What Are Adaptogens?

The latest and greatest buzzword consuming your healthy household – adaptogens. Adaptogens are various ayurvedic herbs that possess anxiolytic, nootropic, and performance effects. Coined in 1947 during World War II, various stimulants and herbs were given to pilots and submarine crews, to enhance mental and physical performance to help them “adapt” to what their body needed under times of mental and physical stress.  But what exactly are these herbs popping up in your local juice bar and natural foods stores? We're going to talk about what adaptogens are, how they work, and which adaptogens are the best. 

What Are Adaptogens 

Adaptogens are ancient herbs used in traditional Chinese and Indian ayurvedic medicine, marketed as natural healers of stress and anxiety. Studies show that several adaptogens such as Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng), Ashwagandha, Turmeric, Rhodiola Rosea, L-Theanine, producing a calming effect and balance stress.

How Do Adaptogens Work

Each adaptogen is unique in its exact mechanism, pharmacological use and therapeutic benefit. Research has shown that several adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anxiolytic, nootropic, anti-depressive, and anti-fatigue effects that may enhance overall productivity, critical thinking, mood state, sleep, and enable better stress response. 

Adaptogens are found to help you “adapt” to stress and better cope with anxiety. Adaptogens regulate and balance the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, pituitary, and the sympathoadrenal system, all of which are involved in the body’s response to stress.

Researchers believe that adaptogens work by altering the reactivity of defense systems, such as the immune system, endocrine response, and central nervous system.  

Several adaptogens such as ashwagandha, theanine, and valerian root all stimulate the release of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that produces serotonin and melatonin, the “sleep hormone” achieving a calmer state of mind and body. Inhibitory neurons reduce excitatory neurons, essentially blocking emotions such as fear, anxiety, and stress enhancing alpha wave production in the brain promoting relaxation.

What Are the Benefits Of Adaptogens

1. Improve Sleep, Stress, And Anxiety

Several studies have shown that ashwagandha, theanine, and valerian root exhibit anti-anxiety effects, helping promote a sense of calm, reducing stress, anxiety and optimizing sleep quality. These specific adaptogens stimulate the release of GABA inhibiting emotional markers of stress, and essentially putting the brakes on excitatory neurons glutamate and it’s positive modulators epinephrine and norepinephrine. Evidence also purports that Siberian ginseng and Rhodiola are very effective at reducing stress-induced symptoms. 

Several studies have shown that Rhodiola can help prevent physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion in stress induced environments. One study showed improvement in mental fatigue amongst a group of 161 servicemen, while another double-blind crossover study showed favorable outcomes in cognition and perception amongst physicians working graveyard shifts [RR].

A study published in the Journal Nutrients, examined the effects of theanine supplementation on stress and cognitive function. 30 healthy participants were administered 200mg per day for four weeks. Study results showed that scores for sleep latency (time to fall asleep), sleep disturbance, and use of sleep medications all reduced after L-theanine administration, compared to the placebo administration [R].

2. Enhance Cognitive Function 

Several adaptogens also exhibit neuroprotective effects, which may help improve overall brain function. Turmeric and its active ingredient curcumin have been the subject of several studies investigating their effects on cognitive performance, due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Phenolic compounds are often found in several different adaptogens such as turmeric and rhodiola which may play a significant role in preventing chronic disease, from their anti-inflammatory properties. 

A recent study conducted by The University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), curcumin was proven to help improve memory and mood in people with mild, age-related memory loss.

In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study 40 adults between the ages of 50 and 90 years who had mild memory complaints, were randomly assigned a placebo or 90 milligrams of curcumin twice daily for 18 months. The curcumin group experienced significant improvements in their memory and attention abilities, while the placebo group did not. In memory tests, the people taking curcumin improved by 28% over the 18 months trial period [R].

3. May Improve Athletic Performance

Studies have shown that herbal adaptogens like rhodiola, ashwagandha, Siberian ginseng, and coryceps, and magnolia berry may help improve VO2 and exercise endurance capacity.  

A study investigating the effects of Siberian Ginseng on endurance capacity in cyclists, found that by supplementing 800mg per day, participants increased their VO2 max by 12% and endurance cycle time by 23% [R].

Several studies have shown that ashwagandha may benefit exercise performance indicators such as muscle strength, muscle growth, and cardiorespiratory performance.

A study published in the Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, concluded that 600mg of ashwagandha showed significant improvements in muscle mass and strength, and exercise recovery in conjunction with a resistance training program after 8 weeks [R].

Ashwagandha has also been shown to improve cardiorespiratory endurance in athletes. S study conducted with 40 cyclists evaluated the effects of 500mg of ashwagandha administered twice per day for 8 weeks on endurance and exercise capacity. Results showed a substantial increase in VO2 and time to exhaustion, improving endurance [R]. Study results were also replicated with hockey players with the same supplement protocol, dosage, and duration, resulting in improved energy levels, VO2 and muscular endurance [R]. 

What Are The Best Adaptogens

Dependent upon the specific adaptogen, some have been extensively studied, while others still need more research to prove their therapeutic benefits. Below you'll find a list of the most popular and well research adaptogens with proven clinical benefits.

 

Adaptogen

Potential benefit

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

Boosts working memory, reaction time, calmness, and immune system

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Reduces stress and anxiety, improves sleep, increases testosterone levels

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

Combats fatigue,

controls blood sugar levels

Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)

Boosts stamina, improves cardiovascular endurance

Goji berry (Lycium barbarum)

Boosts energy, physical and mental performance, calmness, and sense of well-being, and can also improve sleep, improves immune system function

Eluethero root “Siberian Ginseng” (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

Improves focus and staves off mental fatigue, may improve endurance capacity

Jiaogulan (Gynostemma Pentaphyllum)

Reduces stress and boosts endurance, may improve diabetes, helps obesity  

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Reduces stress, significantly improves skin conditions such as eczema

Rhodiola rosea (R. rosea)

Staves off physical and mental fatigue, reduces stress and anxiety, improves cognitive health, helps treat depression

Schisandra berry/Magnolia berry (Schisandra chinensis)

Boosts endurance, mental performance, and working capacity

Theanine

Optimizes sleep quality and duration, reduces stress and anxiety

Tulsi/Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum)

Reduces physical and mental stress, stress-related anxiety, and depression

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Boosts brain function and reduces depression, improves joint health and mobility, improves memory, helps arthritic symptoms and reduces pain

Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis)

Improves sleep quality, reduces anxiety

What Are Adaptogens: Takeaway

Feelings of stress and anxiety can create chronic fatigue, impaired mental acuity, and enhance the aging process. Adaptogens can help you adjust and adapt to physical and mental stress, to cope and find balance. Just as with any other supplement, to produce the desired effects and benefits, you must stay consistent and supplement daily for several weeks. Research suggests that taking adaptogens could be extremely beneficial to boost mental clarity, improve sleep, and optimize quality of life. 


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