Adaptogens: A Minor Miracle in Functional Medicine

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Adaptogens in Functional Medicine

In the movie The Terminal, Tom Hanks portrays a man stuck in an airport for nine months due to a bureaucratic snafu. He can’t speak English and is left to fend for himself in the international terminal of New York Airport. As the story unfolds, he learns English, makes friends, and finds ways to get food, money, and a home for himself. At times he has only saltine crackers and ketchup to eat. He accepts his situation with a positive attitude.

This movie demonstrates one man’s ability to make life work in the environment he was given: he adapts. Our ability to change is the hallmark of health. In the natural aging process, the body loses its ability to adapt and change readily. People who age well continue to be able to be flexible in their environment.

We always hope life won’t sideswipe us with sudden or unplanned events. Adaptability is more than a mental attitude. It is a physical, mental, and emotional process ruled by the brain and adrenal glands. When the body is under stress, the brain sends out a signal. The adrenal glands then kick in to help the body cope. Aging and stress deplete the adrenal hormones and brain chemistry, making the body less able to adapt to changes in circumstance.

Several traditional medical systems have herbs called “adaptogens” that help the body function better during times of stress and change. Imagine a person whose stressed, over-wrought body is like a dry riverbed full of rocks.  Adaptogens fill the riverbed with water so energy can flow smoothly. The herbs Holy Basil and Ashwaganda come from Ayurvedic tradition. Maca is a Brazilian rain forest herb. Rodiola is from Russia. Astragalus, Ginseng, Shitake, and Maitake are just a few out of several hundred adaptogenic Chinese herbs.

Adaptogens and Aging

There are many ways to treat a person who is suffering from certain imbalances. We can always give medications, or prescribe herbs -which have been extracted from their natural state to have the highest amount of whatever is considered to be the active ingredient – such as ginseng versus ginsenosides.  Each has some quality of the herb but the whole herb is more able to adapt to your requirements than an extracted herb.

Many of these herbs seem to exhibit intelligence in their behavior. They seem to know what the body needs and help it get there. For example, both men and women use Maca for different symptoms of low energy, hot flashes, low sex drive, and sleep problems.

Jane is a postmenopausal woman who has an imbalance in her adrenal glands. Her cortisol and cortisone (adrenal stress hormones) levels are too high, causing anxiety. Her DHEA and testosterone (adrenal energy hormones) levels are too low. She is experiencing fatigue, anxiety, and poor sleep. Holy Basil and Ashwaganda used together help her feel more balanced. These herbs in combination with better nutrition and exercise improved her symptoms within a month.

Jeff took Rodiola to support his body while working long hours at his job. Within a short few weeks, he felt more balanced. Many athletes would have improved endurance from chewing on Ginseng before grueling workouts. In China, older people use ginseng to help them stay young.

Herbs can’t change your personality, but they can help balance your hormones and nervous system so that things will go more smoothly. What would have happened in The Terminal if Tom Hanks had refused to adapt and fought the system? The outcome would have been more like Rambo.


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