found and used herb in Eastern Europe, rhodiola has been investigated repeatedly for its fatigue-fighting properties, restoring a sense of mental energy. For example, one clinical trial of 128 individuals with pronounced states of fatigue from different causes consumed the herb and the researchers found that those who were mentally fatigued post-flu showed improved mental and physical working capacity on the third day of supplementation.
Astragalus: Used prominently in Traditional Chinese Medicine primarily as an adaptogen, astragalus root has several physiological effects. For example, astragaloside IV, a key compound in astragalus, has been studied for its ability to reduce inflammatory reaction by boosting immunity, which is a desirable pathway to achieve and sustain homeostasis.
How do Probiotics Fit?
Because they are not herbs, probiotics are not adaptogens. But they do help promote homeostasis, or healthy balance, of your microbiome. Through years of lifestyle habits such as poor diet, antibiotics, stress and more, the amount of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in your gut microbiome are reduced, allowing for pathogenic or irrelevant bacteria to crowd in. This imbalance is called dysbiosis.
When dysbiosis occurs, you can begin to experience more frequent bouts of bloating, gas, indigestion, weight gain, fatigue, brain fog and headaches. While these symptoms are not illness, they do impair overall quality of life and wellness as well as impact productivity.
Replenishing your good bacteria—restoring balance—will improve overall health and well-being by supporting healthy metabolic function (weight regulation), boost digestion effectiveness, and increase your body’s ability to produce vitamins.
Authors of one review discussing the relationship between probiotics and homeostasis, write that “Probiotic bacteria can be regarded as part of the natural human microbiota, and have been associated with improving homeostasis.”
Probiotics are similar to adaptogens in that they restore balance, helping you to adapt. Probiotics help your microbiome more effectively adapt to changes in its environment to maintain healthy physiological function.
Like multivitamins, taking adaptogens and probiotics daily will help keep you feeling good by escalating physiological resistance and optimal immune function.