Adaptogens are a unique group of herbs and mushrooms that help balance your body’s reaction to stress. They do this by acting on the hypothalamic-pituitary-endocrine axis, which is where the intricate conversation between your brain and your hormonal system takes place.
Think of it this way: your brain is always dancing with multiple glands at once. Your adrenal gland, gonadal gland, and thyroid gland needs to be flawlessly in tune with your brain in order for your immune system, mood, and energy levels to be healthy. When a dance partner is out of sync - let’s say your cortisol levels are really high after a stressful month - then you may experience horomonal issues such as a low sex drive, adrenal fatigue, or thyroid issues.
This is where adaptogens come in to save the day. They improve adrenal function, protect you from disease, and enhance overall well-being. While they all work to balance your hormones without any side effects, some have extra health-boosting quirks. These unique ‘quirks’ can be anything from enhancing cognitive function to protecting the skin against UV damage. Cultural healing traditions such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Aruveyda have been reaping the benefits of these adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms for centuries, while us in the western world are just discovering them.
In order to be defined as an adaptogen, an herb or mushroom must meet the following criteria:
1. Help the body resist a stress response in a non-specific way + help the body resist a broad spectrum of stressors. This can include physical, chemical, or biological stress. Let’s say you’re a famous sprinter, like Usain Bolt, and you spend several hours training every single day. While exercising, lactic acid builds up in your muscles, causing muscle fatigue and post-exercise muscle soreness - so you might not exercise for as long as you want. But if you take an adaptogen like cordyceps sinensis, you may be able to delay that muscle fatigue because your body would experience enhanced oxygen utilization and blood flow (i.e the lactic acid is cleared from your muscles quicker) (Adam and Welch, 1980). Not to mention your body will be feeling all sorts of other effects like enhanced immune regulation and less inflammation (Hardeep and Sharma, 2014). So, while cordyceps can help with physical stressors like muscle fatigue, it can also help with biological stressors by enhancing immune protection. See how multi-talented adaptogens can be?
2. Maintain homeostasis in humans. Not familiar with the term ‘homeostasis’? Not a problem. Homeostasis means keeping the body at a relatively steady equilibrium. For instance, if you start a new job where you have to go to long, stressful meetings and you don’t get much sleep as you should, you’ll find that your adrenal gland is secreting a lot more cortisol than it used to. In other words, you’re stressed out! Starting that new job has knocked you out of equilibrium and, as a person with sudden external stress, you are more susceptible to stress-induced disorders such as gastric ulcers, weight gain, and migraines. To qualify as an adaptogen, an herb or mushroom must help your body resist stress-induced disorders like this.
3. Must not harm the body. An adaptogen cannot have any side effects, or do anything that might mess with your body’s normal functions.