A plant that can give you a boost of energy, or help you relax? It sounds almost too good to be true, but some plants do possess the amazing ability to adapt to exactly what our bodies need at the time. These are called adaptogens - and there are plenty of reasons why you might want to add them into your diet.January 22, 2021 3:09 pm June 07, 2020 3:00 pm
What is an adaptogen?
A Russian scientist, Lazarev, coined the word ‘adaptogen’ in the 1950s. The term brings together plants and herbs that have been used medically for many, many thousands of years. However, they never really got the recognition they deserve in the West – until recently.
In short, an adaptogen is a compound which can intervene in the stress reaction and alter it.(1)
However, there are a few more criteria that a plant must meet in order to be called an adaptogen.
- Firstly, adaptogens must work in a general way, rather than acting only on specific symptoms. In other words, they must be able to help ward off stress from any type of source. This includes environmental stress, physical illness, unhealthiness and even emotional stress caused by interaction with others.
- Secondly, adaptogens must be able to help people get back into ‘balance’, or retain your sense of healthy equilibrium.
- Lastly, adaptogens must not affect or disrupt the other functions of our bodies.
The definition has since been altered and sometimes expanded. However, these are the characteristics which are central to adaptogen classification.
How do adaptogens work?
The human body reacts to stressors by first raising an alarm. This sets off a hormone called cortisol.
Let’s say you’ve just heard a piece of alarming news: your department at work is making cuts.
Cortisol prompts the fight-or-flight response and other related responses. These include increasing your heart rate and blood pressure; you’re feeling panicked that your job might be on the line.
Next comes the ‘resistance’ stage. It continues to fight off stress for a prolonged period. During this stage, you might be trying to remedy the source of your stress. For example, you might try to find out more about the job cuts in your department, start looking for other jobs, or speaking to your manager.
If you can’t find a resolution to the issue, your body keep on in the resistance stage for a long period of time, and the cortisol keeps coming. This can be harmful if it continues for too long.
That’s when the exhaustion stage kicks in. This is just what it sounds like. Your immune system suffers. You are left without energy. In our job-related example, this is the point at which flop onto the sofa at home, feeling more upset and helpless than anxious about the job cuts.
In serious situations, depression and anxiety may come into play.
Adaptogens and stress
Stress is normal and necessary. However, we live in chaotic times. Our bodies experience increased stress.
This stress may come from situations which we struggle to adapt to emotionally and mentally.
However, there are also physical stressors in our environment, such as toxins from pollution, cigarette smoke, and even in our food. While they might not cause you to feel stress, they put stress on important bodily functions.
When physical and emotional stress become too much, we can lapse into a state of semi-permanent exhaustion. We feel rubbish, our immune defences are down and we’re tired all the time. In common parlance, we’re really stressed out.
Adaptogens can help increase our resistance. They work by decreasing the severity of our initial ‘panic’ response, and lengthening the amount of time we can stay in the resistance stage. In short, they help us deal more calmly with situations of stress.
Where do adaptogens come from?
Ayurvedic and Chinese healing has long featured adaptogens. Fascinatingly, many of the plants that give us adaptogenic substances are tough survivors themselves.
For example, ashwagandha is an important adaptogen which stands up to drought and lives in areas where the soil is often bone-dry and without nutrients. Other plants would struggle to survive. However, ashwagandha is more resilient than most; a quality it passes on to people who take it!
What’s the scientific evidence for adaptogens?
There has been some research into adaptogens. However, as with so many traditional or herbal remedies, they haven’t yet got the attention that conventional drugs have. The studies we do have need to be backed up with more research, conducted in a scientifically rigorous way.
That said, there is increasing scientific interest in these traditional remedies. For instance, the World Health Organisation has approved the use of traditional medicines to support immunity and treat various diseases.
More and more scientists are currently investigating adaptogens. We’ll discuss the evidence we have as we look at each different type of adaptogen. The best type of adaptogen for you will of course depend on the symptoms you want to target.
Adaptogens for short term stress and anxiety
A study looked into the effects of Siberian ginseng, rhodiola, and schisandra on short-term stress and anxiety.(1) All three have a “beneficial stress-protective effect” at the molecular level.
Moreover, all seem to help regulate homeostasis. This means they restore the natural equilibrium of the body.
In addition, these herbs appear to support focus and stamina in situations where stress-related fatigue kicked in. Long-term disorders triggered by stress were also reduced.
A systematic review of research into rhodiola (also called golden root) found that a majority of the studies supported the positive effects of rhodiola on mental fatigue. However, a lack of accurate measurements for fatigue in two of the studies meant that these findings were inconclusive.(2) In still another study, participants exhibited a significant decrease in professional burnout symptoms after taking rhodiola.(3)
Rhodiola isn’t a new discovery. In fact, Russian scientists were investigating it back in the 1970s, in the hope that it would help soldiers stand up to brutally cold temperatures and exhaustion. They also thought that rhodiola might benefit athletes headed for the Olympics. Sadly, the results have been lost; we can’t help but wonder what they were, given that this application of adaptogens would still be incredibly useful today.
Adaptogens for immunity
Reishi mushrooms seem to impact white blood cells in diverse ways. White blood cells are central to the immune system, helping to combat disease and infection.(4)
Another type of mushroom, shiitake, also provides a powerful boost for your immunity. For instance, a study indicated that eating two dried shiitake daily contributed to a drop in inflammation and improved immunity.(5)
Why are mushrooms so good for immunity? It could be down to a special polysaccharide found in the cell walls of certain fungi, called beta-glucans. One of their many positive effects on our health is their ability to modulate our immune system.(6)
The mushroom family is such a great source of adaptogens that we’ve written a special Erbology guide to medicinal mushrooms where you can find out about the different mushrooms and their effects. Alternatively, you can also take the hard work out of investigating immunity-boosting mushrooms by opting for our Immunity Blend powder, which features eight powerful ‘shrooms.
Aside from mushrooms, the traditional Ayurvedic preparation of triphala also supports immunity.
Triphala is a mixture of Indian gooseberry, chebulic myrobalan, and beleric myrobalan. All of these ingredients are also immunomodulatory on their own. Together, they make a powerful trio to protect your immunity.
'A study observed many different healing compounds within triphala, including phenols, flavonoids, ellagic acid, and more. All together, these compounds contribute to the healing properties of triphala.(7)'
- Aloe vera health benefits, from Alexander the Great to the 21st century
Adaptogens for long-term stress
Short-term stress and long-term stress are related. However, their effects on the body are different.
Even though it doesn’t seem to last as long, chronic stress can also have long-term effects. For instance, your heart, muscles, blood pressure, and breathing mechanisms may be forced to intensify at all times to combat chronic stress.
Research has looked into how adaptogens like holy basil, known as ‘tulsi’ in the Ayurvedic tradition, may be helpful.
Scientists observed that regular consumption of holy basil may enhance calm and mental and emotional clarity.(8) No wonder tulsi is “a goddess incarnated in plant form” in Ayurveda!
Other adaptogens to try to include ashwagandha, one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda. In a study which looked at 64 subjects with chronic stress, those given ashwagandha showed a substantial decrease in all stress-related indicators.(9) Ashwagandha is a great example of how a herb can adapt to your body’s needs: it’s able to calm and soothe or energise you depending on how you’re feeling when you take it.
Asian ginseng was also looked at alongside five other adaptogenic plants in a study. It was found to have the most success at reducing symptoms of chronic stress.(10)
Adaptogens to improve brain function
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a growth hormone within the brain. Decreases in BDNF link to age-related decline in workings of the brain. Lower levels of BDNF also connect to diseases like Alzheimer’s, and perhaps depression, too.
Studies have looked at the effect of curcumin (found in turmeric) on the brain. They found that it was able to combat decreases in BDNF, improve spatial memory and lessen oxidative damage in the brain due to ageing.(11)(12)
Goji berry is another powerful adaptogen supporting brain function. Chinese medicine has considered goji berries to be a brain tonic for many hundreds of years, so we are a little ‘behind the times’ with goji in the West!
Studies have looked into how the antioxidants in goji berries are neuroprotective. For example, one study found that goji berry juice improved brain performance. While promising, this study only looked at a very small group of people. To confirm the result, we’d need more research on a larger group of participants.(13)
Is it safe to take adaptogens?
If you take prescription medicine, you should ask your doctor about taking adaptogens. Herb-drug interactivity is a real and scientifically observed phenomenon. It may be dangerous.(14)
If you are planning to try adaptogens, you should also remember to rotate them every six weeks.(15) That way, you can take advantage of the different benefits that each herb will offer you.
Just as many people drink caffeinated beverages in the morning, stimulating adaptogens should be taken early in the day. That way, they do not interfere with sleep.
Use of adaptogens while pregnant is generally not recommended. However, adaptogens may help restore the body in the weeks after birth.
Make sure you’re sourcing your adaptogens from a reputable supplier, and that they are organic. If you’re taking adaptogens for your health, it makes sense to ensure that they are not tainted with chemicals, preservatives or pesticides.
How do I take adaptogens?
How you take adaptogens depends on the adaptogen and its form. There are traditional ways to take specific adaptogens. For instance, a “moon-milk” made from ashwagandha is drunk before bedtime by many children and older people in India.
Adaptogenic powders are very flexible and convenient; you can add them to smoothies and soups or your favourite recipes. You can easily use holy basil, along with many other adaptogenic herbs and foods, in your cooking, as it has a lovely, peppery flavour. It also makes a lovely tea, as do many other herbal adaptogens.
Adaptogenic mushrooms are also best taken in hot drinks. Hot water draws out valuable beta-glucans within the fungi. Why not try our delicious mushroom hot chocolate recipe? You can use any of our adaptogenic mushroom powders to make it.
While adaptogens are great for helping you navigate stressful periods, remember that they are not a cure-all. To take good care of yourself, and help your body cope with the stresses of normal life, you should use them to complement a healthy diet, exercise and high-quality sleep.
Combinations of adaptogens are regularly given in Ayurveda, and adaptogenic herbs are often blended in teas or cooler drinks.
At the core of Ayurveda is the belief that “food is medicine and medicine is food.” Ayurvedic thought also holds the conviction that “when diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; when diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” That has new significance in our world.
As the world’s oldest healing tradition, Ayurveda has influenced others, such as Chinese medicine. In TCM, or traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners combine herbs and create specific formulas for each individual.
Age, gender, temperament, dryness of skin, energy levels, and many more factors will be considered. Synergistic blending, or how the herbs work together rather than the characteristics of individual herbs, will also come into play.
Today, Western society is still figuring out how all these wells of knowledge about adaptogens come together in contemporary lifestyles. However, both ancient and contemporary wisdom; both traditional medicine and science point towards adaptogens as a deeply valuable tool to wellbeing.
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