Adaptogens: How they support, tone & protect the body’s neuroendocrine and immune system homeostasis

The human body, at its normal state, is well-calibrated biological technology. It has the nervous system patrolling and sensing the external and internal dangers (stress/alarms) and sends messages to the brain (Hypothalamus). In response, the brain sends chemical messengers, hormones, through the pituitary and other glandular organs to influence the body to act accordingly in response to an alarm/stress to protect itself and stay in balance (homeostasis).

Hormones are functionally the biological thermostat for the body, but when there is too much stress the system can be thrown off balance. For example, the overproduction of adrenal glands “fight or flight” hormones can take away blood resources and vitality from other systems such as the digestive and reproductive systems. Also the pro-longed chronic elevation of these hormones can do damage to the heart vessels, blood sugar and suppress immunity.

What are adaptogens?

Adoptogens are plants (herbs) whose bioactive constituents help improve the body’s ability to regulate mechanisms that enable a better response to stress. Adaptogens restore normal tone to the nervous, endocrine and immune systems and therefore help the cells and organs in the body achieve balance or homeostasis. This results in stress protection and an increase in nonspecific resistance and overall vitality.

The word adaptogens may sound like a trendy term because it is relatively new in mainstream Western medicine and it seems to appear everywhere all of the sudden. Although the term adaptogens was coined by the soviet scientist in 1960s, for Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda practitioners, this has been the basis of their preventative practice for centuries. These practices have always employed adaptogenic herbs (or earth matters) that have the ability to tone and strengthen body systems by modulating our stress response or reaction to a changing environment caused by both internal (stress and anxiety) or external stresses (physical pain or toxins).

I like to visualize our bodies being supported by adaptogens to that of robust tree (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) that stands firm in the ground through mild winds and heavy storms (life events) and manages to sway and adjust to these wind stressors without extreme physical exertion that could lead to a collapse or breaking point of the tree. In summary, adaptogens support or strengthen a ”need” in the body, raises energy quotient and overall vitality.

Please Note Adaptogens are not a “cure all” plan. Check with an herbal practitioner for your constitutional make up to determine what is the best support for you at different stages of your life. They should definitely be part of a holistic approach to minimizing stress and achieving a balanced and peaceful living.

Here are a few adaptogens I commonly use and recommend

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) – In Chinese medicine, it is used as a vitality tonic. It is an energy and immunity stimulator and builder. It is antiviral. It is liver protective. It is shown to increase the number of stem cells in bone marrow and lymph nodes and fortify active immune cells. Therefore, it is an appropriate preventative remedy for winter illnesses and for immunity-compromised individuals. It is an adjunctive therapy for cancer and may alleviate side effects of chemotherapy.

Caution astragulus use must be avoided in individuals with acute infection as it may strengthen and worsen the infection. Also, people with autoimmune disease should avoid astragalus.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) - Ashwagandha" is a Sanskrit expression for "smell of the horse.” It is also known as Indian Ginseng. Ashwaganda is considered a rasayana, a rejuvenating tonic in Ayurveda tradition. It modulates stress hormones such as cortisol and therefore may play a role in nervous disorders. It especially useful for boosting sexual desires in men and women.

Borage (Borago officinalis) - It has anti-inflammatory agents that nourishes, renew, revive and tone the adrenal glands. Adrenal glands are also known as the “fight or flight” gland and produce steroids hormones (testosterone, cortisol and aldosterol) and adrenaline and noradrenalin in stressful situations such as simply, our modern day life. Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) in borage relaxes the adrenal glands, minimize their exhaustion and restore normal tone.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) – Chaga has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory content and therefore is body protective and boosting to the body. It has been clinically shown to modulate immunity, reduce tumors growth and prevent proliferation.

Eluethero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus) – Also called Siberian Ginseng, it is a distant relative of Asian ginseng. It appears to have ability to modify the immune response (immunity modulating effect) and supports the immune system and protects against microbes. It helps support the normal function of the body's hormonal stress system. It improves mental and physical performance and minimizes recovery period after stressful event. It is a remedy for muscle spasms.

Fo-ti (he shou wu) - The Chinese nickname for the herb, ho shou wu, literally means "Mr. He's Black Hair," Mr. He being a legend of Chinese emperor who restored his youth and sexual potency by taking Fo-ti tea. Clinical studies show fo-ti as a contributing force against chronic inflammation, insomnia and acute and chronic neurodegenerative diseases. It is also liver protective.

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – Also referred to as "sweet root," In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is used to replenish vital energy (Qi). It is generally used to address adrenal deficiencies. Clinically is shown to boost natural steroid hormones for anti-inflammatory purposes. It is a potent supporter of stomach & spleen functioning and tones adrenals. Shown to inactivate herpes simplex virus due to its ability to stop grown of certain DNA & RNA virus molecules.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) - Builds & strengthens immunity and restores energy. Reishi is a source of immunity stimulating plolysaccharides (chains of glucose units). Nerve cells (neurons) in the brain, spinal cord, and throughout the peripheral nervous system, as well as red blood cells, use glucose for fuel and nourishment. Studies show that reishi is toning (normalizing) & regulating to various cellular functions and vital systems, including the endocrine (hormonal), immune, cardiovascular, central nervous and digestive systems. This immunity normalizing ability can support autoimmune disorders. It also supports the adrenal glands and therefore can have an impact on fatigue, anxiety, sleep disorders and general immunity depletion.

Schisandra berry (Wu Wei Zi (Schisandra chinensis) – Translates to five (wu) flavors (wei) seed/berry (zi), which are sour, sweet, bitter, salty and pungent. These berries tonify and strengthen the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, gonads, and adrenals. It reverses debility cause by a hyperactive sympathetic state by modulating both the immune and endocrine systems to fight fatigue. It is also clinically shown to improve reduced physical and mental performance while calming the nervous system.

Tulsi (Holy Basil) – It is considered holy Indian culture. It is believed to be balancing and purifying to the energy centers of the body, the “chakras.” Holy basil strengthens immunity, supports detoxification of the body. It has an anti-histamine activity. It also mildly reduces bad cholesterol and regulates blood pressure. It is also shown to support normal blood sugar levels.

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