How Adaptogens Can Boost Immunity, Sleep and More, From a Doctor

|Updated Dec 9, 2021
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By now you have surely heard of adaptogens, but why are they so critical for overall health and wellness? From immune function, to sleep, to weight loss and more, adaptogens—while you may just be hearing about them now—have been used in Chinese medicine for over 10,000 years. We caught up with Dr. Jenelle Kim, Doctor of Ancient Chinese medicine (DACM) and founder and formulator of JBK Wellness Labs, and chief formulator at Hülsa Wellness.

Dr. Kim has been researching and experimenting with adaptogens long before they became a buzzword and exploded onto the scene. She’s also the keeper of her family’s formulas that have been handed down in her lineage from generation to generation—Chinese medicine and adaptogenic formulation is practically in her DNA. Below, Dr. Kim shares critical adaptogen knowledge, and answers one of our burning questions as the holiday flu season approaches and everyone is doing their best to stay healthy as the pandemic proliferates: Can adaptogens boost immunity and help keep you healthy? If so, which adaptogens provide immunity-boosting benefits?

The Beet: In simple terms, what are adaptogens?

Dr. Jenelle Kim: Adaptogens are unique from other substances in that they have the ability to balance the immune system and the endocrine system and they help the body to maintain optimal homeostasis. Adaptogens work at the cellular level to improve the function and vitality of every cell in the body, thereby increasing the health of the entire organism.

By definition, adaptogens are natural substances that:

  • Are entirely safe and have no negative side effects.
  • Stimulate the body’s own self-regulation process and they increase the body’s non-specific resistance (ability to cope with external and internal stress).
  • Normalize functions of the bodily systems, improving a wide variety of conditions and aggravating none.

TB: What do adaptogens have to do with Chinese medicine?

Dr. JK: For centuries adaptogens have been used to combat stress, mental and physical fatigue, and to minimize tissue damage resulting from free-radicals that our bodies are exposed to on a daily basis. Adaptogens are noted for having the broadest-spectrum healing properties. They are protective and increase an individual’s resistance to chemical, physical and biological stresses.

Adaptogens normalize and balance the body’s functions particularly in the face of stress. Some adaptogens benefit specific systems while others have a systemic effect. They powerfully support the immune system and regulate cell metabolism. Centuries ago, East Asian soldiers took adaptogens before going to battle and monks used them to survive when food was scarce.

TB: Why now are adaptogens coming onto the scene and gaining popularity?

Dr. JK: In Traditional Oriental Medicine, herbs such as Ginseng, Stephania, and Astragulus have been used for centuries, however, it was not until after World War II that top Russian scientist, Dr. N.V. Lazarev coined the term “adaptogen” to classify these specific herbs that help to increase health and the body’s natural resistance. One of Lazarev’s students, Dr. Israel Brekhman recognized that these rare botanical herbs with adaptogenic characteristics survived through the ice ages by flourishing and adapting in even the most severe living conditions.

Based on this principle, Brekhman believed that these herbs possess qualities that could help our bodies adapt to the changes and stresses of modern-day life. According to research, adaptogens are unique from other substances in that they have the ability to balance the body’s immune and endocrine systems while helping the body maintain optimal homeostasis. With a team of 1200 biologists and physicians, Dr. Brekhman investigated and analyzed adaptogens and paved the way for over 3000 different types of experimental studies and clinical trials. These studies revealed the extraordinary immunity-building and stress-protective capacity of adaptogens.

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TB: Tell it to us straight, what are some of the main effects and benefits of adaptogens?

Dr. JK: A few of the main effects of adaptogens include:

  • Antioxidant effects that inhibit free radicals from adversely affecting cell membranes
  • Ability to help the body rebuild damaged muscle tissue
  • Increased endurance
  • Increased availability of energy throughout the day
  • Reduction of stress feelings
  • Deep and restful sleep
  • Greater mental alertness
  • Ability to facilitate the formation of proteins
  • Significantly elevate recovery process after physical activity and illness

TB: People are concerned about staying healthy now, especially as the winter season sets in. Are there any immunity-boosting adaptogens people should consider taking?

Dr. JK: There are a number of adaptogens that are important for immune function.

Ginseng (Ren Shen) is known to: Have immune-enhancing effects; improve the ability to withstand stress; increase work performance and quality; enhance mental function; and decrease fasting blood sugar and body weight. Also, the Saponins in Ginseng lower cholesterol and protect against atherosclerosis, and influence the endocrine system (increases release of ACTH, which stimulates adrenal glands and their activities and increases circulation).

Astragulus (Huang Qi) is known to: Increase circulation and boost vitality; enhance immune function by increasing natural killer cell activity and enhancing macrophage activity; enhance recovery after illness, disease, or prolonged stress; and increase Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).

Schisandrae Chinensis (Wu Wei Zi) is known to: Counter the effects of stress and fatigue; have normalizing effects in cases of insomnia and neurasthenia; improve mental coordination and alertness; improve work efficiency, physical endurance, and quicken reflexes; stimulate non-specific immunity, and have an antibiotic effect.

Licorice Root (Gan Cao) is known to: Have anti-inflammatory effects due to its high concentration of saponins; enhance immune function; have an antibiotic effect and have anti-allergic, anti-toxin, and anti-neoplastic effects

Radix Polygoni Multiflori (He Shou Wu) is known to: Increase circulation and boost vitality; have a cholesterol-lowering effect; eliminate toxins; prevent premature graying of hair. And, have anti-aging effects (as studies show that He Shou Wu retards the aging process).

TB: You recently partnered with Hülsa Wellness, a company focusing on CBD and cannabinoid products—and you have a pretty extensive background with CBD. Set the record straight: is CBD an adaptogen?

Dr. JK: CBD and other cannabinoids (which are compounds extracted from the hemp plant) are technically not classified as adaptogens, but CBD does have similar properties. While CBD works on your Endocannabinoid System (ECS) to help balance a variety of processes, it serves a specific function in the do adaptogens. Both are plant-extracted, all-natural, and again serve a very specific function to help maintain balance in the body from the inside out. With CBD and adaptogens working similarly, there is potential that they enhance the effects of the other when taken in combination.

And, I would like to remind you that sleep is the keystone to everything from immune system function, to keeping hunger and weight in check. Sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Many people are realizing that there are natural alternatives to medication and pharmaceuticals.

As an example of what modern science and ancient medicine are doing these days, in working with Hülsa Wellness, the first product I helped formulate was the Sleep Tincture. Combining CBD and CBN (two critical cannabinoids extracted from Hulsa’s organic hemp, farmed in Colorado), synergistically blended with a proprietary adaptogenic herbal formula, BiBong® (my family’s recipe, passed down from generation to generation), you get a synergistic effect with the most powerful cannabinoids to help put you to sleep and stay asleep, along with adaptogens used for centuries.

The adaptogenic blend of herbs consists of Jujube, which is known to be rich in vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. It contains two types of phytochemicals—saponins and flavonoids, which trigger changes to neurotransmitters, including GABA and serotonin, which can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. This incredible herb is known to help promote sleep and relaxation and reduce stress. Biota Seed is another powerful herb that is known to nourish the heart and calm the mind, while helping to promote restful sleep.

Schisandra is a powerful adaptogen that is very effective as a sleeping aid and works well for those who wake frequently in the night. Hoelen Mushroom (or Poria Cocos) is known as one of the most important and well-known Traditional Oriental Medicines (TOM) that has been used for centuries to help in treating a range of sleep imbalances; this powerful adaptogen truly helps to calm restlessness and ease tension. So you can see that there are many powerful adaptogens, and cannabinoids (like CBD and CBN).

TB: There are lots of products these days claiming to be packed full of adaptogens, from power bars to alcohol drinks. Is paying a premium for products “with adaptogens” worth it? Any tips for adaptogens or do’s and don’ts when buying products?

Dr. JK: As discussed earlier, adaptogens are very powerful and effective ingredients to incorporate into your daily regimen. However, it is vital to remember that when taking adaptogens or any herbal or active ingredient is so important to take it within a proper formulation where ingredients are fully understood and combined synergistically with one another (by way of quality, dosage, and extraction method for example).

This is a fundamental principle of herbal medicine and one that not every company takes into consideration. In fact, this is one of the main “secrets” that has been passed down through my lineage for centuries from generation to generation. Proper formulations of synergistic ingredients lead to greater delivery of the ingredients within the body, increased bioavailability, and decrease of any possible side effects or imbalanced effects from any one particular ingredient. So, be sure to look for products—dietary supplements to skincare—that are manufactured by reputable companies and who have experts who understand each active ingredient and who understand formulation.