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What Are Adaptogens, and Can They Help You Live Healthier?

by 
author image Melissa Rayworth
Melissa Rayworth is managing editor of NextPittsburgh.com and also writes on a wide range of lifestyles and cultural topics for clients including The Associated Press. She is currently launching Breadcrumbs, a personal storytelling service. Visit melissarayworth.pressfolios.com.
What Are Adaptogens, and Can They Help You Live Healthier?
Adaptogens — like spirulina — can boost energy levels, help bodies run more efficiently and fight the impacts of stress. Photo Credit: natasamandic/Stocksy

You may not have heard much about “adaptogens” yet, but we’re guessing you will. This class of remarkable plants has been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. And now, decades after scientists in Western countries first discovered them during World War II, research has been growing into the stress-protective and energy-giving properties of these ancient herbs.

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When scientists first studied adaptogens, the goal was to help soldiers remain healthy and alert under incredibly stressful conditions. They were seeking something that’s become increasingly important to us today: a natural substances that can boost energy levels, help bodies run more efficiently and fight the impacts of stress.

What’s unique and valuable about adaptogens is this: They don’t just fix one problem.

Some of us take iron, for example, to fight anemia. But you might try taking an adaptogen like rhodiola to support your endocrine and immune systems, increase your energy levels, boost your mood and help your cells activate their natural protective mechanisms. The belief is that your body will target these benefits where you need them most, fighting that anemia along the way. Among other benefits, adaptogens have been shown to:

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It’s easy to get excited about the possibilities of adaptogens. The National Institutes of Health and many medical journals have been tracking promising research into many different adaptogens, and that work continues.

Goji berries, thought to help with neurodegenerative diseases, are delicious with granola, in salads and yogurt or even blended into a smoothie.
Goji berries, thought to help with neurodegenerative diseases, are delicious with granola, in salads and yogurt or even blended into a smoothie. Photo Credit: Studio Six/Stocksy

But here’s the key: Ancient as these plants are, we’re still just beginning to understand them and confirm their safety. Even after several decades, research remains limited, and some studies have been designed with enough flaws to allow potentially biased results. Although few negative side effects have been reported, it’s unclear whether the benefits are really as powerful as some studies have suggested.

And because herbal remedies are regulated as food rather than as drugs, consumers may not be entirely sure of the potency or quality of the adaptogens we’re buying.

What Are Adaptogens?

Here’s what we do know: Scientists are currently trying to confirm exactly what adaptogens do at a molecular level to help people’s cells the way they seem to do.

So far, the answer seems to be that they help regulate homeostasis and help our cells turn on natural, self-protective systems. It’s similar to the way vaccines work. By mimicking the presence of low-level stress, adaptogens activate the “stress-sensor” protein Hsp70, which increases cell survival. These herbs essentially cause our cells to become better able to handle the stress they’re under from fatigue or illness.

This process also helps by limiting production of the stress hormone cortisol (a potential contributor to anxiety and weight gain, among other problems) and the JNK family of proteins (which can do neurological damage).

In a way, it’s not really the adaptogen that makes you healthier, it’s the way your body responds to its impact.

Good for adding to your smoothie or tea, maca is a natural energizer and helps with memory issues, sexual dysfunction and may even protect skin against ultraviolet rays.
Good for adding to your smoothie or tea, maca is a natural energizer and helps with memory issues, sexual dysfunction and may even protect skin against ultraviolet rays. Photo Credit: Kristin Duvall/Stocksy.com

Adaptogens also seem to act as a mild stimulant for those battling fatigue and stress, but without any risk of addiction or developing a tolerance. And rather than carrying a risk of toxicity, some adaptogens appear to actually help remove existing toxicity in the body.

But while studies suggest that stress protection and energy boosting are provided to some degree by all adaptogens, we’re still not sure which ones are most helpful for which kinds of environmental and emotional stress. And — this is major — we’re still not sure what dosages are most effective.

Making Adaptogens Work for You

Which adaptogens should you consider? Start by talking to a doctor with knowledge of herbal remedies. And if you’re currently being treated for an illness, talk with the doctor handling your care. Sleeplessness from a stimulant effect and stomach discomfort or potential allergies seem to be the main side effects. But, again, research is still limited, so proceed with care and discuss dosage with a professional.

Here are some popular adaptogens worth exploring:

Goji Berries: Thought to help with neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, goji berries are delicious with granola, in salads and yogurt or even blended into a smoothie.

Maca: This plant from Peru is available at most natural grocers in powder form. Studies suggest maca is a natural energizer and helps with memory issues, sexual dysfunction and may even protect skin against ultraviolet rays. It doesn’t have a strong or overwhelming flavor, meaning it’s good to add to your smoothie or tea.

Chaga, Lion’s Mane or Cordyceps mushrooms: Tero Isokaulippa, the author of “Healing Mushrooms,” found that combining mushrooms with coffee can give you all the benefits of caffeine (energy, more mental clarity, boost in brain function) without the downsides (jitters, stomach disruption). That’s because the adaptogens make the coffee more alkaline and less acidic, which helps to combat some of the negative effects some people experience with caffeine. You can also toss these mushrooms in stews, soups and salads. Cordyceps are thought to support kidney and liver function, lower blood sugar and potentially assist in combatting tumors.

Chaga mushrooms give you all the benefits of caffeine 
 — energy, more mental clarity, boost in brain function — without the downsides.
Chaga mushrooms give you all the benefits of caffeine — energy, more mental clarity, boost in brain function — without the downsides. Photo Credit: Jill Chen/Stocksy

Holy Basil: This delicious leaf, used in some Thai dishes and sauces, is an antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antioxidant thought to help with cholesterol and more.

Rhodiola: Also known as arctic root, golden root and king’s crown, it is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, increase energy and memory and reduce stress hormone levels. It’s available in capsules or tablets.

American Ginseng: This valuable root is believed to lower blood pressure and blood sugar as well as increase energy and help fight colds by boosting the immune system.

Eleutherococcus: Also called Siberian ginseng (though not related to American ginseng), it is thought to help fight colds and increase energy.

Schisandra: This vine that is native to China is thought to protect the liver and assist in healthier aging.

Astragalus: Another herb used in traditional Chinese medicine, astragalus is thought to help with kidney and liver function.

Ashwaganda: This powerful Ayurvedic herb is thought to support your adrenal system and help with anxiety, fatigue, menstrual problems and the effects of aging.

Spirulina: This blue-green algae is thought to support immune function and protect against allergic reactions by slowing histamine release.

What Do YOU Think?

Have you tried adding adaptogens to your diet? Would you experiment with swapping out a supplement for an adaptogen? Share your experiences in the comments!

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