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Need to Know: Adaptogens

There are so many supplements with so many claims to cure what ails us that it’s difficult to see the best herbs for the forest of snake-oil weeds. But if you’re feeling stressed, unfocused, hormonal, off balance, or low on energy — and are just sick and tired of being sick and tired — adaptogens have scientifically proven superpowers to help get you back on track.

What Are Adaptogens?

In a nutshell, adaptogens are a broad family of plants that have been a staple of ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for centuries. They are prized for their ability to promote vitality, boost immunity, increase endurance, and reduce inflammation by stimulating properties that fight the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol, in particular. 

“Imagine you were a plant,” explains Joshua Levitt, a naturopathic physician who teaches at Yale School of Medicine. “If it’s cold outside, you can’t put on a sweater. If you’re thirsty, you can’t go get a drink. Over many thousands of years, plants have developed adaptations that allow them to survive and even thrive in environmentally stressful conditions. It’s a remarkable skill, and it’s all about chemistry.” 

To survive, plants that live in stressful conditions contain chemical compounds that allow them to thrive despite environmental stress. “Here’s the cool part,” Levitt says. “It turns out that modern scientific research has demonstrated that many of the same compounds that plants use to adapt to stress can help humans adapt to stress as well. That’s why we call them adaptogens.”

They’re able to accomplish all of this by helping regulate cortisol secretion by our adrenal glands — the two little pyramid-shaped glands that sit on top of our kidneys. “Surprisingly,” says Levitt, “they can help raise a cortisol level that is too low and can lower a cortisol level that’s too high.” Simply put, they help the adrenals adapt to stress.

Boosting, Balancing, and Fighting Powers

In addition to helping modulate stress response and balance hormones, adaptogens have the capacity to help boost our overall immune system and strength to fight disease, according to both animal and human studies. This supremely agile category of herbal supplements can also keep us calmer, while also boosting our energy levels to fight what an increasing numbers of practitioners of holistic and functional medicine feel is an epidemic of stress. They also have brain-boosting effects to help us stay focused.

As a category, all adaptogens are, of course, not created equal. From ashwagandha (Sanskrit for “like a horse”) to schisandra (the berries of what’s known as the five-flavor fruit plant), different adaptogen herbs and mushrooms each have a specific superpower. Some contain high levels of potent healing beta glucans and triterpenes that pack a powerful punch as antimicrobial and antiviral adaptogens for gut health. Others help alleviate fatigue and out-of-whack sugar levels. They do this by supporting our hormone system to boost energy when we’re exhausted and promote relaxation when we’re experiencing high stress.

Adaptogens’ Ancient Ways

Though they may be trending, adaptogens have a long history of use in holistic herbal medicine. Soldiers from modern times going back to ancient India and China have taken adaptagens to increase energy and focus and beat combat fatigue and the stress of active duty — in particular to help boost GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that helps the brain and nervous system calm neuron and nerve cell activity. 

Why We’re Interested

Scientists got us at hormonal balance. Any supplements that help manage chaotic hormones and stress levels, help with sleep and energy gets our attention. They also have antioxidant powers. Quality adaptogen supplements are being considered as important natural alternatives to anti-anxiety drugs, which is great news for the 40 million Americans suffering from mild to severe anxiety disorders — the most common mental health issue in the United States today, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 

Are They Safe?

Levitt says most of the common adaptogenic herbal medicines (including ashwaganda, rhodiola, maca, schisandra, eleutherococcus, holy basil, shatavari, and reishi mushroom) are very safe for general use. However, he recommends talking to an integrative or functional medicine practitioner (which likely is not your primary care physician) if you’re on prescription blood thinning or immunosuppressive medication, or have a serious medical problem.

Photo: Eskymaks

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