What are Adaptogens and What Do They Do?

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What are Adaptogens and What Do They Do?

Adaptogenic Herbs

The name gives it away: to help you adapt.

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"Hack your stress and sex with these seven adaptogens."

"Calm your nerves and invigorate your mind!"

"Herbal pharmaceuticals to boost your mood, increase your mental focus, and regulate your hormones."

Nowadays there are a lot of claims floating about surrounding adaptogens and how they can benefit your life.

New potions and elixirs popping up left and right, adaptogenic lattes making an appearance on all the trendiest menus in town, and Instagram celebs repping their favorite tonics. What should you believe?

First Off, What is an Adaptogen?

The term adaptogen refers to a class of herbal plants or fungi (mushrooms!) that helps the body acclimate, or adapt to stressful situations.

In order to be considered an adaptogen, these herbs must satisfy the following criteria:

  1. They must be safe for general consumption and non-toxic to the body's normal physiological functioning
  2. They must have broad health benefits
  3. They must assist your body in fighting the effects of stress, both mental and physical, thereby helping you to return to a natural state of equilibrium1

With adaptogens currently occupying such a high trend factor, it would be easy to believe these herbal wonders are new to the health and wellness scene.

Au contraire!

Much like chia seeds, quinoa, and green tea, adaptogens have been in use for centuries. Eastern medicine and Ayurvedic tradition, especially, have a rich history of incorporating adaptogenic herbs in their healing customs.

How do Adaptogens Work?

In endeavoring not to take the internet's word at face value let's get a little nerdy. Because, as it so happens, there's increasing scientific evidence that adaptogens do exactly as they're touted to.

Adaptogens are beneficial because they promote homeostasis by supporting proper function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA).2

The HPA, also fondly known as the body's "stress system," is responsible for regulating stress hormones, like cortisol, and, ultimately, the entire nervous system.3 

One of the ways in which adaptogens ease stress response is by stimulating the expression of Hsp70 and Hsp72, two "stress sensor" proteins. Hsp70 and Hsp72 help to mediate stress response by interacting with the stress-activated enzyme c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase, or JNK for short.2 This interaction lowers cortisol and increases concentration, endurance, and performance, especially during times of exhaustion.2,4

JNK is a stress-activated protein kinase or a SAPK, that plays a roll in everything from gene expression, to cell death, to energy production.5,6 When left unchecked–like when we're overly stressed, for example–JNK signaling has been linked to neurodegeneration, chronic inflammation, and cancer.7

Additionally, JNK decreases the production of energy providing molecules (ATP, if you want a little Biology 101 throwback) which causes proteins not to function correctly at the cellular level and fatigue to ensue.