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The term “adaptogen” refers to any of several herbs that are taken internally to assist the body in responding to stress, whether physical or emotional. (Image: Rebecca Mongrain/Seattle Refined)

Adaptogens are hot right now - but what the heck are they?

Adaptogens are hot right now among healthy living bloggers and Instagrammers. Everyone seems to be adding some hot new herb or natural medicine to their daily matcha lattes and smoothie drinks. These herbs might sound trendy but they’ve been around for centuries.

But what exactly are adaptogens? How are they used? Why would you add them to your morning drink?

Seattle Refined reached out to naturopathic doctor Teresa Neff, ND, CLE and licensed acupuncturist and east asian medical practitioner, Nikki Wolf, LAc., EAMP for some answers on what adaptogens are and why we should take them along with their proper use.

Seattle Refined: First, what exactly are adaptogens?
Teresa Neff: Basically adaptogens are a family of herbs that are used to support immunity. They also help the body cope with, “internal (such as hormonal imbalances) and external stressors, aid in the body's recovery from illness, injury, or exercise, and boost mood (in the cases of anxiety or mild depression) and energy (to name a few things!),” informed Wolf.

“You could consider an adaptogen as a general health tonic,” added Neff. “The popular adaptogens, by common name, are Eleuthero / Siberian ginseng, American ginseng, Ashwaganda, Rhodiola, and Schizandra. Adaptogens as a whole help the body resist infection, stay energized and vital, and can help ward off the effects of stress such as fatigue, poor mood, and problems with blood sugar regulation.”

Secondly, why take adaptogens?
Adaptogens are traditionally used to ease chronic stress and can help with hormonal imbalances. They can help ease disrupted sleep, increase energy levels and mood levels.

“If you’re the person who meditates daily and exercises five times a week, and breathes through any and all stressors without internalizing any of it, then you probably do not need to take an adaptogen,” said Neff. “For the rest of us, they may help improve energy levels, mood, libido, overall health and vitality, and resist illness, both acute and chronic, all by assisting the body in its stress response.”

What are the downsides to adaptogens?
Neff emphasized that adaptogens and other herbs are medicine and should not be taken without a qualified health care practitioner’s guidance.

“They, like all medicines can cause side effects and can interact with other medicines,” Neff said. “One notable example is Eleutherococcus senticosus, commonly referred to as Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng, which is a very commonly used herb. Eleuthero should not be used by people with high blood pressure or during acute infections (per Francis Brinker, ND in Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions); nor should it be used for prolonged periods of time. It may also interact with several different drugs.”

Wolf agreed and suggested that anyone interested in exploring herbal treatments consult with a naturopathic doctor, like Neff or an trained herbalist.

Are Adaptogens safe to use during pregnancy and while nursing?
“Moms and moms to be certainly suffer from a hearty dose of stress. Adaptogens can help decrease the side effects of motherhood, especially fatigue,” said Neff. “Most adaptogens are safe for use during pregnancy and nursing, however, as noted above, herbs should never be taken without the supervision of a qualified health care practitioner.”

Why shouldn’t I treat myself based on what I’ve read?
"Primarily because herbs, like any medicine, can be dangerous," warned Neff. "However, there’s another reason that is often overlooked. Herbs are complicated, and have multiple properties. One adaptogen may also be a galactagogue, which means it can increase a nursing mom’s milk production, while another may be particularly suited to someone suffering from dream-induced restless sleep, and still another works wonders on pregnancy-induced swelling. Only someone versed in herbal medicine knows which herbs, in which preparation, to use in which person, and how to dose them."

Further reading on Adaptogens:

  • Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth by Sharol Tilgner, ND
  • Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine by David Hoffmann, FNIMH, AHG