Why Should You Be Adding Adaptogens to Your Diet?
Posted on December 22, 2023
Adaptogens are a relatively new type of dietary supplement in the Western world. However, they have been used worldwide for centuries and are more prevalent in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Indian Ayurveda. Evidence suggests that adaptogens provide balance(homeostasis) in the body, especially after periods of stress. By strengthening our internal systems, adaptogens can boost vitality, stabilize mood, and improve focus.
The movement toward organic, whole foods, and natural medicine practices has driven the current popularity and availability of adaptogens. Chances are you've seen them as add-on options in your local coffee shop or smoothie bar menus. The potential benefits of adaptogens go beyond stress relief to include lower blood sugar, better physical endurance, and lower blood pressure. But before incorporating adaptogens into your wellness routine, here's what you should know:
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are non-toxic botanical substances that help reduce metabolic stress by increasing the body's resistance to emotional, physical, and environmental stressors. They are active ingredients found in herbs and plants that grow in harsh conditions, such as cold, high altitude, etc. These areas are low in nutrients, which puts the plants under constant stress, forcing them to adapt to survive. As a result, they develop a vital defense mechanism that turns out to be beneficial to our health and well-being. As their name suggests, adaptogens adapt to meet your needs. The adaptation logic means that adaptogens function similarly to how a thermostat controls temperature. They turn up your energy when you are fatigued and help you stay calm when you are restless.
Adaptogens support a state of resistance without forcing the body into an undesirable physiological state. This is unlike conventional stimulants that have potential addiction or unwanted side effects like jitteriness and irritability. Hence, for a substance to qualify as an adaptogen, it has to meet the following criteria:
- Must be non-toxic when taken at average doses or harm regular body functions
- Must support the entire body to resist a range of non-specific conditions related to physical, chemical, or biological stress
- Must help the body return to a state of homeostasis, no matter how much the body has changed in response to stress
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Since adaptogens work nonspecifically, their mechanism of action has yet to be fully understood. However, the basic idea is that they work at the molecular level by maintaining a stable balance in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is the communication line between essential hormones in the body's stress response. And because it is connected to several organs, adaptogens may help with various issues ranging from metabolism to immune system function.
When experiencing emotional or physical stress, the HPA axis temporarily increases stress hormones like cortisol to restore homeostasis and keep your body functioning. Cortisol regulates inflammation and stress, but when the levels are too high, it can trigger issues like anxiety, high blood pressure, and lowered immune response. Adaptogens interact with the HPA axis to try to balance and reduce the release of cortisol. They are also thought to help the body cope with stress responses related to the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) system. This is a shorter-term response often called 'fight or flight.'
There is also the hypothesis that adaptogens can turn specific genes on and off when the body is under strain. A study has shown that they activate particular genes that protect cells from getting damaged from stress.
The Different Types of Adaptogens
Though dozens of adaptogenic plants have been studied, some are more popular than others. These include:
Reishi is one of the most used adaptogenic mushrooms because of its overall wellness benefits. It grows on trees under various conditions and can be found in the United States, Asia, and some parts of the Amazon. The mushroom has neuroprotective qualities thanks to the presence of triterpenes and polysaccharides that promote concentration and improve cognitive functions. It also can modulate the release of the stress hormone cortisol, thereby reducing stress and fostering a sense of calm. But it is best for its potential to support the immune function and response. The bioactives in Reishi help the activity of the white blood cells, which are an essential part of the body's immune system. Other benefits of Reishi mushrooms
It is also known as arctic or golden root. This herb grows in mountain regions and contains over 140 compounds isolated from its roots and rhizomes. Rhodiola has properties that improve memory and act as an antioxidant and adaptogen. As an adaptogen, Rhodiola reduces stress-related fatigue.
Astragalus is used in Chinese medicine and is known to boost immunity and potentially protect against the effects of stress. Research suggests that since it is rich in polysaccharides, alkaloids, flavonoid and saponin compounds, and other protective chemicals. It can potentially treat immune system conditions by influencing immune cell proliferation, cytokine release, and immunoglobulin secretion.
This is a fungus with antioxidant properties. In the classic sense, it may not be an adaptogen but contains adaptogenic and immune-enhancing properties. Cortisol has been observed to regulate cortisol levels and oxidative stress. A study on rats showed that cordyceps helped to slightly raise the cortisol and testosterone levels in healthy male rats, giving them an edge in protection from physiological stress.
The maitake mushroom has a bird-like appearance and is also known as the 'hen-of-the-woods' in Europe and North America. It is a traditional medicinal mushroom used to improve spleen and stomach health and help calm nerves. It has adaptogenic qualities that allow people to cope with and recover from stress.
The mushroom also contains polysaccharides that could help feed the gut flora, which is essential for digestive health. It also supports immunity and may help manage blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
This is a well-known adaptogen, with the Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) variant being considered the most potent. Panax ginseng has evidence of successfully improving feelings of calmness and some aspects of working memory performance in young adults. The active components in ginseng are ginsenosides, which possess adaptive capabilities for promoting innate and acquired immunity.
Maca contains 19 amino acids, phytonutrients, vitamin C, and minerals like zinc and calcium. Traditionally, it has been used to boost sexual health and improve energy. This adaptogenic root hails from the Andes mountains in Peru, where it has been cultivated for over 2000 years for culinary and medicinal purposes.
Historical Use of Adaptogens
The rich history of adaptogens goes back to the birth of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda around 3000 BCE. But although the use of adaptogenic herbs and plants is thousands of years old, the term adaptogenic debuted in 1947 when Soviet toxicologist Nikolai Lazarev used it to describe substances that may increase stress resistance. His definition was based on research that came out of World War II. Soviet pilots were given adaptogens to improve their endurance in harsh conditions, and they seemed practical.
Nikolai was on a quest to concoct the ultimate, all-natural performance tonic to help the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Initially, he started his research with chemical substances but later was influenced by his colleague, Israel L. Brekhman, to switch to plant-based medicine. Together, the two conducted more than 1000 clinical studies that led to the widespread use of eleuthero amongst the USSR population, including athletes and cosmonauts preparing for the 70S and 80S Olympics.
Since Nikolai coined the term, it has been widely referenced by scientists. In 1998, the term adaptogen was accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a functional and structural claim for specific products. More research is still needed to understand the exact mechanisms of adaptogens, and the current herbal renaissance may help further that.
Adaptogens and Stress
Anytime you encounter a physical or mental stressor, your body goes through a process known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS). This is a three-stage response that includes:
- Alarm: It begins when the nervous system perceives something as stressful and sends signals to the body to prepare for fight-or-flight. This triggers the release of cortisol into the bloodstream to help focus the body's energy on the most crucial functions for survival.
- Resistance: During this stage, the body remains activated at a higher metabolic level to offset the persistent stress. The body also tries to normalize itself by reducing stress hormones and regulating the heart rate and blood pressure to base levels. The body proceeds into the third stage if the stressor is not addressed effectively.
- Exhaustion: At this point, the body has depleted its energy resources by continually trying and failing to recover from the initial alarm stage. It can no longer fight the stress and becomes vulnerable to the negative health consequences of prolonged stress.
Adaptogens have a stimulating effect that holds off the exhaustion so that you stay in the resistance phase longer. So, instead of crashing during a stressful event, you find a balance and carry on. The ability to adapt to stress is essential for health and well-being. It allows you to remain functional and feel better despite the situation. Some of the ways that adaptogens help your body deal with stress include:
- Lower depression
- Reduce anxiety
- Improve attention and memory
- Decrease symptoms of mental fatigue
- Enhances capacity for physical work
What is more, adaptogens lower stress hormone levels in the body. This helps protect the cells from the damaging effects of high cortisol and other molecules that build up when the body is under stress.
Adaptogens For Energy and Mood
A cup of coffee is the go-to for most people looking to boost their energy levels and relieve tiredness. While there is no doubt that coffee is an effective stimulant, the side effects it carries are undesirable. To counter the jitters, dependency, and energy crashes associated with caffeine use, more and more people are replacing caffeinated beverages with adaptogens.
Adaptogens boots focus, productivity, and endurance while supporting a healthy mind and body. Their balancing effect on the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands helps the body recover from stress, regulate cortisol levels, and reduce feelings of fatigue. Some adaptogenic herbs for energy and mood include Cordyceps, Ashwagandha, Ginseng, Maca, and Holy Basil.
Immune Support from Adaptogens
Your body's stress response can harm your immune system, leaving you at high risk of infections. And since adaptogens help balance and manage your stress response, they can also improve your immune response. Some of the most common adaptogens known to support your immunity include Astragalus and Eleuthero.
Adaptogens And Depression
Adaptogens help the body fight stress and prevent it from crashing by allowing you to stay longer in the resistance stage. You are, therefore, able to escape falling into the final stage of the stress response, which is exhaustion, which makes you vulnerable to depression. The direct impact of adaptogens on the nervous system can support the alleviation of symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Current Trends and Future Research
There is limited scientific evidence to support the health claims of adaptogens. Also, few human trials exist. Still, some researchers use preliminary studies on adaptogens to determine their effectiveness. But despite the positive findings from the research done thus far, more studies and tests need to be done to prove the efficacy of adaptogens.
In the past 50 years, there has been an upsurge in the use of adaptogens in the U.S. As of 2020, Global Market Insights Inc. valued the adaptogens market at $8.5 Billion. Adaptogens are now used in consumer and animal products like pet food and livestock feed.
As always, discuss with your doctor before beginning any treatment regimen. This is critical because adaptogenic herbs can interact with certain medications and are not recommended for people with some conditions. Also, research a supplement product to determine precisely what you are committing to. Only purchase high-quality, organic varieties from trustworthy sources.
Laird Superfood Products with Adaptogens in Them
Adaptogens have different characteristics, so choosing the right ones in the proper combination is essential to get the desired results. Laird Superfood is a trusted source of carefully selected natural-plant-powered goodness. We have a wide range of products infused with the powerful benefits of adaptogens, from protein bars to coffee to creamers. Equip your body to unearth its innate resilience by trying some of our adaptogenic products today.