Whether or not you’re familiar with adaptogens, you likely recognize the word. Perhaps you’ve seen it as an add-on option at your local smoothie shop or café or maybe you’ve stumbled upon it while reading your favourite health magazine or online nutrition blog. Whatever it may be, it’s a word you’ll certainly want to start paying attention to because adaptogens can make all of the difference when it comes to improving your physical, emotional and mental health. In this article, we cover everything there is to know about adaptogens, including the science, risks and benefits, as well as some popular kinds, such as ashwagandha and ginseng and how to get them in your diet.
What are Adaptogens?
If you’re thinking adapto-what? – you aren’t the only one, so let’s catch you up. Adaptogens is a term used to describe a class of herbs that can increase your resistance stress and decrease your sensitivity to stressors – both physical and emotional. Just as the name suggests – adapt-ogens, these herbs are said to adapt to meet your needs and bring balance to your physical, emotional and mental health. For example, they give you energy when you’re exhausted, help you calm down when you’re anxious and soothe your restlessness when you can’t sleep.
How do Adaptogens Work?
Put into the simplest terms possible, adaptogens impact your levels of cortisol (your stress hormone) to help reduce stress. It all happens on a molecular level. Adaptogens aim to provide and maintain a stable balance in your hypothalamic, adrenal and pituitary glands by “hacking” your body’s stress response. As your body is faced with stress, whether it’s emotional or physical, it goes through three stages: the alarm phase, the phase of resistance and the phase of exhaustion.
The first phase is when you encounter a stressor and the body releases hormones to help. For example, if you’re working out your body releases adrenaline to get your energy pumping. The second phase, the phase of resistance, is when your body basically resists the stressor to allow you to continue doing the task at hand. The resistance phase is all about dragging out the initial boost of hormones from the first phase that fight off the stressor. So, whether it’s a boost of energy to stave off physical stress or the release of calming effects to fight off emotional stress, adaptogens stretch out the “sweet spot” so you can remain in the beneficial stress-fighting state longer.
The Benefits of Adaptogens
The use of adaptogens for their stress-fighting benefits date back many centuries ago. While the term ‘adaptogens’ was only coined in 1947 by a scientist who used them to provide soldiers with a natural way to combat physical and mental stress, many of these herbs have been used in Chinese medicine for many centuries. In traditional ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, adaptogens, such as ginseng, were used to help individuals ground themselves so they could get back in touch with their roots to restore balance in their life. Today, they known for many additional benefits, such as:
- Slow down the aging process with anti-aging properties
- Improve attention
- Increase endurance by fighting off fatigue
- Balance hormones
- Maintain healthy cortisol levels (your stress hormone)
- Combat the effects of stress on a cognitive level
- Stimulate mental performance
- Normalize body functions
- Reduce stress-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, obesity and fatigue
- Boost your immune system
- Improve energy levels and physical stamina
- Normalize body functions
Basically, adaptogens help combat all of the ways stress affects you physically, mentally and emotionally.
Why Adaptogens Are So Important
Understanding the importance of adaptogens is easy once you understand the risks associated with stress. Stress is commonly referred to as “the silent killer”. It’s linked to a vast array of physical, mental and emotional health conditions, including the six leading causes of death in the United States. As such, it’s often believed to be the root of all evil as stress can wreak havoc on all aspects of your health and wellness.
Stress isn’t just a symptom but also a physiological condition that is associated with the nervous, endocrine (hormones), and immune systems. It can be precipitated by many things, such as an external event, environmental condition, or a chemical or biological agent that causes the body to release stress hormones. This results in physiological changes that can increase your blood pressure and heart rate, trigger the flight-or-fight response and lead to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, cause anxiety, depression and sleep problems, as well as many other things. Here are some common effects of stress on your body, mood and behavior:
- Chest pains
- Difficulty focusing
- Lack of motivation
- Muscle tension
- Muscle pain
- Sadness and depression
- Sleep problems
- Social withdrawal
- Substance abuse
- Reduced sex drive
As you can see, stress is at the root of all kinds of health symptoms, conditions and diseases and can even reduce life expectancy. Fortunately, adaptogens can help combat the effects of stress which is what makes them so crucial to your overall health and wellness.
Types of Adaptogens
There are more than 70 types of herbal plants that are considered adaptogens. They can be added to your food or beverages, taken as a supplement or used as a tincture – whichever you prefer. The ones to take depend on the effect, or stressor, you wish to combat.
Some examples of popular adaptogens and the effects they can have are:
- Astralagus root: helps reduce stress, slow down aging and boost the immune system
- Ashwagandha: aims to help the body cope with daily stress and can help improve sleep
- Bacopa monnieri: helps with improving cognitive function, such as memory
- Cordyceps: helps fight off stress, balance hormones, promote longevity and improve erectile dysfunction.
- Ginseng (American and Asian): provides you with energy to help combat exhaustion and fatigue and can increase your body’s defenses (immune system)
- Holy basil: aims to promote relaxation to relieve stress and anxiety
- Licorice: aids with maintaining energy and endurance, can boost your immune system and promote healthy cortisol (stress hormone) levels
- Maca: increase your mood and energy levels
- Reishi: helps the body adapt to stress and to develop a healthy sleep pattern
- Rhodiola rosea: helps reduce anxiety, depression and fatigue, increase mental performance and concentration, and may have cancer-fighting effects
- Schisandra: known as a super berry, this adaptogen can help boost your immune system, fight off colds, liver conditions and stomach disorders, and improve vitality
- Wild yam: aids with female hormone levels
Stress is unavoidable. It’s a normal part of life that affects absolutely everyone, regardless of their age, status and circumstances. Unfortunately, it can also be detrimental to your health if left untreated or not properly managed. Adaptogens can be an effective way to combat the effects stress has on your mind, body and emotions. It’s also important to instill healthy habits, such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and meditating, to help reduce stressors in the first place.