What is an adaptogen, and why do you need to understand them?  Adaptogens are herbal plant compounds that induce adaptation and survival during that plant’s oppression. That can be anything from poor soil, industrial waste, construction, poor sunlight, freezing conditions, etc. Have you seen the inspirational quote about survival with a photo of a flower growing in the middle of the street? Well, that flower had a butt-load of adaptogenic compounds.  So these compounds can also provide similar benefits to us during critical stages of stress, whether we are suffering from the loss of a loved one, enduring unusually long hours at work while juggling home life and other commitments, we’ve hit the skids due to overtraining in the gym, or are recovering from a bad infection. Whatever it may be, we have a lot to benefit from using these herbal compounds to help maintain and/or restore homeostasis and spark some anabolic rejuvenation.  

Categories of Adaptogens


There are two types of adaptogens:  functional and reproductive. Functional adaptogens ensure the survival of any living organism while the Reproductive adaptogen enforces and promotes the survival of the organism’s genetic material (preventing extinction and all that jazz). 


Functional and primary adaptogens can be accompanied by another category of helpful herbs, that enhance their helpful powers.  Think of it this way: combining adaptogens can provide you with a balanced system of adrenal support, but adding in one or two of the enhancing counterparts is like giving each adaptogen a shot of espresso. 


Primary adaptogens:

  • Rhodiola
  • Ashwagandha
  • Ginseng
  • Eleuthero


Secondary adaptogens:

  • Holy Basil
  • Licorice Root
  • Oat seed
  • Reishi


Enhancing counterparts:

  • Elderberry
  • Ginger root
  • Turmeric 
  • Green tea
  • Rose Hips


So as you can see, each adaptogen plays a specific role, and sometimes taking rhodiola on its own is helpful, but it’s good to know how something like licorice root can benefit you (or not), and whether or not it would be a good idea to add in some green tea or turmeric to your diet to give those other adaptogens a super boost.   Nomsayin?


Who Benefits from Adaptogens?


Well, we would all benefit from taking any one or combination of herbal adaptogens due to the level of stress that impacts any average human living in a modern society. However, we shouldn’t have to depend on popping a pill everyday, whether homeopathic or pharmaceutical, in order to help us deal with stress, grief, or trauma. In certain circumstances, though, it’s a good idea to take a holistic approach to dismantling (or preventing) the negative, rising effects to your body and each of its systems when you enter a particularly stressful stage or event in your life.  Examples would be:  


  • death of a loved one
  • divorce, or intense relational conflict
  • an exceptional load of work at the office
  • conflict with career or in relationships that cannot be resolved immediately
  • starting a new business
  • moving  across country
  • traveling abroad
  • holidays with in laws (wink)


Divorce, death and moving are three things that have remained, historically, in the top 5 most stressful events a person can go through in their lifetime. I did not list birth or illness because humans are built to withstand these stressful events, just like any living thing. We have the ability to adapt and become stronger when exposed to certain levels of stress or adversity.  See:  Homeostasis, and Hormesis


The thing is, we all stress and we all go through phases in our lives that are more hectic than others.  These phases can last anywhere from six days to three years! It all depends on the kind of stress and whether or not you’re actually doing something about it.  


Herbal Adaptogens Are Not a Crutch!


I’m going back to what I mentioned earlier.  Every human (every living thing) contains the physiological and biological means to adapt to certain levels of stress or resistance. We never would have evolved without it. Nothing would have. Animals, plants, ocean life. Nothing would exist if we didn’t have a functional capacity to adapt. It’s how we survive.  Get stronger.  Evolve. 


However, I’m confident to make a point here by suggesting (or, possibly, stating a fact) that evolution of all living things didn’t come with a magical biological adaptation function for divorce, debt, politics, traffic, technology, radiation, chemical pollution, pharmaceutical drugs, riots & protests, war, sexual abuse or violence (to name a few).  


We have created a lot of ugly in this lifetime, which should make us all recognize the following:


There are two kinds of stress:  the stress we cannot control, and the stress we can control…

  1. Things that we cannot control, are usually the things we are biologically built to naturally adapt to; illness, death, temporary hunger, injury, etc. 
  2. Things that we can control, are usually the things that we push our physical bodies to the limits with by testing how far we can continue to hurt ourselves without suffering a very long, painful, slow death;  hate your job, news stories about violence and trauma and conflict, politics, shitty diets, drugs, alcohol, sleep deprivation, abusive relationships- you name it. But on top of all that crap- we tack on stress we think is good such as exercise, dieting, or volunteering for every well-intended, philanthropic thing thrown our way, thinking those things will counteract (or soothe) the other stresses, when in reality- it just compounds the load even more. What else can we control? The way we perceive, think, and respond to stress

We should focus on learning how to limit our exposure or experiences to the stresses that we can control because no amount of drugs, pills, herbs or flowers will sustain us through chronic, self-inflicted stress.  

For instance; if you’re going through a traumatic divorce, in massive piles of debt, have a sick child AND you have to take care of your aging parents…. it’s probably not a good idea to join a CrossFit box and do 6 WODs a week, or sign up to run a marathon.   Do you get me?

  1. We cannot read educational or informational articles, such as this one, and take away from it that popping some herbal or homeopathic adaptogens will save us from drowning in the deep abyss of modern stress- and thus assume we’ll prevent or reverse adrenal fatigue and burn-out, as well as every other stress-related disease (which is all of them).  
  2. We must learn how to manage and/or change the behaviors that inflict stressful resistance & adversity to our mind, body and spirits.  Only then, can we truly receive the benefits of herbal adaptogens.  We must strengthen our bodies to withstand unavoidable stress while learning to make conscious decisions in controlling and avoiding those which cause us mental, emotional or physical harm; be it physical activity, dietary choices, or staying at a job you hate.  It’s that simple.  (no it isn’t)   Yes. It is. 


Manage Your Stress, Then Take Extra Steps to Support Yourself


We limit nature’s built-in defenses by adding things not designed by nature.  Nature didn’t design the stupid shit we put ourselves through.  We are made to withstand stress and we SHOULD allow ourselves (and our children) to be exposed to certain levels of stress so we can become stronger, better, healthier.  


So if you can begin checking off items such as watching the news, listening to sensationalized talk shows or partaking in unhealthy, stressful conversations, or giving yourself to people who drain you of energy and happiness, avoiding debt collectors while on your way to another WOD, or going out in search of that dream job and just making it happen instead of sitting on your ass everyday bitching about the one you have- then you’ve got a good shot at experiencing the amazing benefits in temporary use of HA’s.  


Summary:  If you live a fairly conscientious lifestyle and apply mindful practices to limit or manage your modern stress exposures, but begin to feel the tightened grip of temporary high loads of mental or emotional triggers against your body-  then taking any one or combination of adaptogens will certainly benefit you and provide you that extra fighting chance to get to the other side.  It will provide you with an umbrella when it starts raining.   But an umbrella won’t save you if you’re walking in quicksand.   

Cliff Notes:  Try herbal adaptogens but don’t depend on them.


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