If you’ve been looking into the supplement market in any serious way for any amount of time, you will likely have come across the word adaptogen. Adaptogens are incredibly beneficial for our health and wellbeing. But… what exactly are they and what do they do?
Well, in short, adaptogens are a select group of mushrooms and other plants. Taking them has been proven to help your body better respond to stress and anxiety, fatigue, and inflammation. They contribute more generally to overall wellbeing, too. They return your body to a steady balance, managing both mental and physical stressors.
You can take them easily, either as food or drinks, as tinctures, or even in some capsule-form supplements (nootropics can typically be quite rich in them).
Adaptogens: An Overview
As above, adaptogens are the active ingredients found in select plants and mushrooms. They can alter your body’s response to stress, anxiety, and fatigue, allowing you to better manage symptoms of all three. Many, such as holy basil, can be included as ingredients in your regular eating plan. Others will need to be added as supplements to consume them in high enough quantities.
When you consume plants and mushrooms with adaptogenic properties, they target specific bodily stressors. There is a good body of evidence showing that they do so. The roots, herbs, and mushrooms we are talking about have featured prominently in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions for centuries. Today, modern science is catching up, proving their worth and uses scientifically.
For a plant to be considered an adaptogen, it must satisfy three criteria:
1 – It must be completely non-toxic, of course.
2 – It must also help your body to cope with symptoms of stress and anxiety.
3 – Finally, it will need to allow your body to reach homeostasis, or, in other words, to return to a state of balance.
Adaptogens are a useful tool for improving overall health and dealing with short term stress. They are a useful tool, also, in overcoming long term stress. However, they are not an answer in themselves. They can only deal with the symptoms, not the root cause of your stress.
The main reason you would want to take adaptogens as part of your diet or supplement regime is to elicit a state of homeostasis – achieving a state of balance within your body.
The primary reason you would want to do this is to deal with elevated cortisol levels, both a symptom and cause of stress. An adaptogen will reduce your cortisol levels down to a more manageable level.
Alternatively, you may find that your cortisol levels are too low. This can cause chronic fatigue. In this case, an adaptogen will help you to reach homeostasis by increasing your body’s cortisol levels.
So, what are these select plant-stuffs? What are the adaptogens you might want to look at getting your hands on?
Well, there are plenty. However, the more common ones are often found in top tier nootropics and include the following:
Ginseng is a potent adaptogenic herb which also gives you a great deal of immune support.
American ginseng, or panax quinquefolium, is an anti-inflammatory ingredient, which can help to reduce inflammation-based pain whilst improving your overall health.
As an adaptogen, ginseng can help you to fight against stress whilst bolstering your nervous system’s healthy functioning, thus improving your fight or flight response – how your body responds to stimulus. It may also be able to stabilize your dopamine levels, thus helping to regulate your mood.
Meanwhile, Asian ginseng, or panax ginseng, helps in relieving fatigue (both mental, emotional fatigue, and physical fatigue). It can improve your energy output and mental and physical performance under duress, or during periods of stress.
Ashwagandha can greatly enhance the endocrine system, thus balancing and helping to optimize your hormonal output, whilst also improving your immune function and cardiovascular system. It helps in metabolic regulation and relaxing your body by diminishing, or calming, your brain’s stress response.
It is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, thus offering long term protection to your body’s cellular health.
Rhodiola rosea helps to alleviate symptoms of fatigue, depression, stress, and anxiety. It can protect against high cortisol levels. It can also help you to maintain high performance under duress, through stressful situations of periods.
Finally, eleuthero, or eleutherococcus senticosus, brings similar benefits to ginseng. It can help in alleviating symptoms of stress, anxiety, and fatigue. It is also great for your immune health, both boosting overall function and acting as an immune modulator.
How do you include adaptogens in your diet?
All of the above adaptogens are commonly found in nootropic supplements for their ability to ward against stress, anxiety, and fatigue. If you want a healthy daily dose of good quality adaptogens, something like NooCube, Mind Lab Pro, or Hunter Focus may be a good idea.
Or, you could simply turn to adaptogen supplements in themselves. For example, you can easily find ginseng capsules quite cheaply and easily at local health stores.
Alternatively, you could include them in your cooking or as common forms of tea. As mentioned above, holy basil is a powerful adaptogen. You can easily cook it into any dish that requires basil. Or you can brew it into your own homemade tea. Likewise, ashwagandha and ginseng tea is common and easy to find in any health store or local tea specialist. You can also buy pre-mixed adaptogen powders to add into your cooking – they work particularly well in hearty soups and stews.
Do adaptogens really work?
Is all this too good to be true?
Well, the legions of adaptogenic fans and proponents seem not to think so. There is no shortage of contemporary and historical anecdotal evidence suggesting that adaptogens really do work – they really do help people to deal with stress levels and immune concerns.
However, though the science is catching up, it still has a lot of ground to cover. Far more data is needed if we are to say with absolute certainty firstly that adaptogens work, and secondly that commonly used adaptogens provide the benefits associated with them.
There are plenty of theories as to why adaptogens might work. One of the main theories suggests that adaptogens sort of ‘train’ your body to deal with stress, by interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathoadrenal system, both of which play large roles in your body’s stress responses. They may also optimize hormone production, and in so doing gearing your body towards healthy physiological stress responses.
However, until more data are collected, collated, and analyzed, this isn’t much more than educated conjecture. We cannot know for sure how or even if adaptogens affect the body in any kind of direct or significant way. All we know for sure is from testimony – though, it must be said, adaptogens contain some of the best testimony going.
It should also be noted that adaptogens such as those listed above are supplements, not medicines. This means, firstly, that they are no replacement for an appropriate medical regime. As above, they will also only ever represent one tool in your arsenal for dealing with stress – they are a plaster, not a cure, so you would still do well to deal with underlying factors.
Secondly, this means that they are poorly regulated. In fact, they are barely regulated at all in most jurisdictions.
Are there any downsides to taking adaptogens?
Other than the arguably shaky scientific validity inherent to adaptogenic usage, there are few downsides to taking them.
You should always consult your doctor before starting out on a new supplement regime, especially if you are on any medications or suffering with any pre-existing medical concerns. Though there is little to worry about, herbal supplements have been shown to be capable of interfering with prescription medication.
Nevertheless, there is little to no evidence suggesting any kinds of side effects associated with adaptogens. They are plants, so can be allergenic and can cause gastrointestinal or digestive discomfort to some people. However, this is the extent to it.
(Noting, of course, the lack in long term data on adaptogen usage).
The main downside may be in what you are asking of adaptogens. By all means, take them as a treatment for stress and anxiety. However, as above, do not expect them to fix the problem. They will simply alleviate symptoms. If you want to fully rid yourself of symptoms, you need to address the root causes – psychological, situational, and contextual) – of your anxiety. They will help you as you make lifestyle changes, but those changes may well still be necessary.
This article was written by: Isobel Davies – SOMA Mental Health & Wellness Editor
Isobel has been an advocate for mental health and mental wellness for the best part of a decade. She uses nootropics (on and off) to support her cognitive functioning and combines this with yoga and meditation to bring a state of calmness to her life.
Away from work, she is a keen pianist and home baker. She has a young family that she adores.