What the HECK Are Adaptogens?

The word “adaptogen” refers to (in herbal medicine) a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes. While Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine have been using these substances (specific herbs, roots, tonics) as preventative and treatment approaches for thousands of years, it is generally accepted that the term and application of adaptogens began in Russia in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Originally, research of these herbal substances consisted of reviewing compounds that had stimulating, restorative and/or anti-stress effects for both soldiers and those in the Russian defense industry during the Second World War (1).

When it comes to reducing stress, boosting immune function and increasing overall health and mental well-being, supplement companies and “health gurus” tout the “cure-all” benefits of these “powerhouses” – particularly Ashwagandha, Holy Basil and Rhodiola Rosea – but does current research back the hype?

Let’s find out:

Ashwagandha

Withania Somnifera

Often referred to as Indian ginseng, Ashwagandha is one of the most popularly used herbs in Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine); used regularly as a tonic or Rasayana. Generally the Ashwagandha root is available as a finely sieved powder that can be mixed with hot or cold liquids (added to tea, coffee, smoothies, etc.). While it has received numerous claims of health benefits, it is most studied and well known for its effects on cortisol levels, stress tolerance and internal stress response.  

In fact, in a 2012 double blind, placebo-controlled study, “the treatment group who was given the high-concentration, full spectrum Ashwagandha root extract exhibited a significant reduction in scores on all the stress-assessment scales on Day 60, relative to the placebo group” (2). The serum cortisol levels were also significantly reduced and no serious adverse effects were reported. So, not only was 300mg twice a day safe for consumption but it also proved to be effective in reducing clinical markers and personal feelings of stress.

Holy Basil

Tulsi, or Holy Basil is a highly revered and sacred plant in Hindu culture. It is widely used not only in Ayurvedic practices but all over the world in cuisine and as an adaptogenic herbal remedy. It is said to have restorative and spiritual properties supporting in healthy response to stress, natural detoxification and restoring balance and harmony…but what does that mean in scientific terms??

Holy Basil has been studied extensively and a 2017 review of literature stated, “A total of 24 studies were identified that reported therapeutic effects on metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, immunity, and neurocognition. All studies reported favourable clinical outcomes with no studies reporting any significant adverse events. The reviewed studies reinforce traditional uses and suggest tulsi is an effective treatment for lifestyle-related chronic diseases including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and psychological stress” (3).  

The amounts consumed in the numerous studies were not consistent. However with no adverse effects reported, it may be safe to consume Holy Basil daily in meals and/or make it into tea. As always, be cautious when attempting to take any natural occurring substance in the form of a supplement or essential oil due to the high potency of that application. Also, be sure to speak with your physician before using this herb as treatment to any chronic disorder/disease.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea grows at high altitudes and cold climates in Asia and Europe. It’s often called golden or arctic root. Research on rhodiola’s ability to decrease feelings of fatigue and improve well being is strong. It is also used to “stimulate the nervous system, decrease depression, enhance work performance, eliminate fatigue and prevent high-altitude sickness” (4).

A 2001 study concluded that “a single dose of Rhodiola rosea prior to acute stress produces favorable results and prevents stress-induced disruptions in function and performance” (5). There is plenty of research backing the claims of Rhodiola rosea impacting and benefiting those with cardiovascular disease, depression, schizophrenia, seasonal affective disorder, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. The most practical application seems to be for those struggling with chronic overwork, sleep disturbances, poor appetite, irritability, hypertension, headaches and fatigue.

There have been no clinically relevant side effects (uncommon and mild irritability, insomnia and anxiety) reported, however it could interact with some pharmaceutical drugs so be sure to talk to a doctor before adding this adaptagen to your regime. The normal dosage usually ranges from 250-680 mg with designation of 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside (these are the proportions that naturally occurring in the rhodiola root).

How does it work and why should I consider taking adaptogens?

Your body releases a hormone cortisol to respond to stress, but when cortisol levels are elevated for long periods of time, it can affect the entire physiological system of the body, especially the adrenal glands. When cortisol levels rise, you experience a “fight or flight” response, which stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands. Though this is a natural evolutionary happening brought on by an acute stressor, many experience this “fight or flight” response on a unnaturally regular basis, leading to adrenal “burn-out”, stress on your digestive tract and could even cause you to age more rapidly. Adaptogens are a natural approach to relieving stress and reducing long term cortisol levels. 

A 2001 study states, “To successfully combat stress and stressful situations, adaptation is required. Adaptation might be best thought of as the ability to be exposed to a stressor, while responding with either decreased or no characteristic hormonal perturbations.” Furthermore, “the utility of plant adaptogens is analogous to the training an athlete undergoes in order to prepare for competition. Plant adaptogens cause our physiology to begin the adaptation process to stress. When a stressful situation occurs, consuming adaptogens generate a degree of generalized adaptation (or non-specific resistance) that allows our physiology to handle the stressful situation in a more resourceful manner” (5).

As you probably already know (and may already be doing), the best ways to combat chronic stress are through a well balanced and nutrient-dense diet, regular (and if appropriate, vigorous) exercise and peaceful, positive thinking. Regular consumption of these adaptogens could be another level of resistance to out-of-your-control stressors.

In fact, a 2018 study states, “adaptogens can active the adjustment of different responses to cope with different forms of stress. Adaptogens are the material basis of the bodily response to the external environment and can act on the immune system and stress response system” (6). In that same study it was shown that adaptogen consumption increases and regulates energy circulation, reduces feelings of external pressure, enhances resistance, improves mental concentration and facilitates deep sleep. The primary function of adaptogens do not increase cortisol levels and when coupled with physical activity, cortisol levels actually decrease.

So, if based on this research, you choose to move forward with the addition of adaptogens in your daily routine, be cautious of claims that seem too good to be true – most of the time they are just that. Do your research (not blogs, marketing ploys or social media posts but published scientific research articles and reviews) and always consult your doctor first if you are on any current medications.

Resources:

  1. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress – protective activity. Pharmaceuticals, 2010 [LINK: https://www.mdpi.com/1424-8247/3/1/188 ]
  2. Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, and Anishetty S. A Prospective, Randomized Double Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012 [LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573577/ ]
  3. Jamshidi N, and Cohen M. The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2017 [LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5376420/ ]
  4. Khanum F, Singh Bawa A, and Singh. Rhodiola rosea: A Versatile Adaptogen. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety (Volume 4, Issue 3), 2006 [LINK: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1541-4337.2005.tb00073.x ]
  5. Kelly G. Rhodiola rosea: A Possible Plant Adaptogen. Alternative Medicine Review, 2001 [LINK: http://nutradvance.pt/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Ref84.293.pdf ]
  6. Liao L, et al. A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chinese Medicine, 2018 [LINK: https://cmjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9 ]

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