Do Adaptogen Herbs Really Work?8 min read time
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Adaptogens are popping up everywhere, from juice bars to health and fitness blogs.
These ancient herbs have recently taken the wellness world by storm and are appearing in drinks from adaptogen-infused coffee to maca and ashwagandha smoothies.
So why are they becoming so popular?
Research shows that adaptogens work to help your body adapt to stress and reduce the negative effects stress has on your health. Adaptogen herbs have been used for a variety of medicinal purposes dating back thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic healing traditions.
If you’re just getting your start in the world of adaptogens, it can be quite overwhelming navigating the wealth of information. “What are adaptogens?” and “Do they really work?” are just some of the questions you might have.
You've come to the right place.
Let's detail what you need to know about adaptogens and how you can incorporate them into your wellness routine. And spoiler alert: Yes, they really do work. They've been a staple in traditional medicine all these centuries for good reason.
The truth is: it's the Western world that's late to the party.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are edible plants that boost the body's resistance to and tolerance of physical, mental, and chemical stressors of all types. Put simply, they support the body's natural ability to cope with stress.
The term “adaptogen” first appeared in scientific literature in 1947 when Russian toxicologist Nikolai Lazarev went in search of natural substances that would improve the health and performance of Russian soldiers and athletes. His research triggered a golden age of adaptogen research that lasted for decades as Soviet scientists set out to discover the impact of adaptogens on stress levels, energy, and human performance.
One of the first adaptogen herbs to be studied by Russian scientists was Schisandra chinensis. This herb was widely used by Siberian hunters who regularly consumed the plant’s berries and seeds when going on long hunts. Schisandra berries gave the hunters the energy to hunt for an entire day without eating any other food and also reduced their thirst and exhaustion levels.
Many years have passed since the classical research period of adaptogens, and adaptogens are now experiencing a much-deserved renaissance today.
How Do Adaptogens Work in the Body?
The clue lies in their name.
As mentioned above, adaptogens help you adapt to stress of all types and protect your body from its negative effects.
Adaptogens work in the body by balancing numerous physiological processes such as energy, metabolism, immune response, and the nervous system. Adaptogens help your body develop a stable response to stress by decreasing your body’s sensitivity to stressors of all types.
You might think of adaptogens as a stress thermostat: they turn up your energy levels when you’re fatigued and help calm you when you’re stressed.
Adaptogens also help lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Stress, whether physical or emotional, causes very real physical changes in the body and can have harmful effects on the functioning of your neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. By regulating your body’s response to stress, researchers found that adaptogens can help to:
- Improve overall health and well being
- Increase energy and stamina
- Reduce inflammatory cortisol levels
- Regulate the body’s response to stressors
- Improve the quality of sleep
- Balance hormones
While each adaptogen herb acts a bit differently, they all work to regulate your body’s stress response. Some adaptogens also enable your cells to access more energy and help the body utilize oxygen more efficiently. As a result, you may notice improved physical performance, in addition to feeling calmer and less reactive.
What Herbs are Adaptogens?
The list of adaptogenic herbs is expansive and includes herbs such as panax ginseng, eleuthero, schisandra, ashwagandha, rhodiola, astragalus, reishi, American ginseng and shilajit. Some adaptogenic herbs and their healing benefits have been scientifically and clinically studied more than others. Among the most well-researched adaptogens are:Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is an evergreen shrub that has featured prominently in Ayurvedic medicine for countless generations. The herb contains high levels of withanolides that have been shown to fight inflammation and tumor growth. Some of the traditional and clinically proven uses are:
- Reduces cortisol in chronically stressed individuals
- May lower blood sugar levels
- Improves concentration and memory
- Increases energy levels
- Improves relaxation and sleep
- Has anti-aging and anti-inflammatory properties
- Reduces damage caused by various stressors
- Increases the body’s immune system response
Eleuthero (also known as Siberian ginseng) has been used in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for 2,000 years and was studied extensively by Soviet scientists in the last century. As one of the most studied of all herbs, eleuthero may offer many traditional and medicinal value to users, including:
- Greater physical endurance
- Increased mental acuity
- Protection from the dangers of chronic stress
- Quicker recovery from acute stress
- Stimulation of muscle growth
- Support for vital organs
- Improved learning and memory
- Increased immunity
Rhodiola Rosea is a beautiful plant that grows in the cold, mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. Rhodiola has been shown to alleviate fatigue as well as the factors that can contribute to fatigue, such as stress, anxiety, and inadequate sleep. Rhodiola also has many traditional medicine and wellness uses, and studies show it can:
- Boost energy, strength, and stamina
- Help students perform better under stress
- Reduce stress-related hormones
- Boost endorphins, the body’s feel-good compounds
- Increase the body’s ability to cope with stress
- Improve brain function
- Increase the body’s resistance to disease
Schisandra is perhaps lesser-known than its counterparts on this list, but nevertheless packs a powerful punch. Scientists have discovered that schisandra actually acts much like a stimulant. It works on the central nervous system and gives both mind and body a lasting energy boost without the jitters you would typically get from caffeine or other stimulants. Schisandra has also been shown to stimulate the production of the epinephrine hormone resulting in physiological changes that lead to feelings of well-being. Schisandra has a long history of traditional uses and research shows it may:
- Reduce fatigue and exhaustion
- Increase stamina and endurance
- Enhance mood and fight depression
- Improve memory
- Protect the liver from toxins
- Treat respiratory and digestive ailments
- Protect the body from chemical and drug toxicities
- Protect DNA from damage
- Treat chronic fatigue
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Enhance memory and mental activity
- Protect against stress caused by environmental pollutants
- Improve glucose regulation
- Be an effective remedy for ADHD
- Protect against endothelial damage
- Be a natural treatment for erectile dysfunction
- Support the lungs and improve COPD
- Act as a COX 2 inhibitor and reduce inflammation
Note: Ginseng is known to work best when taken in conjunction with other adaptogens.Shilajit is an adaptogen “herbo-mineral” that flows from the high mountain rocks of the Himalayas in the heat of summer. In traditional Indian medicine, shilajit is widely used to improve general health by providing the body's cells and tissues with protection and support. Research shows that it is anti-aging, anti-bacterial, anti-ulcer, anti-allergic, and has anti-diabetic properties. Shilajit has been cherished for generations and studies show it may:
- Improve brain function
- Enhance male and female reproductive health
- Promote bone and tissue growth
- Speed wound healing
- Increase bone density
- Improve prostate health
- Stimulate the immune system
- Inhibit brain aging
- Improve peripheral circulation
Some other common adaptogen herbs and their effects on the body include:
- Astragalus root which may help reduce stress and aging
- Reishi mushrooms may help the body adapt to stress while promoting a healthy sleeping pattern
- Cordyceps mushroom may support an increase in energy, balanced hormones, and can help to promote wellbeing and feelings of calmness
- Licorice root supports the stimulation of adrenal glands and may promote healthy cortisol levels while boosting immune function
- American ginseng has been shown to reduce fatigue in clinical trials involving patients receiving treatment for severe illness
Which Adaptogens Should I Take?
The most highly researched adaptogens, including: Ashwagandha, Panax Ginseng, Eleuthero, Rhodiola Rosea, Schisandra and Shilajit are completely non-toxic herbs that are gentle on your body and have been shown to be helpful for people who have any type of chronic stress in their life.
This can be physical stress due to overwork, poor sleep or an illness; mental or emotional stress due to various life pressures, and even environmental or chemical stress from the toxins in the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food we eat.
Adaptogens have also been shown to be effective for those who experience fatigue and need more energy and stamina, as well as people who want to perform better physically and/or mentally.
Most importantly, hundreds of studies on adaptogen herbs show they may support your body by protecting it against the dangers of chronic stress and many stress-related diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, dementia, depression and others.
Scientists have discovered that although each adaptogen has numerous and similar benefits, in general, adaptogens are most effective when several adaptogens are taken together.
There are no known side-effects from taking adaptogens. However, If you are pregnant, breast-feeding or are concerned about a specific health issue, it is suggested that you consult an integrative physician who is knowledgeable in herbal medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine.
If you’re interested in trying adaptogens, it’s important to know that adaptogens are not a quick one-time fix. They’re meant to be used regularly and consistently to support your overall health and help your body build and maintain resilience against all types of stress.
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