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​What are Adaptogens and Should we be Taking Them?

You may have heard of the term “adaptogens” from lifestyle influencers to juice bars but what are they exactly?

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are herbs or compounds with the unique ability to “adapt” their function to help the body resist stressors of all kinds. While these herbs have been used for centuries in traditional Eastern medicine for healing, the term adaptogen wasn’t coined until the 1950s by a scientist named Lazarev who described compounds from plants that have potential to help the body resist stress. In the modern times, when the average stress level is at an all-time high, adaptogens have gained the spotlight as a potentially effective natural therapy for stress relief and well-being.

How do adaptogens work?

Under certain types of stress, the body secretes hormones and inflammatory cytokines, which can promote the development of anxiety, depression and even panic disorders. Adaptogens can be used to cope with the chronic stress by interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is considered the body’s major hormonal center that produces the stress hormone, cortisol. Adaptogens may tweak hormone production and physiological responses to stress to ensure that your body functions as normally as possible. A good analogy for this is what exercise does for our body. Exercise causes some stress to our body but as we continue to exercise, our body becomes better at adapting with the stress. Similarly, adaptogens “train” the body to handle effects of stress.

What adaptogens are effective for stress?

Since adaptogens help the body adapt to stressors of different ailments, the best one depends on the specific ailment you are experiencing. One commonly used and effective adaptogen is Panax ginseng root, which can improve the body’s response to stress and improves energy. Translated to English, Panax ginseng means “all-healing man root” and has been demonstrated superior as a regulator of stress compared to other adaptogens. In addition to providing stress relief to healthy humans, ginseng may also be a potential therapy for patients with HPA axis disorders associated with hypersecretion of cortisol, including depression, asthma, hypertension, and post traumatic stress disorder. Other adaptogens for stress relief include ashwagandha, rhodiola, and holy basil. However, more human research is needed to determine the efficacy of these herbs in combatting stress.

How should I take adaptogens?

Adaptogens in the form of herbs or plants can be taken in the form of capsules or tablets as a dietary supplement, which can be taken once or twice a day. They are also available in the form of teas or powders to add to foods. For example, you can buy powders or grind your own pulps to add to soups or smoothies. However, adaptogens may interact with prescription medications, so you should talk to your doctor before adding adaptogens to your diet or routine.

While adaptogens are likely safe to take for most people, they can only help alleviate and not treat chronic stress, which may have underlying causes. While supplementing your diet may temporarily improve your lifestyle, getting to the root cause of stress is likely more effective in the long run.

For other ideas on how to eat for stress relief, click here to receive a free Stress Busting Recipe booklet.

Dr. Linda May-Zhang has over 10 years of research experience in nutrition, chronic diseases and pharmacology. She has published over 20 peer-reviewed academic papers in scientific journals. She is also a science writer with a passion for educating the lay public.

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