Adaptogens & Immunity
As we cross through the brilliant hues of aspen, maple, and birch to the stark beauty of their naked silhouettes, the smell of wood smoke starts to scent the air. While we kindle fires at home, how can we also stoke our inner vitality for the cold months ahead?
Now, you may be drinking Rasa more as the weather gets colder, but there’s an even better reason to continue your ritual as we enter the flu season and the holidays. Did you know adaptogens are incredible allies for the immune system?! The story of how adaptogens influence immunity starts with one word:
That’s a mouthful, I know. But in essence, this new field of research is examining how profoundly our mood, stress levels and immunity are intertwined in a complex mind/body dance with the world. Once we start to see the impact stress and mood have on our immune system, we can understand how adaptogens may be even more important than classic herbs like echinacea when it comes to gracefully entering flu season. As with most herbs, adaptogens don’t just work through one simple mechanism but rather interact with many different networks in our bodies.
Here are four ways adaptogens can support us this winter:
1. Adaptogens balance the stress response. Chronic stress—a modern epidemic—leads to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol suppresses immune function, impairing our ability to effectively fight off pathogens. Adaptogens have a balancing effect on cortisol and can bring levels back to a healthy range.
2. Many adaptogens are immunomodulators. Adaptogens like eleuthero, ashwagandha, rhodiola and reishi have the ability to regulate our immune system. So not only do adaptogens affect our stress hormones, but they also can work directly with our immune system and start reversing the immunosuppression caused by stress.
3. As immunomodulators, adaptogens act bidirectionally—revving up a depressed immune system or calming down an overactive one. Have you ever gone through an acutely stressful situation only to come out the other end and immediately get sick? This is called the Let-Down Effect. Whether it’s finals week or prepping for the holidays, acute stress can actually have an overly stimulating effect on the immune system. When the stress is over, our immune system swings from overreacting to overrelaxing, leaving us vulnerable and prone to sickness. Immunomodulators can smooth these swings out, giving us a much more stable immune system. We want our defenses cool and collected, not alternatingly trigger-happy and depressed!
4. Adaptogens increase production of immune cells, including specialized cells like natural killer (NK) cells as well as T and B cells. These cells are vitally important to the strength of our immune system and regular intake of adaptogenic herbs may help keep immune cells at ideal levels.
While we’re still discovering the exact mechanisms of action, the fact that these herbs are powerful immune tonics has been no mystery to traditional cultures. Rhodiola, for example, was popular during cold and wet Siberian winters, and eleuthero is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for cold and flu prevention.
As we enter the winter season with these herbs as our allies, we walk an old path of botanical biodiversity, enriched and invigorated by the plants in our lives. Remember, these are complex interactions we’re initiating, and while we’ll start to feel results within a week or two, long-term use works best for a strong and adaptive immune system.
About the Author
Ben LeVine is a Boulder-based herbalist and educator with a background in the international herb trade.
Fun Facts about Ben: He teaches several classes at the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism, used to buy 10 million pounds of botanicals a year, and is on the path to completing a MSc in Therapeutic Herbalism.
At Rasa, Ben is our resident herbalist. He handles All Things Herbs, and nurtures a culture with a passion for plants as medicines and spirit guides.