To some extent, stress and fatigue are unavoidable facts of life — but especially during the holiday season. So it’s not surprising that many people seem to be in search of a panacea that will…
To some extent, stress and fatigue are unavoidable facts of life — but especially during the holiday season. So it’s not surprising that many people seem to be in search of a panacea that will protect their bodies and minds from the harmful effects of stress. Could adaptogens — one of the latest buzzwords in the wellness world — provide the winning ticket? A growing body of evidence suggests … maybe.
What Are They?
The term adaptogen refers to a class of nontoxic plants — particularly herbs and roots — that have long been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions and are believed to provide the body with what it needs to handle stress better. “Adaptogens are a unique group of herbal ingredients used to improve the health of your adrenal system, (which is) in charge of managing your body’s hormonal response to stress,” explains Dr. Frank Lipman, a practicing functional medicine physician and author of the best-selling book “How to Be Well.” “They help strengthen the body’s response to stress and enhance its ability to cope with anxiety and fight fatigue — slowly and gently, without jolts or crashes.”
While each adaptogen is believed to act a bit differently, they’re all thought to recalibrate the body’s stress response. “Adaptogens work to relieve stress by restoring balance back to the areas of the body that are out of balance — for example, when your body’s main stress hormone cortisol is too high or too low, you’ll feel stressed, fatigued and inflamed,” explains Will Cole, a functional medicine practitioner, doctor of chiropractic and author of “Ketotarian: The (Mostly) Plant-Based Plan to Burn Fat, Boost Your Energy, Crush Your Cravings, and Calm Inflammation.” “Certain adaptogens can calm stress levels by regulating the brain-adrenal connection (or the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, HPA, axis), which governs the cortisol rhythm.”
In addition, some adaptogens “enable your cells to access more energy, help cells eliminate toxic byproducts of the metabolic process and help the body utilize oxygen more efficiently,” Lipman says. The result: Your body’s internal stress meter cools down, thereby promoting homeostasis and helping you feel calmer and less reactive.
Which Ones Are Good?
The reality is, adaptogenic supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so it’s buyer beware with these products, just as it is with other supplements. Some adaptogens have been scientifically studied more than others. Among the most well-researched adaptogens are:
Ashwagandha. A popular and powerful Ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha (or Indian ginseng) has long been used to treat stress, anxiety, fatigue, sleep disturbances and concentration difficulties. A study in a 2012 issue of the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that adults with a history of chronic stress who took a 300 mg capsule of a high concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract twice a day had significantly lower scores on stress assessment scales and substantially lower cortisol levels after 60 days, compared to those who took a placebo. What’s more, research suggests that ashwagandha can help reduce inflammation and improve brain health, says Josh Axe, a doctor of natural medicine, a doctor of chiropractic and a clinical nutritionist based in Nashville, Tennessee.
Asian ginseng (or panax ginseng). Considered to be one of the most potent adaptogens, Asian ginseng is native to the Far East and has been used to enhance health and well-being for at least 2,000 years, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. These days, it’s often used to replenish energy, improve mental performance and boost mood, notes Axe, who is a former U.S. News contributor. A study in Human Psychopharmacology found that when healthy volunteers took a single dose of 200 mg or 400 mg of panax ginseng, they experienced greater calmness on the first day as well as on day eight (the follow-up).
Eleuthero. A plant that’s been used as a general stimulant and immune system booster for thousands of years, eleutherococcus senticosus (or Siberian ginseng) is also used to help the body better handle and adapt to stress and increase vitality, Lipman says. While most research on the health benefits of this plant, which is native to Asia and southeastern Russia, has been done in animals, preliminary research in humans suggests that taking eleuthero can increase mental performance and physical stamina.
Rhodiola. An herb that’s often used in traditional medicine in Eastern Europe and Asia, “rhodiola can help reduce stress and is great for people with adrenal fatigue,” Cole says. It also has been used to help combat general fatigue, anxiety, headache and depression. A study in a 2015 issue of Phytotherapy Research found that when mildly anxious people took a 200 mg tablet of Rhodiola rosea before breakfast and another before lunch every day, they experienced a significant reduction in their anxiety, stress, anger, confusion and depression as well as significant improvements in their overall mood after 14 days. Similarly, a review of the medical literature in a 2016 issue of the journal Phytomedicine concluded that Rhodiola rosea extract has antidepressant effects in humans.
These days you can find adaptogens in supplement or powdered form or in teas or extracts, online or in health food or vitamin stores. The powdered form can be added to smoothies, soups or even baked goods or other dishes, Cole says.
Keep in mind that the best adaptogen and optimal dosage for you depends on your body’s needs and your physical condition, Lipman says. “I always recommend consulting your doctor before taking any herbs, just to make sure there is no (potential for dangerous) interactions.” In fact, some herbal supplements can have problematic interactions with prescription medications, according to a report in a 2018 issue of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, so it’s always wise to check with your doctor before taking any herb.
Meanwhile, some adaptogens can have unwanted effects on blood sugar, blood pressure or thyroid hormone levels, so if you have any chronic health condition, consult your doctor before taking these herbs. After all, the goal with adaptogens is to help you feel better — calmer and less stressed — not worse. Even then, “with anything new, even natural, it’s important to listen to your body and work with your practitioner,” Cole says.