The Ultimate Guide To Adaptogens

The Ultimate Guide To Adaptogens

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are the wellness industry’s latest buzzword - adaptogenic lattes are popping up in salad bars and blends are finding their home on the shelves of apothecaries. Some adaptogens like ashwagandha, can be taken in a powdered form. While others, like Lion’s Mane mushroom, can be a nice dinnertime side dish. So, what are they?

Adaptogens are a category of herbs and mushrooms that help balance your body’s reaction to stress by modulating it’s hormonal and physiological functions. Adaptogens improve adrenal function, protect you from disease, boost immune function and improve overall well-being [1]. Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, says that “adaptogens help your body handle stress. They’re meant to bring us back to the middle.” [2] Herbs and mushrooms such as reishi mushroom, ashwagandha, and eleuthero root have been used for centuries by Traditional Chinese Medicine and Aruveydic healing traditions for their adaptogenic properties.


“adaptogens help your body handle stress. They’re meant to bring us back to the middle.”

- Dr. Brenda Powell, Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medidine, Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute


In order to be defined as an adaptogen, an herb or mushroom must meet the following criteria:

  1. Help the body resist a stress response in a non-specific way + help the body resist a broad spectrum of stressors. This can include physical, chemical, or biological stress. Let’s say you’re a famous sprinter, like Usain Bolt, and you spend several hours training every single day. While exercising, lactic acid builds up in your muscles, causing muscle fatigue and post-exercise muscle soreness - so you might not exercise for as long as you want. But if you take an adaptogen like cordyceps sinensis, you may be able to delay that muscle fatigue because your body would experience enhanced oxygen utilization and blood flow (i.e the lactic acid is cleared from your muscles quicker)[3]. Not to mention your body will be feeling all sorts of other effects like enhanced immune regulation and less inflammation[4]. So, while cordyceps can help with physical stressors like muscle fatigue, it can also help with biological stressors by enhancing immune protection. See how multi-talented adaptogens can be?
  2. Maintain homeostasis in humans. Not familiar with the term ‘homeostasis’? Not a problem. Homeostasis means keeping the body at a relatively steady equilibrium. For instance, if you start a new job where you have to go to long, stressful meetings and you don’t get much sleep as you should, you’ll find that your adrenal gland is secreting a lot more cortisol than it used to. In other words, you’re stressed out! Starting that new job has knocked you out of equilibrium and, as a person with sudden external stress, you are more susceptible to stress-induced disorders such as gastric ulcers, weight gain, and migraines. To qualify as an adaptogen, an herb or mushroom must help your body resist stress-induced disorders like this.
  3. Must not harm the body. An adaptogen cannot have any side effects, or do anything that might mess with your body’s normal functions.

Further Reading + References:

Types of Adaptogens

Yance, an herbal doctor who wrote a book entitled “Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism,” divided adaptogens into three categories based on his clinical experience: primary adaptogens, secondary adaptogens, and adaptogen companions[5].

  1. Primary Adaptogens  satisfy all 3 requirements needed to be an adaptogen. In other words, there is abundant scientific research confirming their adaptogenic properties such as the ability to help the body resist a stress response in a non-specific way and the ability to help the body maintain homeostasis. Primary adaptogens directly influence the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary (HPA) axis in response to stress. Haven’t heard of the HPA axis? Don’t worry, we will go into that below. Just know for now that primary adaptogens can influence it directly.
  2. Secondary Adaptogens meet the traditional definition of being an adaptogen but don’t quite meet all three criteria. Unlike primary adaptogens, they don’t influence the HPA axis directly. However, they do influence the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. They also don’t have as extensive of scientific studies backing their properties as primary adaptogens.
  3. Adaptogen Companions don’t satisfy all of the traditional rules to actually be an adaptogen, but they do have positive effects on the HPA axis and work to support the functions of primary and secondary adaptogens. In other words, adaptogen companions work synergistically with adaptogens in order to improve the effects that they have.

Ok, now what’s the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis?

Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. Can you say it 10 times fast? It’s quite a mouthful to say, but this axis plays an important role in your stress response. The communication between these three glands also regulate many body processes, such as digestion, mood, the immune system, emotions, sexuality, and energy levels.

You can think of the HPA axis as the intricate conversation between your brain and your hormonal system. Namely, the HPA axis contains 3 hormone secreting glands from your nervous and endocrine system: the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. The hypothalamus sits just above the brainstem, and controls the release of hormones to the pituitary gland. In turn, the pituitary gland controls the release of hormones to the bloodstream, which can reach several targets. In this case, we want to focus on how hormones from the pituitary gland travel down through the bloodstream, reach the kidneys, and then affect the secretion of hormones from the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys.

Alright, so let’s take a look at the diagram above. You can see that, once triggered by a stressful event, the hypothalamus releases CRH (Corticotropin Releasing Hormone) to the pituitary gland. Then, the pituitary gland releases ATCH (Adrenocorticotropic Hormone) into the bloodstream, some of which finds its way to the adrenal glands above the kidneys. The adrenals then release cortisol. [6]

Further Reading:

Anti Stress Effect of Adaptogens

As discussed earlier, an adaptogen’s main purpose is to reduce the intensity of various stress responses in the body, and depending how they do so, are then classified as primary, secondary, or companionary. But how, exactly, do they work on doing so? The most common way primary adaptogens function is as analogues to signallers your body has - mainly corticosteroids, cytokines, and catecholamines in these cases - all three of which are important cell signalers in relation to stress response. Now, stress response by itself is actually an important defensive mechanism the body uses - it’s a way for the body to rapidly communicate with the multiple systems it contains in order to take a proper defensive reaction against the negative external factor which caused the response. Constant, high levels of stress (Chronic Stress) though can be harmful in the long term. Adaptogens have the ability to reduce stress levels by either inducing a milder reaction that takes up the space where an otherwise more powerful stimuli would be, or by “turning off” the signal that responds to stress. The following chart gives a basic overview of how the mechanisms of stress work in the body (of which the HPA axis is part of)[7]

The items in bold are the ones that adaptogens tend to mimic. In the case of corticosteroids, some adaptogens metabolize into analogues, which then tell the body to “switch off” excess production of other stress related elements in different organ systems, thus reducing overactive stress production in the body and reducing things like inflammation, for example. With cytokines, adaptogens can cause the body’s white blood cells to become more active, improving the immune system. Finally, with adaptogenic catecholamine analogues, various organ systems can be aided in regulation of bodily functions and metabolism, which can then in turn aid in lowering blood pressure, aiding in clotting, or lowering blood sugar for example.

Adaptogens and Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of metabolic abnormalities that increase the risk for type 2 diabetes mellitus and vascular disease.[8] According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Nearly 35 percent of all U.S. adults and 50 percent of those 60 years of age or older were estimated to have metabolic syndrome in 2011-2012”, with the rate rising over the years.[9] It has various effects that may appear such as suppressed immune and inflammatory responses[10] as well as hyperglycemia and elevated triglycerides in the long term. Typically, you are at greater risk of Metabolic syndrome if you are a woman, lead a sedentary lifestyle, have high blood pressure, a large waistline-hip ratio, and/or have high LDL cholesterol levels.

Certain stress (such as that brought upon by lack of sleep or constant anxiety) however, tends to be a large factor in exacerbating the conditions which then cause Metabolic Syndrome. Emerging data suggest that patients with Metabolic Syndrome show hyperactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (discussed earlier), which leads to a state of “functional hypercortisolism.” The cause for this activation of the HPA axis remains uncertain but may be partly associated with chronic stress and/or low birth weight, which are both associated with increased circulating cortisol levels and greater responsiveness of the HPA axis.[8] Therefore, adaptogens, by definition having the primary purpose of dampening the stress response of the HPA axis, help mitigate the symptoms which over time can then lead conditions such as Metabolic Syndrome, which itself leads to serious health complications like type 2 diabetes.


"Nearly 35 percent of all U.S. adults and 50 percent of those 60 years of age or older were estimated to have metabolic syndrome in 2011-2012.”

- Journal of the American Medical Association


Adaptogens and the Neuroendocrine System

The neuroendocrine system is the biological mechanism by which the hypothalamus maintains homeostasis, regulates reproduction, metabolism, eating and drinking behaviour, controls energy utilization, and keeps a stable blood pressure. As such, it is important for this system to remain functioning optimally. Too many stressing factors, such as anxiety, lack of sleep, exhaustion, etc can therefore affect the neuroendocrine system as the HPA Axis (explained earlier) is a central part of the system, since the hypothalamus is the operator of both.

When the hypothalamus is constantly exposed to stressors, it can lead to a variety of health conditions - such as the Metabolic Syndrome covered previously. Adaptogens however exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, and anxiolytic activity. In addition, a number of clinical trials demonstrate that adaptogens “exert an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental work capacity against a background of stress and fatigue, particularly in tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention”[11], all of which help keep the neuroendocrine system in balance.

Effect on Fatigue and Cognitive Function

Now let’s cover the corticosteroidal functions of adaptogens on fatigue, as well as how it can indirectly improve cognitive performance by reducing negative factors that can affect cognitive function. As shown in the chart earlier, corticosteroids, typically produced primarily by the adrenal cortex, tell the body to no longer response to various stress signallers. Adaptogens however are special in that they can mimic the same corticosteroids already produced in your body to “switch off” certain signals by binding to the same receptor sites as well, such as muscular inflammation, which is a condition that can cause fatigue. Depending on the adaptogen, you can see effects such as reduced restlessness due to signal telling you to remain active being “turned off”, or a tachycardic heart calmed down due to excess adrenal function by having the signal for excitement switched off.[12] In the case of fatigue, they can help counteract the effects of fatigue by turning off cell signals to stressors which can cause fatigue, and by delaying the state of exhaustion from establishing.


They can also improve cognitive function by reducing stressors which affect your mental performance on tasks - anxiety, for example - which can distract from tasks you may be doing. Adaptogenic ability to reduce anxiety is actually being very well studied, due to the prevalence of excessive anxiety today due in part to living in far safer environments than our ancestors did, since the stress signal used for anxiety is the same one the body uses to warn of danger. A lack of danger however means excessive signalling to nothing, resulting in anxiety that takes a toll on cognitive function. Fortunately, there is increasingly strong evidence of the ability of some adaptogens (primarily those that with calming effects like Ashwagandha) to turn off this danger signal, and thus reduce anxiety.[13]

Further Reading:

Adaptogens and Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenals are the glands of stress, and control your body’s response to each kind of stress, including physical, emotional, mental and biochemical. Adrenal fatigue occurs when someone undergoes chronic stress or one highly stressful event. When your adrenals cannot “catch up” and secrete enough hormones to meet the demands of the constant level of stress your body is under, adrenal fatigue arises. However, let’s say that your adrenal glands are able to ‘keep up’ and secrete enough cortisol in reaction to the amount of stress your body is under. Instead of adrenal fatigue, you may experience metabolic syndrome, and it’s various effects such as suppressed immune and inflammatory responses may appear (Liao et al, 2018).

The Effect of Adaptogens on Arthritis

Arthritis is primarily characterized as an associated inflammation in articular cartilage, which can sometimes cause abnormal joint structure in the knee and hip, and it is accompanied with mild to strong pain. The most common treatments are analgesics and NSAIDs. However, the drugs have serious adverse events in the gastrointestinal tract and cardiovascular system with mid to long term use.[14]

There are some adaptogens that have been shown to aid in relieving the symptoms of arthritis, though, and with less detrimental side effects than standard NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen, with potentially the same or better efficacy in some cases. One example that has statistically significant evidence is Holy Basil:

The most popular, and currently most widely studied (and easily accessible too, since it can already be found in most local supermarkets), of these being turmeric - specifically, the bright yellow polyphenol found naturally in turmeric called “Curcurmin”.[15]

Curcurmin, like some other adaptogens that tend to aid with arthritis, seems to work as an effective anti-inflammatory that binds to inflamed sites near arthritic joints. It seems to “switch off” the signal causing inflammation (pro-inflammatory cytokines) at the site as a result of the arthritis, helping soothe the pain as a result while reducing inflammation and further damage.  

Figure showing Curcumin inhibiting signalling pathways, such as nuclear factor kappa-B (NF-kappaB) and myeloid differentiation protein 2-Toll-like receptor 4 co-receptor pathways, activating peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma (PPAR-gamma) and inhibiting the production of proinflammatory cytokines, such as tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin (IL)-1beta [23]

Although most studies focus on the efficacy of curcurmin in treating arthritis, there’s also evidence other compounds found naturally in Turmeric can also aid with arthritis, such as polysaccharides.[16] Turmeric isn’t the only adaptogen that has been found to be effective in relieving arthritis though; others include Boswellia (also known as Indian Frankincense, and which seems to have a mechanism of action similar to Turmeric), Borage (also commonly called Starflower oil), and Holy Basil.

The Effect of Adaptogens on Sleep

Many people suffer from difficulty of falling asleep. Excessive external stressors throughout the day, and especially as night approaches, disrupts the normal secretion of circadian cortisol, which is a main cause of sleep-related problems. The secretion of circadian cortisol follows your internal biological clock and external circadian rhythms.

The secretion of cortisol peaks in the morning and then decreases throughout the day, reaching a minimum value at night. There is a good amount of evidence of adaptogens aiding with sleep - many of which are already popularly used to aid with sleep for their calming effects such as Chamomile tea. Adaptogens that help with sleep tend to do so by either having a sedative effect by binding on certain nervous system receptors such as GABA receptors or NMDA subreceptors (like lavender oil),[17] or by improving the quality of sleep by affecting Serotonin levels or possibly acting as a cortisol analog.[18]

Further Reading:

Top Adaptogenic Herbs and Mushrooms

Ashwagandha

What it is: Ashwagandha, also known as “Indian Ginseng,” is a powerful Ayurvedic root that can help your body manage stress.

How it’s consumed: You can add ashwagandha to smoothies, teas, and if you are up for a recipe, give our Oaty Peanut Butter Smoothie a try. You can buy ashwagandha in a powder, capsule, or tincture form.

What it tastes like: In Sanskrit, ashwagandha means “smell of the horse”, which refers to it’s interesting smell, and supposed ability to increase strength. It tastes slightly bitter, with herbal undertones, but pairs very well with creamy, cocoa flavors - which is why we paired the ashwagandha in our Balance blend with a bit of full-bodied cocoa.

What it does, according to science: This Ayurvedic root helps reduce long-term stress and alleviate the hormonal imbalances that result from chronic stress. All without inducing a sense of fatigue, ashwagandha helps you build up tolerances to stressful situations, and relaxes an anxious mind. Some research suggests that Ashwagandha is helpful for combating stress-induced weight gain[19].

Eleuthero Root (Siberian Ginseng)

What it is: Eleuthero root, also nicknamed as “Siberian Ginseng,” has been part of the herbal repertoire of Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. There are more published scientific studies on eleuthero root than any other herb - and when you dig into the research it’s easy to see why so many scientists have been fascinated by this stringy, beige root. Not only has it been shown to decrease stress, but it has immune boosting properties to boot.

How it’s consumed: People usually take the root and stem extracts of the eleuthero plant either as a tincture or as a powder. Either way, it can be added to smoothies, lattes, or other drinks and tonics. Try our our hazelnut beauty milk recipe, or even our choco cherry smoothie for a scrumptious way to add eleuthero root to your wellness routine.

What it tastes like: We’ll tell it to you straight: Eleuthero root is bitter, and not exactly a pleasant taste. This is definitely not a herb you’ll be downing with water (unless you’re super hard core). So, give our wellness library a look and try out some recipes with eleuthero root - you’ll be surprised how tasty they are.

What it does, according to science: Siberian Ginseng decreases fatigue by increasing your work and exercise capacity without the “crash” that comes with a morning cup of coffee. With this herb, you’ll also recover faster from acute stress and intense workouts. Some preliminary research also suggests that eleuthero can protect against cognitive decline, and reduce DNA damage.


"There is abundant scientific research confirming their adaptogenic properties such as the ability to help the body resist a stress response in a non-specific way and the ability to help the body maintain homeostasis. Primary adaptogens directly influence the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary (HPA) axis in response to stress."

- Adapted From: Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism by Dr. Yance


Reishi Mushroom

What it is: Reishi is an adaptogenic mushroom that has been a staple of holistic wellness and herbal medicines for decades -- over 200 to be exact. As a species of the “woody” mushroom family, the fan-shaped ‘shroom boasts orange to reddish-brown hues and can be found in the forest areas of Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States. Reishi’s effects on the body are widely ranging - it’s been shown to have anywhere from anti-depressant qualities to anti-fatigue effects on the body.

How it’s consumed: Reishi mushroom has a tough, thick form that is hard to bite into - it’s definitely not a mushroom that you can just cut into and stir fry with your dinner veggies. Most consume it as a dehydrated mushroom powder, or in a liquid tincture form. Though, some cut the mushroom into long strips, then steep it in hot water to make tea.

What it tastes like: This isn’t the most delicious mushroom you’ll taste. Reishi has an earthy bitterness that has been compared to tree bark.

What it does, according to science: Reishi mushroom’s positive effect on the body are widely ranging. It’s been shown to decrease depression and work as an anti-fatigue agent in a population of breast cancer patients. There’s also ongoing research into whether the trace amounts of cytotoxins found in Reishi could be used in targeting cancer cells.

Maca Root

What it is: Maca is a plant native to peru that has been traditionally used to improve energy and stamina, while also improving sex drive and fertility. It looks like a cross between a turnip and a radish, with thick rosemary-like leaves. Different varieties come in different colors: red, pink, black, and yellow.

How it’s consumed: For most, maca root is supplemented as a dried powder. The caramel-like taste mixes very well into smoothies, lattes, and even the occasional oatmeal bowl. We’ve used maca in everything from lavender lattes to delicious homemade almond milks.

What it tastes like: It has a delicious caramel-like flavor, with a subtle earthy aftertaste. Out of all the adaptogens, we vote for maca root as the best tasting. However, not everyone would agree with this characterization.

What it does, according to science: This peruvian root, long used by spanish royalty, helps improve memory recall ability and overall learning ability. This super root is also known for its ability to protect against depression and age-related cognitive decline.

Rhodiola Rosea

What it is: Also commonly called “Golden Root” and “Arctic Root”, Rhodiola typically grows in the cold, mountainous regions of Europe and Asia, as well as high altitudes in the Arctic region, such as Finland, Norway, and Russia. Historically, people in northern regions of Scandinavia and the Nordics have used rhodiola for anxiety, fatigue, and depression, People also have used it to increase physical endurance and to improve resistance to high-altitude sickness.

How it’s consumed: Typically it’s taken as an extract that confers both 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside.

What it tastes like: It actually tends to taste somewhat sweet with only a slight bitterness, which allows it to mix very well with many drinks and desserts.

What it does, according to science: It has been shown to help with physical performance in non-athletes by modulating cortisol levels after exercise induced stress, and to reduce general anxiety as well. Note: it is not recommended in high amounts for pregnant women or those taking Warfarin.[20]

Schisandra Chinensis

What it is: Known also as “Omija”, it is a bright red berry that is natively found in China, where it has been used to make medicine, tea, and wine for centuries.

How it’s consumed: Normally it’s taken in the form of dried powdered fruit, although can also be found in the form of whole dried fruit, juice, or part of a tea blend.

What it tastes like: Called “the five flavour fruit” in Chinese, it has an interesting mixture of flavors described as sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and sour.

What it does, according to science: It possibly reduces anxiety, and could have an effect on cortisol levels, although most of the research from numerous human trials that were done in Russia have been kept secret. New research is still being currently done however, and shows promising possibilities, and the fruit itself is high in beneficial lignans which can aid in maintaining a healthy bacterial gut biome.

Angelicae Sinensis

What it is: Natively referred to as Dong Quai (which translates to female ginseng), this antioxidant rich, adaptogenic root has long been cultivated in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its health effects in women. Although most likely first widely cultivated in Asia for medical purposes, this nomadic herb can also be found in the middle east and eastern europe, and possibly originated in modern day Syria. It is also very commonly used as a botanical in many popular gins.

How it’s consumed: The root is normally dried and/or powdered, and can be found in loose powdered form or with the powder encapsulated into pills.

What it tastes like: Bitter and earthy, but with a very subtle sweet and flowery undertone.

What it does, according to science: The polysaccharides in Angelicae Sinensis have been shown to cause hematopoietic effects in both animal models and in humans, meaning it aids in the formation of new red blood cells and thus could aid in the bioavailability of other compounds in the bloodstream, as well as having anti coagulative effects.[21] There’s also some evidence that it does indeed affect the female reproductive system with a kind of hormone regulation, and is therefore advised to not take if pregnant.

Our Favorite Recipes:

Conclusion

Adaptogens can have a wide array of benefits to the human body due to the balancing effects they can bring, and have properties that can truly aid against the added stresses and anxieties of a modern lifestyle. Adding adaptogens into your diet or taken as an added nutritional supplement could bring some health benefits - at least based off of current research - and they are similar in their role against stressors as antioxidants are to oxidizers. If you are interested in learning much more in depth details about specific adaptogens and see the latest facts and research on them, check out our Wellness Library, where you’ll not only find articles that break down the research for you, but scientifically based compilations and even tasty recipe ideas.

 

References:

 

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Retrieved 23, December 2019 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/

 

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Retrieved January 12, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/

 

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Retrieved December 23, 2019 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5871210/




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