Adaptogens are nature’s answer to stress. Healers have utilized these for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine in healing a variety of stress-related ailments. Stress can cause many different illnesses ranging from depression to stomach problems. Chronically high cortisol breaks down the body’s defenses and lowers the immune system.
WHAT ARE ADAPTOGENS AND WHY DID PEOPLE START USING THEM?
Adaptogens help mitigate the effects of stress by boosting dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. They were first developed and studied in the U.S. during World War II. Scientists wanted to find a way for pilots to work more efficiently and for longer periods of time.
The Soviet Union published military studies about an adaptogen called Schisandra chinensis. Researchers discovered that berries and seeds from this plant eaten by Nanai hunters reduced their thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. They even had improved vision at night!
Below, we will go over some of the most effective adaptogens and what they can do for your health.
11 OF THE MOST COMMON ADAPTOGENS AND THEIR HEALTH BENEFITS
Healers have used this powerful herb for over three millennia. It addresses stress reduction, improvements in concentration, and increased energy levels. Ashwagandha is by far the most well-known and widely used adaptogen, so we will discuss it in full detail below.
Native to both India and Northern Africa, the ashwagandha plant is a small shrub with yellow flowers. It contains highly concentrated withanolides. Science proves that these compounds shrink tumors and fight inflammation. Healers use the extracts of these potent substances to treat many conditions. Some of ashwagandha’s many health benefits include:
Reduced blood sugar.
- Several studies have proven ashwagandha’s ability to lower serum glucose levels. In a test tube experiment, the herb increased insulin secretion and therefore improved insulin sensitivity in muscle cells. Human studies in healthy individuals and people suffering from diabetes were able to confirm that finding. Additionally, a one-month study on schizophrenic people showed that fasting blood sugar levels decreased by 13.5 mg/dl on average with the administration of ashwagandha, compared to just 4.5 mg/dl when treated with a placebo. Ashwagandha may even be comparable to diabetes medication, as a small study found.
Both animal and test-tube studies have shown that ashwagandha induces apoptosis, or the death of cancer cells. The herb also prevents new cancer cells from growing. Ashwagandha signals for reactive oxygen species, or ROS, to grow inside of cancer cells. This process disrupts the cells’ function. The plant may also allow these dangerous cells to become less resistant to apoptosis.
Cancer types that ashwagandha could potentially help treat include breast, ovarian, lung, colon, and brain. One rodent study found that ovarian tumors were reduced by 70-80% when treated with either ashwagandha alone or in conjunction with another drug. The treatment also inhibited cancer from metastasizing. Human data has not been collected yet, but researchers are hopeful considering the promising animal study results thus far.
Ashwagandha has been proven to lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in times of stress and hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. Many people experience chronically elevated cortisol due to the fast-paced world we live in. A brisk lifestyle can lead to high blood sugar and increased abdominal fat storage. One study in chronically stressed adults found that ashwagandha reduced their cortisol levels by up to 30%.
Ashwagandha’s most well-known attribute is its ability to help the body “adapt” to periods of high stress (after all, it is an adaptogen.) This is possible via blocking the stress pathway by regulation of chemical signaling in the nervous system. Several human and rodent studies have shown that ashwagandha can reduce symptoms of anxiety disorders.
A 60-day study involving 64 chronically stressed individuals showed that the herb may improve anxiety and insomnia by up to 69%. This is compared to just 11% in the placebo group. Another self-reported study found that 88% of people who supplemented with ashwagandha experienced a reduction in stress levels.
Improvements in depression symptoms.
Limited research is available on this topic, but emerging evidence suggests that ashwagandha may be effective at reducing symptoms of depression. One study found that depressed adults who took 600 milligrams of ashwagandha daily experienced, on average, a 79% decrease in symptoms. The placebo group, however, reported a 10% increase.
Increase testosterone and fertility.
One study involving 75 infertile men found that treatment with ashwagandha improved sperm count and motility. Serum testosterone levels also significantly increased in addition to blood antioxidant levels. Another study discovered the same phenomenon, even when the men supplemented with ashwagandha for stress reduction purposes and not fertility. In this study, 14% of the subject’s partners had become pregnant after just three months of treatment.
More favorable body composition.
Since ashwagandha can increase testosterone levels, it consequently has beneficial effects on muscle mass and strength. In one study, healthy males who supplemented with between 750 and 1250 milligrams of ashwagandha daily became stronger after just one month. Another study found the same results, in addition to increased muscle size. The addition of ashwagandha also increased body fat reduction more than twofold.
Some other adaptogens that are effective in reducing stress are:
Rhodiola is an herb that grows in mountainous areas of Europe and Asia. Studies have shown that this adaptogenic plant can significantly decrease stress. One study of 101 people who experienced life and work related stress were given 400mg of rhodiola per day for four weeks. After just three days, many participants showed improvements in stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. These improvements continued throughout the duration of the study.
Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Holy basil also works wonders for stress-related ailments. Studies suggest that it can increase stamina, balance emotions, lower stress, and decrease anxiety. In addition, it might even protect the body from environmental toxins.
We mentioned this adaptogen in the beginning of the article; also known as five flavor fruit, Schisandra has been shown to have adaptogenic properties. Chinese healers believe this herb has a positive impact on several energy meridians in the body. Those include the heart, lungs, and kidneys.
Siberian ginseng, or eleuthero, has also been shown to lower stress in humans. However, more research should occur on humans. That’s because most of the studies thus far have been performed on animals. One human study did show increased energy, metabolism, and physical performance in participants. It also improved their blood flow and blood pressure.
Maca root grows in the Andes Mountains and offers a plethora of health benefits. Not only is it an adaptogen, it also is rich in protein, fiber, calcium and magnesium. Many people use it in smoothies and yogurt because it has a robust nutty flavor. That taste makes it a great addition to foods. It works to balance hormones and improve symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
This adaptogen has powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-stress properties. Many believe it affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, resulting in elevated plasma corticotropin and corticosteroids levels. It inhibits enzymes which limit the binding of stress hormones to their receptors, increasing one’s tolerance for stress.
Some studies have shown that this adaptogen can help combat the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). However, it only seems effective when combined with other herbal supplements. Chinese practitioners used astragalus as medicine for thousands of years. It can also treat other ailments. Some include seasonal allergies, heart disease, diabetes, the common cold, and high blood sugar.
Licorice root extract is believed to stimulate the adrenal gland, which promotes a healthy cortisol level in the body.
Moringa is native to North India, and its health benefits have been touted for thousands of years. It’s rich in antioxidants and may lower blood sugar and cholesterol in the body. It also reduces inflammation due to isothiocyanates present in the leaves, pods, and seeds. While studies are limited about its use as an adaptogen, one study on mice found antidepressant activity when combined with fluoxetine.
A 2013 review of anti-anxiety herbal medicines found that gotu kola can reduce anxiety significantly. However, more scientists must conduct more studies to confirm these findings..
Adaptogens can make the constant stressors in modern life much easier to endure. Ashwagandha is by far the most well-researched and documented adaptogen for reducing stress. However, others show promising results. These include licorice, gotu kola, moringa, astragalus, ginseng, Rhodiola rosea, holy basil, and mace.
When combined with a healthy diet, regular exercise, relaxing activities such as meditation, and adequate sleep and water intake, adaptogens can make a huge difference in one’s life. As with anything, make sure to consult your doctor before taking any adaptogen, however, especially if you are on medication.
Adaptogens can make you healthier by lowering stress and improving the body’s ability to handle external stressors.