Adaptogens… this word is the new buzz word in herbalism and herbs classified as adaptogens are the new super stars of the herbal world. And for good reason.
Adaptogenic herbs boost energy, restore vitality, and help raise the body’s ability to deal with the stresses of modern life ~ and, as an added bonus, they have no harmful side effects. They are also the prime herbs used for increasing life force and one’s quality of life as one ages (or sageing, as I prefer calling the aging process). Broadly speaking an Adaptogen can be any substance or lifestyle change that helps one adjust or adapt to our modern day environment (such as heating or air conditioning), but the term is most often used to describe a group of herbs that have a long history of promoting longevity and increasing the overall strength and resiliency of our bodies.
The term adaptogen is fairly new and won’t be found in any of the older herb books ~ those written before 1990 ~ and you won’t find the word in a dictionary, either. Yet it’s a common term amongst herbalists and holistic practitioners and is used to describe a highly regarded and well-known group of herbs. The term was coined by a Russian scientist, Dr. Lazarev, in the late 1940’s, and was used to describe any substance that:
(a) had a normalizing and balancing effect;
(b) was non-toxic and didn’t create any harmful side effects; and
(c) worked by a ‘non-specific’ or more generalized action to increase resistance to illness
through a wide range of physical and biochemical factors.
Dr. Lazarev’s protégé, Dr. Brekhman, was a holistically minded scientist with an interest in herbalism. Thankfully for us, he expanded Lazarev’s work by centering his research on herbs that have a history of ‘adaptogenic’ like qualities. Dr. Brekhman studied hundreds of herbs to see if they had adaptogenic properties but ended up focusing most of his research on Electheroccoccus senticosus (Siberian Ginseng), Rhodiola, and Panax and Asian varieties of ginseng. He conducted literally hundreds of studies on thousands of people (factory workers, truck drivers and athletes, primarily) that proved there were herbs with the unique ability to help the body adapt to the stresses of modern life, improve energy and stamina, and increase one’s adaptability to their environment.
Adaptogen Herbs are identified by their non-specific, broad health benefits. They increase the body’s inherent life force, increase stamina and endurance and improve the overall quality of physical well being. By definition, adaptogens are non-toxic and have no side effects (other than the side effect of good health) even when used over a long period of time.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), herbs with these adaptogenic-like qualities were termed “Superior Medicine” and were among the most widely used of the Chinese herbs. Superior Herbal Medicines, like adaptogens, were safe and non-toxic, raised immune function, increased resistance to illness, and were used to promote health and well being. Though the term adaptogen may be new, the knowledge of herbs with adaptogenic qualities have been around for generations. The terminology used to describe this group of herbs may be different in different parts of the world, but they were always among the most valued of herbs in every culture.
In Ayurvedic Medicine, an herbal system originating in India and considered one of the most respected and renowned systems of healing in the world, herbs that were rejuvenating, restorative and had the ability to sustain and nourish life were called Rasayana herbs, which meant, literally, path of essence. An entire system of practice developed around this special group of Rasayana, or restorative herbs.
In Western or American Herbalism, herbs that were restorative, tonifying, and rebuilding to the system were classified as Herbal Tonics and were used to treat a wide range of imbalances as well as to restore and maintain good health. Though tonics are not as appreciated as they once were, western herbal tonic therapy was at one time the foundation of many herbal treatments in North America ~ the adage was treatment from the foundation up by tonifying, supporting and building life force and most illnesses would improve or disappear.
No matter what they’re called, Superior Medicines, Herbal Tonics, Rasayanas, or Adaptogenics, world wide these are among our most well known and beloved herbs, perhaps because they are rejuvenating and restorative and help us adapt to many of the stresses of modern-day life! Traditionally, these herbs were often incorporated into one’s meals, cooked into soups, sprinkled into food, or made into syrups, tonic drinks, and delicious spreads that were enticing to eat. Of course, one can take them as capsules and tinctures as well ~ there are many fine adaptogenic and energy building formulas available in capsules and as tinctures ~ but most herbalists prefer to use these particular herbs as food rather than ‘medicine’. And there are many delicious recipes that one can make to entice one into taking these herbs on a regular basis.
Here’s one of my favorites from my course, The Science and Art of Herbalism.
Adapto~Chocolate Herbal Goodness
adapted from herbalists Penny & Bevin Clare (Mother & Daughter team)
- 16 oz. bittersweet dark chocolate
- 8 oz. Coconut Oil
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
- ¼ – ½ cup finely powdered adaptogen/tonic herbs. I like to use these herbs; equal parts Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthero), Rhodiola, Schizandra and turmeric. But you can vary the herbs in this formula. Try your own herbal combinations – just be sure the herbs are finely powdered and remember the flavor of the herbs will affect the flavor of your herbal candy (though the chocolate is quite good at disguising the flavors)
- 1 tsp. pure Vanilla Extract
- Coarsely ground Pink Himalayan Salt
- Optional: 2-3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger (not dried)
** If using Turmeric, add a small amount of coarsely ground black pepper (it’s said to activate or synergize the turmeric and make it more bio-available); approximately ½ teaspoon will do.
- Melt Chocolate & Coconut oil together over low heat.
- Stir in Vanilla and add herbs. Stir well, making sure there aren’t any lumps.
- Stir in finely chopped nuts. *Can add a little shredded coconut, too, if you like
- Pour into a shallow baking dish.
- Sprinkle the top lightly with course ground Pink Himalayan salt (or a salt of your choice ~ there’s so many to choose from today!). Can also sprinkle with rose petals or other powdered herbs for color and flavor.
- Set in a cool (or cold) place to harden. While still soft, score into small pieces; this will make it easier to cut or break when the chocolate has hardened.
**Important! Store in a cool place – coconut oil will cause this chocolate to melt in your hands and not in your mouth if it gets warm.
To be considered an Adaptogenic, herbs must meet three criteria:
- Non Toxic: They must be non toxic and cause minimal negative disturbances in the physiological functions of the body
- Generalized Action: They are non-specific in action and have a more generalized action in the body. In other words, these herbs are not generally indicated for one specific condition or illness but rather tonify and build the entire system.
- Normalizing and Balancing: They must have a normalizing effect on the body, helping to restore balance and homeostasis. Can be used for either/or situations such as high or low blood sugar, or high or low blood pressure.
Adaptogens help the body:
- Restore balance
- Increase energy
- Improve stamina
- Increase immune response
- Improve homeostasis
- Improve brain and memory function
- Balance and normalize overall body energy and health
How do these herbs work in the body?
In truth, in spite of numerous scientific studies, no one’s quite sure exactly how these herbs work in the body. But here’s a few of the theories of how they are able to restore health and vitality to our amazing human bodies:
- They enhance the ability of enzymes to transform glucose into energy
- They activate the synthesis of proteins and nucleic acids
- They build and support immune health through numerous immuno-enhancing mechanisms
- They are antioxidant rich and thus limit the number of free radicals in the system. Excess free radicals roaming in our systems are one of the key factors in age related disease.
- They work by supporting endocrine gland function and have a positive influence on the secretion of hormones and other chemicals produced by the pituitary, hypothalamus, and adrenal glands
*Perhaps it’s too complex to fully understand the ‘how’s’ of how plants work, but we do know they work through countless centuries of human interaction with plants; what we plant people refer to as ‘empirical evidence.’
I cover this group of herbs in greater depth in Lesson One of my home study course.
*Please note, while adaptogens and tonics are generally classified as safe, people can have individualized reactions to anything. If you note itchy throat or eyes, or stomach upset shortly after ingesting any herb (or anything for that matter), discontinue use, drink several glasses of water, and, if you have it handy, add lemon to the water (lemon helps detoxify the system). If symptoms don’t improve, wait a little while…if they get worse, then consult with your healthcare professional. If you are a particularly sensitive person who has allergic reactions to several different things then it’s always best to be respectful of this and to introduce new things slowly, gently into your system. Always listen to your body…. no one knows it like you do.
If you’re new to herbalism or want to take your herbal studies to the next level, I am honored to offer my home study course to The Sacred Science community.
The course is called The Science and Art of Herbalism and is a 10-lesson course taken at your own pace, with homework review and guidance provided by myself and a few of my most trusted herbalists.
The heart of this course is the development of a deep personal relationship with the plant world, and many of our students have written in telling us that this course has been transformational and one of the most self-empowering studies they have undertaken. At the end of the course you will receive a beautiful certificate of completion you can proudly display in your home, store or office!
We offer an online and classic printed version of the course, with both courses offering the same core content. The printed course is perfect for those who prefer to curl up with a cup of tea and read the course material in book form. With the printed version, you have the option to send your homework in for review via post or email. Online course students benefit from all the magic of the digital world – from videos, online peer communities, and faster turnaround time on homework review.
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I am so looking forward to you joining our journey into the green world!