It seems that these days, given the state of our world, people are naturally searching for ways cope with all the stressors surrounding them. So how can we do this naturally? Well, we all know that eating well, moving our bodies and sleeping are top priority. But sometimes we could use a little more help and that’s where Adaptogens come into play. Adaptogens are non-toxic plants that help the body resist stressors of all kinds, whether physical, chemical, or biological. These herbs and roots have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions.
Some adaptogenic herbs are too bitter, so they are made into powdered supplements (and taken as a capsule), smoothies, teas, or herbal drinks or integrated into tinctures (herbal supplements dissolved in alcohol and ingested in a liquid form). A person can still experience a stressful events, but adaptogens are said to improve the way the body responds physically to stress.
Stress is considered a physiological condition, associated with the nervous, endocrine (hormones), and immune systems. Stress can be brought on by an external event, environmental condition, or a chemical or biological agent that triggers the body to release stress hormones which result in physiological changes.
Examples of changes that occur due to the release of stress hormones include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. This sudden flood of hormonal changes is called the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response in the body include can be brought on by:
- Environmental factors, such as extremely high or low temperatures
- Biological factors, such as an illness or injury
- Chemical agents, such as tobacco, alcohol, or drugs
- Mental issues (such as focusing on negative events [like the loss of a job or a divorce] or perceived threats)
- Physical events, such as chronic loss of sleep
- Day-to-day stressful events, like driving in heavy traffic
When stress is too overwhelming or prolonged, it can contribute to disease and may even reduce life expectancy. This is referred to as maladaptive stress, and it’s what adaptogens are said to help the body overcome.
Examples of Adaptogenic Herbs
There are many different adaptogens, each said to have its own specific action. But keep in mind that there are still only limited clinical research studies supporting the safety and effectiveness of these natural supplements.
Examples of common adaptogens and the action they are said to produce in the body include:
- Astragalus root: to help reduce stress and aging by protecting the telomeres (structures linked with aging, located at the end of each chromosome)
- Ashwagandha: to help the body cope with daily stress, and as a general tonic
- Siberian ginseng: to provide energy and help overcome exhaustion
- Holy basil: to promote relaxation, relieve stress and anxiety
- Rhodiola rosea: to lower anxiety, fatigue, and depression
- Cordyceps: a specific type of mushroom which is said to fight stress and help balance hormones
- Reishi: a specific type of mushroom which is said to help the body adapt to stress and promote a healthy sleep pattern
- Maca: to improve mood and increase energy
- Wild yam: to regulate female hormone levels
- Licorice: to increase energy and endurance and help boost the immune system, stimulate the adrenal glands and promote healthy cortisol levels
- Bacopa Monnieri: to protect the brain and improve memory and improve other aspects of cognitive function
Potential Risks and Side Effects of Adaptogenic Herbs
Adaptogenic herbs are nontoxic plants with gentle effects. However, some factors should be taken into consideration before you start consuming them.
- They may react with other medications.If you’re taking prescribed medication, integrative health experts suggest talking with your doctor or consulting a naturopath or herbalist before adding any adaptogens into your routine. Your adaptogen of choice may react with the effects of your other medications.
- They aren’t universally applicable.Don’t take an adaptogen just because your best friend took it—adaptogens can react differently from person to person, so research which one(s) could work best for your health. Further, consult your doctor or a knowledgeable health care professional if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or immunocompromised and considering taking adaptogenic herbs.
- They are better in lower doses.Experts recommend ingesting adaptogenic herbs in small doses each day over the course of six to 12 weeks (unless you’re directed otherwise by your doctor). Taking larger doses in a single sitting may result in adverse effects, such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness or headaches.
How to Add Adaptogens to Your Diet Safely
If you make most of your own meals, you can add adaptogens in their raw forms or as powders to your favorite recipes. You can also find adaptogens in the form of teas, tinctures and supplements.
Whichever route you go, always do your research before buying so you know you’re ingesting a safe product. Learn about each brand, such as where they source their herbs, whether they are GMP (good manufacturing practices) certified and if they use third-party testing. ConsumerLab.com can be a great resource of information for a fee, but you can also call a company directly to ask questions. Natural supplement store staff members might also provide helpful information.
Start slowly and stick to one herb at a time instead of trying several all at once. This way you can determine how each one does or doesn’t affect you before deciding whether to try another one.
Remember, adaptogens aren’t meant to be a quick antidote to anxiety or fatigue. Rather, they help your body build resilience over time.
“Adaptogens are meant to be taken consistently for several weeks at a time,” says Dr. Fossati. “They are also meant to be stopped for a week or so, so you can stop and reacclimate.”
Supplement capsules may be one of the easiest ways to integrate adaptogens into your diet. However, the dietary supplement industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means the quality of what you find on shelves can vary dramatically. Some may consist of a mix of several herbs, which may not produce an optimal effect.
When researching supplement companies, also be sure to check for any heavy metals in their products, which you definitely don’t want to ingest. Researchers have found certain dietary supplements contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium, lead and arsenic beyond daily intake recommendations, which can accumulate in the human body to a level of toxic exposure.
As a retired registered massage therapist, I’ve always been interested in health. I grew up loving sports so that carried into my adult life in my chosen career paths and in my personal life. I now stay active with weight training, hiking and biking. My professional life has always been in health care. This has inspired me to seek out and adopt a life of natural health and wellness.