To understand what adaptogens do and how they work, it might be necessary to first understand some basic biology.
You have two adrenal glands in your body, one sitting above each kidney. They secrete endocrine hormones such as adrenaline, aldosterone and cortisol. As these hormones play key roles in things like blood pressure regulation, glucose metabolism and the immune system, the adrenal glands are therefore very important in maintaining balance and stability in many of the bodily functions.
When you are under any type of stress, whether it be physical, psychological or emotional, your adrenal glands are prompted to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These stimulate your nervous system and cause what you might know as the 'fight-or-flight' response. The outcomes of this include an increase in heart rate, a raise in blood pressure, and increased blood glucose levels. These effects may be helpful in the short-term but in the long term can have damaging effects on the body. This explains why major/chronic stresses can be so harmful to our health. Being stressed for long periods of time can also cause our adrenals to become 'tired' and begin to function sub-optimally.
Adrenal tonics are herbs that are able to support the adrenal glands improve their function. Some of these include:
Liquorice is able to sustain the half-life of cortisol in the body, thereby providing an anti-inflammatory action. It is also able to increase blood pressure and so can help in cases of hypotension.
Using the buds of blackcurrant, as a glycerine macerate, also provides an adreno-cortico stimulating action and supports the adrenal glands.
Adaptogens can increase the body's resistance to stress, whether it be physical, mental or emotional stress. They may have a normalising action, being able to help in under and over-functioning of mechanisms. They help to reduce the negative effects that the stress response can have on the body.
- Where stress can cause protein breakdown and weight loss, adaptogens can help to increase the synthesis of protein and cause necessary weight gain.
- Where stress has an effect on glucose metabolism and cause a level of insulin-resistance and high blood sugar, adaptogens helps to regulate this energy metabolism and has an insulin-like effect, stabilising blood sugar levels.
- Where major stresses can cause an over-production of adrenaline and noradrenaline, adaptogens help to limit that overproduction, hence limit their negative effects on the body.
Adaptogens are useful where there is a lack of energy, nervous exhaustion or a weak/over-reactive immune system.
The adaptogen/adaptogens that may be suitable for you would vary on your condition and symptoms. Some adaptogens and their properties are listed below:
Ashwagandha is great for people who are feeling 'wired-and-tired'. This describes the person feeling stressed/anxious but feeling very low in energy at the same time. Typically those who are so stressed that they cannot sleep at night. Ashwagandha is a nervine sedative so can have a relaxing effect on the nervous system but also help to increase energy levels. It can also be useful for cases of emaciation and hypothyroidism.
Rhodiola is great at enhancing mental performance, concentration and memory, particularly during stress (GREAT EXAM HERB!).
It may also be useful to improve low mood and anxiety disorders.
Astragalus is a great herb for increasing immune function. Adaptogens are generally not advised to take whilst you have an acute infection, however, they are great as preventatives, with astragalus being one of the best.
Schisandra is great at improving memory and concentration (another great one for studying and exams). It also has the added benefit of being a great antioxidant and helps in liver detoxification.