Adaptogens: What are they and how can they help?

National Mental Health Awareness Month has ended, but every day we need to continue to have open, honest, and unashamed conversations. 

We empower ourselves by educating ourselves.

As a budding herbalist, I practice on myself and study my health, my mind, and body, and its patterns. I experiment with plants to aid my healing. The last few times I have been sick, I noted that they followed family stress and traumas. Headaches, stomach aches, and fatigue kept wiping me out, often for days. Then I reflected that a lot of times in my past, stress, drama, trauma and even a lot of socialization would leave me emotionally, mentally, and physically strained and drained. 

Then dawned on my marble head, I need adaptogens!

There are many plants with herbal actions that are beneficial to our mental health, such as nervines, sedatives, calmatives, anxiolytics, anti-depressant, and more.

This article focuses on Adaptogens. They have increased in popularity recently and it’s important to know what they are and how they can help. 

What Are Adaptogens?

According to Oxford languages, the definition of adaptogen is (in herbal medicine) “a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes.” 

“The classic definition of adaptogenic herbs is they have a non-specific action that increases the body’s natural resistance to stressors. These could be external stressors that are either environmental or internal stressors triggered by exercise, diet, lifestyle factors, and the stresses of modern life.” {1}

Basically, adaptogens can improve the body’s ability to adapt to stress, helping to avoid collapse or overstress.

In China and in the East adaptogens are used as a preventative approach to health and well-being. They are a relatively new concept to western medicine and herbalism.” {2}

“There are three main qualities an herb must have to be considered an adaptogen: 1) It must be non-toxic at normal doses. 2) It should support the entire body’s ability to cope with stress. 3) It should help the body return to a state of homeostasis regardless of how the body has changed in response to stress.”{3}

How adaptogens can help.

When we encounter stress we go through three stages:

  1. The Alarm Phase: Our bodies produce adrenaline to improve our ability to focus on the task at hand.
  2. The Resistance Phase: While our bodies are enjoying the adrenaline boost, we are literally resisting the stress.
  3. The Exhaustion Phase: The end result is our bodies inevitably reach exhaustion.

Adaptogens don’t block the stress response but rather bring balance to the extremities in energy and mood during these phases of stress.

Adaptogens are said to work on a molecular level on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis is a term used to represent the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands; it plays an important role in the body’s response to stress {4}, the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and a significant in immune regulation, digestion, and metabolism.

“Studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS {Central Nervous System} stimulating activity.”{5} 

In addition, a number of clinical trials demonstrate that not only do adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect, but they also increase mental work capacity despite stress and fatigue, particularly intolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention. 

Conclusion: Adaptogens can increase energy & mental focus, nourish the adrenals, strengthen the immune system, aid in digestion & metabolism, and boost overall vitality.

Adaptogen plants:

If you’d like to try including adaptogens in your self-care, please speak to your doctor and/or clinical herbalist to make sure you find the right plant for you, as not all adaptogenic plants work the same way, and what works for one may not work for another.

Here is a brief list of adaptogenic plants and their effects:

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) 

Ginsengs are nervine stimulants, used to support the nervous, endocrine, and immune system, and improve the resilience of the physical body. 

Asian ginseng has been used for thousands of years in China, Korea, and India for its ability to strengthen the body’s natural defenses to cure and protect from illness. American ginseng was cultivated in the 1700s and was used by several Native American tribes before Europeans discovered it for themselves. Today it is rare and even endangered in some areas, due to overharvesting.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus)  

Eleuthero works with the urinary, nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular body systems. It’s been used traditionally to increase vital energy, improve sleep, and appetite, and treat lower back and kidney pain, as well as rheumatoid arthritis. It is also commonly used for spastic bladders.

It was formerly known as “Siberian ginseng,” but this created confusion because it isn’t in the Panax genus. 

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha works with digestive, urinary, nervous, and endocrine systems. Not only an adaptogen but also an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and restorative. It has a calming effect rather than being stimulating like ginseng. As an adaptogen, it can improve focus, and help those who are fatigued during the day but have a hard time sleeping at night, the wired, tired type.

Ashwagandha is a powerful herb in Ayurvedic healing, known as an “Indian Ginseng.”

Caution! This plant is a nightshade, so if you are allergic to tomatoes, eggplant, and other nightshades, this adaptogen is probably not a good choice for you.

Astragulus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Working with the nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems, Astragulus can strengthen the body against viral infection of the respiratory and heart and is used to protect the body from physical, mental, and emotional stress by supporting the immune system. It can help with fatigue and lack of appetite as well.
Astragalus (or Huang qi) is rich in Chinese and Asian cultures and has been traditionally praised for its ability to stimulate the body’s protective energy (qi), fight fatigue, and prevent diseases such as cancer.

Schisandra (Shisandra chinensis) 

Schisandra berry works with our nervous, respiratory and endocrine body systems., It is a stimulating herb found to increase physical stamina and can be beneficial for improving concentration, coordination, and endurance. Also known to provide protection from stress, and protect the liver from a variety of toxins.

It is known as the five flavor berry, with sour, sweet, bitter, warm, and salty notes, and is one of the 50 fundamental herbs in Chinese medicine, and in Chines folklore known to “calm the heart” and “quiet the spirit.”

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) 

Rhodiola is an adaptogen that works with our nervous and endocrine systems. Found to be similarly effective to prescription anxiolytics in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, and improve symptoms of depression such as low mood, insomnia, and mood instability.

Also has been used to treat chronic fatigue syndrome, as it improves fatigue and mental focus and decreases the cortisol response to stress.

It grows naturally in wild Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, thought to have been used by Vikings to improve physical strength and endurance.

Holy Basil/Tulsi  (Ocimum sanctum or tenuiflorum)

Works as a calmative and adaptogen with our nervous and respiratory system. An uplifting herb for those with mental fog, and those with significant fatigue. It has been used to treat anxiety, depression, and stress-related symptoms and has been used to treat asthma as well, especially stress-induced asthma.

Holy  Basil (or Tulsi) is native to India and has long been revered as sacred and used in Ayurvedic Healing

These are only a few of the wonderful adaptogens available. Others include; Reishi mushroom, Burdock, Ginger, Blueberry, Aloe, Licorice root, Gotu kola, Royal fern, Milk thistle seed, and more!

I encourage you to do your own research.

This post is meant to educate and inspire.

It is not medical advice.

If you decide to try adaptogens, Please discuss with your medical team which plants are best for you.

References

Oxford Language&Google

{1} Evolutionary Herbalism pdf https://www.evolutionaryherbalism.com/

{2}The Herbal Handbook, A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman

{3}Whole Health Library https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTHLIBRARY/docs/Adaptogens.pdf

{4}Simple Psychology https://www.simplypsychology.org/hypothalamic%E2%80%93pituitary%E2%80%93adrenal-axis.html

{5}National Library of Medicine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

{other}

https://www.healthline.com/health/adaptogenic-herbs#effectiveness

https://thebeet.com/what-are-adaptogens-herbs-and-plants-that-can-help-reduce-stress-and-anxiety/

My materia medica from my herbal apprenticeship with Misty Meadows

Mental Health Awareness Posts

It’s my hope that we will continue to talk about mental health, dissolve the stigma and let the healing begin.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I gathered a list of a few of my posts and poems that describe some of my experiences with mental illness.

We have been in a mental health crisis for some time now and has severely increased since the pandemic.

It is time to be open, honest, and without bias.

You are not alone.

If you think you are experiencing symptoms of mental illness, please talk to somebody.

Talk to a family member or trusted friend, and/or seek professional help such as a Psychiatrist, a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats mental illnesses, or a psychotherapist, such as a psychologist or licensed counselor.

Call 911 or go to the closest emergency room

Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, text MHA to 741741

Poems

It’s One of Those Days (https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2019/05/15/one-of-those-days/

The Dark Side of my MInd https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/the-dark-side-of-my-mind/

A Day in the Life of Depression https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/a-day-in-the-life-of-depression/

Posts

Mental breakdown https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/mental-breakdown/

Disassociative Identity Disorder https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/dissociative-identity-disorder-did/

EMDR: My next step in therapy https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/emdr-my-next-step-in-therapy/

Agoraphobic Flashback https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2015/02/11/agoraphobic-flashback/

Recognizing Depression https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/recognizing-depression/

Parenting & Mental illness https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2017/04/05/parenting-and-mental-illness/

Deep breaths and baby steps (https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/deep-breaths-and-baby-steps/

My daily basic battles https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-5-daily-basic-battles/

5 ways I am managing my stress https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2021/08/11/5-ways-i-am-managing-my-stress/

Back on Antidepressants https://breakdownchick.wordpress.com/2022/02/23/back-on-antidepressants/

Officially Registered!

My business is finally officially registered! If you had told me this would happen when I was debilitated with depression, I would not have been able to imagine it.

Yet here I am! It has been a long recovery and I still struggle; but, I keep putting one foot in front of the other, taking baby steps, one step at a time, and pausing for deep breaths.

Wherever you are in your recovery, you are not alone, don’t give up, limitless possibilities await you!💜

Mental Health Awareness Month


May is National Mental Health Awareness month.
Mental health awareness is so very important to me.
I was hospitalized and diagnosed with a mental health breakdown years ago, clinical depression, anxiety, PTSD, and DID were a few diagnoses that followed, and my recovery has been a long journey.
Mental illness runs through my family as well. It is heartbreaking to watch people you love struggle with their own minds.
Believe me, the struggle is real!
Post pandemic has many people struggling with their own mental health.
Please be aware of those around you, educate yourself, don’t judge, and BE KIND!💚

Back on Antidepressants :/

After 10 years off of antidepressants, I chose to go back on them. I thought just for the winter but I am not so sure anymore.

Truthfully, I’ve been struggling for a while. I’ve kept busy with herbal apprenticeships and my business course through VR. but not without several little breakdowns and many cries in between.

I had been contemplating medication for months, discussing it with both my doctor and my therapist.

I wanted to try herbal remedies first for the winter depression, but I only made a few and was late in the season making them.

I was teetering.

Then my family pushed me over the edge. Many family members were struggling with their own mental health and it affected me deeply.

I began having suicidal and self-harming thoughts.

Red flag, stop, breathe and evaluate.

Presently I know with all I am that I won’t act on these thoughts; but when my brain starts going there, it is time to get some support.

I realized I could not try to start a business and elevate my life, all while getting caught in the cross-fire of my family, it was just too much.

I felt like I was failing and was ashamed, by going back on meds. Then I remembered that my brain sometimes needs help. That I have a chemical imbalance. That it is okay to get help. That I am still doing the work and moving forward.

I set that shame shit go and am still adjusting; but so far, my focus is better and my depression not quite as severe, and/or for not as long.

Sometimes, recovery and healing is an up and down, back and forth experience.

Learning in layers and spirals can feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, but I know better.

Feeling a tiny bit more stable, I have set boundaries with my family and continue to move forward with my business goals.

Wherever you are at in your journey, know that it’s okay and you are exactly where you need to be❤

Launching Soon!

It’s been over two years that I’ve been working diligently with NH Vocational Rehab and taking their business course with success coach, Dr. Deborah Osgood, who has been an enormous support.

There have been so many trials and tribulations during this journey. It took me six months of therapy to work on feeling worthy enough to even begin.

Then when I thought I was close to being ready, I learned about the FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP’s). It took me another chunk of time to reformulate my lotion recipes to include all-natural preservatives so I could offer a safer product and avoid bacteria, yeast, mold, etc., I also changed the packaging from jars to pump bottles, because constantly putting our fingers into a jar of product can increase chances of bacteria, especially if water gets into it.

Not only did I need to reformulate recipes and packaging; but, I had to change my business direction as well. I originally wanted to include tea blends, herbal extracts, and salves; but according to FDA, those fall under the Supplement category, and my herbal chest rub under the Drug category, which has very rigid rules and regulations. Firstly, I would need a commercial kitchen and that just isn’t plausible presently. This discouraged me for a while and I struggled with depression, but I redirected myself to work under the Cosmetics and Aromatherapy categories which are a tiny bit more lenient, and I am able to make them from home. (I ranted a bit more in my post, GMPs, FDA, and reformulating)

All the while I was still studying herbalism and completed four herbal apprenticeships with Blackbird’s Daughter Botanicals, to build on the foundation I learned at Misty Meadows Herbal Center. I also took some online classes on Cosmetic formulation and preservatives.

Last month, I finally finished the course at VR and submitted my business proposal. I was congratulated and commended on a job well done. I felt such a sense of accomplishment, having persevered through my anxiety, fear, depression, family problems, health issues, etc.,

There were times I felt stupid for taking so long, and times I wanted to just give up, wondering if I was even capable.

Last week I received the email saying that NHVR has approved my proposal and they will begin buying supplies needed for me to launch my business over the next 3-4 weeks!!!

Tears of joy and relief were wept.

I signed the contract saying that I have ‘cashed in’ my Social Security ticket to work and I will submit profit/loss reports monthly.

If you would’ve asked a former me, I would have never thought I’d be here.

Sometimes I held a vague vision or a daydream of where I wanted to be.

Now I am living the daydream!

I have moved from being severely disabled, broken and unable, to an able person, functioning, and moving forward, still struggling with disabilities but also still doing the work and healing.

Disabled but not broken.

I am excited and I am terrified, but no matter what happens from here, I am proud to have made it this far.

Practicing my GMP’s 🙂
Working on Packaging!