This week is all about adaptogens – what they are, how they work, how they help and how to effectively use them.
Adaptogens are herbal compounds that have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine or ayurvedic treatments, however in Western culture these were introduced relatively recently. During World War II, adaptogens were tested as a way to combat stress, exhaustion and maintain alertness in pilots, without the use of stimulants.
Adaptogens help your body adapt to physical or psychological stress on a cellular level. It is not clear but appears that these plant compounds interact with the main stress response center, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
A good example is cortisol, which is our “go-to” response for stress. When we are repeatedly stressed, this is where the cortisol is unabated and we go into a systemic inflammatory response, which wreaks havoc on our immune system, potentially negatively affecting our thyroid and adrenals. This “fight or flight” response has also known to affect our digestive system, can cause us to gain weight, break out, and lose our sex drive. Yikes!
Most diseases have inflammation at their root, and adaptogens reduce inflammation. What isn’t clear is exactly how each individual adaptogen interacts on the cellular level, or if it is a combination of adaptogens that creates the benefits.
There are indications that the adaptogenic chemical compounds found in plants and usually taken in a capsule form, help to promote sleep, boost our energy, and increase athletic performance. Adaptogens are a way for the body to compensate and counter stresses and maintain homeostasis.
Some of the identified and utilized adaptogens are:
Curcumin – the claims for this compound found in the turmeric root have plenty of research to back it up, including managing inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, anxiety and muscle soreness.
Ashwagandha – Indian ginseng root which has been studied for decades for its effects on cortisol, internal stress response and stress tolerance, all indicating positive response using this adaptogen.
Cordyceps – yep, mushrooms. Again promoted as a way to increase immunity and performance. If you have tried Four Sigmatic mushroom coffee as a replacement for your regular brew, you may have seen these claims. Reishi, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms are fungi that also have antioxidant properties and are nutrient rich. All reduce cortisol levels.
Ginseng – Panax (Asian) is the most potent and has been shown to increase calmness, improve memory and treat fatigue in those who suffer from a chronic illness. It may also reduce fasting blood sugar levels and help with weight loss in newly diagnosed diabetics.
Rhodiola rosea – also known as “golden root” it actually increases the stress when taken, allowing one to boost the stress defense, which in turn creates an “anti-fatigue” response in those with stress-related fatigue.
Holy Basil (Tulsi) – an anti-aging supplement, part of Ayurveda medicine, has been promoted as an anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, blood pressure reducer. It is touted to fight bacteria, reduce pain response and promote immunity.
Licorice Root – helps regulate hormone levels related to stress and can help to prevent ulcers, and can increase energy, boost the immune system and support gut health.
Astragulus Root – rich in polysaccharides, saponin, alkaloids and flavonoid compounds, that are known to boost immunity. It has positive effects on blood sugar levels and is used in Chinese medicine regularly for its antimicrobial properties.
Maca Root – Peruvian root that contains many nutrients including copper, potassium, iron and vitamin C and anthocyanins, which have shown to be protective against certain chronic disease.
Schisandra Berry – or magnolia berry. Again used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years to boost endurance and mental performance.
You have probably also seen some food products that are infused with adaptogens, such as MUD/WTR coffee substitute or Vybes and Kin Euphorics nonalcoholic drinks. You can actually get your adaptogens from real food, like the turmeric root, and mushrooms. Adaptogens typically come in capsules, tinctures and powders. However, it is recommended that you seek out high-quality, organic supplements and keep your initial doses low.
And they are not to be taken long-term and should be rotated every couple of months to get exposure to multiple compounds. If you are pregnant, adaptogens are not recommended. For safety, check with your doctor before taking adaptogens, which may, because of their unique properties, interact with other medications.