What Are Adaptogens?
OTZI & TORTOTUBUS Our mushroom story starts with a gentleman named, Otzi. He lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE. His nickname was given to him bec...
OTZI & TORTOTUBUS
Our mushroom story starts with a gentleman named, Otzi. He lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE. His nickname was given to him because he was found frozen in the Oztal Alps. Some know him simply as Iceman. He is Europe’s oldest preserved natural mummy. And because Otzi was so well-preserved, we know what he was carrying with him when he decided to chill thousands of years. Two of these items were mushrooms. One mushroom was for tinder to start a fire and the other was a medicinal birch polypore used to fight parasites and other infections.
But even before we can go back to a 5,000 year old mummy to provide evidence of man using mushrooms for preventative health, we should commit another name to memory alongside Otzi: Tortotubus
Tortotubus is a fungi and is the oldest fossil of any land-dwelling organism ever found. Tortotubus lived 440 MILLION years ago which hints at predating any animals leaving the ocean for land. And this makes sense because fungi played a key role in sustaining life on land by kickstarting the rotting process. Fertile soil could eventually be built up enabling plants with root systems to establish themselves and eventually support complex organisms.
These events at certain eras in history are important to recognize not only so we can sound smart to our friends, but to consider that there is no more powerful influence on evolution than time. Time has the final say on evolution. If something is on the planet today, it is because time and earth decided it as so. And they decided so from an evolutionary benefit for its part in a sustainable ecosystem. While sun and water are necessary to our survival, fungi was necessary for us to exist at all.
Mushrooms are certainly having their moment in preventative health and the more that they’ve grown in popularity the more opportunities there are for misunderstanding. Mushrooms have been referred to as adaptogens. But mushrooms are not the only adaptogens, and not all mushrooms are adaptogens.
Much like the term “superfoods”, the word “adaptogen” has taken up similar adoption rates and has increased in popularity as a search query. But unlike superfoods, the derivation of “adaptogens'' has a credible origin and is appropriately named. And while “superfood” or “adaptogen” do not have a scientific blessing from a regulating food organization, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Food Pyramid for example, started in Sweden in 1970 because the government there saw a spike in food prices and concocted this idea to promote cheaper, albeit less healthy, options for food. And then the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) copied the approach with the most inaccurate and dangerous infographic ever created. It was used as gospel to “teach” hundreds of millions of people how to “eat right”. We eat our own dog food here at MUD HQ and we challenge you to do your own rigorous research. Be skeptical and well-informed about anything you habitually ingest. Jolly Ranchers are not in fact Jovial Yeoman. Actual mist from the Sierra’s does not contain etheylnediaminetetraacetic acid and Mello Yellow isn’t that chill or that yellow. Be skeptical but be conscious of what has survived. When our ancestors were sick they turned to plants for healing, using knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Currently, ⅓ to ½ of all pharmaceuticals are derived from a plant where we try to isolate molecules and substances without the other holistic benefits of the plants. Be skeptical and err on the side of what is natural and what time has indicated should survive.
WHAT ARE ADAPTOGENS?
You didn’t think you were going to get a history lesson on communist regimes when you clicked a link to learn about mushrooms did you? It’s important to understand why your parents or grandparents weren’t talking about adaptogens in the late 40s and early 50s. The term ‘adaptogen’ was originally established by Nikolay Vasilievich Lazarev (NVL) in 1947. NVL was an outstanding Soviet and Russian scientist-toxicologist. He created the term adaptogen to refer to a substance which was claimed to increase “non-specific” resistance to adverse influences to organism and stress. Stress in this case was defined as a threat to homeostasis. Adapotgens was the term given for the substance that helped return to homeostasis. At the time he created this term and conducted his research, it was guarded as a competitive advantage that could benefit the Allied forces. Can you blame Russia though? Penicillin saved the lives of 12-15% of allied soldiers during WWII. The ability to produce massive quantities of it was only enabled with the use of mushroom spawn.
When non-specific is a good thing
A “non-specific resistance” may sound like it’s a made up word but it is in fact one of the three lines of defense your immune system has against foreign pathogens;
- Physical and Chemical Barriers (Innate Immunity)
- Nonspecific Resistance (Innate Immunity)
- Specific Resistance (Acquired Immunity)
Non-specific resistance is called innate immunity because the body’s natural or innate defense properties turn on when this defense is triggered.
The main defense properties are:
Phagocytic Cells: ingest and destroy all microbes that pass into body tissues
Inflammation: brings white blood cells to the site where it was invaded
Fever: inhibits bacterial growth and increases the rate of tissue repair
Adaptogens Increase “the state of non-specific resistance” in stress. This means that adaptogens help increase the defense against pathogens by making it harder for them to reach what would trigger these defense properties. NVL also helped define adaptogens by three criteria:
- Be non-toxic and generally safe
- Have broad benefits that improve overall immune system strength and not just for one organ or system
- Provide balance within the body
In different settings, other definitions of adaptogens have emerged. As a pharmacotherapeutic group, adaptogens were recently defined as “Herbal preparations that increased attention and endurance in fatigue, and reduced stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the neuro-endocrine and immune systems” This definition was based on evidence obtained from clinical trials, which were evaluated in accordance with the European Medicines Agency Assessment Scale and US Natural Standards Evidence–based Validated Grading Rationale
In summation, NVL’s definition is still broad and covers the most ground. An adaptogen is a substance which was claimed to increase “non-specific” resistance to adverse influences to organism and stress
TYPES OF ADAPTOGENS & THEIR EFFICACY
The list of adaptogens below is not exhaustive. The proposed benefits of these adaptogens is also listed. Given the almost unbelievable benefits proposed, you can see why there is skepticism about the claims.
Amla / Amalika / Indian Gooseberry – Amla has been used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, and scientific studies confirm its many health benefits. Very high in vitamin C and other antioxidants, and has been studied in regards to the treatment and prevention of cancer and has been show effective against diabetes and high cholesterol.
Ashwagandha – Ashwagandha has many similar benefits to ginseng. It is a powerful antioxidant that is beneficial to the cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine and immune systems. It has also been shown to be effective against depression. People in the Himalayas have used Ashwagandha to enhance their resistance to oxygen deprivation. Studies have shown that taking this adaptogen can increase oxygen consumption to improve physical endurance.
Astragalus – Astragalus has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and is sometimes used directly for wound care. It might also have antiviral properties, and has been used to strengthen the immune system. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Learn more. Where to get it.
Bacopa - is also known as brahmi or water hyssop. Several studies show that Bacopa has the ability to regulate cortisol levels during stress, and further, to improve cognitive performance in those facing chronic stress.
Bilberry – Bilberry can be used for urinary tract problems. It can also be used for the respiratory, reproductive and endocrine systems. Both the leaves and fruit are used. The berries are high in antioxidant and can be used for eye disorders.
Chaga - An eastern European traditional folk medicine, chaga can help to address a variety of health problems such as stomach diseases and tumors. Research is now validating this folk remedy, underlining chaga’s many health benefits.
One study found chaga was able to reduce the pro-inflammatory nitric oxide and cyclooxygenase. This could be because chaga is jam-packed with antioxidant power, so it is a super-scavenger of harmful free radicals. Think berries on steroids!
Chaga has also been shown to fight off viruses. In one study, the water-based extract of chaga exhibited antiviral activity against common viral infections such as the flu. This superfood medicine was also shown to have immune balancing effects as well. If all that wasn’t enough, research has also shown chaga to be a cancer killer. Certain cancers of the liver, lung, and brain, were all decreased with chaga.
Cordyceps – This adaptogen is a medicinal mushroom that has been used for centuries to enhance immune function. When animals received a cordycepin supplement, it reduced depression symptoms and lowered their stress markers. The animals also showed higher levels of the growth factor BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) after taking the supplement.
Dang Shen – Also known as codonopsis, dang shen is one of an adaptogenic herbs said to strengthen your ability to defend against high levels of stress, anxiety, trauma and fatigue. It has also been studied as a reducer of colon inflammation and has a long tradition in Chinese medicine.
Elderberry – Elderberry is high in antioxidants and Vitamin C. Studies show it can reduce fevers and support the immune system.
Eleuthero – Eleuthero is used to help reduce the body’s stress response. It also strengthens the immune system and increases endurance and stamina. It is also sometimes called Siberian Ginseng.
Ginseng – Ginseng is the most common adaptogen. It is a root that has a long list of potential benefits. It can be anti-cancer, anti-fatigue, anti-inflammatory, and helpful in both cancer and diabetes treatments. There are many different forms of ginseng. The most common is form is Panax or Asian.
Guduchi – Used traditionally for thousands of years in Ayurveda in India for its detoxifying, rejuvenating, immune-boosting properties. It has been studied for cold and flu prevention, immune support, skin disorders, arthritis, liver disorders, gout, and even to mitigate the negative effects of chemotherapy.
He Shou Wu – This herb used in traditional Chinese medicine has neuroprotective properties, and is used to treat the liver, kidneys and blood, improve energy, and has been said to even reverse gray hair.
Holy Basil / Tulsi – Holy basil is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial and one of the mildest adaptogens. It has been used for 3000 years to treat circulatory, immune, and nervous systems. It has also been used in cancer treatments with success. Holy basil also helps with memory and concentration. Studies show that it helps the body maintain stabilize the stress hormone cortisol.
Jiaogulan – This has a popular name of “the immortality herb”. Also known as gynostemma, it’s a Chinese plant in the cucumber family that has been used for several thousand years. The leaves are used to make tea. Studies show that this herb has many of the same benefits as Ginseng. It has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, stabilizes blood sugar and improves immunity.
Licorice root – Licorice root can affect blood pressure and should be used only under the supervision of a doctor. It has been shown to increase energy and endurance in addition to boosting the immune system. It is used for stress reduction. Licorice root protects the thymus gland (which produces T cells for the immune system) from being damaged by cortisol, the hormone that is elevated due to stress.
Lion’s Mane - king of neuroprotective mushrooms. Nerve Growth Factors (NGFs) found in this mushroom have the ability to regenerate and protect brain tissue. So far, about a dozen studies have been published on the neuroregenerative properties of lion’s mane. One small-scale study gave patients four 250 mg tablets containing 96 percent mushroom powder three times a day for 16 weeks. Those who took the lion’s mane powder showed significantly increased scores on the cognitive function scale compared with the placebo group.
Lion’s mane has also been shown to be beneficial for people struggling with anxiety and depression. Post-menopausal women who consumed lion’s mane baked into cookies showed less anxiety and depression and also had better concentration in just four weeks.
Lycium / Wolfberry / Goji Berry – Lycium contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory carotenoids, flavonoids. It supports healthy vision and healthy bowel flora. It is also said to support the liver, kidney and can strengthen weak muscles and ligaments. Lycium polysaccharides support the immune system and have been shown to enhance the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
Maca – Maca is known as “Peruvian ginseng,” although it is nothing like ginseng. It is a root that reportedly increases strength, stamina and libido.
Reishi – Reishi mushrooms are the most well known medicinal mushrooms. They can help in the treatment of fatigue, respiratory complaints, cancer, heart disease and liver ailments. They are also regarded as general immunity boosters.
Rhodiola – Rhodiola is used for a wide range of issues, including like most adaptogens, strengthening the immune system. It is also used to restore balance in blood sugar and helps with fertility. It boosts alertness, lessens fatigue, and combats depression. One of the most encouraging clinical trials for depression was using Rhodiola as the treatment. In the trial overall depression, together with insomnia, emotional instability and somatization, but not self-esteem, improved significantly following medication, whilst the placebo group did not show such improvements. No serious side-effects were reported.
Schisandra – also called wuweizi by the Chinese. It is most commonly used as a tonic. Schisandra protects the liver from toxins and is used for respiratory problems. It can also improve memory.
Shatavari – This herb is considered the queen of herbs. It’s used as a tonic primarily by women. It is believed to increase fertility.
Suma – Suma can be purchased in a capsule form or as a dried herb powder. People often refer to suma as Brazilian ginseng. It is commonly used to boost energy. It is used to prevent fatigue and boost immunity.
These adaptogens are all natural, have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and are flourishing now not because of a green light from the food pyramid or from pharmaceutical financial incentives but from surviving through millions of years of evolution.