Herbal medicine has a long history of use for various ailments, but one particular class of herbs — in most cases derived from roots — suddenly feels trendy. Called adaptogens, these are plants that seem particularly good at helping the body adjust to stress and find better balance.
A HISTORY LESSON ON ADAPTOGENIC HERBS
Compared to the length of time herbs have been documented for medicinal use, adaptogens are the new kids on the block. A Russian scientist coined the term in 1947, after noticing certain herbs and substances had a beneficial effect in animal studies related to stress tolerance.
Since then, adaptogens have been linked to benefits ranging from mental alertness and less fatigue to better mood and higher immunity. The substances are also associated with easing many of the symptoms related to stress, such as sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal upset, irritability and anxiety. Some experts also point to advantages for weight loss and more balanced hormones.
Studies and clinical trials are still ongoing, so don’t consider these plants to be miracle cures quite yet. But, according to research on their effects, they do show promise as a natural complement to other healthy lifestyle shifts like getting plenty of activity, eating a more plant-based diet and getting enough sleep.
WHAT ARE ADAPTOGENS?
Although they were only given the “adaptogen” definition about 70 years ago, these plant components have been part of herbal medicine for hundreds, and some believe thousands, of years.
To be considered an adaptogen, herbs have to offer support to the body and bring it back to equilibrium in some way. That’s an incredibly broad definition, but these are some of the most commonly used herbs fitting that description:
- Asian ginseng
- Eleuthero (or Siberian ginseng)
- Rhodiola rosea
- Holy basil
These can be taken in numerous ways, but are usually sold as powders that can be mixed in a smoothie or as pills or teas. Most of them are derived from roots, but a few come from the stem or, in the case of cordyceps and reishi, from mushrooms.
The tastiest of them may be holy basil, and you can cook with it or chop up the raw leaves and throw them on a salad, sandwich or egg scramble.
HOW DO ADAPTOGENS WORK?
“Adaptogens increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stressors, and provide a defense response to acute or chronic stress,” notes David Winston, author of “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.”
They differ from other substances, he adds, since they have an ability to restore the balance of endocrine hormones, modulate the immune system and allow the body to maintain optimal homeostasis.
For some people, adaptogens have a beneficial effect on cortisol — the hormone most involved in regulating your stress response — according to Dr. Filomena Trindade of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
“Adaptogens can be a good way for some to bring their cortisol back to a healthy pattern,” she says. “They do that by helping to tone the adrenal cortex and the pituitary system, so they operate more efficiently. When that happens, cortisol is released in a more regulated way, instead of spiking up and down.”
POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS
Like any substance that may affect your physiology, adaptogens sometimes have unwanted effects. Because many adaptogens can increase mental alertness and dispel fatigue, these effects are similar to what may happen if you overload on caffeine: headache, trouble sleeping, irritability, racing heart and anxiety.
As with any new addition to your supplement or diet, pay attention to the effects — and if they become troublesome or persist for more than a few days, consider switching to another option. After all, there are plenty of adaptogens, so you have a wealth of choices.
Be especially aware of any potential interactions with medications you’re already taking. As with any herb, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it plays well with others. If you’re taking medications for any condition, check with your doctor before adding in any adaptogenic supplements.
That caveat aside, adaptogens can be a robust addition to any healthy efforts, especially if you’re trying to knock out stress.
Originally published July 2018, updated April 2022
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