“Adaptogen” is a term that is popping up all around us in protein drinks, supplements, food items and so on, but what does it even mean? When can something be deemed adaptogenic, and what good does it do for our bodies? Most people I talk to about them have heard the word and may have a vague understanding of what they are, but still don’t completely understand what role they can play in daily health.
Let’s start by breaking down the word itself. Coined by the Russian scientist N. V. Lazarev, this term is made of two key components: adapt- and -gen. Most of us are familiar with the word adapt, it is generally used to describe a situation where someone or something is altered or changed to better fit a specific environment, particularly a new one. When someone moves to another country, they learn to speak the language, become familiar with the culture and traditions and change their wardrobe to be more suitable for the climate. -Gen is a suffix that indicates the term is “an agent in the production of something”. String it together, and we find that an adaptogen is an agent that is used to help someone, or something, adapt to its environment.
If you have a bit of understanding of biology, you may be familiar with the term “homeostasis”. This is a term used to explain that the human body is at its best when it is operating under specific parameters, and it will make necessary changes to return to that state. Body temperature is pretty consistent, and when it falls out of the normal range, we find ourselves with a fever or hypothermia. This is also applicable to pH levels, blood oxygen, and regular function of many different organs. However, the weather outside changes, the food we eat varies, and we’re exposed to many stressors and toxins in our day-to-day lives. Our bodies recognize that, so we have a myriad of amazing processes in place that are responsible for considering these environmental changes and making adjustments to account for those changes.
The body systems most important for maintaining homeostasis are the endocrine system (which is our network of glands and organs that produce regulatory hormones) and the nervous system (which produces a variety of chemicals responsible for living processes to take place). These systems do a pretty darn good job of keeping everything in order, but sometimes the stressors our bodies experience can be a bit more than they can handle. When the endocrine system starts to fail, certain problems arise such as adrenal burnout, weight gain or fatigue. The nervous system not being able to do its job can contribute to weakness, brain fog, anxiety and so on. Nobody wants to deal with these issues, and sometimes they are only subtle differences that we may not be able to pinpoint but they just make us feel like garbage.
This is where adaptogens come in! Think of them as our army of backup fighters when our body feels overwhelmed. They work at the molecular level by acting in a similar way to the endocrine and nervous systems, and essentially “hack” the stress response in the body to chill it out. When regularly taking adaptogens, they won’t disturb the routine actions of homeostasis when the body is functioning properly, but they are there to jump in and help when the body goes out of whack. That’s why adaptogens have a building effect and are most effective when taken regularly in small doses.
Many herbs are considered adaptogens because a lot of them include adaptogenic constituents such as polysaccharides, alkaloids, and phenolic compounds. Some of the most popular adaptogenic herbs include ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola and astragalus.
Medicinal mushrooms are also gaining a lot of popularity for their adaptogenic abilities. We all are constantly under many different stresses in our lives, so these plant allies are an invaluable tool to add to anyone’s self-care routine. Plus, adaptogenic herbs are often considered some of the safest supplements to work with, so if you’ve never dipped your toes in using herbal medicine to your benefit, this is a great place to start!