Adaptogenic herbs seem to be a hot topic of discussion these days, mostly because of their ‘anti-stress’ action on the body. You can see health experts recommending adaptogens to be used in smoothies or made into teas.
While these unique herbs may be new to the western world, they have been used by traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine practitioners for centuries as “overall tonics” that rejuvenate, tone and heal the body in several ways.
Reishi mushroom, Jiaogulan, Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Maca, Rhodiola Rosea, Cordyceps mushroom – are all examples of adaptogenic herbs that are particularly known for their ability to help your body “adapt” to stress. These plants and herbs are also used to fight fatigue, improve immunity, boost energy and most importantly, to help the body find its centre and regain overall balance.
Long term stress is related to adrenal dysfunction, which leads to hormonal imbalances, among other things. And this is one area adaptogens can be immensely useful. In this blog, we will discuss in detail how adaptogens help you restore your hormonal balance and health; but let’s first quickly go over what adaptogens really are and how do they work.
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are also called ‘Biological Response Modifiers’. Only one in 4,000 herbs can be categorized as a real adaptogen. Some unique features make adaptogens different than most medicinal herbs out there. For example, adaptogens:
- Help your body to adapt to stress better
- Are non-specific and normalizes functions across multiple organ systems.
- Are non-toxic and have no side effects.
The most important quality of adaptogens is that they do not target one specific outcome. These herbs are non-specific in their action, which means they are great at figuring out what your body needs and helps you in that direction. This is how adaptogens help you achieve balance and harmony.
Another thing is that these herbs strengthen your natural ability to deal with stress and to self-repair from everyday wear and tear, especially that which is caused by stress. Not that all your stress will be gone, but with adaptogens you would be able to deal with your stress with less damage and with less side effects.
So, how do adaptogens really work?
These remarkable herbs regulate your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and sympathoadrenal system (SAS). They are some really huge words but let’s put it this way. These two networks cover endocrine (hormones), immune and nervous systems. And as you know all of these systems are interconnected and majorly responsible for how you respond to stress.
Overactivation of HPA and SAS systems, which is what happens when you are constantly stressed, can trigger your adrenals to secrete more stress hormones. This can lead to adrenal burnout. An overworked HPA axis will also activate your immune system, releasing inflammatory proteins and chemicals.
And it doesn’t really matter the source of your stress. Stress may be a simple sounding word but not one that you can easily describe. It could be psychological – worry and anxiety coming from financial issues, relationship failures, work pressure or being a care giver of a sick child. And most of us are indeed familiar with this kind of emotional stress.
But it can be something coming from physical and environmental factors too, such as fatigue, irregular sleeping patterns over a long time, unhealthy diet and exposure to chemicals, radiation, pollutants and other toxins. Chronic infections and diseases also place additional stress on the body.
Long-term stress is not only bad for your hormones, but it can cause a number of health problems that directly or indirectly affect your hormone functions. Stress can also cause poor immunity, inflammation, gastrointestinal ulcers, leaky gut and an increased risk of depression, panic attack, obesity, heart disease, thyroid imbalances, cancer and even premature death. Stress has also been linked to conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic pain.
Adaptogenic herbs and hormonal balance
Before we explore the role of adaptogens in restoring your hormonal balance, let’s understand that there could be ‘n’ number of reasons why your hormones could be out of whack. Adaptogens can help to put your hormones in order, but they can only be a part of an overall strategy. You also need to identify your exact cause and take steps to get it out of the way or to properly manage that underlying reason.
Stress is the number one enemy when it comes to hormonal health. And it is also an obvious indicator that your adrenal glands and immune system are not equipped to deal with the outburst of stressors present in your environment – leading to adrenal fatigue which in turn creates havoc with your hormones.
Combined with poor diet, long working hours and lack of exercise, there are other factors that could also contribute to poor hormone levels.
Possible causes of hormonal imbalance
- Chronic stress
- Certain health conditions like diabetes, Addison's disease
- Unhealthy diet
- Poor thyroid function
- Use of the birth control pill and other hormonal contraceptives
- Long term use of steroids
- Sleep deprivation
- Exposure to toxins, industrial pollutants and chemicals
- Presence of drugs and antibiotics in drinking water
- Use of low-grade plastics
- Feeling cranky, anxious and irritable
- Mood swings and crying spells for no apparent reason
- Difficultly sleeping
- Unexplained fatigue and low energy levels
- Hot flashes
- Painful PMS
- Irregular or extremely painful periods
- Missed periods
- Hair loss
- Low sex drive
- Digestive problems, constipation and diarrhea
- Vaginal dryness
- Excessive facial hair in women (hirsutism)
- Weak bones
- Painful and tender breasts
- Headaches and migraines
- Changes in appetite
- Puffy and swollen face
Since adaptogens primarily work by regulating the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, they support and strengthen your adrenal heath and help your body adapt to stress – one of the main reasons behind hormonal imbalances.
One of the important mechanisms through which adaptogens help you manage stress is by balancing cortisol – a stress hormone. Cortisol is not exactly your enemy and it definitely plays a number of important roles in the body. For one, you need cortisol for a healthy response to stress and for staying active and alert during a particularly stressful situation where you need to make fast decisions.
However, excessive cortisol coursing through your bloodstream is not a good thing. It can cause high blood pressure, high blood glucose levels, metabolic disorders, anxiety, thyroid imbalance, depression and excessive weight gain.
Adaptogenic herbs regulate the levels of cortisol – helping you manage all these side effects.
In addition, adaptogens also have a regulating effect on various other hormones such as insulin, thyroid and testosterone. That’s why many adaptogens may help in improving male fertility, libido, insulin sensitivity and thyroid functions.
In fact, you can say that the word adaptogen is an umbrella term. In order to help your body deal with physical, chemical, metabolic or environmental stressors, adaptogens work in many other ways. For example, most adaptogens are a rich source of minerals, vitamins and bioactives that gives you the adaptive energy you need to manage these stress factors, fight oxidative stress and reduce inflammation, placing a lot less burden on your HPA axis and especially adrenals. This is what you need to sail through a changing and challenging environment.
Other Benefits of Adaptogenic Herbs
Through their normalizing effects on nervous and immune systems, adaptogens also exert many other health benefits besides correcting your hormonal balance.
- Calms the nervous system
- Reduces fatigue and improves energy
- Strengthens immune functions
- Improves mental stamina
- Improves your body’s antioxidant status
- Brings mental clarity and focus
There are a number of herbs that can help achieve all these health benefits.
Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Holy Basil is one of the most revered herbs in Ayurveda. Modern research has also confirmed its many benefits as an adaptogen. Holy Basil enhances your body's natural response to physical and emotional stress. Most importantly, it has been found that Holy Basil can reduce all kinds of stress, including metabolic stress (through its positive effects on blood sugar levels and blood pressure) as well as chemical stress (coming from industrial pollutants and heavy metals) and physical stress. In addition, it has also been shown to protect organs from cold and excessive noise. 
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
A well-known medicinal herb, ashwagandha needs no introduction. It is one of the most important herbs used by Ayurvedic practitioners and is also known as “Indian ginseng”. It regulates the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, and is known to improve symptoms in people who are chronically stressed.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
Maca, also known as “Peruvian ginseng”, is known to relieve symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Maca increases strength, overall energy and libido.
Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)
Jiaogulan (the ‘Herb of Immortality’) is a powerful adaptogen known to improve your overall health and quality of life. It can reduce inflammation, prevent premature cellular ageing and cut down the risk of chronic diseases that are often associated with ageing. As an adaptogen and as a strong antioxidant, Jiaogulan improves the way your body reacts to stress.
It stabilizes the functions of all organ systems, creating an overall homeostasis in the body including hormonal balance.
Like other adaptogens, Jiaogulan also:
- Reduces the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol
- Supports adrenal function and health
- Calms your nerves, as well as energizes an underworking nervous system
- Reduces fatigue and boosts energy
- Supports immune function
- Regulates metabolism, thus supporting both weight loss and weight gain
Jiaogulan provides many more benefits such as helping in weight loss , detoxification, improving insulin sensitivity , treating asthma and bronchitis and reducing inflammation in the urinary bladder.  In addition, by calming the nervous system, Jiaogulan also helps you sleep better and reduce anxiety. When it comes to hormonal health and stability, you can’t overlook the importance of healthy sleep (8 or more hours of continuous sleep at night).
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum)
Also known as Lingzhi mushroom, Reishi is also a powerful adaptogen particularly known for its ability to regulate the immune system. It helps you deal with stress and corrects instabilities induced by chronic stress hormonal imbalances and weak immunity.
Cordyceps is basically a parasitic fungus and is also considered an adaptogen. Preliminary studies on cordyceps reveal that it might be a useful ally in improving exercise capacity, reducing inflammation and boosting immunity.
All these herbs have unique bioactive compounds with each claiming to have different health benefits. For example, Maca contains macamides, Jiaogulan contains saponins called gypenosides. Polysaccharides (Beta-D-glucans) and triterpenes (Ganoderic acids) are the two important bioactives in Reishi mushroom.
These compounds are not only responsible for their adaptogenic but also anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions. But all these herbs and roots have one thing in common. They create a sense of balance in the body and make the body resistant to all kind of stress.
Overall, adaptogenic herbs improve the way your body responds to stress by:
- Restoring your hormonal health and functions
- Improving energy and overall stamina
- Supporting your immune health, lowering the risk of infections, allergies and diseases
- Improving mental and physical endurance
- Reducing oxidative damage and inflammation
- Improving the reserve of micronutrients
Adaptogenic herbs support your adrenal and immune health. A well-balanced body with optimum adrenal and immune health makes it easier for you to recover from stress, injuries and infections. You are also able to deal with everyday stress and anxiety with ease. This is exactly what adaptogenic herbs do for you.
While adaptogens are safe to use, they are not recommended for young children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, people taking immune-suppressant drugs or drugs that thin blood, lower blood pressure and blood glucose levels. If you are suffering from any chronic disease, always consult your registered healthcare practitioner before you give an adaptogen or two a try.
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- Lüthjea et al. Gynostemma pentaphyllum exhibits anti-inflammatory properties and modulates antimicrobial peptide expression in the urinary bladder. Science Direct. Journal of Functional Foods. Volume 17August 2015