Herbal Action: Adaptogenic

Herbal Action: Adaptogenic
American Ginseng ( Panax quinquefolius )

American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

When I began to seriously study herbs and herbalism it was with the desire to make medicines using the plants I grow on my own property, medicines that will aid in comforting myself as well as those I love. I was immediately overwhelmed with scientific and/or unfamiliar terminology. In an attempt to better understand these terms, I decided to write about each one, defining it in as many ways as possible. As I synthesize myriad definitions from multiple sources, I will relate them to the plant allies I am growing, harvesting and working with..reinforcing my studies.

 The term adaptogenic is unique to herbal medicine. In fact, some websites I visited to learn more about the term appear to dismiss it altogether, as if to invalidate the concept. Those websites are focused on commercial medicine and big pharmaceuticals, of course.

An adaptogen, is defined by James Green, Director of the California School of Herbal Studies, as:

Adaptogenic or hormonal modulating action increases the body’s resistance and endurance to a wide variety of adverse influences from physical, chemical, and biological stressors, assisting the body’s ability to cope and adapt.

Okay…so what does this mean? Well, I’ve selected four words that stick out to me - resistance and endurance, cop(ing) and adapt(ion). And on a very basic level, it seems to me that for a plant to be considered adaptogenic, it must provide perceptible, ongoing health benefits to the individual.

It also seems to me that the individual will (upon beginning the regimen) recognize he or she is benefitting from additional support - which he or she was previously lacking (before use of the adaptogenic plant).

And…and, maybe I am being too literal here…it seems to me that any non-toxic plant that provides support to an individual, allowing him or her to either relax and shake off stress or get up and go, and keep go, go, going to complete a desired task or reach a goal - would that plant not be of the adaptogenic sort?

I suppose - and my reading supports this - adaptogens are considered the most efficient at doing this, safely and holistically…and, it is only those plants that are specifically labeled with this action.

Catherine Guthrie, in her article, “Ancient Healers: Adaptogens,” clarifies the criteria required for a plant to be considered adaptogenic:

First, it’s nontoxic, meaning it’s safe for everyone.

Second, its benefits are nonspecific, meaning it improves the entire body’s resistance to stress, not just one particular system or organ.

Third, it balances bodily functions, regardless of where the disruption may originate.

Adaptogens have been used for hundreds (if not, thousands) of years - the term, however, was coined in the 1940s (by a scientist in the USSR, whose research was furthered in the 1960s and 1970s). And while many plants are capable of say, relieving tension or providing energy, not all have the overall benefits of those few plants that have most recently been labeled adaptogenic by the herbal community.

In my garden…

When reading about adaptogens, the herb most commonly mentioned is Ashwagandha. Ginseng, too. And, holy basil is included on every list. Of the plants I grow on my 6,686 sq ft property, most are native to Pennsylvania or the U.S.; many of the adaptogenic herbs are not. Of the few I grow, I am more concerned about being a steward of their well-being, and so I will probably refrain from harvesting any of them for myself. I would rather support their good health. ♥

Jessica Allen explores the fields and forests of Pennsylvania with her artist-husband, Michael Allen, and their son, Benjamin. She shares her observations through words and pictures of everyday magic and beauty she sees in her world.