The Role of Adaptogens

Nature’s botanical bounty helps our bodies maintain a natural balance

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Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic Ayurvedic herb associated with reducing stress and improving wellbeing.

They may not have used terminology like “adaptogens,” but even the most primitive humans recognized the healthful benefits of indigenous herbs and roots.

“The beautiful thing about adaptogens is that they are nontoxic substances produced in nature,” says Dr. Glen Nagle, an herbalist, educator and lead naturopathic physician with Herb Pharm in Williams. “They don’t treat illness, but they do balance and support healthy immune systems and help stabilize our bodies response to the stresses of life.”

Adaptogens provide support in a multitude of ways. They can regulate hormonal imbalances, help the body recover from illness and heal from surgery, and can be effective in treating heart, lung and digestive problems. They stimulate the activity of our immune cells and counteract the damaging effects of stress hormones like cortisol.

“Whether you’re tired or you’re more wired, adaptogens regulate the body and bring it into balance,” explains Dr. McClane Duncan, naturopathic physician and director of Siskiyou Vital Medicine in Medford. “These botanical substances contain natural components that allow the body to become normalized or deal with stress better than it typically does.”


Russian scientists first used the term “adaptogen” in 1947 while studying the effects of ginseng on human performance, which they found improved the physical stamina, mental clarity and productivity of their workers, athletes and cosmonauts.

“When I say adaptogen, I get a blank stare,” says Duncan. “Most people don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. But when I mention licorice, they might recognize that it soothes the throat. And people eat shitake mushrooms all the time, but they don’t know it is an adaptogen.”

Duncan says adaptogens are often prescribed in support of the adrenal function, which influences how we handle the stress that comes along with our daily activities. “I use them daily,” he states, adding that his top three choices are ashwagandha, eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), and oplopanax or devils’ club, which grows here in the Northwest. “Ashwagandha is a tonifying herb that is good for energy production,” Duncan says. “It helps us by lowering stress hormones like cortisol. It also helps modulate the immune system. For people who are getting sick frequently, feeling run down, have low energy or are feeling anxious, ashwagandha is standard treatment in terms of the herbal formulations that I create.”

Siberian ginseng is used for cardiovascular conditions, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, flu and respiratory ailments. Devil’s club is used for treatment of respiratory ailments, digestive disorders and a variety of other conditions including influenza, measles, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and rheumatism.

Know what you’re buying

Nagle cautions that when it comes to buying supplements, standards vary greatly, so check labels and ask questions. “Food and Drug Administration manufacturing practices can be very broad in terms of establishing how much testing is required, so ask about their methods for quality assurance,” he recommends. “You want to know if it’s certified organic, farm-grown or crafted out of the wild. You want to know the ratio that tells you how strong it is and whether it’s fresh or dry. Look for contact information as well as an expiration date. And know that when there is sourcing from around the world, especially Asia, there can be heavy metals contamination.”

With liquid extracts, he says, look for the common and the botanical name of the specific plant part. For instance, a very specific lobelia can be used as medicine, but it is not the same as the lobelia in the garden. “You want to make sure that the part that is extracted is the root, the rhizome, the leaf,” he says.

The popularity and longevity of herb use throughout the world seems undeniable evidence of the healing power of plants. The World Health Organization now estimates that 80% of the population relies on herbal medicines for a supportive role in their primary health care.

“I think people should realize that while adaptogens are helpful, herbs can only go so far without treating the underlying causes of things,” Duncan notes. “Nutrition is also very important for the adrenal glands and the thyroid, so it helps to bring adaptogens into our food like shitake mushrooms or using rosemary as a tea or on roasts. Eating healthy fats and minerals help us build a foundation for good health.”

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