What Are Adaptogens and Are They Good for You?
The purported stress-reducing and immune-boosting benefits seem almost too good to be true. But are they legit? We'll tell you.
Whether you're familiar with adaptogens or not, chances are you've seen them as an add-in option on your local coffee shop or smoothie bar menus. Wherever it may be, their popularity and availability seems to be growing, and quite a few purported benefits are circulating-from fighting fatigue or cancer to improving your sexual health.
But how legit are they? We'll tell you about the benefits, science and any risks of adaptogens along with taking a closer look at some popular kinds, including ashwagandha and rhodiola.
Read more: 7 Foods for Stress Relief
What Are Adaptogens?
First, let's back up. If you're thinking-adapto-what?-let us catch you up. Adaptogens are essentially a class of herbs (found in many herbal supplements) that are intended to boost your resistance to and tolerance of stress-emotional and physical. As the name suggests, they adapt to meet your needs. By that logic, this group of more than 70 plants brings balance the way a thermostat controls temperature: they turn up your energy when you're fatigued and help you relax when you're restless. They're also purported to address issues as disparate as trouble focusing, headaches, dry eye, high blood pressure and even cancer.
"The time in your life when you need an adaptogen is when you're under additional-or even extreme-stress," says Keri Marshall, M.S., a naturopathic doctor and director of scientific affairs at Pharmavite. Adaptogens could impact how much of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol is released, helping to reduce stress. In someone else, they could urge cells to produce more neuropeptide Y, which plays a big role in regulating mood and appetite, and helping the body adapt to physical stressors like exercise. The other main system they support is your immunity.
Adaptogens are trending now, yes, but it was all the way back in 1947 when a scientist in the Soviet Union coined the term adaptogens, Marshall explains. Russian soldiers needed more resistance-and adaptogens helped their bodies focus, and cope and adapt to stress in natural ways. One of the early adaptogens came to light there, rhodiola, which was grown in the Siberian highlands.
Some of the other original adaptogens include ginseng and astragalus. "From a [traditional] ayurvedic and Chinese medicine perspective, adaptogens are meant to literally help ground you so you can get your roots back, in an effort to restore balance in your life," says Marshall. "Many of the parts of the plant used for adaptogenic herbal tinctures and powdered extracts, are the roots of the plant."
Do Adaptogens Actually Work?
In many instances, they do.
However, sometimes manufacturers may exaggerate how well a product may work. (That's because although the FDA dictates how manufacturers can tout their claims about a product, they don't have the manpower to routinely assess the validity of the claims or the purity of the product.)
That said, adaptogens are rooted in traditional ayurvedic and Chinese medicine and were used in Europe as early as World War II. More recently, several adaptogens have gone through scientifically rigorous studies and have come out with the equivalent of a scientific thumbs-up. Specifically, clinical trials have found several herbal preparations with adaptogens to reduce stress-induced endocrine and immune impairments, while also boosting attention, endurance and fatigue.
How Do You Take Adaptogens?
To reap the benefits of an adaptogen, you need to take it every day for a few weeks. And generally, liquid versions are going to be better than a powder. That's because "when a liquid extract is made, you have the ability to pull out the important medicinal components you want and the compounds you don't want, with very simple solvents like water and alcohol. Essentially, a liquid extract is more 'pure,'" explains Marshall. "Powders can sometimes be the entire herb or root simply ground up so you'll get every component, not just the elements you're striving for. Some powders are the liquid extracts that then becomes a powder. In general, liquid extracts are my preferred form, or a liquid extract turned powder-versus, say, a whole root."
Also, in most cases, you want to take your adaptogen in the morning with your breakfast. "Your cortisol is highest in the morning when you wake up and it drops throughout the day. That's when you want to take your adrenal adaptogen herbs so you can stimulate your body's natural rhythm to wake up," advises Marshall. There are some exceptions, though: if you're taking ashwagandha for sleep, take it in the evening. But ashwagandha for other purposes-such as adrenal or immune system support-should be taken in the morning, according to Marshall.
5 Adaptogens Health Experts Recommend
A classic ayurvedic herb, and fairly well-known adaptogen, ashwagandha has both immune-modulating and anti-inflammatory benefits. More specifically, "it can help boost white blood cells, fight fatigue and improve autoimmune health when symptoms flare up as a result of stress," says Marshall. Plus, a 2014 published literature review found that regularly taking ashwagandha could potentially help manage anxiety.
Marshall recommends rhodiola, one of the original adaptogens, for stress relief and focus. Legit research (as in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study-the gold standard) supports this, and also found that regularly taking rhodiola helped fight the kind of fatigue that dulls our mental performance and concentration. "Sun Potion Prash has rhodiola and other adaptogens in it and is a caramel-like paste that can help crush a sweet craving," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap.
Eleutherococcus (aka Siberian ginseng) is ideal for reinvigorating your chi, and has been an important herb in Chinese medicine for centuries because of that. If your goal is to restore your vital energy, Marshall recommends this herb. Research shows it also supports adrenal function-and, more specifically, could promote the breakdown of stress hormones circulating in your body.
Taking cordyceps, a medicinal mushroom, as an adaptogen is believed to be good for your liver, kidneys and heart. And while that isn't untrue, the best research associates cordyceps with promoting longevity and improving erectile dysfunction. And, for the ladies, it possibly works as an aphrodisiac. "Newer research found that when people used it regularly for three weeks, it helped them exercise longer," adds Blatner. In fact, she drinks mushroom coffee every morning with adaptogens. "In part because I really enjoy it and partly because some of the preliminary studies made me excited about benefits."
This lesser-known adaptogen is a beautiful Chinese red berry. Just as acai is considered asuperfruit, schisandra has long been known as a super berry. Flavorwise, it encompasses all five major taste elements, which gives it a balancing benefit. Plus, it has both immune-boosting and stress-fighting qualities.
When Should You Be Cautious About TakingAdaptogens?
Always, always consult with a medical professional before adding an adaptogen to your wellness routine. Not only could these substances interact with your current prescriptions, but they also might not be appropriate given your current health status or routine.
If you're on immune-modulating drugs, for example, you should be cautious and not pile on more immune modulators in the form of adaptogens, advises Marshall. Similarly, she explains, you wouldn't want to mix adaptogens and steroids. But "on the other side, when you go off of steroid medication, some people experience withdrawal symptoms and that's when it's a good time to use the right adaptogens to help restore your body's balance and vitality," says Marshall.
There's no good research to suggest that adaptogens are a cure-all. And they're certainly not a substitute for tried- and-true stress-management techniques and medical care. But evidence is mounting that they may help ease stress (inside and out) as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. However, like any supplement in the U.S., they are less regulated than prescription medications, so do your research on your adaptogen of choice and the company that's producing it, and talk to a practitioner who can help guide you. And remember-consistency is key. A few weeks of regularly taking an adaptogen should yield the benefits you want. An occasional dash of, say, ashwagandha in your smoothie, though-not so much.
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