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7 Things You Might Not Know About Adaptogens

By Geraldine Campbell
May 18, 2021
Photo Credit: Alita Ong

Adaptogens are everywhere these days, not just in health food stores and specialty markets. They’re all over Instagram and they’re in nearly every aisle of the grocery store. It seems a new direct-to-consumer brand offering ashwagandha, rhodiola, holy basil and maca supplements and powders pops up every day.

But what exactly are adaptogens and what should you know about them? We break it down for you.

1. They’re trendy, but not new.

Though adaptogens have become increasingly popular and more widely available in recent years, they’re actually ancient remedies. Ayurvedic and Chinese healing traditions have used these herbs for centuries. Ayurvedic tradition has a branch called Rasayana, dedicated to the use of herbs and tonics to rejuvenate the body and mind after periods of stress, and to promote longevity.

2. All adaptogens are herbs, but not all herbs are adaptogens.

We often confuse the words adaptogens and herbs and even use them interchangeably. However, there is a key difference: Adaptogens are a class of herbs. Other classes of herbs include sedatives, stimulants, diuretics, astringents, and so on. In other words, all adaptogens are herbs, but the opposite is not true.

3. They’re the generalists of the herb world.

Whereas some herbs are quite specific in their function, these herbs work more generally on the body as a whole, specifically how the body responds to chronic stress. Some adaptogens tend to be more energizing or more calming, but they all strengthen our stress response and help our bodies to get back into balance. Adaptogens can, well, adapt to work where they’re needed most.

The result? We feel more capable of dealing with the various physical, mental, and emotional stressors in our day-to-day lives. And the long-term benefits may be even more significant, since chronic stress may cause headaches, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety, skin issues, and diabetes.

Unlike Western medicines, which offer fast relief for specific ailments, adaptogens’ effects are more subtle, take place with consistent use, and may help get to the root of the problem. For example, if you have a headache, you might take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen to soothe it. With adaptogens, by taking them over time, you help your body manage the stress that was causing the headache in the first place, minimizing or eliminating the need for the pain reliever.

4. There are (at least) 12.

Depending on whom you ask, there are somewhere between 12 and 20 adaptogens, says Rachelle Robinett, a registered herbalist. The most popular (by far) is ashwagandha. Other common adaptogens include maca root, eleuthero, rhodiola, licorice root, and holy basil. And there are additional plant compounds (and even hormones, like melatonin) that aren’t considered to be adaptogens, but have adaptogenic effects.

For example, research suggests that curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, may have adaptogenic properties. It may help prevent the body from producing too much cortisol, a hormone the body secretes during times of stress. Though some cortisol is beneficial, too much over a prolonged time is linked to headaches, depression and anxiety, digestive problems, weight gain, cognitive issues and more.

Likewise, some mushrooms, including cordyceps, have stress-reducing and immune-boosting properties.

5. They aren’t interchangeable.

Remember how we said adaptogens are the generalist of the herb world? Well, that doesn’t mean they all have the same impact on your body. They’re also synergistic. According to Robinett, two adaptogens together are like 1 + 1 =3… or 1 + 1 = 10.

Here are some of the most popular ones and what they’re good for:

  1. Eleuthero: Also known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is a staple in Chinese and Russian herbal medicine and is prized for its stamina- and immunity-boosting abilities.
  2. Ashwagandha: Native to northern India, this root has long be used in Ayurvedic medicine to calm the mind, energize the body, ease anxiety and boost immunity.
  3. Rhodiola Rosea: One of the most studied adaptogenic herbs, rhodiola rosea helps enhance physical performance, reduce mental fatigue and improve mood. In fact, one UCLA study found that patients who took rhodiola rosea for 10 weeks had significant improvement in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms.
  4. Maca: Often referred to as “Peruvian ginseng” (although it’s not related), maca supports healthy endocrine function and hormonal balance. Research shows this cruciferous root may help boost libido.
  5. Holy Basil: According the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, tulsi helps protect the body against stress from environmental pollutants, heavy metals, pathogens, and bacteria.

6. But they are generally safe.

Another big takeaway from Robinett? Most people tolerate adaptogens. Like with food, some people will have lower tolerances. That’s why it’s important to always start out with small amounts and see how your body reacts. Therapeutic doses run the gamut. For example, for ashwaganda anywhere between a couple hundred milligrams and 3 grams is a functional dose. So, it’s worth figuring out what the right amount is for you.

7. You have options.

You can find adaptogens in capsule form, and that’s certainly a simple and convenient way to add them to your routine. Or, you can find them in teas, powders, tinctures, and even in some beverages and snacks. It’s easier than ever to incorporate adaptogens into your everyday life.

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