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The Truth about Adaptogens
By Denise. Brusveen, HTMA Consultant with Sassy Holistics
I’ve been hearing so much misinformation about adaptogens lately, so I wanted to help clear up the confusion. Adaptogens are an amazing class of herbs that can help improve mood, energy, stamina, immunity, and mental concentration as well as reduce fatigue and promote hormonal balance. Pretty much everyone could use some adaptogens in their life!
So how do adaptogens work their magic? In order to be considered an adaptogen, the herb MUST meet the following criteria(1):
- Nonspecific effects, meaning the adaptogen herb increases resistance to a very broad spectrum of harmful factors (physical, biological, chemical, psychological).
- It must have a normalizing effect against stressors, independent of the pathologic state.
- It must be innocuous to have a broad range of therapeutic effects without causing any disturbance (other than very marginally) to the normal functioning of the organism.
Did you catch that? Adaptogens have non-specific and normalizing effects on the body! So this idea that we can use this herb to treat that cortisol level is a very allopathic way of thinking and isn’t how adaptogens are meant to be used. So where does this type of thinking stem from?
One common example that I hear often is that ashwagandha lowers cortisol. In doing some digging to figure out where this idea came from, I was able to locate the study I believe this stemmed from (2). Interestingly, no 4 point cortisol test was used, and no reference ranges were given for the test. Anybody with a chronic physical, hormonal or psychiatric illness was excluded. That leaves out pretty much all the people who would have already been in adrenal exhaustion (cortisol bottomed out), needing a boost in their cortisol. So it’s no wonder it lowered cortisol levels for people who all had high cortisol and needed it lowered!
That’s just one example of a flawed study causing people to make generalized recommendations. Herbs are SO MUCH more complex than most people realize, which is why they really need to be used in a personalized way. And that’s what we aim to do with our HTMA consults.
While I’m on the topic of ashwagandha, let me explain a bit more why an individualized approach is so important. Many people not do well with ashwagandha if they have previously tanked their adrenals by using large amounts of magnesium. If you know you have a nightshade intolerance or an autoimmune condition, we might also want to avoid ashwagandha for you (Note that this is controversial – some experts say that ashwagandha is perfectly safe for both of these issues). But if we see that your thyroid is struggling in addition to your adrenals on your HTMA results, and there’s a good chance you’ll tolerate ashwagandha, it can actually give your thyroid a boost(3)! So we might suggest it in addition to working on your calcium and potassium levels, which make up the thyroid ratio.
Another place where people get into trouble sometimes is that they write an herb off as not working for them because they tried it all by itself. There can be additive effects of herbs, where they are more powerful when combined with other herbs. Panax ginseng and Ginkgo is just one very well studied example. The effect of these herbs combined for improving cognitive function is much greater than using either of these herbs alone.
Another way that adaptogens can be beneficial in a blend is that they can provide benefits without being overpowering like they might be on their own. For example, Panax ginseng might be far too stimulating on its own, but in a blend with other less energizing herbs, it can provide just the right amount of energy. Adrena Uplift is one good example of a blend that uses Panax ginseng among other herbs.
Licorice is another example where it is usually better off in a blend. It isn’t technically an adaptogen because its actions are specific rather than nonspecific, and it can actually cause problems for people with high blood pressure over time (whereas true adaptogens are considered to be generally safe). It is an amazing addition to many adaptogen blends though, and being in a blend rather than taking it on its own lowers the dose that a person receives, which likely lowers the risks associated with it. If you are worried at all about your blood pressure though, then go for a blend without licorice like this one.
One final amazing benefit of using adaptogen herbs to help support the adrenals is that they usually have benefits to other areas of the body. Many adaptogens are also nervines that help to regulate the nervous system or tonics that help to restore or tone the body. So sometimes we can pick out specific herbs for more than one purpose. For instance if I’m working with someone who has POTS, I might suggest eleuthero. If I’m working with someone with low iron, I might suggest ashwagandha (4). If I’m working with someone with H. pylori, I might suggest licorice. Someone needing extra support for heart health might consider rhodiola. I could go on, but you get the idea! These herbs are worth exploring! They can be a great addition to your mineral balancing plan.
- Panossian A., Wikman G, Wagner H: Plant adaptogens. III. Earlier and more recent aspects and concepts on their mode of action. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10589450
- Chandrasekhar, Jyoti Kapoor, and Sridhar Anishetty. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10589450
- Sharma AK, Basu I, Singh S. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Subclinical Hypothyroid Patients: A Double-Blind, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28829155
- Upton R. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Therapeutic Monographs: Ashwagandha Root. Santa Cruz, CA: American Herbal Pharmacopoeia; 2000.