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What is an Adaptogen?

Adaptogen; Ayurvedic; Ashwagandha. Do these words mean anything to you? Until recently I hadn’t even heard of these words, let alone knew what they meant, so I decided to do a little research. Ashwagandha is a plant, the root and berries of which are used for medicinal purposes. Ashwagandha is one of many medicinal herbs that fall under the category of Ayurvedic Medicine, which is commonly practiced in India and is considered an alternative or supplementary form of medicine. Ashwagandha is also considered an Adaptogen, which is a “metabolic regulator which increases the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors” (from Wikipedia.)

Ashwagandha, also known as winter cherry or Indian Ginseng, has been used for arthritis, stress, trouble sleeping (insomnia), tumors, tuberculosis, asthma, a skin condition marked by white patchiness (leukoderma), bronchitis, backache, fibromyalgia, menstrual problems, hiccups, and chronic liver disease, among other things, according to Ashwagandha has also been thought to be helpful as an anti-inflammatory, as well as possibly improve one’s thinking ability and preventing the effects of aging.

According to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website, lab studies have shown that Ashwagandha may be helpful in combating some cancers. They say that Ashwagandha was shown to reduce “the level of an important antioxidant in tumor cells, which may enhance the ability of radiation therapy to kill those cells.” In addition, they claim that studies found Ashwagandha “kills some cancer cells and enhances some immune cells possibly by damaging the cancer cells' ability to generate the energy it needs to reproduce.” While more testing is needed in this area, the studies done on animals and in labs definitely show promise.

The Sanskrit meaning of the word Ayurveda can be translated to be “science or wisdom of life.” Ayurveda has been practiced for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Ananada Chopra, in the book Medicine Across Cultures: History and Practice of Medicine in Non-Western Culture, talks about the 20 qualities that serve as a framework for diagnosis, therapy and dietetics within the world of Ayurvedic Medicine. He says “the principle is to treat with opposite qualities.” These qualities are:

Heavy / Light
Cold / Hot
Unctuous / Dry
Dull / Sharp
Stable / Mobile
Soft / Hard
Non-Slimy / Slimy
Smooth / Coarse
Minute / Gross
Viscous / Liquid

On the website, Edward C. Wallace, N.D., D.C., says “An adaptogenic substance is one that demonstrates a nonspecific enhancement of the body's ability to resist a stressor.” Don’t think you have stress in your life? According to “Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.” These stress related ailments may include: weight gain, headaches, increased blood pressure, chest pains, and insomnia, among other things. We may not even realize we’re under stress, attributing our symptoms to illness, but here are a few common effects of stress (as found on the website):

Common effects of stress...

... On your body
Muscle tension or pain
Chest pain
Change in sex drive
Stomach upset
Sleep problems

... On your mood
Lack of motivation or focus
Irritability or anger
Sadness or depression

... On your behavior
Overeating or under eating
Angry outbursts
Drug or alcohol abuse
Tobacco use
Social withdrawal

Since stressors are all around us every day, wouldn’t it be nice to have a little help in resisting them? Enter a group of adaptogenic herbs, known for their ability to help the body regulate and deal with stress. says “the original definition Adaptogens are non-specific remedies that increase resistance to a broad spectrum of harmful factors “stressors” of different physical, chemical and biological natures” – Ashwagandha is one of these Adaptogens. A few other common Adaptogens include: Siberian ginseng, Suma, Licorice root, and Rhodiola rosea. In addition to using Adaptogens to help deal with stress, you can also start a number of other things to decrease the stress your body is feeling. Yoga, regular exercise, and meditation are just a few simple things that can help you manage any stress related symptoms you may be suffering from.

Even if you think you aren’t stressed, pay close attention to what your body is trying to tell you. Sometimes seemingly simple symptoms can end up causing more major problems. As always if you are concerned about symptoms you are suffering from, consult your physician before starting or adding any supplements to your routine.

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