Adaptogens and Kava. How nature fights stress.

Adaptogens are a phenomenon. First of all, the phenomenon of nature: plants with unique properties, often hidden in inaccessible places and surrounded by an aura of wonder, for thousands of years used and deemed invaluable in ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (although reserved mainly for rulers and elites – these herbal potions used by, amongst others, Genghis Khan). On the other hand, adaptogens are also a modern health phenomenon: safe support of the body in even the most demanding conditions, until recently used almost exclusively by astronauts or Olympians, today gaining widespread popularity around the world.

Adaptogens fascinate researchers and users. We are most fascinated by the question: is Kava an adaptogen?

Definition of adaptogens. Nothing easier! And nothing more difficult at the same time.

Simply put, adaptogens support adaptation processes. When we are exposed to stress, when we face hostile conditions, danger or exhaustion, our body always naturally strives to “adapt” and regain its internal balance, that is, homeostasis. Adaptogens, among other things, support and balance the body’s response to stress (e.g. supporting a stable hormonal balance, normalizing reactions), reducing sensitivity to stress factors, prolonging the phase of immunity or strengthening the stress-weakened body, immunizing it against diseases.

At the same time, the effect of adaptogens escapes pharmacological or clinical categories and terms. It is too broad, often too difficult to measure and not specific enough to be included in medical textbooks. On the other hand, kanon plants forming adaptogens is still open and constantly discussed. New research is also emerging on the homeostatic properties of specific plants; Kava and its kavalactones are a great example here. Despite these difficulties, science is still trying to define or categorize adaptogens and describe the framework for their unique properties.

The term adaptogen was first formulated in 1940 as part of N. Lazarev’s research on Chinese magnolia-vine (Schisandra chinensis). According to the definition proposed at the time, adaptogens of plant origin must meet the 3 basic criteria.

By neutralizing the effects of stress (physical, chemical, or biological), adaptogens act non-specifically. Their impact cannot be attributed to specific reactions of specific organs. After all, the body does not adapt to exceptional conditions in a fragmented way, but holistically, always striving for a state of full balance. And so we come to the next point.

Adaptogens support the achievement of homeostasis of the body, i.e. their function is to balance and counteract disorders caused by external stress. Importantly, adapting the body to stress is a process rather than a sharp, short-term state of arousal, such as caffeine.

Finally, and most importantly: adaptogens cannot harm the normal functions of the body. Although at this point there is a somewhat abstract, Hypocrateian principle of “first of all do no harm”, this is all very practical: adaptogens cannot be toxic. They must not have side effects or cause addiction. They must also not cause over-stimulation and normal perception and reactions of the body must remain undisturbed.

Is Kava an adaptogen?

Kava’s abilities fit perfectly with the above criteria. In situations of physical or emotional stress, Kava’s roots help the body regain its inner balance and adapt. They reduce anxiety and muscle stiffness, neutralize defensive reactions, support regeneration (especially during sleep), calm both the body and mind, without interfering with cognitive functions. Kava works truly universally and holistically. Suffice to say that the traditions of the Pacific islands have been widely used as a tonic in the treatment of infections, combating muscle and menstrual pain, insomnia, but also a number of psychological problems disrupting the balance of the body.

On the other hand Kava is not (yet?) mentioned among the narrow group of the most well-known adaptogens, like Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Chinese magnolia-vine (Schisandra chinensis), Ginseng (Panax ginseng), Mountain Rosary (Rhodiola rosea), Gotu kola (Centella asiatica), Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), Waterhyssop (Bacopa monnieri) or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus).

It is the plants indicated above that have primarily shaped the modern understanding of adaptogens; thanks to research into their properties, we can today identify some common, adaptive patterns of action.

Effects of adaptogens

Physiologically speaking, the body’s basic adaptive processes are associated with a system called the HPA axis, namely the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. In the adrenal glands, hormones are produced that are crucial for the response to stress (so-called stress hormones, e.g. cortisol, active in situations of struggle or flight, as well as affecting the functioning of the immune system). Primarily this area is actively supported by adaptogens.

Specifically, the action of selected adaptogens can also be indicated in the below examples:

– help with hormonal processes,
– support of the immune system,
– support of thought processes and cognitive function in stressful situations,
– better energy and efficiency (in situations of stress-induced weakness),
– improvement of well-being, reducing the effects of depression,
– help with maintaining normal blood sugar levels (stress-impaired),
– antioxidant potential.

The effect of adaptogens can be compared to strenuous exercise. Physical exertion is a stress for the body (e.g. a reaction to exhausting resources, especially when exercising rarely or not at all). Regular exercise, however, allows us to better cope with the effort: we get less tired, control the heart rate, etc. Using adaptogens is like “training” the body to better cope with the negative effects of stress (metaphor of Dr. Brenda Powell, Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine, Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute – Time).

Before stress and the associated effort come, before our body takes the trouble to adapt to new conditions and restore balance, we recommend “practicing ” inner peace over the Kavaha bowl.

Ps. You don’t have to be an Olympian for this!


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