If you’ve ever jumped into the realm of herbal medicine, you’re no stranger to adaptogens. Realistically, you’ve probably at least spotted them in your local supplement aisle, among vitamin C and other traditional vitamins. So, what makes them different? Adaptogens are active substances often discovered in herbs, plants, and mushrooms that assist your body in combating fatigue, tension and stress.
As you’d expect, adaptogens are generally found in nature; and their use in many different cultures dating back thousands of years in traditional herbal medicine. However, formal research on how herbs and plants could increase stamina (and survival) was conducted in the 1940-50s, and adaptogens as a term was officially coined by Soviet toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev.
While adaptogens are naturally occurring, that hasn’t stopped the health and wellness industry from harnessing their powerful benefits. It’s common for adaptogenic compounds to be created in a lab in order to replicate their naturally occurring benefits. Because adaptogens have been found to improve mental capacity, especially when faced with stress or fatigue, this is a powerful selling point for today’s consumer. Many people are looking for something to help them with their energy levels, mental focus and managing inflammation, often in an attempt to avoid traditional pharmaceuticals in the process.
Think of adaptogens as that little extra “oomph” you need to push through your work assignments or manage a stressful time in your life. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Adaptogens essentially increase your resistance to fatigue, anxiety, and stress and can help keep you feeling sharp mentally.
Whether you're an athlete pushing through strenuous exercise or a working parent dealing with day-to-day stress and mental challenges, adaptogens come in handy as excellent cognitive support.
Adaptogens at work
In short, adaptogens have been found to assist in your body’s homeostasis, as they interact with your body’s complex systems of glands, hormones and receptors (including hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal). The compounds found in adaptogens can increase or decrease certain levels of hormones within your body, resulting in a more balanced system, especially when it comes to stress response.
When you encounter stressors in your daily life, your body may enter a process called general adaptation syndrome. GAS has three phases that describe the physiological changes that happen internally: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. You can probably guess what these stages entail, as it’s synonymous with our emotional, external response to stress in life as well.
Think of the last time something stressed you out – you probably let out a choice curse word in alarm, right? Your body also sounds the alarm when faced with stress, just under the surface. The initial “fight or flight” reaction you feel triggers the alarm phase. Your heart rate increases, your palms start sweating, and all the while the adrenal gland in your body emits the stress hormone cortisol, raising its levels in your body.
The resistance phase is what we’re really interested in here: when your body starts attempting to regulate and return your hormone levels, blood pressure and heart rate back to normal. This is the stage where adaptogens can assist; remaining in this resistance phase longer and helping to regulate your systems so the exhaustion phase is much less drastic (or in some cases, nonexistent).
Think of adaptogens as that little extra “oomph” you need to push through your work assignments or manage a stressful time in your life.
Remember that mention of the stress hormone cortisol? Adaptogens can increase the effectiveness of adrenal gland secretion, reducing excess hormone production and bringing you back to blissful balance.
While cortisol is the stress hormone you normally think of, there is an entire system of glands and hormones firing off internally as your body reacts to its environment and pushes you through life. Whether your body needs more or less of these hormones to achieve homeostasis, adaptogens can help regulate it more easily. This can lead to better sleep, better mental capacity, regulated digestive systems, and more.
Choosing what‘s right for you
So, what are some of the most common adaptogens? For a plant or herb to be adaptogenic, it must have the following attributes.
- Must not contain any harmful substances when administered in the right dose
- Have the ability to assist you in battling tension, fatigue and/or stress
- Be capable of regulating your body's homeostasis (balance)
Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones out there right now.
This well-known herb, often found in ready-to-go drinks, aids in boosting the defense mechanism of your body, stability, recollection and physique response rate. Ginseng enhances vitality and general performance when undergoing strenuous activities. There are two varieties, Asian and American. The former aids in battling mental and physical strain. The latter can protect your body against inflammation and support your nervous system. It also can better prepare your fight or flight trigger, as well as regulate your mood and dopamine levels.
Sometimes called a rejuvenator, this shrub grows in India, some regions in Africa, and around the middle East. It has a bitter taste naturally and aids the body in combating premature aging and pressure, while contributing to your nervous, cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems. Ashwagandha also acts as a “security protection” for your cells and can aid in decreasing swelling due to inflammation.
This adaptogen is also known as Holy Basil or Queen of the Herbs, and is known for its sweet fragrance and notes of pepper. Tulsi originated in India and is grown in some parts of Asia. Best known to help in the reduction of stress and anxiety, you will often find it in tea and beverage blends.
This root comes from a type of bean or legume and is commonly found in supplements to help aid in upper respiratory conditions such as hay fever and asthma, and has been found to both stimulate the human immune system and combat exhaustion.
This adaptogen grows around areas of Europe, North America, and Asia with climates of excessive altitudes. Rhodiola aids your body in combating pressure, fatigue, and anxiety disorders. Researchers also say it can enhance general performance during work and physical activities.
Cordyceps is found naturally in North America, Europe and Asia among insects, but is also lab-created in many instances of supplement use. Mushrooms themselves have been used for thousands of years for their cognitive, inflammatory and immune response, and cordyceps is no exception. Most notably, it’s been studied for its potential to improve athletic performance due to its energy boosting properties – along with many other benefits. Known to be a good source of antioxidant support, this anti-inflammatory compound has been used to assist in the treatment of a wide range of conditions ranging from high blood pressure and asthma to depression and fatigue.
Important Things to Note When Considering Adaptogens
Most likely, you’ll find adaptogens delivered in a supplement: whether that’s a ground up powder in a capsule or suspended in some type of ingestible food or beverage mix.
Although adaptogens aid in stabilizing the body's mental and physical state and help other ailments, they are not the cure for all types of illness. Consult your doctor when you feel symptoms are compounding or if you notice adverse body reactions. Some important points you will want to bring up with your doctor include:
- Medication you currently take
- Any existing health issues
- If you are pregnant or want to become pregnant
Adaptogens are great cognitive and biological backups when encountering stressful days. However, it’s important to consult your medical advisor before you start taking adaptogens, especially if you’ve had allergic reactions to any plants, supplements or medications before.