Adaptogens are one of the latest herbal supplements on the wellness market, but what are they and what do they do—if anything? Well, to start, adaptogens are non-toxic plants such as herbs and roots, cited as stress reducers and brain enhancers. Adaptogens have been part of healing traditions used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries but are just starting to gain more attention in the US.
Particular adaptogens, like ashwaganda and reishi, are said to lower stress by soothing adrenal fatigue; rhodiola is used to increase mental acuity; and ginseng (which is found in popular energy drinks like Monster and Rockstar) is used to amp up energy levels. These plant matters are grown primarily in the form of herbs and mushrooms, which are then packaged into easy-to-consume pills, powders and tinctures, and even incorporated into recipes.
What makes these new supplements so appealing is its perceived ability to lower stress. Stress, as many of us are familiar with, follows on the heels of work pressure, financial problems, poor nutrition, media overload and more. When these problems are not addressed, we can experience fatigue, anxiety, depression and sickness from a stress-weakened immune system. Inflammation is the body’s response to stress, which is seen in almost all chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. While there are many ways to manage stress, including yoga, meditation and deep breathing, most of us still hope for a magic pill to cure our ills.
In a study published in the International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine, researchers put adaptogens to the (stress) test. This double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment took a group of 77 healthy participants between the ages of 24 and 60 years old and gave one half a daily supplement containing a mixture of ten different adaptogens, plus B vitamins, and the other half a placebo pill. At the start of the experiment all participants took a survey measuring their perceived stress and a blood test to measure their body’s objective response to stress. The stress indicators measured were highly sensitive C-reactive protein (HS-CRP), cortisol and homocysteine. The participants followed the regimen for 28 days before getting retested for perceived and objective stress. Results of the experiment showed a 40 percent reduction in the number of participants that had initially shown abnormally high HS-CRP, as well as a 30 percent reduction in HS-CRP for those in the supplement group. Based on the results of this study, when combined with B vitamins, adaptogens were shown to effectively reduce stress both subjectively and objectively.
While there is little research about the effects of taking adaptogens long-term, they are likely safe for most individuals to incorporate into their daily lives. However, it is important to note that before taking any new supplements, it is important to discuss any potential drug interactions or potential side effects with your doctor. If you choose to supplement with adaptogens, make sure they are of good quality; check out your local natural food store for organic and minimally-processed varieties. And remember, there is not one cure-all for managing stress—a multidisciplinary approach is usually necessary. Adaptogens may be more helpful when used in combination with other stress-reducing activities like meditation, yoga, deep breathing and mindfulness.
Written by Bianca Heilman, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Internship