What are these 'Adaptogens' and why do I keep hearing about them?

What are these 'Adaptogens' and why do I keep hearing about them?

The terms ‘Adaptogen’ and ‘Apoptogenic herb’ seem to keep bubbling up to the surface in the context of holistic health and wellbeing – and not for naught. Adaptogens are mother nature’s medicine, stowed away prudently in select herbs and roots, to support our bodies in combatting physical, chemical, and biological stressors.

The herbs are prominent in the spheres of naturopathy, or naturopathic medicine, a distinct primary health care system that, “blends modern scientific knowledge with traditional and natural forms of medicine to stimulate the healing power of the body and treat the underlying cause of disease.” (Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors, https://www.cand.ca)

Adaptogen 101

What are these Adaptogens and why do you keep hearing about them?

At the crux of it, Adaptogens are hailed as herbal heroes for their ability to help our bodies adapt to stress and restore systemic equilibrium. As relayed in Robert Provino’s publication in the Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism, ‘the Role of Adaptogens in Stress Management’, Adaptogens, “increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors and provide a defence response to acute or chronic stress.” The publication goes on to examine how Adaptogens are unique from other substances in their ability to “restore the balance of endocrine hormones, modulate the immune and nervous systems, and allow the body to maintain optimal homeostasis.” (Provino, 2010)

Pitting Adaptogens against our Stressors  

Adaptogens are a strong contender for both internally and externally generated stressors.

As highlighted in David Winston’s book ‘Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief’, Adaptogens produce a “nonspecific defense response” to stress, building “adaptive energy”. Winston, an internationally recognized herbalist, lecturer, author, ethnobotanist, and founder of Herbalist & Alchemist, explains how these Adaptogen-driven nonspecific responses enable the herbs to “stimulate, activate, or promote a response in multiple nonspecific ways, including the building of a reserve of adaptive energy.” What’s more, this reserve of adaptive energy is only drawn upon on an as needed basis, to combat an actual stressor, without depleting our bodies unnecessarily of vital energy in the process. Winston contrasts this internal process with that of stimulants prescribed in western medicine today, such as amphetamines, which provide what he articulates as "short-term energy" at the expense of sustaining energy in the long term. (Winston, 2019)

So, what does this mean in layman’s terms (please and thank you)?

As cited in Jamie Ducharme’s exploratory article in Times magazine, ‘What are Adaptogens and Why are People Taking Them’, Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, explains, “Adaptogens may do for your adrenal glands what exercise does for your muscles. When we exercise, it’s a stress on our body. But as we continue to train and exercise, our body becomes better at dealing with the stress of it, so we no longer get as tired or as high a heart rate.” Similarly, when we introduce adaptogens to our bodies, we’re “training our bodies to handle the effects of stress.”

Powell goes on to describe in the article the biological process by which the herbs tackle our stressors, including their interaction with the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis” and the “sympathoadrenal system”, our bodies’ first line of defense to stress. What’s more, Powell explains, adaptogens may tweak hormone production and physiological responses to stress to ensure that our bodies function as they should.

Translation: Adaptogens tackle our hormonal imbalances and physiological responses to stress to restore our bodies – from our minds to our energy level – to their blissful equilibrium.

The Way Back Playback

While you might only be hearing of adaptogens now, or as of late, one thing the herbs most definitely are not, are new.

Apoptogenic herbs and roots have been relied upon for centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese healing traditions, dating back thousands of years to ancient India and China. Winston’s book highlights how the herbs gained some traction on the modernity front back in 1940 when a group of soviet scientists began exploring the herbs’ propensity for “relieving stress, preventing and reducing illness, maintaining homeostasis, and strengthening the body.” (Winston, 2019)


Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors: https://www.cand.ca/about-naturopathic-medicine/

Ducharme, J. (2018). What Are Adaptogens and Why Are People Taking Them? Time. https://time.com/5025278/adaptogens-herbs-stress-anxiety/

Provino, R. (2010). The Role of Adaptogens in Stress Management. Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism

Winston, D. (2019) Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, Edition 2



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