December 10, 2019

Adaptogens: What Are They and Do They Actually Work?

For many of us, life is a journey full of constant battles and hardships. The looming deadlines; working your tail off at work and not getting the praise you deserve; the mounting bills; the kids screaming and dashing from one room to the next. It can feel as though the universe is out to get you.

Now, before you reach for that fourth cup of coffee or lock yourself away from everyone, there’s another way to help your body better handle the physical and emotional stressors that life may throw your way – adaptogens.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are perceived as a gift from nature. These precious little gems are a class of non-toxic restorative herbs and mushrooms believed to help our bodies respond more effectively to all kinds of stressors, whether physical, chemical or biological. Research shows that adaptogens can also help ease depression and anxiety, control blood pressure, increase the body’s metabolism, enhance mental performance, improve focus, and combat fatigue.

For thousands of years, adaptogens have been used as an ingredient in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, and elsewhere in the world. Today, they are used in modern scientific studies and can be added to some foods, teas, and beverages.

But, do adaptogens actually work?

The medical theory is that adaptogenic herbs help restore communication between your brain and adrenal glands. They achieve this by balancing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (AKA the body’s “stress stem”) and the sympathoadrenal system, both of which determine how the body responds to stress.

Adaptogens work by regulating a stable balance in the HPA glands. When we experience stress, our bodies often go through three stages:

  1. The alarm phase
  2. The phase of resistance
  3. The phase of exhaustion

When we encounter a stressor – such as lifting weights or running a marathon – our bodies respond by producing adrenaline to improve muscle performance and to help us concentrate on the task at hand during the resistance phase. Thanks to this extra boost, our bodies can resist the stressor, making us feel more energized and focused. As soon as we enter the exhaustion phase, the fatigue starts to kick in. Once that happens, the adaptogens extend the phase of resistance to help us hang in there for longer.

The body also produces the stress hormone, cortisol, which also produces energy. However, too much cortisol can lead to significant weight gain and other complications. When you reduce stress with adaptogens, you reduce stress hormones and their effects on weight gain.

Also, adaptogens have the potential to indirectly or directly increase mental capacity, enhance attention, tweak hormone production, prevent stress and fatigue, and boost energy levels.

But in spite of that, there are very few scientific studies that have been published on adaptogens. Until sufficient research has been done, it’s too soon to tell whether or not adaptogens have any distinct effects on the body.

What are the best adaptogenic herbs for stress, anxiety and immune health?

Each adaptogen has a slightly different function. As such, the most suitable one for you will depend on the specific difficulty you are experiencing. Here are some common adaptogens and their potential benefits:

Adaptogens for Long-Term Stress

  • Tutsi/Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum): Reduces physical and mental stress, depression and stress-related anxiety.
  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): Reduces stress and anxiety.

Adaptogens for acute stress and anxiety

  • Siberian ginseng: Wards off fatigue, anxiety, depression, and stress and boosts energy.
  • Rhodiola rosea ( rosea): Prevents physical and mental fatigue.
  • Schisandra berry/Magnolia berry (Schisandra chinensis): Boosts mental performance, endurance, and working capacity.

Adaptogens for Immune health

  • Reishi: Enhances the immune system, reduces stress, improves sleep and lessens fatigue.
  • Ginseng: Replenishes energy, physical stamina, and concentration, and promotes overall good health.

How do you incorporate adaptogens into your diet?

You can incorporate adaptogens into your diet by drinking adaptogenic teas or combine tinctures with water. To add them to your foods, you can buy pre-mixed powders to spice up your salad dressings, soups, and smoothies. Aside from that, adaptogens can be taken as supplements/capsules.

If you are going to add adaptogens to your diet or wellness routine, consider talking to a herbalist or doctor to identify the best course so there are no interferences with other aspects of your state.

Do adaptogens have any side effects?

Like any plant, adaptogens can be allergenic or cause gastrointestinal problems for some people. However, there is little evidence to suggest that adaptogens can cause side effects or health-related issues. Again, talk to your doctor before adding adaptogens to your diet or routine.

Verdict

Adaptogens have been studied as a way to improve the body’s ability to respond to stress, increase energy and focus and combat fatigue. Though there is not enough evidence to support those claims, these little plants have been keeping us healthy and thriving for thousands of years and could be a good remedy to the stresses of our busy and demanding modern lifestyle.

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