As people seek non-pharmaceutical treatments, they come across new terminology. Among these terms are words such as nutraceuticals, phytomedicines, nootropics, and adaptogens. People are curious, or even sometimes confused, about what these terms mean.
Nutraceuticals, nootropics, and phytomedicines are all modern ways of saying “herbalism”. Terms such as “plant medicine” or “plant based superfoods” are closer to the reality of it. But what are adaptogens?
In this article, we will focus on the meaning of adaptogen. And focus on how adaptogens fit within Chinese herbalism and classical Eastern Medicine.
Adaptogen Has No Official Definition
Unlike other descriptors for biochemically active substances, such as “endorphin”, “GABA receptor agonist” or even the more broad terms “anti-inflammatory” and “anti-oxidant”, “adaptogen” does not appear to have a single definition.
Cleveland Clinic defines adaptogens as “plants and mushrooms that help your body respond to stress, anxiety, fatigue and overall wellbeing”.
The definition goes on to cite three criteria for a substance to be an adaptogen:
1.) “It is non-toxic when taken in normal doses.”
2.) “It helps your body cope with stress.”
3.) “It allows your body to return to balance (homeostasis).”
UCLA medical school has a similar definition:
“Adaptogens are herbs, roots and other plant substances (like mushrooms) that help our bodies manage stress and restore balance after a stressful situation.”
UCLA lists the same three criteria for inclusion and go on to comment:
“Any kind of stress — physical, emotional, hormonal, and even things we eat and drink — affects the body’s systems. Experts believe that adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which initiates your body’s stress response and plays a big role in keeping your body in balance.”
The definition on WebMd.com states:
“The theory behind adaptogens says they help your body adjust to physical, chemical, or biological stress. They’re thought to stimulate your body’s stress-protection response and help its systems return to a balanced state called homeostasis.”
Adaptogens Work On The Principle of Restoring Balance
The larger concept captured in these various definitions is that the benefits of adaptogens are to help restore balance when one is under emotional or mental stress. As all the above definitions imply, it also refers to any sort of stress that takes you “out of balance”.
From an Eastern medical standpoint, all disease is due to “being out of balance” and all healing is “returning to balance”.
From a Western physiological standpoint, “out of balance” refers to the endocrine system, aka your hormones. The endocrine system impacts all other systems. It controls, or is under the control, of our physical, mental, and emotional activities.
Which Herbs Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens could describe all substances in Chinese herbal medicine. If one were to search which substances are the best or most used adaptogens, the lists of adaptogenic herbs are dominated by plants used in either Classical Chinese or Ayurvedic herbalism.
Adaptogens, therefore, are not part of a new wave of cutting-edge science and technology. Instead they recognize traditions Chinese herbalism established, literally, thousands of years ago.
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