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Adaptogens 101: An Introduction Guide
Life can be a bitch sometimes. When we’re not dealing with a pandemic, there’s work pressure, the upcoming silly season, relationship stress, illness, family dramas or your bestie dissed you. And if there is one thing that is detrimental to our health, it’s stress. Especially if that stress manifests itself as poor sleep, bad eating habits, increased inflammation, getting sick and skipping exercise.
You know what to do – breathing exercises, meditation, prioritise sleep, do yoga, take walks and play with your pets. But even these activities or finding the time to do them sometimes seem to add to our stress. Enter…ADAPTOGENS.
While adaptogens have been used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, they’ve become quite the popular kid on the block of late! There’s been a great resurgence in interest over the past five years, but they’ve been effectively used in modern times dating back to WWII, when adaptogens were given to fighter pilots and submarine crews to reduce exhaustion, reduce thirst and hunger and even improve night vision!
The recent reawakening of interest in these natural herbs and plants is rather exciting: while we need significantly more studies in humans to fully understand the mechanism of action of adaptogens, it is clear that the beneficial impact of adaptogens is nothing short of a special kinda magic…I’ll get to why that is in a second.
So, whether it is for recovering from short or long-term physical or mental stress or boosting immunity (less stress = less likely to get sick) and overall well-being, adaptogens is a great tool for the stress-busting toolkit!
Mechanism of Action
Why and how do adaptogens work? Well, it’s all in the name. Adaptogens help you to ADAPT. If you think of the concept of homeostasis (basically a healthy state of being, in equilibrium, your body’s way of maintaining balance) then adaptogens do just that: they assist your body with this process.
A simple example of homeostasis is walking into a room that is colder or warmer than where you came from – your body immediately regulates its internal temperature to adapt.
To be classified as an adaptogen, the herb/plant must be safe and non-toxic and have an impact on the reduction of stress and improved resilience.
Here’s how it works: adaptogens have the ability to influence a particular part of your glandular system (basically your internal regulating system which is charged with bringing balance to our bodies).
In science-speak, adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is essentially the system of glands, hormones and receptors in our bodies. It is this HPA axis which is responsible to the body’s homeostasis, stress response (cortisol management) and energy metabolism.
Adaptogens can have an impact on any one of our major glands, including the pituitary gland (at the base of your brain), adrenal glands (top of your kidneys and produce cortisol) or the hypothalamus (small region in your brain) or all of them. The compounds in adaptogens work with the HPA axis to help balance our systems. And, as promised, here is where the magical part comes in: if your body has too much of one hormone, the adaptogens help to lower it. If there is too little of a hormone, adaptogens help to top levels back up! Balance. Crazy cool.
Think of this in the context of cortisol: it’s the stress hormone released by your adrenal glands, but it’s vitally important for waking us, helping us get into fight-or-flight mode when needed and keeping us alert and energised. However, cortisol levels should never remain at high levels continuously (especially as it causes dangerous visceral fat gain). Adaptogens help by either elevating your cortisol when needed or downregulate the production of cortisol when you have an excess of cortisol. This is how adaptogens can actually assist with weight management!
Adaptogens basically have two main areas where they’re going to work:
- Increase attention/endurance in situations where these are impaired due to stress
- Increase relaxation and the ability to withstand excessive fight-or-flight activation in response to stress
When we can adapt to stress, we perform better, are less likely to get sick and we have a general sense of feeling better.
The way to test to see if an adaptogen works, is basically to look at the mental work capacities of people when you increase temperature, increase workload, introduce loud noises, simulate motion sickness, add heavy physical burden, simulate deep sea conditions, present mental challenges while under pressure etc. Essentially introducing stress. A control group will take a placebo versus the group who takes an adaptogen to see how the latter copes with the stressors relative to the control group.
When we face a stressor, mental or physical, our bodies go through three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. In these clinical studies, it has been shown that adaptogens help us stay in the resistance phase for longer via a stimulating effect that holds off the exhaustion stage. This means you can soldier on for longer, rather than crashing!
Read More: 5 Biohacks To Reduce Stress
These adaptogens are those that boast the most research and have become very popular as they work well for the majority of people. Because different adaptogens work on different parts of your body, your choice of adaptogen(s) should depend on the potential benefit you want to experience. Many of these have more than one of the below benefits though, so stacking them together or mixing them up is also always an option.
For Stress and Anxiety
Ashwagandha is undoubtedly the adaptogen that seems to have the most clinical research on it for working on cortisol issues. Most research shows that elevated cortisol levels can be reduced by up to 25% in as little as a month. It is a massively popular adaptogen of late and many people are fans for its calming effect.
Shop Here: KSM-66® Ashwagandha Extract
- Tulsi / Holy Basil
One of my favourite adaptogens to drink as a tea (the shrub is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine). Tulsi addresses stress-related anxiety and depression. Tulsi is also known for promoting focus and a clinical trial found that it greatly diminished general anxiety and thereby boosted mood.
Known for balancing hormones, boosting mood and boosting energy and physical performance, this root has even been shown to boost libido. Anxiety and depression management are further benefits of the balancing impact that this root provides.
- Rhodiola rosea
Rhodiola is a rather famous adaptogen with good clinical research behind it with excellent results for stress adaptation and cognitive functioning under periods of stress, which allows you to stave off physical and mental fatigue.
Panax (American) ginseng has been shown to boost working memory, reaction times, calmness and promote the immune system. Most impressive though are the clinical studies which show significantly reduced levels of fatigue in participants, resulting in higher energy levels and self-motivation abilities. Feeling run-down and tired? Give this one a go!Shop Here: Panax Ginseng Extract
This herb has been used for centuries for its ability to fight against mental and physical stress. It also has immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties to boot, so an excellent addition to any longevity-promoting and stress-busting regimen!Shop Here: Astragalus 70% Extract
- Cordyceps mushrooms
These mushrooms are another stellar example of an ingredient that has been used in Chinese medicine for eons. It is used to boost stamina, physical and mental performance and does this by managing fatigue. Mushroomy goodness!
Shop here: Cordyceps Mushroom 30% Extract
For Immune Health
- Reishi mushroom
Most commonly found in a dried powder form that can easily be added to soups and coffee and smoothies, reishi is one of my absolute favourite adaptogens because of its ability to impact almost every gland in our bodies by acting on the pituitary gland, which regulates the entire bodily system.Shop Here: Reishi Mushroom 30% Extract
The curcumin in turmeric has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which boost immunity by reducing inflammation. Load your curries with turmeric – that’s how easy it is to incorporate adaptogens into your daily life!
Shop Here: Curcumin Plus
Now that you know which adaptogens you’d like to test drive, here are some guidelines to bear in mind:
- Adaptogens are not a quick fix, they are a bandage rather than a cure. They may not work in instances of immediate or extreme anxiety or depression as they are intended to balance your system over a period of time.
- Time and consistency is key. It may take a couple of weeks (4-12) before you truly start feeling the effects.
- The best ways to take adaptogens? Your preference! They work well as capsules, as powders in smoothies and soups or as a tea.
- Adaptogens are not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. What works for your tjommie might not work for you, so trial and error is your best approach.
- Stick to recommended dosages – while they are non-toxic and safe to use, an “overdose” could actually have the opposite effect of what you’re trying to achieve.
- Adaptogens are great when you know that you’ll be facing a stressful time and needn’t be taken all the time. While you certainly could, they could also be timed around big races, work pressures or other events that you anticipate being stressful.
- Most adaptogens work well synergistically, which is why I’m a fan of Adaptogen Complex, which stacks Ashwagandha, Bacopa Monnieri, Rhodiola Rosea, Panax Ginseng and Ginkgo Biloba to stave off the effects of burnout and boost your mood and energy!
Shop Here: PRIMESELF Adaptogen Complex
Here is a simple recipe for a DIY adaptogen blend: combine one part liquorice root with one part fennel seeds, one part fenugreek and two parts flax seed. One tablespoon of this mixture added to two cups of boiling water for 15 minutes leaves you with a beautifully calming adaptogen tea that can be enjoyed warm or cold. I make a liter of the stuff and drink it during the day.
When you’re not stressed, you have better memory, you feel less tired and you can go-go-go for longer with sharper attention and focus.
Adaptogens can do for your adrenal glands what exercise does for your muscles. Exercise is a stressor on your body but as you train more, your body becomes better at dealing with it, teaching your muscles how to handle that stress. Similarly, adaptogens allow your body to become better at dealing with stress. They can help you ward off fatigue, enhance your cognitive abilities, mellow out depression and allow you to thrive!
Adaptogens are a great tool in the tool kit to manage stress when combined with moderate exercise, adequate sleep, mindfulness and meditation. Remember that they always work better in addition to a foundation of a balanced diet, good hydration and quality sleep!
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- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!
This information does not serve as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is for informational purposes only and does not provide a comprehensive explanation of the different compounds. Always consult your doctor first when making any changes to medication or supplementation.