The Beginner’s Guide To Adaptogens For Stress Relief And Adrenal Support

Heather Dessinger

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Adaptogens that help the body adapt to stress and support sleep

The mysterious ancient pyramids of . . .Khafra and Menkaure probably don’t affect your daily life, but there are a set of pyramids that most definitely do. They’re called the adrenals, and they’re pyramid-shaped glands that sit just above the kidneys. These little powerhouses secrete hormones that make us resilient during times of stress and/or busyness, which is super important for those of us who . . . um . . . breathe.

Whether it’s a sleepless night, illness, surgery, stress at work, meltdowns at the store with a toddler, financial pressure, or just a go-go-go season of life, we all go through times that require a lot of our adrenals. Ideally, are able to rest between these experiences so that they can recover – similar to the way muscles do after a workout. In real life, that doesn’t always happen.

As I shared in this post on Dr. James Wilson’s at-home test for assessing adrenal fatigue, my default approach to life is to DO ALL THE THINGS. Sometimes that leads to amazing experiences, and sometimes it gets me in trouble.

Last year, I started noticing that I wasn’t bouncing back from stressful experiences like I used to. I knew my adrenals needed some TLC, so I experimented with a lot of suggestions and eventually shared my top fifteen tips for helping the adrenals thrive.

In this post, I’m going to expand on tip #4 – using adaptogens. We’re going to talk about what they do along with safety considerations for pregnant/breastfeeding moms.

What are adaptogens?

Unlike caffeine, which is a stimulant that encourages a specific response within the body, adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt to stress by nudging it toward balance. To put it a different way, if caffeine is like a map from point A (sleepy) to point B (alert), adaptogens are more like a GPS system that figures out where you are and helps you get where you need to go (balanced).

Now, you may be thinking,”Eh, balance. Are we talking about that woo stuff that will happen to me after I learn how to shine my collarbones and relax my spleen?”

I’ll admit that’s pretty much how I felt when I first looked into them, but after reviewing the research I was blown away by how they’re different from other herbs. Here’s the best way I can describe how I experience them: Sometimes life feels like trying to hold on to a firehose that’s going full blast – it’s intense to say the least. Adaptogens have a grounding effect, almost like adding weights to my body while I hold the hose so that I have more stability and control.

Adaptogens For Stress, Sleep, and Mood Support

Adaptogenic Herbs For Adrenal Health

If you’re new to adaptogens, here are some tips I picked from various herbal books that you may find helpful:

1. Most adaptogens can be used as single herbs, many herbalists prefer to blend them together to create a synergistic effect. While some herbs cancel each other out when taken together (for example, a stimulating one with a sleep promoting one), I believe all the ones listed below are considered compatible with each other. One herb – licorice – is safest when used in small amounts and blended with other herbs.

2. Although some herbs, such as eleuthero, can be used safely for extended periods of time, many herbalists recommend rotating the adaptogens used every couple of months. Fortunately, most herbs are very affordable, and there are quite a few to choose from.

3. Some herbs may interact with medications, so please check with your doctor before consuming a new herb if you are taking medicine. (You can also check the Botanical Safety Handbook for information on potential contraindications – it’s an incredibly helpful guide.)

Adaptogens During Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

Some adaptogens have long history of use by pregnant and breastfeeding women in traditional cultures. For example, maca is a staple in the diet of pregnant and nursing Peruvian women, where it is believed to support fertility along with the health of mothers and their babies. (source 1, source 2, source 3)

However, it’s important to clarify that having “no identified concerns for use during pregnancy and lactation” does not imply that an herb has been studied and shown to be safe.

Certain herbs – such as eleuthero and Panax ginseng – were recently classified as “safe herbals” for pregnancy in a multinational study that examined herbal products taken by expecting women. (source) But again, opinions vary on this subject and some practitioners advise against using adaptogens due to a lack of formal research.

Regarding the general use of herbs – not just adaptogens –  midwives I have spoken with usually recommend avoidance in the first trimester unless:

  1. The herb is needed to support the woman through a particular issue, like nausea.
  2. The herb has a record of safety during pregnancy when used appropriately and the woman is taking it under the supervision of a qualified professional.

Please seek the input of a qualified healthcare practitioner before introducing any new herb.

Safety Class 1A Adaptogens

According to the Botanical Safety Handbook: 2nd Edition, Safety Class 1A adaptogens can be described as:

“Herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately.

  • History of safe traditional use
  • No case reports of significant adverse events with high probability of causality
  • No significant adverse events in clinical trials
  • No identified concerns for use during pregnancy or lactation
  • No innately toxic constituents
  • Toxicity associated with excessive use is not a basis for exclusion from this class
  • Minor or self-limiting side effects are not bases for exclusion from this class”

Here are some of the Class 1A adaptogens thought to be most beneficial for adrenal support:

Safety Class 1B Adaptogens

Astragalus Root – This adaptogen has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It supports immune function, energy levels, and hormone balance. New research suggests it may also have anti-aging properties. Safety Class 1B herbs are the same as Class 1A, except that they have properties which may alter how medications affect the body. Interactions have not been proven, but they are biologically plausible. For example, astragalus is not recommended for individuals who are taking immune suppressing drugs because it may counteract them.

Safety Class 1C Adaptogens

Schisandra Berry – Called the “five flavors fruit,” this berry has been traditionally used by Siberian hunters to support energy and stamina. Newer research also suggests that it’s helpful for optimizing immune function. Safety Class 1C herbs are the same as Class 1A, except that they have properties that are known to alter how medications affect the body. In the case of schisandra, WebMD says that schisandra may speed up how quickly some medications are process by the liver.

Safety Class 2B/2D Adaptogens

  • Ashwagandha – Considered beneficial for sleep and adapting to stress – that’s my kind of herb! However, it is not recommended for pregnancy due to conflicting reports about whether it may act as an abortifacient. With regard to breastfeeding, ashwagandha has long been used in the Ayurvedic tradition to support lactation. (Source: Botanical Safety Handbook: 2nd Edition) Read all about ashwagandha here.
  • Licorice root -Considered a harmonizer, or an herb that brings the properties of other herbs together in a formula. It is not recommended during pregnancy, and there are other guidelines regarding its use that need to be considered. Learn more about licorice here.

Unclassified Adaptogens

Unfortunately, no reliable information is available about the safety of rhodiola rosea for pregnant/breastfeeding moms, so avoidance is recommended.

Other Lifestyle Tips

For more information about supporting the adrenals, don’t forget to check out this post.

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Adaptogens For Adrenal Support

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Heather is a holistic health educator, herbalist, DIYer, Lyme and mold warrior. Since founding in 2009, Heather has been taking complicated health research and making it easy to understand. She shares tested natural recipes and herbal remedies with millions of naturally minded mamas around the world.