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Adaptogens, what are they and what do they do to our body, mind and spirit?
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are remarkable botanical treasures that help the body restore balance and adapt to stress. They function by boosting the body’s resilience to various stressors, such as environmental, chemical, emotional, and physical ones. Acute and ongoing stress are also protected from by them. Whilst each and every adaptogen functions uniquely for each and every individual, they are all notably unique for their normalizing effects on the body, particularly regarding the endocrine and immunological systems. They affect the organism’s fundamental processes by acting universally, restoring homeostasis through their regenerative abilities, and promoting the harmony of the body, mind, and spirit.
Herbs Must Have Three Criteria to Be Adaptogenic:
- Adaptogens are non-toxic. Adaptogenic herbs should be safe and nontoxic, showing no significant side effects or contraindications.
- Adaptogens produce a non-specific response in the body. Adaptogens have a generalizing action to improve resistance to all kinds of stress—physical, psychological, environmental, etc.
- Adaptogens have a normalizing impact on the body. The balancing capacity within adaptogens has a bidirectional effect. This means that the plants’ medicinal constituents will perform as needed in order to help return the stressed physiological conditions back to a normalized state.
Adaptogens have existed for Millennia
Although these beautiful plants have been adored for ages, the term “adaptogen” just came into use in the late 1940s. Rejuvenating and restorative plants have been employed by almost all cultures throughout history. For instance, many of the herbs that have the same effects as adaptogens are known as “tonic herbs” in Daoism. “Qi tonics” is the name given to them in Chinese herbal medicine. These are referred to as “rasayanas” in Ayurveda. Also, several of the herbs used as “nutritive tonics” and “trophorestoratives” in Western herbal therapy are fundamentally analogous to adaptogenic plants. Herbs that resemble adaptogens are frequently referred to as “para-toda,” which means “heal-all,” in rainforest herbalism.
Much of the folklore around these herbs has slowly been shown to be true by modern clinical study. Adaptogenic herbs have gotten the most attention in terms of academic and clinical trials. Almost every part of the body is covered by the extensive variety of healing advantages they provide. These herbs’ past and present scientific research will help shed light on why they have had such a long history of veneration.
Organis involved in the stress response
The body undergoes changes as a result of adaptogens, particularly in the neuroendocrine and immunological systems. Because of their interdependence, the endocrine and neurological systems are frequently grouped together to form the neuroendocrine system. Hormones, which collaborate with the nervous system, are used in this system to cope with chemical communication throughout the body.
All internal responses should be brought to homeostasis by the nervous system in order to maintain the body safe and healthy. The well-known HPA axis, a complex network of interactions including the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands, is a component of the endocrine system.
The command center of the brain, sometimes known as our “god center,” is the hypothalamus (H). With the autonomic nervous system and hormone influxes, this region of the brain communicates with the rest of the body. H monitors and evaluates every bodily process, giving instructions to its pituitary (P) gland “personal assistant” when needed. The personal assistant alerts the “general managers” (the target organs), who then recruit the “workers” (specific biochemical processes) in the pertinent body tissues or organs. The visceral organs—heart, lungs, intestines, kidneys, liver, and pancreas—as well as several lesser-known body parts including the gallbladder, spleen, blood arteries, and skeletal muscles are among the recruited or active tissues.Add Any content here
The various hormones secreted by the endocrine system are discussed in this section along with how the stress reaction affects them.
The main hormone released from the adrenal glands and one of the more well-known stress hormones is cortisol, which is frequently referred to as the “stress hormone.” The release of amino acids into the bloodstream results from the breakdown of muscle protein that cortisol triggers when it is produced. The liver breaks down amino acids to create glucose. This process increases the brain’s blood sugar levels, which provides us with energy. The body’s other tissues reduce their usage of glucose at the same time. Fatty acids are also released by cortisol for utilization by the muscles. The body is ready to handle stress thanks to the systems that replenish and direct energy as well as make sure the brain gets enough fuel. The control of cardiovascular and blood pressure processes is one of cortisol’s other key roles in the body. It helps the immune system react to inflammation and infection. Mornings are when cortisol levels are highest. Numerous symptoms, including severe anxiety, hypertension, inflammation, depression, chronic fatigue, PMS in women, infertility, sex hormone imbalance, insulin resistance, weight gain, insomnia, and polycystic ovary syndrome, can be brought on by cortisol oversecretion, which also suppresses the immune system.
When the natural stress response goes haywire
The body’s stress-response mechanism typically self-regulates. Hormone levels return to normal as soon as a perceived threat has passed. Your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels when your cortisol and adrenaline levels decline, and other systems begin their routine operations. But the fight-or-flight response remains activated if stressors are constant and you consistently feel attacked.
Results of unmanaged stress
Many health problems are rooted in unmanaged stress and disturbance of the HPA axis’s natural flow. For instance, your body is typically able to withstand even high levels of stress when the HPA axis is strong. Pregnant women, new mothers, and menopausal women can all benefit from a strong HPA axis.
The body can suffer substantial damage over time as a result of the frequent activation of stress hormones, sometimes known as the “flight or fight” response. According to research, persistent stress increases blood pressure, encourages the buildup of artery-clogging deposits, and alters the brain in ways that may lead to anxiety, depression, and addiction. Additional preliminary evidence indicates that chronic stress may both directly and indirectly (by making people eat more) contribute to obesity (decreasing sleep and exercise).
Nearly all of the body’s processes can be interfered with by prolonged stress and excessive cortisol and other stress hormone release. Many health issues, such as adrenal exhaustion, can result from excessive cortisol exposure.
“Adrenal fatigue” is a term often used by health professionals to describe the phenomenon of the adrenal glands running on empty and the resulting mental and physical state of those experiencing it. Our glands release high levels of cortisol during stressful periods, which is the most important hormone we have to help the body manage stress.
Think of cortisol as our own built-in alarm system, alerting us when the body is in danger. It also works with certain parts of the brain to control mood, motivation, and fear. If too much cortisol is secreted, many bodily processes begin to underperform, potentially resulting in illness.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue:
- Feeling tired for no reason
- Trouble getting out of bed, even when you’ve had a decent night’s sleep
- Unable to handle stress; everything becomes a trigger
- Recurring brain fog; lack of creativity and focus
- Low immune function. A difficulty recovering from being sick
- Autoimmune issues
- Decreased sex drive
- Mood swings, depression, severe ups and downs
- A feeling of being constantly overwhelmed and anxious
- Intensely craving sweets, carbs, or salty snacks
- Overuse of stimulants like caffeine, sugar, or tobacco
- Inexplicable weight gain
Forms of Stress
Stressors can come from many different angles. Stress is not experienced in any uniform way and can manifest at any time. It often comes and goes, and many different types of stressors can easily affect us without our noticing. Modern-day culture is experiencing unusually high volumes of stress from the environment —perhaps the highest volumes in recorded history. Toxins in our water, air, food, and atmosphere are contributing significantly to higher levels of stress in our bodies and minds. It’s important to remember that a healthy lifestyle, coupled with adaptogenic herbs and a positive mindset, can help us lead fulfilling, balanced lives.
- Biological Stressors — Exposure to bacteria, mold, viruses and parasites.
- Chemical Stressors — Chemicals, toxins, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, heavy metals, household and industrial chemicals, fumes, dust, smoke, tobacco, and synthetic drugs.
- Consumable Stressors — Toxic substances like drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, refined and highly processed foods, mineral-depleted foods (grown in poor soil), genetically modified foods, foods grown in toxic environments with pesticides, herbicides, etc., coping with nutritional deficiencies, and free radicals from eating toxic foods.
- Environmental Stressors — Includes pollutants and toxins available within the atmosphere, water and soil, such as chloride, fluoride, lead, mercury, pesticides, etc. Exposure to extreme cold or heat, noise, ultraviolet sunlight, altitude, allergens, xenoestrogens (foreign substances that imitate the effects of estrogen), electromagnetic influences (wifi, radio waves, electric high-voltage lines), and radiation.
- Psychological Stressors — These include emotional and mental stressors such as: depression, moodiness, anger, fear, anxiety, loss of desire, worry, grief, shock, trauma, mental illness, major life changes, and overwhelming responsibilities Psychological stress often goes hand-in-hand with physical stress.
- Physical Stressors — Includes intense physical activity, healing from accidents, recovery from strenuous exercise, and physical pain resulting from any of the above mentioned stressors.
- Spiritual Stressors — This form of stress is often brought on by a lack of meaning or greater purpose in our lives. When our soul is not at ease, and we’re experiencing spiritual stress.
There are many herbs out there that many of us love that have adaptogenic chemistry, like Reishi, Suma, Maca and many others. But did you know they aren’t officially “adaptogens”. The list below are those that have be rigorously tested back in the 50’s. Yet due to a lack of continued research many potential adaptogens haven’t officially made the shortlist. Therefore ‘secondary adaptogens’ like Reishi, Gynostemma, Maca, He Shou Wu, Shatavari, Amla, and many others are technically not Primary Adaptogens. Yet, their incredible chemistry parallels and very much abide by the adaptogenic qualifications reviewed above.
- Ashwagandha – Withania somnifera
- Cordyceps – Cordyceps sinensis
- Eleuthero – Eleutherococcus senticosus
- Ginseng – Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius
- Holy Basil – Ocimum tenuiflorum, Ocimum sanctum
- Licorice – Glycyrrhiza glabra
- Rhodiola – Rhodiola rosea
- Shisandra – Schisandra chinensis
- Shilajit – Asphaltum bitumen
Integrating Adaptogenic Chemistry with Plant Intelligence
Herbs are currently quite popular in today’s society, which is not surprising. We live in a period of history that is undergoing profound transformation, and herbs with adaptogenic characteristics are being discovered and created to safeguard our bodies by assisting them in adjusting to the ongoing changes and stressors on the planet.
Each adaptogen attunes the body to a particular energy or set of energetic pathways, generating a non-specific homeostatic response within the body and mind. As we explored in prior chapters, because of their normalizing effects and bi-directionality within the body, we can observe that they have an intelligence of their own in determing what the body needs. Because they work so closely with the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, each adaptogen is ultimately experienced differently by each person, as each person has a different internal recipe for balance. Adaptogens target multiple locations in the body, yet they primarily work with the neuroendocrine system, which includes the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands, as well as the sympathoadrenal system (or SAS). They also directly align with and balance our organs, which shape our individual perceptions of the world and control basic survival processes like intuition, pain response, sexual function, blood pressure, circadian rhythm, stress response, and many more.
The Subtle Functions of the HPA Axis
The powerful nutritional benefits and abilities of adaptogens are much more profound than science has so far been able to recognize, and their uses in treating mind, body, and soul date back thousands of years. It’s only recently that we’ve learned about their normalizing effects on oxidative stress, their abilities to enhance metabolic function, and the protection boosts they can offer to the immune system. Historically, they were revered for their deep spiritual attributes.
Most adaptogenic herbs have strong regulatory effects on the endocrine and hormonal system, which are likely related for their spiritual and emotional activating properties. Hormones are known as the ‘molecules of consciousness’—powerful biopeptides that control our awareness of reality, mood, perception, sleep-wake cycles, and bonding. It can be said that hormones are the gateway in which we experience our self and life, as I believe they are one of the major links between the physical, emotional and spiritual worlds.
The hypothalamus, our control center, is about the size of an almond and is located just behind the optic glands. With access to both the nervous and endocrine systems, the hypothalamus plays a key role in activating the pineal gland. It is also closely associated with the limbic system, known as the center of our emotions, feelings, and intuitions. Many ancient cultures have recognized this gland as the “god center”—the seat of our consciousness or spirit. When activated, it secretes neurohormones that communicate with the pituitary gland, signaling the release or inhibition of key pituitary hormones, which in turn activates the pineal gland. Within mystical literature and many ancient or sacred texts, the pineal gland is often referred to as the “third eye,” “the crown chakra,” or “the seat of consciousness.” Ongoing activation and regulation of the pineal gland causes the brain to secrete consciousness-expanding biochemicals. Many ancient spiritual traditions hold that this is the key to opening the third eye.
Melatonin and the Pineal Gland
Melatonin in the pineal gland affects our moods, feelings, immune system functions, circadian rhythms, and the quality of our sleep. Melatonin is known as an anti-aging and anti-stress agent because it suppresses cortisol while also acting as a powerful antioxidant. Studies are now being conducting to learn more about melatonin’s potential to protect our bodies from oxidative damage caused by different stressors. The production of melatonin by the pineal gland is activated by darkness and inhibited by light. Once released, melatonin circulates through the brain via the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and enters nearby blood vessels for distribution to the rest of the body. When melatonin levels are disrupted, people tend to experience bad moods, exhaustion, depression, mood swings, or seasonal affective disorder.
HPA Axis and Ancient Cultures
Ancient cultures extensively studied the mysterious functions of the glands forming the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) and how they collaborate to trigger meditative states and the perceived access to deeper realities. In Taoism, for example, the center of the brain has been referred to as the “Crystal Palace,” the “Upper Tan Tien,” the “original cavity of the spirit,” and the “ancestral cavity.” This part of the brain is said to be the place where the original “spirit principle” dwells. Sufism also locates the principle of spirit (Ruh) in the head-centre. In Radha Soami teachings, which integrate Sufi, Tantric, and Vedantic ideas, the Ajna or “brow centre” is considered the seat of the soul (Jiva) or spirit (Ruh). The Brahma Kumari movement likewise teaches that this centre is the seat of the soul. They advise practitioners to meditate exclusively on it in order to attain Liberation.
I believe these herbs work directly with our consciousness and our perceptions of life. They essentially work with the organs that form our perception, providing essential nutritions that ultimately tune the mind and body to a higher frequency. You might ask yourself, what is this “higher frequency?” Or, what is the point of achieving this so-called “higher consciousness?” This higher frequency is what mystics and ancient civilizations have come to see as the highest goal of everyday life. It’s been interpreted as a form of enlightenment, a freedom from suffering, and a freedom from the possibility of illness. Many believe that these herbs are once again becoming popular within modern times to catalyze a shift and to act as tools to nourish and protect us during these times of constant change.
Thank you for reading,