What the $%#@ are adaptogens…and do I need one?
Wellness seekers are bonkers for adaptogens these days. Why? Because…as the name cleverly implies…adaptogens help you adapt positively to stress. So, what are adaptogens, and do they work? Let this herbal-curious dietitian introduce you to these interesting plants.
Your body has a ‘normal operating system’ known as homeostasis. Outside stressors – infection, poor diet or psychological stress – bring your body away from homeostasis and optimal functioning. When this occurs sporadically, your body has natural adaptations that help it resist the stressor and return itself to homeostasis. But plow yourself down with constant challenges like, say, modern life – and those adaptations may become overwhelmed, leaving you exhausted.
Which is where adaptogens come in. These are herbs such as ginseng, maca and rhodiola that have a long history of traditional use but not always a robust stack of scientific literature behind them. Adaptogens help the body resist the effects of stressors and support a less exhausting return to homeostasis through multiple means but in holistic language, they are thought to ‘nourish the adrenal glands’.
In scientific terms, many active compounds within adaptogenic herbs have similar chemical structures to catecholamines and corticosteroids involved in the stress response. Adaptogens are thought to have a non-specific effect on the HPA axis, with effects as varied as mitigating oxidative damage, stress-induced genetic expression and either stimulatory or calming effects on the nervous system.
Of course you’re stressed…but should you go all adaptogenic on your deadline’s ass?
It’s not like adaptogens are essential to life like water or vitamin C. But when times get tough, adaptogens might actually help you feel better. Depending on the adaptogen you choose, it may help with attention and focus in times of fatigue or help buffer you against the harmful effects of stress. However, if you are interested in adaptogens, 1) respect their medicinal value, 2) ensure you are getting a good quality supplement in the appropriate dosage and 3) ensure that they do not interact with your current medical situation or medications.
For example, not all supplement manufacturers are totally rigorous – or even ethical – in their manufacturing. In Canada, there has been past challenges particularly with Ayurvedic herbs and heavy metal contamination. If you do take an adaptogen with the potential to work, you have to take it in the right dosage. If five grams is the research-verified dose and you take 500mg, it’s not going to do much. Here, I want to give a big shout out to the good folks at examine.com. I relied a great deal on their fantastic scientific reviews to craft this article and you can go check them out for more info on adequate dosages and the research behind adaptogens.
A totally random/not-random shortlist of adaptogens to know
(AKA, I picked the ones that I use and wanted more info on)
This herb is one of the better studied adaptogens and my personal fave. It is mildly stimulatory, helps alleviate fatigue and may increase serotonin in the brain. It has several active components, including rosavins, tyrosol, salidroside and procyanadins (molecules also found in green tea). I have used Rhoziva, a Canadian-brand of rhodiola with great success and also experienced benefits from Brain Dust, an adaptogenic blend which contains rhodiola. When I take rhodiola, I feel a lift pretty quickly…and watch out if mixing it with a few cups of coffee. In my experience, better to avoid taking it past midday or it might leave you too wired to sleep.
Ashwagandha sounds bloody sexy…until you realize that its name is Sanskrit for smell of the horse. Ashwagandha – also known as withania somnifera – is thought to help alleviate anxiety and insomnia and protect the immune system from stress. Ashwagandha may also help reduce CRP, a marker of chronic inflammation.
Active ingredients include antioxidant/anti-inflammatory phenolics and withanolide compounds. Sunpotion is a popular brand of ashwagandha and here in Vancouver, Nectar Juicery adds ashwagandha to their Chill Out blend.
Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil, is an herb with far less research behind it than rhodiola or ashwagandha. Taken as an anti-stress herb, early research suggests it may be supportive of the immune system and protect the liver…however it may also be anti-fertility.
So why bother telling you about tulsi? For starters, if you are interested in tulsi know that it isn’t the most research verified choice (yet anyways)…but it sure makes a nice herbal tea! I love the Sweet Rose Tulsi tea from Organic India.
Adaptogens are an interesting option for helping to cope with stress. However, as with most supplements it’s important to note that very few long term usage studies exist so usage of herbal preparations greater than 12 weeks is not advisable unless under medical care.
AND…as your virtual dietitian, I have to say (and I may be saying this to myself too as I am working at night to finish my own blog post!) that relying solely on a supplement to the exclusion of self care isn’t a good idea. When the going gets tough, consider an adaptogen. But if a tough stretch turns into your reality, make real efforts in self-care, such as prioritizing time for fitness, meditation and social connection.
Common Sense Disclaimer: This post is offered as education only; you should always talk to your healthcare provider before you add any supplement to your regime (yes, this means you).
Oh and please note…despite the massive amount of hyperlinks and name dropping, this is not a sponsored post! I am sharing my expertise, personal experiences and preferences on a hot topic.