If you’re perusing lifestyle and wellness blogs, you’ve likely encountered the term “adaptogen” and the potential health benefits it carries. You’ll find references and advice about these special herbs and herbal supplements popping up everywhere, from smoothie recipes to the latest advice of popular herbal medicine gurus.
But what exactly are adaptogens, and what are some of the health benefits that supposedly come with them? Additionally, how effective are these adaptogens, and what are the different ways that we can incorporate adaptogens into our wellness routines? These are just a couple of questions we're going to help you answer.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a group of natural herbs and mushrooms that are prized for their ability to help with stress relief, not by adding medications to our bodies, but rather by helping our body's ability to manage stress by tapping into our inherent natural resources. The name “adaptogen” is descriptive, relating to the ability of these natural substances to adapt their function to specific needs we have.
Adaptogens may seem contradictory in that they contain natural substances that can have differing effects depending on what we're taking them for. In some instances, an adaptogen might have a stimulative effect, while the same herbal supplement might produce a relaxing or calming effect on a different person, or on the same person at a different time. The response is governed by the body’s needs, which makes adaptogenic substances valuable and versatile.
Here are some common uses of adaptogens that can help improve overall well-being:
- Supporting general mental performance
- Increasing endurance and lessening fatigue.
- Alleviating emotional stress.
- Balancing hormone levels and keeping the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in check.
- Stimulating mental and cognitive functions impeded by stress.
- Boosting the immune system and balancing body functions.
- Improving the function of the GI system and improving organ function.
The role of adaptogens in herbal medicine goes back thousands of years, and our modern society is now recognizing the wisdom behind what was once derided as simple folk remedies. The more adaptogens are examined, the more we see that we have much to learn from these natural healers.
Some Common Adaptogens
There are numerous adaptogens available in a variety of forms. These five adaptogens are commonly used and have distinct therapeutic effects attributed to them.
- Ashwagandha. An herb with a long history of use in traditional medicines, ashwagandha is often suggested to support emotional well-being and relieve restlessness in the central nervous system. Some suggest that it can have a positive effect on building muscle mass as well. The true MVP is KSM66 ashwagandha which has numerous proven benefits backed by multiple clinical studies. If you’re going to take ashwagandha, make sure it’s a supplement that includes KSM66 ashwagandha.
- Cordyceps. These mushrooms have long been a staple of Tibetan medicine, where it has been prized for supporting strength and vitality. Small clinical studies have shown some positive correlations with athletic performance and the consumption of cordyceps.
- Reishi. Another mushroom adaptogen, reishi is prized to help reduce feelings of sadness and anxiousness. A pilot clinical study showed lower levels of anxiousness after using reishi as a supplement to their diet. Reishi is also valued for its support for the body’s immune system.
- Maca. Also known as Peruvian Ginseng, Maca root is purported to help support a variety of body systems, from the circulatory system to reproductive health, similar to panax ginseng and siberian ginseng, it's East Asian and East European counterparts.
- Turmeric. Turmeric boasts an active ingredient of curcumin, a known helper to immune system response with anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric is often suggested to relieve discomfort during menstruation and to promote emotional well-being. A clinical study showed significant effects in aiding patients with joint and cartilage function. It’s often drunk as a tea.
- Other adaptogens that are popular and generally common for overall improvement of well-being include rhodiola, rhodiola rosea, eleutherococcus, and schisandra. However, if we listed all of the adaptogenic herbs available to you, we might end up writing a whole book!
It’s important to treat all claims of the health benefits of supplements with some degree of skepticism, especially since the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements to the same extent as drugs in the United States. However, there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that adaptogenic therapeutic benefits do exist.
How Adaptogens Work
Adaptogens respond to the natural cycles of your body. Your body produces a three-part stress response that includes alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Adaptogens can respond to the resistance phase of this response by restoring wakefulness during states of fatigue, which helps support the overall stress response, both mentally and physically.
This stress response, according to multiple clinical studies, aids our bodies by helping to:
- Support feelings of an in increase energy and alertness
- Maintain already healthy blood sugar levels
- Support adrenal gland maintenance
- Reduce cortisol levels, which can in return help maintain heart rate and other nervous system components
- Relieve joint and cartilage discomfort
- Support management of stress hormones
How to Take Adaptogens
A traditional method of taking adaptogens is to make tea from dried leaves, roots, or powders, though mixing adaptogenic supplements into smoothies has gained recent popularity. Another time-proven method involves mixing powdered adaptogenic herbs with jam and taking the dose by the spoonful. As interest in adaptogens has increased, any number of prepared capsules, tablets, oils, and tinctures have entered the market.
The amount of adaptogen you should take will vary to a considerable degree based upon the adaptogen you’re using, and other factors like your age, weight, and the degree to which you’re seeking relief. Most adaptogens in supplement form will have a recommended dosage, and it’s wise to stick with those recommendations or to even begin with a somewhat smaller dosage until you can observe how the adaptogens work with your particular body. It’s wise to consult with an herbalist or other healthcare professional who’s familiar with the adaptogenic herbs you’re considering before actually incorporating them into your health and wellness routine.
When and how long to take adaptogens
The therapeutic effects of adaptogens are not usually immediate and dramatic, but more subtle, and may require some time before positive effects are noticeable. Many ayurvedic and herbalist experts who are familiar with the benefits of adaptogens suggest finding a routine that incorporates your adaptogen of choice into your daily well-being routine — for example, taking it as a daily tea break or sprinkling an adaptogen powder onto your morning cereal. Once you’ve established a routine, give it time. Using an adaptogen for three to four months is often recommended.
Are Adaptogens Effective?
There are many claims made about the efficacy of adaptogens and there are many different herbs that are considered adaptogens; fortunately, there are some adaptogens that have already been looked at from a clinical research standpoint for over a decade, with more and more companies following suit to back their ingredients with clinical evidence.
KSM-66 Ashwagandha extract in particular is a strong example of the potential that adaptogens have to prove their place in a therapeutic setting, with 14 years of clinical development and research behind it, it has 22 clinical trials to support the vast variety of health benefits this extract offers. Some of the most promising results came directly from gold-standard studies (double-blind, randomized, and placebo-controlled), and showed significant results reflecting the extract’s ability to increase resistance to stress, enhances cardiorespiratory endurance, increase muscle mass and strength when paired with a resistance training program, improving cognitive function, and promoting proper thyroid function.
Another example of adaptogens with supporting evidence include Turmacin™, which is derived from the water-soluble portion of turmeric. Clinical studies showed significant support for knee joints, and a significantly improved WOMAC score by the third week of use. There’s also S7, which is a blend of plant-based ingredients, including adaptogenic extracts, which has been clinically proven to increase internal nitric oxide production, helping to support respiratory function and the delivery of oxygen throughout the body.
Adaptogens are proving their potential with the growing availability to run clinical studies for supplements and supplement ingredients. However, even with clinical data, it’s important that you do your due diligence to ensure you’re getting your supplements from a reputable company, as well as consult with a health professional before implementing a new adaptogenic supplement (or any new dietary supplement) into your regular routine.
Precautions and Potential Side Effects of Adaptogens
Adaptogens are natural, but just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it is without the potential for harm or possible side effects. Fortunately, in the case of adaptogens, there are many years of traditional practice and expertise behind the selection of herbs that are recommended for supporting our overall well-being.
One area of concern is the potential interaction between prescription drugs and herbal supplements like adaptogens. A British Study from 2018 has identified herb-drug interactions in a number of cases, particularly with drugs used to treat heart disease and cancer. If you’re taking prescription drugs for any reason, we highly recommend you consult with a health professional before adding adaptogens into your daily herbal medicine routine.
Again, the food and drug administration in the United States will not be able to consider all herbal supplements when advising against drug interactions, so it's important to be cognizant of the potential issues you may run into with adaptogens, especially when taking prescription medications.
Here are some adaptogens that have had side effects associated with them:
- Ashwagandha works to support the immune system, so those with auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or MS should ensure a consult with a healthcare professional first.
- Astragalus also should be taken with caution if you have an auto-immune disease. Among others, the most common side effects include diarrhea, nausea, and mild GI upset.
- Pine Pollen is often employed to improve reproductive health, so caution should be taken to avoid side effects associated with excess testosterone, including mood swings, aggressiveness, hair growth, acne, and oily skin.
- Licorice is commonly used as a blending agent in herbal remedies. Licorice has a side effect of raising blood pressure, so be careful to limit its use if you have high blood pressure or are taking medications to help manage your blood pressure.
- Shisandra has been shown to affect the absorption of medicines by the body. While there are few studies available, it’s best to use caution when taking shisandra if you are using prescription medicines as shisandra may affect the body's ability to properly absorb the drugs.
- Fo-Ti is an herb with a history of being used for longevity support. In some cases, it has been a source of nausea and gastrointestinal distress.
Adaptogenic Herbs: A Complement to a Holistic Lifestyle
Adaptogens offer users an herbalist alternative to western-based medicine for those looking for support and relief for antagonizers of our well-being, such as emotional stress. Look for adaptogenic supplements as a complement to a healthy lifestyle that includes clean eating with plenty of superfoods, regular exercise, and a commitment to inner peace and well-being.