Our bodies undergo a lot of stress all the time. Adaptogens have the ability to raise our bodies’ abilities to fight the stressors, aiding in hormonal health, mood and immune function. Registered Dietitian, Olivia Wagner (MS, RDN, LDN, IFNCP) breaks down what adaptogens are and how we can incorporate them into our day-to-day lives.
Stress and the Body
Before we can dive into adaptogens, we have to talk about the body’s response to stress. Allostasis is our body’s adaptation to stress and these systems that adapt to our varying stress levels are essential to our survival. Stress we experience can either be acute or chronic, resulting from physical, chemical or biological factors.
A lot of stress from environmental and social reasons may also aid in developing complicated health issues such as cardiovascular disorders, depression, panic attacks, impaired memory and cognition, and digestive problems, amongst others. It can also stop us from having a normal sleep cycle or create hormonal imbalances. In the space of stress and risk for disease, the body truly keeps score.
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are plant compounds which elicit a state of raised resistance in the body to stressors. They have the ability to normalize physiological function, impacting organs and tissues in efforts to return to neutral. Their impact appears to specifically target the systems that impact male and female hormone health, mood and immune function. Adaptogens are considered metabolic regulators, increasing the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factors, diminishing the magnitude of the alarm phase that stressors cause.
Some adaptogenic plants have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for centuries to promote physical and mental health, improve the body's defense mechanisms and enhance longevity. The action of adaptogens is meant to not over-influence the body- they are meant to work with and gently support your system. Research shows when used in appropriate doses, especially as a food source, adaptogens are non-toxic and have relatively no side effects.
Commonly Used Adaptogens
Ashwagandha- Supports stress response and improves energy levels
Ashwagandha is a small evergreen shrub that grows to about 4-5 feet tall. It is found in dry areas of India and the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa. In a 10-week study where participants were provided a daily therapeutic dose of Ashwagandha root extract powder, there was found to be a significant decrease in Anxiety assessment scores. There are no major known interactions with its use.
Tulsi (Holy Basil)- Helps improve the immune system and reduces stress
Tulsi is an aromatic plant native to India, although it is also found in Australia, West Africa, and some Middle Eastern countries. In the Ayurveda system, Tulsi is often referred to as an “Elixir of Life” for its healing powers and has been known to treat many different common health conditions. Research finds it to have a promising effect on improving the immune system and cognitive flexibility, as well as a reduction in stress-related symptoms, anxiety, and depression. Tulsi is most regularly used as a topical or polyherbal formulation (often as a tea!).
Lepidium meyenii (Maca or Peruvian Gingseng)- Maintains hormonal balance and boosts energy
Roots of Maca are widely used as a dietary supplement in Peru, namely in powder, tablet or capsule form of “Gelatinized Maca.” It is considered that through plant sterols, Maca can help maintain hormonal balance in both women and men. Some research shows that a compound called alkaloids, found in Maca root, impacts the adrenal glands, which also may explain why some individuals report feelings of greater energy and vitality. Maca is often consumed in food form, added to smoothies, soups, or energy balls for easy use. Consulting a medical or herbal professional for therapeutic use is advised.
A few other adaptogens include: Asian Ginseng, rhodiola rosea, schisandra, eleuthero (siberian ginseng), dang shen root, jiaogulan herb, licorice rhizome, eleuthero root, and rhaponticum root, medicinal mushrooms (cordyceps, reishi, chaga, lion’s mane)
Including Adaptogens in Your Day-to-Day
Adaptogens may come in different forms, most popularly including tinctures, powders or capsules. For general food intake, powdered forms can be added to smoothies, teas, lattes, energy balls and soups. For specific disease states, it is recommended to seek consultation from a trained herbal or medical professional (with herbal formula knowledge) for therapeutic dosing of adaptogens.
Disclaimer: The National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health emphasizes caution with using herbal remedies due to limited scientific evidence.