Adaptogens are a unique group of foods that can re-stabilize your body when you’re under stress. These stressors can be chemical, biological or physical. Adaptogens do not have a specific task in your body. Rather, they help you respond to stress by bringing your body’s functions back to normal and keeping it there. They do it by balancing out the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. Simply put, it helps keep your body from producing stress hormones during times of stress.
When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones called endorphins. These hormones trigger a stress response in your body (increased heart rate, narrow focus, tightening of the muscles…). The main stress hormone that your body releases is cortisol. This is the hormone that is responsible for the fight or flight response we feel when we’re under stress. It’s also responsible for causing your body to store up belly fat.
The stress response is not necessarily a bad thing. It raises our energy and alertness. It shunts blood away from our stomach and intestinal tract to our arms and legs so we can get out of stressful situations (i.e.: fight or flight). However, when the response is persistent, we experience chronic stress. Biologically, these stress hormones are being over produced. Over time, that can lead to a wide variety of health problems. It can increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and other harmful cardiovascular conditions. You can also develop brain fog, fatigue and burnout as well as anxiety disorders.
We like to respond to the effects of stress by consuming more and more caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea and energy drinks to get our energy levels back up. Short term, they work. However, they can have side effects that cause your energy levels to crash, and many of us turn back to caffeine to get another boost of energy. On top of that, the constant spiking and crashing of our energy levels can throw off our sleep cycles.
Unlike stimulants, adaptogens have no side effects (when used properly) and we don’t get addicted to them because they do not affect our central nervous system in the same way drugs (including caffeine) can. Scientists are still not sure how adaptogens work but lab studies and thousands of years of traditional use by people around the world show that they can be safe to use and effective.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
The most popular and most studied adaptogen is Eleuthero, which is formerly known as Siberian Ginseng. It resembles ginseng but Eleuthero is not in the ginseng family, which is why it was renamed. Eleuthero is excellent at rejuvenating your energy levels and calming your mind and body. You need to take it for at least a few weeks to start feeling the effects on the body. Demand for this product usually exceeds the supply so there can be several fake Eleuthero products on the market. Look for products that state the eleutheroside content in the supplement. Eleutherosides are the active compounds in eleuthero. The higher the percentage of eleutherosides, the better the product is.
Panax ginseng is a commonly used and effective species of ginseng that can improve your mental health, increase your physical endurance, help get rid of anxiety disorders, and reduce your production of cortisol. The active components of this ginseng are called ginsenosides. There are two different species of ginseng: Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium). They are both quite affective adaptogens that can help get your feet back on the ground.
Try a ½ teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of the liquid extract 2-3 times per day, or 2-3 grams (2000-3000mg) of the powered root daily, or ½ teaspoon of the solid extract two times per day. Ginseng needs to taken continuously over a period of months to feel the true effect of the herb.
Both the Asian and American varieties of ginseng are stimulants. If you have high blood pressure you may want to not use ginseng since it may elevate your blood pressure even more. The American variety of ginseng is less of a stimulant than the Asian variety. However, you should still exercise caution if you have high blood pressure. You may want to discuss it with your doctor first. The quality of ginseng on the market varies greatly. The older roots are more effective but expensive so you may need to shop around for higher qualities of ginseng.
Ashwaghandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwaghanda is an herb that has been used in Ayurveda for many years to restore your energy and vitality. In Ayurveda, it works great for those who are vata types or have an imbalance in either vata or kapha doshas. It is used to relieve anxiety and it is a powerful anti-inflammatory herb. It can help reverse the physical affects of stress and help reverse stress related male infertility. In Sanskrit, Ashwaganha means “horse vitality”. Some studies are showing that it may be more effective than ginseng as an adaptogen.
The herb is usually available in a powdered form. Try 1-2 grams of the powder or two capsules twice a day.
Schizandra Berries are from China and they are used to make Wu Wei Zi or 5-flavor tea. The seeds contain ligans, which are compounds that help reduce the effects of stress on the body. Studies on humans show that it can help improve your memory and concentration. It is especially useful for those who have to work under stressful conditions like soldiers, doctors, or even students. It helps improve your ability and endurance to focus on the task at hand. Be careful not to take it with other blood thinning foods like Garlic since it can increase the risk of bleeding. Also, it may interact with other adaptogens and medications so it’s best to try Schizandra if you’re not on any other medications, herbs or other adaptogens.
Schizandra comes in a variety of forms. If you use the tincture try 40 – 80 drops three times per day.
Rhodiola rosea (Golden root)
Rhodiola rosea is a unique adaptogen because it can help reduce the signs of aging as well as increase stress fighting proteins in the body. It helps get rid of mental fatigue. It can help enhance your ability to focus and increase your stamina. Like Schizandra berries, it’s great for those who have high stress jobs.
It does not contain any caffeine but can give you a natural energy boost without the jitteriness that comes with coffee or energy drinks.
Rhodiola is also known as Golden root. When looking for Rhodiola supplements make sure the main ingredient is R. rosea and not another species of Rhodiola. You can take 100 mg three times per day.
Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Holy Basil, or Tulsi in Hindi, helps with virtually all aspects of stress from mental fatigue to stress hormone production. It is an excellent and powerful adaptogen that has been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years. Click here for more on Holy Basil.
Astragalus root is another unique adaptogen. It can help boost your immune system and decrease the signs of aging while reducing the stress hormones in your body. What really makes it unique is that it can slow down the rate at which your DNA’s telomeres shorten. Telomeres are like caps or laces at the ends of DNA strands that become a little shorter each time the DNA is replicated. Once the strands shorten to a certain length, it signals the cell to die. Astagalus root may slow down the rate at which these telomeres shorten, which lengthens the life of a cell. This is how it may help reduce signs of aging.
Studies are showing that there is a link between telomere length and how susceptible you are to diseases like cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, strokes and heart attacks. Studies also show that stress can speed up the rate at which telomeres shorten.
Astragalus root is safe but may increase your risk of bleeding if you are taking a blood thinning medication. Do not take it if you’re on blood thinning medication, pregnant or breastfeeding.
Try taking 200mg of Astragalus root twice per day to get the benefits.
Also strong adaptogens, cloves can be used in a wide variety of ways from cooking and baking to teas. A great way to use cloves is to add it to some boiling water when you’re making tea. It has a pleasing aroma as well. Click here to learn more about them.
Buckthorn is not only a strong antioxidant but is packed with a wide range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy omega fats. Click here for more information.
Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, is where we get tea leaves from. It is the source of black, green, white and oolong teas. One study showed that the leaf helped decrease the time mice needed to recover from stressful activities like swimming. These teas may also help battle depression perhaps by lowering the production of cortisol your adrenal glands pump out. A majority of people with depression have very high levels of cortisol in their bodies. Click here to learn more about these teas.
Ginger is one of the more underrated adaptogens because it is frequently touted as such an effective anti inflammatory food. It also has a reputation for its ability to fight off cancer. As an adaptogen it may also have the ability to help protect us from the stress caused by cold weather and excessive activity.
In a study done on mice, scientists noticed that when mice were forced to swim, they were able to recover faster than mice not fed ginger. They also exposed mice to cold temperatures for 2 hours per day over a 10 day period of time. The scientists noticed that after being exposed to stress the livers and adrenal glands of mice that were fed ginger, shrunk back to their normal size. This indicated that their livers could break down stress hormones faster and their adrenal glands stopped pumping out adrenaline. Although this was one study, there is growing evidence on how effective ginger can be as an adaptogen and how it follows a different biological pathway for reducing stress than other adaptogens.