Dawn Berthelette 12/17
Many traditional medical systems define health as the balance between the body, mind and spirit. Adaptogens are a family of ancient medicines that can include herbs, roots, plants and fungi that enhance the mind body connection by strengthening the nervous system. Science is finally beginning to document the efficacy of some of the traditionally used plant medicines our ancestors relied on throughout history, further validating ancient wisdom.
Stress occurs when the demands placed upon our body exceed what it has the ability to cope with, whether it is emotional stress, environmental toxins or poor nutrition, our bodies don’t discriminate. Stress is a normal and natural part of everyday life and it serves its purpose in acute situations, but over time stress can negatively affect the health of the digestive, immune and nervous systems. So, while we don't want to “turn off” the stress response we also don't want to remain in a state of continual stress because of its detrimental impact on our health. Surely, the underlying causes of stress must be examined before our bodies can truly find balance, but daily use of plant medicines and supplements can help support the process. Adaptogens are like an herbal hug!
Our current allopathic medical model is still trying to counteract stress induced health problems such as diabetes, depression, heart disease and hypertension, as well as numerous autoimmune conditions with medications that have many known (and frightening) side effects. The pharmaceutical drugs that are being prescribed often only mask the symptoms that are present, making things worse in the long run. Unfortunately, a lot of doctors have never even heard the term adaptogen.
You may already be using plant medicines and not even realize it! Ginger or peppermint tea for upset stomachs, antioxidants in green tea to combat oxidative stress and aging, and garlic as an immune booster are some commonly used remedies. Nature knows best!
The Stress Response
Using nature as an example, think of a deer contentedly grazing in a peaceful meadow. If the deer perceives a threat, such as a predator, it’s nervous system gets turned on so that it can flee the perceived danger in order to survive. To prepare the deer to deal with the threat, the body is chemically altered and the nervous system activates the adrenal glands to mobilize large amounts of energy in order to flee. If the deer escapes unharmed it will literally shake off the stress and continue grazing, it returns to homeostasis. It doesn’t live in constant fear, replaying the attack or anticipating another unjustifiably. All animals are designed for this kind of short term stress, it’s the chronic stress that becomes an issue.
All forms of stress will trigger an inflammatory response in the body. Both long and short term stress triggers our adrenal glands to increase cortisol and other stress hormones in order to normalize the body’s functions at a cellular level and to stimulate the recovery process. Because our bodies don’t discriminate between emotional, psychological or physical stress they will respond as necessary in order to protect us. An imbalanced stress response is the root cause of almost every inflammatory disease and can present itself in many ways.
Some common presentations are a weakened immune system, chronic pain, disrupted adrenal/thyroid function, digestion or hormonal processes, as well as many others. In order for us to find a state of wellness all of our systems need to be in balance, and that’s where adaptogens can help immensely.
So, what are Adaptogens?
ADAPTOGEN: noun, adap·to·gen \ə-ˈdap-tə-jən\
A nontoxic substance that can promote or restore normal physiological function by increasing resistance in the body to damage caused by stressors of many kinds. Adaptogens balance the body’s stress response, adjusting hormones and other substances up or down, depending on what the body needs.
The term was first used in 1947 by Dr. Nikolai Lazarev who defined adaptogens as “agents which help an organism to counteract any adverse effects of a physical, chemical or biological stressor by generating nonspecific resistance”. Russian scientists have been studying adaptogens since the 1960’s, publishing more than 1,000 studies on the herbs. In 2009 adaptogens were defined as “herbal preparations that increased attention and endurance in fatigue, and reduced stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the neuro-endocrine and immune systems”. This definition was based on evidence obtained from clinical trials, which were evaluated in accordance with the US Natural Standards Evidence–based Validated Grading Rationale [http://www.naturalstandard.com/grading.html].
In order for a plant to be considered an adaptogenic substance it must be non-toxic, non-habit forming and have a broad nonspecific supportive effect on the body.
These adaptogenic plants are found worldwide in a variety of forms and are considered to be safe as well as beneficial for most people in most circumstances. They can be taken daily (as we do food) and for long periods of time without harm. Their job is to help us reach homeostasis (find balance) and to keep our bodies functioning at their best by ramping up our defense systems and helping to balance hormones. Adaptogens can play a huge role in the health of modern humans and are one of the most important things that we can easily add into our diet/lifestyle to combat the effects of toxic modern living.
Some adaptogens act as stimulants, enhancing mental performance, libido, and physical stamina; Asian ginseng, eleuthero (or Siberian ginseng), rhodiola rosea, and maca. Others, like reishi, ashwagandha and holy basil, help calm the body and soothe the adrenals when they’re stressed. There are other herbs like turmeric that have some adaptogenic properties, but it’s not their primary effect on the body. I have chosen those that I am most familiar with to cover here. Educate yourself, be your own health advocate. But please, always work with a professional when trying anything new.
Ashwagandha Root (Withania somnifera)
Indian Ginseng, or Winter Cherry
Typically the roots of this shrub are used, but the leaves, flowers and seeds can all be beneficial as well. You can buy it whole, powdered, in capsules, tinctures and added to tonics and teas. Because it belongs to the nightshade family those with an autoimmune condition may find that it actually promotes inflammation.
Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 5,000 years to tone, support, and revitalize the body from within. It is thought of as an overall restorative and will help to strengthen the immune system after an illness. It is also known for its ability to energize and calm at the same time. Studies show that ashwagandha may be helpful in improving memory formation and may also reverse the effects of neurological toxins associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Huntington’s disease. It’s immuno-modulating effects significantly increase white blood cell count, reduce cortisol (stress, depression and anxiety) and help to improve overall mental aptitude and reaction time. In cell cultures it has shown to have antimicrobial and antibacterial activity against bacteria like Salmonella. It is commonly used for both males and females of all ages, from infants to the elderly.
In Sanskrit the word means “the odor of a horse”, “somnifera" in Latin means "sleep-inducer”.
Used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 5,000 years
Strengthens the immune system by increasing white blood cell count
Reduces cortisol, stress and anxiety
Antimicrobial and antibacterial
Improves memory formation
Reverses the effects of neurological toxins
Reduces mental chatter and nervousness
Act as a mild sedative
Slows the aging process
Protects against neurodegeneration
Decreases c-reactive protein levels, inflammation
Decreases cortisol and reduce stress and anxiety
Balances thyroid hormones
Improves brain function
Supports a healthy immune system
Benefits reproductive health in both men and women
Supports sustained energy levels, strength, and vitality
Supports a healthy spine and joints
Some of its beneficial properties:
It is often used to treat:
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum)
Holy basil is an aromatic perennial shrub in the mint family that grows to about 18 inches in height and is considered sacred in India. The leaves are most commonly used but the stem, flower, root and seeds are all beneficial as well. You can work with the whole herb, teas, capsules or tinctures.
Holy basil is traditionally used as an antioxidant to reduce stress and anxiety and is known for its proven antibacterial, antifungal, and powerful anti-inflammatory properties. In Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil is used to treat numerous conditions. Everything from colds, fevers and bronchitis to digestive complaints and ulcers can be treated with Tulsi. It is also commonly used as an aphrodisiac and libido enhancer, but can at the same time be an anti-fertility agent by reducing sperm count (the studies were done on rabbits). In addition to its ability to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, and hormone levels perhaps the greatest potential seems to be in the areas of stress relief and relaxation. It is rich in potassium and when used in combination with milk thistle it is said to promote liver health.
In Sanskrit Tulsi means ‘the incomparable one.’ Hinduism links the tulsi plant to the figure of a goddess. Tulsi is also referred to as an “elixir of anti-aging”.
Antioxidant used to reduce stress and anxiety
Works synergistically with milk thistle for liver health
Aphrodisiac and libido enhancer
Anti-fertility agent (by reducing sperm count)
Antibacterial, antifungal, and powerful anti-inflammatory
Digestive upset and disease
Regulates blood sugar
Regulates Blood pressure
Regulates hormone levels
Stress and relaxation
High in potassium
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Milk vetch, Huang Qi
Astragalus is an herbaceous perennial that grows about a foot in height in grassy regions and on mountainsides. A sun loving plant and a member of the legume family, the 4 year old astragalus root is used medicinally as well as in soups, teas, extracts, or capsules.
Astragalus is a one of the main herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has over 125 useful compounds, although no high quality studies have been done it has been widely used in TCM for a variety of ailments and functions. It is valued for supporting healthy immune function and has been observed to support the heart in healthy subjects. It is used to help support a healthy inflammation response, to promote longevity, for kidney support and to increase the amount of anti-stress compounds our bodies use to prevent and repair stress related damage. Astragalus protects the body from stress by reducing the ability of cortisol to bind to receptors. This is one of the most popular immune boosting tonics and it is recommend to take astragalus preventively through the flu season for its antiviral effects.
Astragalus is said to activate T-cells even more than echinacea. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is sponsoring studies of the effects of astragalus on the body, particularly on the immune system and in cancer treatment.
Astragalus has been used for many conditions including:
Chronic ulcerations and sores
Numbness and paralysis of the limbs, edema
Upper respiratory infections
Can have antidiarrheal or laxative effects
Reduces C-reactive protein (an inflammation marker)
May have longevity effects
Boosts immune system
Amla (Phyllanthus Emblica)
Amalaki, Indian Gooseberry
This sour fruit a powerful antioxidant and is very high in vitamin C and contains calcium, phosphorus, iron, carotene, and vitamin B complex. You’ll find is in powders, tinctures and teas. It also adds a unique sour flavor to cooked dishes, dressings and pickles.
Amla strengthens the lungs, eliminates free radicals, enhances fertility, helps the urinary system, improves skin quality, and promotes healthier hair. Amalaki helps to cool the body, eliminate toxins, increase vitality, and improves muscle tone. Amla enhances food absorption, balances stomach acid, fortifies the liver, nourishes the brain and mental functioning, and supports the heart.
Enhances digestion, treat constipation
Purifies the blood
Strengthens the heart
Benefits the eyes
Stimulates hair growth
Lepidium meyenii is an herbaceous biennial plant of the cruciferous family native to the high Andes of Peru. Mostly the powdered root is used in smoothies, tinctures, capsules and added to recipes. Maca is a rich source of phytonutrients and adds a malty flavor to recipes.
Maca is known for its high calcium and iron levels and is most often used for energy, stamina, libido and fertility. Maca can be used to control hormone levels, balance moods and energy levels, as well as enhance memory and cognitive function. Maca contains amino acids, minerals, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and many other compounds that can provide us with better health outcomes. Studies show that maca is just as effective as pharmaceutical treatments for depression, but without the negative side effects associated with them.
Applying maca topically can help protect the skin from UV radiation.
Restoration of red blood cells
Relieves mild depression
Restores red blood cells
Supports skin health
Helps in dealing with stress
Rhodiola rosea (Lignum rhodium)
Rhodiola is a perennial flowering plant which naturally grows in cold, high-elevation climates throughout Asia, Europe and parts of North America. You can find the dried root as a tea, tincture, or powdered and encapsulated. Fresh root can be used as a tea or tincture.
Rhodiola’s resilience and ability to thrive under extreme conditions is predictive of its strength and incredible benefits to the human body. The root is used to clear the lungs, nourish the heart, fortify the spleen, boost mental clarity and it has calming effects on the central nervous system. It is an often recommended herbal supplement for those who suffer from general weakness, adrenal exhaustion or are recovering from paralysis caused by a stroke.
Rhodiola works to bring the body into balance by nourishing the nervous system. It’s properties are varied and respond to the needs of the individual. Someone who is exhausted can take rhodiola for increased energy and focus, while someone suffering from anxiety or depression may find it brings a sense of emotional calm and peace.
Supports a healthy metabolism
Increases sex drive
Brings hormones into balance
Cognitive brain tonic
Uplifts mood and helps relieve depression
Helps with focus, concentration and memory
Known to cure altitude sickness
Used to enhance meditative states
Improves capacity to take in and utilize oxygen
Getting Adaptogens Into The Kitchen
While you can purchase adaptogens in capsules, we like to incorporate them into the kitchen to reap the health benefits. Some of the ways you can make and use culinary adaptogens are:
Tinctures. Steep the herbs in alcohol, which you can then take on its own or incorporate into beverages. Learn how to make a tincture here.
Teas. Steep the leaves in hot water and sip plain, or add dairy-free milk and your favourite natural sweetener.
Elixirs. These sweet drinks with a function are the perfect vehicles for adaptogenic herbs. Discover 20 amazing dairy-free elixir recipes to get you started.
Smoothies. Adaptogens, powders and superfoods can always find a home in your blended smoothies.
Nut + seed milks. Amp up your nut milk game by blending adaptogens into the mix.
Treats + snacks. Take your baked goodies, granola bars or chia pudding to the next level with adaptogens.
Soups + stews. Culinary adaptogens don’t always need to be used in a sweet context! Try them in savory recipes like soups and stews for a warm, stress-relieving meal.
If you want results with adaptogens, consistency is key!
Some Common Adaptogens and Where They Can Bring Balance
Greens powder, adaptogen of choice, and probiotic in water
Nut butter, honey, maca, seeds, nuts, oats, cacao
Tulsi tea bags in cooking water for beans and grains
Spirulina and Chlorella
Golden Cocoa Milk
2c milk (or milk alternative)
1/4 cup cocoa
2 TBS turmeric
1 TBS ashwagandha powder
1/2 cup honey or to taste
1 TBS coconut oil or ghee
Blend and Enjoy!
⅔ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup tahini
2 TBS toasted sesame oil
2 TBS miso
2 TBS sesame seeds
2 TBS powdered herbal adaptogen of choice
1 inch of ginger, grated
2 TBS honey
Chocolate Malty Balls
1 cup coconut butter
½ cup pitted dates
3 tsp maca
3 TBS honey
½-1 cup cocoa
Combine everything in a food processor until it forms a sticky ball. Add a tiny bit of water until it becomes sticky if necessary. Soak dates first if they’re crusty.
1 cup chickpeas
¼ cup grated onions
¼ cup tomato puree
1 tsp sliced ginger
½ tsp crushed garlic
¼ tsp garam masala or
(turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, salt and pepper)
¼ tsp amla powder and sliced onions to garnish
Heat thru and add amla and onions
Quick Pickled Onions
1 red onion thinly sliced
¼ cup vinegar
½ cup water
1 tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
pinch of red chilli powder (optional)
Cover and refrigerate for 15-30 mins or overnight
Raw Adaptogenic Fudge
1 Cup Pitted Medjool Dates (About 10-12)
½ Cup Nut Butter (I used Almond)
3 TBS Cocoa or Cacao
2 TBS Coconut Oil, melted but not hot
Pinch of Sea Salt
¼ tsp Vanilla
1 TBS Ashwagandha or Amalaki Powder
1 TBS Maca Powder
Garnish with things like hemp hearts, coconut, cacao, goji, and bee pollen.
Blend the dates in a food processor until they become a paste (if you don’t have a food processor, try mashing with a fork). Add the nut butter and coconut oil, cocoa or cacao, salt, vanilla, and powders and pulse until combined. Using wax or parchment paper form it into a bar shape. Wrap well and freeze until firm. Once set, slice into bite sized pieces. Store in the fridge or freezer.
½ cup coconut oil or manna (melted)
¼ cup honey
¼ cup maple syrup
3 cups rolled oats
½ cup almonds (sliced)
½ cup pumpkin seeds (raw)
¼ cup chia seeds
¼ cup raisins (or dried fruit of your choice)
¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut (optional)
3 TBS maca root powder
2 TBS Rhodiola rosea powder
1 TBS Amalaki powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp Cinnamon (ground)
½ tsp Nutmeg (ground)
pinch Sea Salt
Combine all ingredients except dried fruit and coconut and bake at 350 degrees on parchment paper lined baking sheet for 20-30 minutes, stirring halfway through, watching closely that it doesn’t burn. Let cool and stir in fruit and coconut. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for a week or two.
Adaptogenic Chia Pudding
½ TBS chia seeds
1½ cups almond or coconut milk
½ TBS maca powder
½ tsp ashwaghanda powder
2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla powder
1 tsp raw honey or maple syrup (optional)
Combine all of the ingredients into a large mason jar and shake it up so that everything is properly mixed together (make sure the chia seeds are not sticking to the base of the jar).
Place the jar, covered, in the fridge and let it sit for 30 mins+ (it will last in the fridge for 3-5 days if the nut milk is made fresh that day).
Enjoy it as a morning drink/pudding.
Nutrition tip: supplement this cleansing tonic with a probiotic to help support your body's digestion and get things moving first thing in the morning before any coffee/food/caffeine.
Adaptogenic Herbal Smoothie Dust
Mix 1 tsp daily into smoothies or juice.
3 parts Maca powder
2 parts Eleuthero powder
1 part Tulsi powder
1 part Ashwagandha powder
1/2 part Turmeric Root powder