What Are Adaptogens?

Popular of Ayurvedic Herbs for 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 help the body’s resilience in dealing with stressors that can lead to serious health conditions. Stressors also 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. Other adaptogenic herbs are too bitter to be enjoyed in 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).

Perhaps the most interesting feature of adaptogens is that they don’t have a single function. Rather, they will adapt (thus the name—adaptogen) to what the body needs to maintain balance.

For example, one herbal adaptogen raises the level of estrogen when it’s too high; the same adaptogen will 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 Work in the Body

Adaptogens work to perform many functions in the body, with the overall goal of helping 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 overexertion 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 and 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 that improves the body’s state of resistance to stress. Stress—caused by stressors—is considered a physiological condition, associated with the nervous, endocrine (hormones) and immune systems. A stressor 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 stressors 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 a disease or even in death. This is referred to as maladaptive stress, and it’s what adaptogens 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, 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 (neuro-endocrine and immune) systems.” Neuroendocrine systems involve the brain and nervous system, along with the organs that produce and balance the body’s hormones (such as the adrenal glands). 

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.

Examples of Adaptogenic Herbs

There are many different adaptogens, each with its own specific action. Examples of some of the most common adaptogens include:

  • Ashwagandha: Used to help the body cope with daily stress, and as a general tonic
  • Astragalus root: Helps reduce stress and aging by protecting the telomeres (a structure, linked with aging, located at the end of each chromosome)
  • Siberian ginseng: Provides energy and is known to help overcome exhaustion
  • Holy basil: Promotes relaxation, relieves stress and anxiety
  • Rhodiola rosea: Lowers anxiety, fatigue, and depression
  • Cordyceps: A specific type of mushroom which fights stress and helps to balance the hormones
  • Reishi: A specific type of mushroom which helps the body adapt to stress and promotes a healthy sleep pattern
  • Maca: Reduces stress, improves mood, and increases energy
  • Turmeric: Helps the body maintain healthy levels of corticosterone (the stress hormone)
  • Wild yam: Regulates female hormone levels
  • Licorice: Increases energy and endurance, helps boost the immune system, stimulates the adrenal glands, and promotes healthy cortisol levels
  • Bacopa monnieri: Acts as a natural anti-anxiety and anti-depressant agent, protects the brain and improves memory and 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 party organizations, 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 adaptogen.  

    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 effectiveness 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. It’s certainly easier to pop a pill or chug down a supplemental shake every day, but adaptogens without other 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 enable the body to use its own abilities to change and adapt to stress in a healthy manner, one that hopefully doesn’t lead to disease and promotes healthy aging.  

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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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