What is an adaptogen?
An adaptogen is a natural substance, typically a plant or herb, that helps the body adapt to various stressors, both physical and psychological, and maintain balance or homeostasis. Adaptogens have a broad-spectrum effect on the body, exerting a non-specific influence on multiple organ systems and physiological processes. They help the body adapt to various stressors, rather than targeting a specific condition or symptom. They have been shown to directly affect the HPA axis (The HPA or hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is a pathway the body uses to process stress and keep us adaptable), by regulating the secretion of stress hormones, such as cortisol, and help restore the balance of the stress response system.
What is a tonic herb?
A tonic herb is generally the exact same thing as an adaptogen. An adaptogen is a Westernised term for what tonic herbs are to the Taoist tonic herbal system.
Tonic herbs were first mentioned in Emperor Shen Nong's Classic of Herbal Medicine, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, around 2,000 years ago. This text (also known as the Divine Farmer's Materia Medica) was a culmination of thousands of years of traditional herbal wisdom from the many healers in ancient China.
Many well-known herbs feature in Shen Nong's text, and he classifies herbs according to three distinct categories - Superior, Regular & Inferior herbs.
Superior herbs (also known as imperial herbs) - these are herbs that can be consumed daily with benefits accumulating over time. They were used daily by the wisest and wealthiest people, including the Emperors. These are the ones we love to work with. We call them tonic herbs. Or Taoist tonic herbs, if we're being specific, though some Ayurvedic and Western herbs are also ‘tonic’.
Regular herbs - these are the herbs that can treat the ailing. These herbs should not be used for an extended period as there is a potential for long-term negative side effects.
Inferior herbs - these herbs are primarily considered to be toxic. Inferior herbs should only be used for a short period to get a powerful and fast result when treating a serious illness acutely.
By definition, a tonic herb:
- must not cause harm or place additional stress on the body
- must promote healing within the body via a non-specific action
- must be adaptive in nature, assisting the body to overcome any physical, psychological or environmental stressors.
How to start working with adaptogens and tonic herbs
1# Do your research
Read up on different adaptogenic and tonic herbs and their own unique health benefits. On a foundational level, they all do the same thing but some herbs such as reishi mushroom or ashwagandha may have more of an affinity to the nervous system, whilst you may be looking for a herb that also supports your Lungs which in that case may be cordyceps or astragalus!
If you want to dive a little deeper into tonic herbalism, we have an article 'The Two Sides of Tonic Herbalism' you can read.
2# Ease into it
Start slow and work your way up until you find, what we like to call your ‘sweet spot’. This allows you to develop an understanding and acknowledgment of how the herbs are unfolding their medicinal magic for you. Of course, depending on what herbs you are using, it’s always best to refer to the recommended dosage range. If you have a more complex health condition then we also recommend working with a practitioner who can provide guidance and support.
3# Be consistent
Tonic herbalism is all about consistency, with benefits accumulating over time. Longevity in the practice cultivates longevity in the body, and as long as you are taking the herbs they will be working their magic for you. This is the same for adaptogens too.
We’re all about consistent action taken with intent, with space left for your health to unfold in a way that is unique to your own individual life path.
4# Listen to your body
It’s easy to get so symptom-focused that you don’t see the subtle changes that are unfolding. We recommend keeping track of how you are feeling (this can be jotting down a few words in your notes app or daily journaling) and then every few weeks reflecting on how you are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. Rating different your energy, sleep, stress levels and emotions out of 10 is a simple way to do this.
5# Be patient
To round out the last two points, it may take some time to notice the benefits of adaptogens. Give them time to work and be patient with the process. Each experience is very subjective as we all have unique body systems, so there is no cut-and-dry answer to when you will see results. When you experience results will depend on your level of internal awareness, constitutional sensitivity, and current health condition.
At the end of the day, the herbs you don’t take won’t do anything for you. So if you’re feeling called to work with adaptogenic and tonic herbs, then trust that your body will guide you towards the one that feels the most aligned. I hope this helped and that you are feeling inspired to get on the herbs!
To learn more about adaptogens and tonic herbs, tune in to these SuperFeast podcast episodes.