Adaptogens 101: Boosting Your Body’s Resilience and Balance

If you’re feeling a little run down, stressed out or otherwise just plain fried, you might be thinking about adding an adaptogen to your daily intake. These plant-based compounds have a long history of being used in holistic treatment protocols for a range of ailments. But whether or not they actually work is still an open question.

What Are Adaptogens?

“Natural adaptogens are a group of herbal supplements that are also sometimes classified as a nootropic,” explains Laura Simmons, a registered dietitian at RET Physical Therapy and Healthcare Specialists in Auburn, Washington. Nootropic compounds are used to enhance memory or support other cognitive functions.

Adaptogens have long been used as a component of Ayurvedic medicine, which is a long-practiced, holistic Indian medical system. The most widely used adaptogens include:

Panax ginseng. Also known as Asian, Korean or Chinese ginseng, this plant grows in the mountains of East Asia. It’s believed to support memory and cognitive function, and it’s sometimes used as a complementary treatment by people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ashwagandha. Also called winter cherry, this evergreen shrub is part of the nightshade family and grows in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. It’s traditionally used to support the body when undergoing physical and mental stress and may be used to treat insomnia and anxiety.

Rhodiola rosea. This perennial flower grows in the Arctic regions of Europe, Asia and North America. It’s used for fatigue, depression and anxiety and might help regulate heart rate.

Astragalus. This flowering plant hails from Mongolia, Korea and eastern parts of China and is used to treat hay fever, kidney disease and diabetes.

Ginkgo biloba. Native to China, ginkgo biloba is also known as the maidenhair tree. It’s used to treat memory problems and blood disorders. There is some evidence that gingko can improve blood circulation by opening up vessels and making blood less sticky.

Reishi. A type of mushroom that’s native to East Asia, this reddish-brown, kidney-shaped fungus is used to boost the immune system and is being studied as a possible cancer treatment.

Schisandra. Also called the magnolia berry or the five-flavor fruit, this plant is native to northern China and parts of Russia. It’s used for improved energy, coordination and endurance.

Tulsi. Also called holy basil and native to India, this plant is used to increase focus, decrease anxiety and boost the immune system. It has antimicrobial properties and is sometimes used as a hand sanitizer or mouthwash.

While there are many different types and uses for adaptogens, “the main claimed benefit of adaptogens is the reduction (of) mental and physical stress,” Simmons summarizes.

[READ: Tips for Relieving Daily Stress and Calming Down.]

How Adaptogens Are Used

While various tinctures and other decoctions that contain adaptogens have deep roots in ancient medical traditions, extracts of these compounds are becoming increasingly popular as dietary supplements.

Simmons says one way to use these compounds is by adding them to your medication regimen over the short term prior to a stressful event. “If you know about the event far enough in advance and have already discussed (adaptogens) with your doctor, taking (them) in preparation for the event may help mediate that stress response, helping your body stay in balance,” she explains.

In some cases, adaptogens can be used long-term, taken as a once- or twice-daily supplement. How and when you use adaptogens “is dependent on the type of adaptogen and the benefits you’re seeking from it,” Simmons says. For instance, “ashwagandha is commonly prescribed in a range from 500 to 1,500 milligrams for extracts to be taken one to two times per day. Some research has shown improvement in anxiety and depression with consistent consumption over six to 12 weeks.”

[See: Tips to Manage Stress at Work.]

Potential Placebo Effect

Research on adaptogens is limited — and conclusions are not necessarily significant.

For instance, Simmons says that “research on ashwagandha related to reduction of stress did not show significant changes — slight improvements in stress, but not enough for us to expect that benefit from taking it. There is also mixed research on reducing time to fall asleep with taking ashwagandha twice daily.” The evidence, she notes, isn’t strong enough to draw any definitive conclusions.

It’s a similar story for other adaptogens. Rhodiola rosea, for example, is commonly prescribed in a range from 170 to 680 milligrams and sometimes divided into two doses per day, Simmons says.

“Some research has shown improvement in symptoms of depression, but when compared to improvements from antidepressant medications, the change from the adaptogens (was) no longer statistically significant,” she explains. “A few studies show improvement in anxiety symptoms with supplementation of rhodiola rosea; however, more research needs to be done to provide comparisons to placebos as well as to see on a larger scale if the results are repeatable.”

In other words, research into the efficacy of adaptogens has returned some good anecdotal results but not enough larger-scale findings to say for sure that it’s not just a placebo effect.

What’s more, Simmons notes that most research on adaptogens’ efficacy on stress, anxiety and depression “have been done on a population that is categorized in the low-moderate anxiety/depression ranges.” So, if you fall into this low-moderate range and aren’t taking medication for anxiety or depression, she recommends talking with your doctor to see if adaptogens are safe for you — they could produce some benefits.

[READ: How to Find a Good Doctor.]

Risks and Potential Side Effects

Lona Sandon, program director of the master of clinical nutrition coordinated program and associate professor in the department of clinical nutrition, School of Health Professions, at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, says that “much is unknown about the long-term effect of using adaptogens, and people should not assume that just because it may be a natural plant substance that it’s safe for long-term use.”

Sandon, who is also a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adds that some adaptogens can interfere with medications for high blood pressure or diabetes.

If you’re interested in trying an adaptogen supplement, Simmons says you should be aware there can be some drawbacks, just like there can be with any other supplement or medication you might use.

“The major risk of using an adaptogen supplement is interference with medication and contamination,” she explains. “Unless you are purchasing a supplement that has been third-party tested, such as Consumer Lab, NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) or USP (U.S. Pharmacopeia), you cannot be sure what the supplement actually contains.”

Not knowing what a supplement contains can put you at risk of ingesting contaminants, such as lead, cadmium and arsenic.

“Without third-party testing, your supplement may not even contain the compound you want in it, in this case, the adaptogen itself,” Simmons adds.

In addition, there can be some species-specific risks when using adaptogens. For example, ashwagandha can potentially lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and it might impact thyroid hormone levels, Simmons says.

Rhodiola rosea can cause dizziness, headache, nausea and dry mouth. “It can also interfere with medications being taken for blood pressure, depression or diabetes,” Simmons says. Before you start using these compounds, you must check with your health care provider.

Who Should Avoid Adaptogens

According to Simmons, women who are pregnant or nursing should not take adaptogen supplements. Anyone taking antidepressant medication should also steer clear of adaptogens because there can be negative interactions.

Likewise, anyone who’s had an organ transplant should avoid taking supplements that contain adaptogens, says Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and author of “Recipe For Survival.” “They may interact with immune-suppressing medications that are needed to keep from rejecting the transplant,” she explains.

But still, caution is the name of the game. “I usually tell my patients to not just go and take any herb or supplement that you hear of because they may interact with your medication,” Hunnes says. “Sometimes, your body’s reaction to these ingredients may do more harm than good.”

She also points out that “supplements in the U.S. are not highly regulated the way medications and drugs are, so a bottle can say it contains ashwagandha or ginseng, but it’s not regulated by the FDA and may not have an appropriate potency.”

Therefore, until more studies are completed, it might be best to save your money. “A lot more research on large groups of humans needs to be done for us to better understand the impact of adaptogens and also how they work in the body,” Simmons says.

In the meantime, don’t rely on dietary supplements alone to fix any problem — instead, “seek support from your doctor and dietitian,” Simmons advises.

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