What Are Adaptogens?
Have you ever been under so much pressure that everything around you suddenly feels overwhelming, your heart is racing, and you can’t concentrate on even the simplest tasks?
Feeling like this all the time can have dramatic effects on your personal life and health. But unfortunately, more and more people experience it daily.
In fact, more than 80% of individuals eventually reach a point of complete emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion due to excessive and prolonged stress - commonly known as burnout.
Burnout is associated with both decreased quality of life and increased risk of premature death. But what if I tell you that there is a way to change the way your body copes with pressure?
The answer to managing stress naturally could lie in adaptogens, and they can help boost your body’s resistance to chronic stress. Keep reading and discover the health benefits of these amazing herbs, how they work, and what’s the best way to add them to your daily routine.
So, what exactly are adaptogens?
Adaptogens were first defined in the 1940s as herbs and other substances of plant origin that can increase the human body's resistance to stress (1).
Yet, they have been in use for centuries in the ancient practices of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic herbal medicine for their ability to combat stress, reduce fatigue and increase vigor.
To put it simply, adaptogens are said to affect the way you handle stress and increase your tolerance rather than remove the stress response altogether. To better understand the mechanism of their work, let's look at the 3 stages of the body's natural reaction to stress:
- excitation (alarmed state)
Not all stressors are bad for you. For example, working out is a form of physical stress, although it is quite healthy for the body. No matter the stressor, your body's initial response is the excitation phase, which includes increasing levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
Cortisol and adrenaline are catabolic hormones that help your body tap into additional energy stores and resist the stressor. Once their levels have spiked, you enter the phase of resistance.
Unfortunately, if the stressor lasts too long or occurs too often, you eventually enter the phase of exhaustion, which has the opposite effects on your body - you feel tired, depressed, and sluggish.
The majority of adaptogenic herbs work by interacting with the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is the central system in the body for regulating stress responses.
They act by reducing stress hormone levels produced by the adrenal glands, such as cortisol and adrenaline, so your body won’t burn through its energy stores so quickly. Adaptogen supplementation may prolong the resistance phase and delay the exhaustion phase by regulating the release of cortisol in particular(2).
Keeping your cortisol levels in check has multiple benefits and may help prevent stress-related symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, depressive mood, and decreased cognition.
Depending on the herb, the adaptogenic properties may extend to all forms of stress resistance, including physical, mental, and emotional. Each different adaptogen has unique bioactive molecules which determine their specific benefits.
For example, ashwagandha contains a class of molecules called withanolides which increase your resistance to stress by modulating the release of cortisol and providing antioxidative support (5).
On the other hand, Panax Ginseng (aka Korean or Asian Ginseng) appears to work thanks to its content of saponins called ginsenosides which interact with the synthesis of stress hormones like adrenaline (6).
Nevertheless, the common benefit of adaptogenic herbs is their effect on the human body's neuroendocrine response and its ability to increase stress resistance.
The Most Commonly Used Adaptogens
The most well-known and trusted adaptogens include:
- Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera)
- Panax Ginseng (Korean Red Ginseng; Asian Ginseng)
- Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus Senticosus)
- Malaysian Ginseng (Eurycoma Longifolia)
- American Ginseng (Panax Quinquefolius)
- Holy Basil (Tulsi)
- Schisandra Berry (S. Chinensis)
- Rhodiola (R. Rosea)
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera in Latin) is arguably the most popular adaptogenic herb. It is a small evergreen shrub with yellow flowers that originates from the modern-day regions of India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa.
The name of this adaptogenic herb comes from Sanskrit and means “horse smell” due to the typical smell of its roots.
Thanks to its efficacy in reducing stress, physical and mental fatigue, the roots of Ashwagandha have been in use for more than 3 000 years in the traditional Indian medicine called Ayurveda (7).
Ashwagandha contains a wide range of molecules with similar structures called withanolides, which provide most of their benefits.
Withanolides are steroidal lactones which means the molecules consist of a steroid "backbone." Yet, they should not be confused with performance-enhancing drugs. They are different in action and composition.
The primary withanolide responsible for improving stress resistance is Withanoside IV.
Animal studies report that Withanoside IV successfully controls the increase in cortisol levels during chronic stress in mice (8).
Furthermore, the stress-relieving benefits of Withanoside IV appear to be enhanced by the antioxidative and anxiolytic properties of Ashwagandha.
Another adaptogenic herb that’s solidly backed by research is Rhodiola Rosea. This shrub thrives in high altitudes and is native to the northern highlands of Europe, Asia, and North America.
Traditionally, some sources suggest that Scandinavian Vikings consumed it to preserve physical robustness and reduce fatigue (9).
The root is used to provide stress relief as it contains adaptogenic compounds. Studies report that its main bioactive molecules include tyrosol, its glycoside called Salidroside, and several other molecules called Rosavins (10).
The salidroside is considered the main factor contributing to the stress-reducing properties of the adaptogen, potentially due to its modifying effect on Neuropeptide Y activity - a significant factor for regulating the homeostasis in the central nervous system (11).
In addition, the combination of rosavins and salidroside in r Rosea may reduce symptoms of fatigue and anxiety by lowering the body’s cortisol response during stressful events (12).
Panax Asian Ginseng
Panax Ginseng, also known as Asian and Korean Ginseng, has been used in Traditional Chinese medicine for a wide range of preventative purposes.
The term 'Panax' is derived from the Greek words for 'all-healing,' as the plant's roots have been used for various medicinal purposes and continue to be used today (13).
Studies have shown that the ginsenosides in Panax Ginseng can influence the synthesis of stress hormones by the adrenal glands. The plant’s extracts could downregulate enzymes that play a crucial role in synthesizing catecholamines, which are hormones produced by adrenal glands and the brain in response to physical or emotional stress (14).
Catecholamines are noradrenaline, dopamine, and adrenaline - hormones that produce the "fight-or-flight" response we all know so well. Persistent surges of these hormones lead to chronic stress, contributing to increased anxiety, fatigue, and insomnia. Furthermore, stress hormones may suppress the immune system and even increase your risk of chronic diseases.
Some studies report that Panax Ginseng supplementation can reduce the cortisol release that occurs from physical stress (15). It also appears to support mood, immune system function, and cognition.
Do Adaptogen Supplements Really Work?
Adaptogen supplements are still under active research, but clinical evidence is slowly but consistently stacking up supporting their effectiveness. Anecdotal evidence gathered worldwide shows that many people enjoy the stress relief benefits of adaptogens, as demonstrated by the wide variety of supplements available.
For example, a recent systematic review of 52 studies investigating the effects of 25 herbal extracts showed that ashwagandha is the most well-studied adaptogen (16).
According to the scientists, 5 out of the 6 available studies related to ashwagandha's effects on stress hormones showed a significant reduction in cortisol levels. Furthermore, all 6 studies also showed significant improvements in participants’ perceived stress levels.
Another adaptogen that is a subject of extensive clinical research is Rhodiola Rosea. One 28-day study conducted on 60 adults experiencing stress-related fatigue reported that Rhodiola Rosea extract was much more effective in reducing stress and cortisol levels when compared to a placebo (20).
Rhodiola Rosea supplementation was associated with a more than 10% reduction in morning cortisol levels.
A systematic review of 11 randomized controlled trials also reported that Rhodiola Rosea extracts have significant beneficial effects on physical and mental performance (21). These effects are most likely secondary to its ability to reduce stress and stress-related fatigue.
More than half a dozen clinical studies also support the efficacy of Panax Ginseng in reducing mental fatigue and improving cognitive performance in stressed individuals (22).
For example, a recent clinical trial in adults under intense stress reported that Korean Ginseng significantly reduced cortisol levels and improved the levels of antioxidative enzymes (23).
Panax Ginseng is also currently under investigation as a cognitive enhancer, as studies suggest it may support and improve mental performance (24).
Why Should You Consider Adaptogens?
The main benefits of taking adaptogen supplements are to combat chronic stress and help reduce anxiety. Managing your stress levels better can ultimately improve your energy levels, mood, mental work capacity, focus, and improve your sleep quality.
Most adaptogenic herbs have additional benefits depending on their unique contents of antioxidants or other bioactive molecules. These benefits may include:
- reducing oxidative stress (via antioxidants)
- improving general mood
- supporting quality sleep
- reducing inflammation
- supporting strength and athletic performance
- providing immune system support
- lowering blood pressure
Panax Ginseng has improved appetite control and resulted in weight loss in test animals. In one study, Panax Ginseng suppressed appetite in obese mice by 16%, leading to weight loss and anti-diabetic effects (25).
Keep in mind that some of these effects may also lead to interactions with other supplements, over-the-counter medications, or prescription drugs. For example, if you have diabetes, you may have to correct the dosage of your medication before taking ashwagandha to avoid hypoglycemia.
Therefore, you should always consult your doctor first before taking adaptogens, especially if you take any medication or have any chronic conditions.
With that being said, adaptogen supplements are generally safe for healthy individuals and may help improve your quality of life.
Nevertheless, you should not rely entirely on them or use adaptogens to substitute for crucial lifestyle changes that need to be made. Remember that adaptogen supplements increase your tolerance to stress, but you need to employ lifestyle changes to reduce your stress exposure for maximum benefit.
Adding regular exercise to your routine, and practicing mindfulness or meditation are paramount to help lower your stress levels altogether.
Employing these measures is essential, as simply taking a supplement every day may not be enough to make an impactful long-term difference.
Note: This article is for informational purposes only, and not intended for use as medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplement.