What Are Adaptogens?

Ayurvedic Herbs Said to Promote Anti-Aging and Anti-Stress

Closeup of herbal supplements and herbs in apothecary bottles

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In the modern-day world of health and wellness, “adaptogens” are beginning to gain quite a bit of attention. Adaptogenic herbs are being offered in everything from supplements and tonics, to coffee, hot chocolate, and juice bars. But what are adaptogens, where can they be found and perhaps most importantly, do they really work?

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are found in herbs and roots that come from plants; they are said to help the body’s resilience in dealing with  that can lead to serious health conditions.  Adaptogens are also said to play a huge role in the aging process, so many adaptogens are considered to have anti-aging properties.

Adaptogens have been used for hundreds of years in Ayurvedic healing practices. But today adaptogens are becoming more accessible for use in the Western world as well.

Many of these plants are made into powders and integrated into smoothies, teas, or herbal drinks. Others, such as turmeric, can also be used to season food. Some adaptogenic herbs are too bitter to be enjoyed food, so they are made into powdered supplements (and taken as a capsule) or integrated into tinctures (herbal supplements dissolved in alcohol and ingested in a liquid form).

For example, one herbal adaptogen is said to raise the level of estrogen when it’s too high; the same adaptogen may lower estrogen when the levels are too low (such as during menopause).

In short, adaptogens may perform many functions such as triggering the production of hormones or altering the body’s response to stress to ensure that the entire body (from the brain to the immune system) functions optimally.

How Adaptogens Are Said to Work in the Body

Adaptogens are said to perform many functions in the body to help the body’s ability to respond and overcome the influences of physical, chemical or biological stressors. They may be regarded as substances that:

  • Improve attention
  • Increase endurance (in situations caused by fatigue)
  • Lower stress induced disorders and impairments in the body
  • Balance hormone levels
  • Keep cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and other hormone levels in check'
  • Fight fatigue (that results from overkill of physical or emotional stress) 
  • Combat the impact that stress has on cognitive function
  • Stimulate mental performance that has been impacted by stress
  • Normalize body functions
  • Boost the immune system (that has been impacted by stress)
  • Fight the symptoms caused by elevated cortisol levels (such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and obesity)
  • Increase physical stamina (improve energy levels)
  • Improve the function of organs (such as the liver and adrenal glands)
  • Improve the function of body systems (such as the gastrointestinal system)

Adaptogens and Stress

Adaptogens are any substance said to improve the body’s state of resistance to stress. Of course, they do not impact a person's experience of stressful events, but rather, are said to improve the way the body responds physically to stress. 

Stress is considered a physiological condition, associated with the nervous, endocrine (hormones) and immune systems. Stress can be an external event, environmental condition or a chemical or biological agent that triggers the body to release a cascade of hormones (such as cortisol, and other hormones, released by the adrenal glands) which results in physiological changes.

Examples of changes that occur due to the release of cortisol, considered the stress hormone, include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. This sudden flood of hormonal changes is called the fight-or-flight response. Examples of  that may induce the fight or flight response in the body include:

  • Environmental factors (such as extremely high or low temperatures)
  • Biological factors (such as an illness or injury)
  • Chemical agents (such as tobacco, alcohol or drugs)
  • Mental issues (such as focusing on negative events [like the loss of a job or a divorce] or perceived threats)
  • Physical events (such as chronic loss of sleep)
  • Day-to-day stressful events (like driving in heavy traffic)

When a person’s response to stress is not adequate, or when stress is too overwhelming or long-term, it can result in disease or even in death. This is referred to as maladaptive stress, and it’s what adaptogens are said to help the body to overcome.

 Are Adaptogens Effective?

Although there is limited evidence from medical studies to back the claims of effectiveness for each type of adaptogen, some new studies are beginning to emerge.

For example, one study found that adaptogens “may be regarded as a novel pharmacological category of anti-fatigue drugs that: induce increased attention and endurance in situations of decreased performance caused by fatigue and/or sensation of weakness, reduce stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the function of stress.” 

Another study found that previous adaptogen studies (specifically involving Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and Bacopa) discovered how these specific herbs showed benefits in people during periods of chronic stress..

Although there is some limited clinical research data that supports the effectiveness of various adaptogens, some experts caution the public that it’s important to understand that not all natural supplements are what they say they are. According to Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle  at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, “A lot of supplement companies put small amounts of this and that in a pill. I think they are just assuming or wishing for a synergistic effect.” 

Supplements, including adaptogens are not regulated by the FDA for safety or effectiveness, this puts the responsibility on the consumer to ensure they are buying products that are pure, safe and effective.

Examples of Adaptogenic Herbs

There are many different adaptogens, each is said to have its own specific action, but keep in mind that there is limited clinical research studies that prove the safety and effectiveness of these natural supplements. Examples of common adaptogens and the action they are said to produce in the body include:

  • Astragalus root: said to help reduce stress and aging by protecting the telomeres  (structures linked with aging, located at the end of each chromosome)
  • Ashwagandha- used to help the body cope with daily stress, and as a general tonic
  • Siberian ginseng: may provide energy and help overcome exhaustion
  • Holy basil: said to promotes relaxation, relieve stress and anxiety
  • Rhodiola rosea: may lower anxiety, fatigue, and depression
  • Cordyceps-a specific type of mushroom which is said to fight stress and helps balance the hormones
  • Reishi-a specific type of mushroom which is said to help the body adapt to stress and promotes a healthy sleep pattern
  • Maca- may improves mood and increase energy
  • Turmeric-may help the body maintain healthy levels of corticosterone (the stress hormone)
  • Wild yam-said to regulate female hormone levels
  • Licorice- said to increase energy and endurance and helps boost the immune system, stimulate the adrenal glands and promote healthy cortisol levels 
  • Bacopa Monnieri- a natural anti-anxiety and anti-depressant agent, said to protect the brain and improve memory and improve other aspects of cognitive function

Supplements

Many adaptogens are available in a capsule form, but it’s important to understand that natural supplements are not always what the company says they are. When possible, it's best to select an herbal supplement that is organic, all natural and ethically wild-harvested. Look for products that are certified by a third such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.com. These organizations evaluate and report on a product’s level of purity and potency.   

Supplements, including adaptogens, are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety or effectiveness. This puts the responsibility on the consumer to ensure they are buying products that are pure, safe and effective.

Look for labels that read, 100%, pure, wild-crafted and organic, and those that use third-party entities to test the purity and efficacy of the product.

Side Effects

Any type of herbal supplement can interact with other supplements, over-the-counter medications, or prescription drugs. Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before taking adaptogens.

There are very few well-known side effects of taking adaptogens. While some adaptogens are said to have many great health-promoting abilities, some can produce side effects, particularly if taken for too long or in too high of doses.

For example, licorice root may cause elevated blood pressure and hypokalemia (low potassium levels) when taken over a long time-span. It’s recommended to take licorice in 12-week cycles, taking a break between each cycle. Those with high blood pressure may want to select a different  

Some people experience stomach upset from taking certain types of adaptogens, others may have allergic symptoms. There are very few long-term studies that have examined  and safety linked with taking specific adaptogens over time. 

A Word From Verywell

While it may be overall safe to take adaptogens, it’s important not to overlook other natural health-promoting measures such as eating a healthy diet and performing regular exercise. Employing other measures (like meditation or mindfulness practice) to lower the impact of stress on the body is also important. Although it's easy to simply take a supplement every day, adaptogens (and other natural supplements) without lifestyle changes may not be enough to make a long-term impactful difference.

Keep in mind that adaptogens don’t eliminate stress from a person’s life, rather, they may enable the body to use its own abilities to change and adapt to stress in a manner that promotes healthy aging. But, more scientific evidence (medical research studies) are needed to definitively prove this, and many of the other health promoting claims of adaptogens.

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Article Sources

  1. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel); 3(1):188-224. doi:10.3390/ph3010188

  2. Ajala TO. The Effects of Adaptogens on the Physical and Psychological Symptoms of Chronic Stress. DISCOVERY: Georgia State Honors College Undergraduate Research Journal. 2017;4:2. doi:10.31922/disc4.2

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