What are adaptogens and should we be taking them? Dr Linia Patel gives us the lowdown.
Adulting can be full on. There are relationships to navigate. There’s work. The constant flux of societal pressures to get this – do that – look like. Add to that the cost-of-living crisis, rising energy bills … and [fill in the gap]. Hello, stress! It’s become the normal to be “stressed”. In the nutrition world, there is an increased focus on adaptogens, another way to help us cope with stress.
Adaptogens are certain herbs or mushrooms that are thought to have multiple health benefits. These herbs are thought to be particularly good at helping our bodies reach to – or recover from – both short- and long-term physical or mental stress. Some have also been linked to boosting immunity and overall wellbeing. They have been used for hundreds of years in Ayurvedic medicine but are now becoming more accessible for use in the Western world as well. As the herbs are very bitter, they are often made into powdered supplements (taken as a capsule), teas or integrated into tinctures.
How do adaptogens work?
The research on adaptogens is ongoing. Although there is limited evidence from high-quality studies to back the claims of effectiveness, there are some new and promising studies beginning to emerge.
Researchers say that adaptogenic herbs interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a complex system of glands and hormones and receptors in the human body. The HPA axis is central to the body’s homeostasis, stress responses and energy metabolism. Adaptogens work with the HPA axis to help balance out these systems. If there is too much of one hormone, adaptogens help lower it, for example. On the flip side, if there isn’t enough of a hormone, adaptogens can help to replenish its levels. Some studies also suggest that adaptogens interact with the immune-neuro-endocrine system, which helps the body regulate its use of energy and maintain strong immune defences.
Are adaptogens effective?
Like a mini vaccine, some adaptogens appear to inoculate us against stress and help us cope. A recent scientific review examined adaptogen studies (specifically involving ashwagandha and rhodiola) and suggested that these herbs could potentially benefit people during periods of chronic stress, for example. Keep in mind that there are still only limited clinical research studies supporting the safety and effectiveness of adaptogens and that is why some health experts caution that these herbs are not necessarily all that they say they are.
Examples of adaptogenic herbs
There are many different types of adaptogens, each said to have its own specific action. Each adaptogen has a different effect on the body, so the one you take will depend on the result you seek.
Examples of the common ones are:
|A general tonic. Reduces stress and anxiety. Helps with ageing. Increases testosterone levels.|
|Rhodiola rosea L
|Prevents physical and mental fatigue.|
|Tulsi (Holy Basil)||Promotes relaxation. Relieves stress and anxiety.
|Siberian Ginseng||Supports good energy levels and helps to overcome exhaustion.
|Cordyceps||A type of mushroom that helps the body adapt to stress and promotes a healthy sleep pattern.
|Liquorice||Increases energy, endurance and helps boost the immune system. Stimulates the adrenal glands to promote healthy cortisol levels.|
|Maca||Improves mood and increases energy.
Time your adaptogens right
Nutrition experts recommend using adaptogens for a few days or a week when you feel your body needs support. However, they also recommend rotating the type of adaptogen you are using after six weeks so your body can benefit from the subtle differences between the herbs.
Stimulating adaptogens like rhodiola should be taken earlier in the day to align with the body’s circadian rhythm. Calming adaptogens like Holy Basil can be taken in the evening or before bed.
Adaptogens are non-toxic herbs; however, some factors should be taken into consideration before you start consuming them:
- They may react with other medications. If you are taking a prescribed medication, ensure you talk to your doctor before adding any adaptogens into your routine. Liquorice root, for example, may cause elevated blood pressure.
- They are better in low doses taken over short periods. Experts recommend ingesting adaptogenic herbs in small doses each day over the course of six to 12 weeks. Taking larger doses in a single setting may result in adverse effects like nausea, vomiting, dizziness or headaches. There are few long-term studies that have examined the safety of taking specific adaptogens over time.
- They work differently from person to person. Don’t take an adaptogen just because your best friend takes one and swears by it. Adaptogens can react differently between individuals. So, make sure you research which one(s) could work best for you and, for best results, consult a health professional on how best to incorporate it.
While adaptogens appear to be useful buffers, remember they are not a cure-all or substitute. Use them to help cope with intense periods in life and to stay gently energised in the long term but be sure not to overlook other important things like eating well, exercising regularly, meditating, breathing work and spending enough time in bed.
You should now go check out Linia’s best-selling online educations:
- Nutrition for Menopause
- Gut Health – the power of the microbiome
- Low Carb: the evidence & application
- Sports Nutrition Basics
- Plant-Based Eating: The Essentials
Which one do you fancy?
Dr Linia Patel has a BSc degree in biochemistry and physiology and has recently achieved a PhD in public health. Linia is a leading dietitian and sports nutritionist. Her passion is translating nutritional science into easy-to-digest and practical advice.
- Ajala TO (2017), The effects of adaptogens on the physical and psychological symptoms of chronic stress, Discovery, 4: 2.
- Zhang H et al (2020), Characteristics of Panax ginseng Cultivars in Kora and China, Molecules, 25(11): 2635.
- Panossian A et al (2021), Evolution of the adaptogenic concept from traditional use to medical systems: Pharmacology of stress and aging-related diseases, Med Res Rev., 41(1): 630-703.
- Lopresti A et al (2019), An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha extract: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, Medicine, 17,186.
- Jin et al (2020), Clinical and preclinical systematic review of Ginseng and its compounds for fatigue, Front Pharmacol., 11: 1,031.
- Mondal S et al (2011), Double blinded randomised controlled trial for immunomodulatory effects of Tulsi leaf extract on health volunteers, J Ethnopharmcol., 136(3): 452-456.