Imagine waking up in a dystopian world where your roasted and rich morning cup of coffee was replaced by a white pill containing 4 cups worth of powdered caffeine. Your daily pleasures taken away, standardized, tasteless: take 3x a day.
We wouldn’t do this to coffee, so why do we do it to other herbs?
In the world of adaptogens, this seems to be standard practice. Walk through most natural food stores and find the aisle dedicated to adaptogenic extracts, tinctures, powders, and pills. You’ll rarely, if ever, see the raw herbs. Part of our mission here at Rasa is to change that.
Coffee tastes great and its main attraction (caffeine) is highly soluble in hot water. Can the same be said for adaptogens? Or are they best suited for standardized extracts sold in pill bottles?
Before the age of isolates and synthetic pharmaceuticals, the most common and traditional way of consuming adaptogens was as a hot water decoction, sometimes simmered for hours.1 All of the common adaptogens are effective as decoctions, though some better than others.
Besides hot water, many adaptogens also have unique culturally derived preparations. Hunters in the deep woods of Siberia have been known to take long swigs of rhodiola-infused vodka. Ashwagandha, a primary Ayurvedic tonic, can be boiled down in a mixture of milk and ghee to make a medicinally potent paste. Both vodka and milk extract different profiles of chemicals from the plants due to the compounds’ varying degrees of water-, fat- and ethanol-solubility.
While the consumption options are many, traditional use of plants respects the synergy of the whole herb, something research is now confirming is a smart idea. Finding the most active constituent and isolating and extracting it often produces an inferior product when compared to consuming the full spectrum of plant compounds.
Bioavailability, for example, is often severely compromised in isolates. It seems that in nature these active compounds often have associated molecules that act as bodyguards, shuffling the MVPs through the threatening gut and safely into the bloodstream.2 Herbalist and educator Lisa Ganora also notes that “time-tested information regarding the safety and efficacy of traditional products may not necessarily apply to contemporary extracts with significantly altered phytochemical profiles.”3
While phytochemistry is a complex and ever-changing field, the research into adaptogens in the last 70 years has concluded that as a class, adaptogens commonly share several medicinal compounds: saponins, immunomodulating polysaccharides, and polyphenols.
Triterpenoid saponins are arguably the main active constituents responsible for most adaptogenic effects. 4 And the good news for those of us with French presses in hand, these triterpenoid saponins are not only readily water-soluble, but can even increase the solubility of compounds that normally don’t dissolve in water!5
The eleutherosides in eleuthero and tangshenosides in codonopsis are two examples of the triterpenoid saponins present in a brewed cup of Rasa. These saponins are the keys to the improved stamina and stress resistance associated with these herbs.
Immunomodulating polysaccharides are a class of water-soluble polysaccharides that stimulate and regulate the immune system. Ganora states: “Adaptogenic herbs are traditionally understood to help maintain health and vitality by increasing resistance to infection and stress, while discouraging the development of chronic disease. Some of this activity can be ascribed to the antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory properties of their polysaccharide constituents.”6
Lastly, polyphenols are well known to all of us as the potent antioxidants found in green tea, wine, chocolate, and all those other fruits and vegetables.7 Over 8000 polyphenols have been identified throughout the plant kingdom, and most found in adaptogens are hot water soluble.
Polyphenols found in Rasa’s rhodiola—called rosavins—contribute the majority of the root’s adaptogenic activity, including increased strength, energy and mental acuity.
While we are clearly building a case for the daily use of your mighty French press, other adaptogenic preparations have their place too! With Rasa, we wanted to formulate a daily ritual built for safety and long-term nourishment, because adaptogens work best in lower doses over longer periods of time.
But we’re also grateful for the high-quality tinctures and extracts on the market, many by friends of ours, that provide potent doses of sustainably sourced adaptogens. These are perfect for acute use, when you need a short-term fix to get through a rough week.
In future posts we’ll delve deeper into the science behind adaptogens, but for now, sit back with a hot mug and let yourself be infused with the knowledge that we’re all part of a long lineage of humans that have used nothing but roots, water, and fire to support health and vitality.
Whether we’re huddled over a clay pot in India, boiling a root-filled stew in China, or percolating 40 oz. of Rasa with a baby on our hip, we’re all in this together.
1 Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Rochester, Vt: Healing Arts Press, 2007.
2 Bone, Kerry, and Simon Mills. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy Modern Herbal Medicine. London: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone, 2013.
3 Ganora, Lisa. Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry. Louisville, Co.: Herbalchem Press, 2008.
4 Panossian, Alexander. "Understanding adaptogenic activity: specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1401, no. 1 (2017).
5 Dai, Xingxing, Xinyuan Shi, Yuguang Wang, and Yanjiang Qiao. "Solubilization of saikosaponin a by ginsenoside Ro biosurfactant in aqueous solution: Mesoscopic simulation." Journal of colloid and interface science 384, no. 1 (2012).
6 Ganora, Lisa. Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry. Louisville, Co.: Herbalchem Press, 2008.
7 These potent antioxidants are actually a subclass of polyphenols called flavonoids. There are many different classes of polyphenols, all producing very different actions in our bodies.