Adaptogens: What They Are + Benefits for Stress and Fatigue
Feeling stressed out and need a boost? Whether you’re feeling on edge, have hit a wall or have forgotten your keys one-too-many times – you may benefit from incorporating adaptogens into your life!
If you haven’t heard of adaptogens yet, the term refers to several herbs which improve our ability to cope with stress, help to reduce fatigue + boost our mental performance. Many of these herbs have been used for centuries in traditional herbal medicine, and have recently made a huge comeback in the West. This is perfect timing, considering so many of us are struggling with overwhelming stress in our everyday lives – read on to learn all about adaptogens + how they might benefit you!
Adaptogens: What Are They?
So what are adaptogens? Adaptogenic herbs have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda to support physical and mental stamina. As you may have guessed, the term ‘adaptogen’ describes the ability of these herbs to enhance our resilience to stress (essentially allowing us to “adapt” in stressful environments). These herbs modify the stress response and promote a state of balance or ‘homeostasis’ in the body (1, 2).
Given the world we live in today, adaptogens can be extremely helpful. We deal with stress on a daily basis in its many forms – from peak hour traffic, to deadlines and even the pesticides on our food. Ongoing stress can take its toll and land us in burnout if we’re not careful. That’s why it’s so important that we prioritise stress-management practices such as mindfulness and meditation in our everyday lives. Adaptogens are yet another item in our toolkit that we can utilise during periods of stress to increase our resilience (so that we avoid hitting burnout!).
As well as enhancing our ability to cope with stress, many of these herbs also reduce fatigue and give us a mental and physical boost. Although adaptogens can reduce fatigue and have the potential to act as stimulants, these herbs are naturally caffeine free and don’t tend to give a negative buzz.
How do adaptogens work?
Adaptogens can be a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. Unlike many drugs which exhibit selective activity on a single receptor site in the body, adaptogens are complex and tend to have multi-targeted actions. Evidence suggests that adaptogens act upon several stress hormones and chemical mediators to modify stress. A few targets include cortisol, serotonin receptors, oestrogen and progestin receptors, nitric oxide and more (1). In this way, adaptogens are able to modulate stress-induced activation of our endocrine, nervous and immune systems, to help keep us in a state of homeostasis. Keep in mind that these effects only apply whilst taking adaptogens and don’t stick around!
How to Take Adaptogens
There are several ways that you can take adaptogens – from consuming the whole dried herb, to tablets, capsules, tinctures and liquid extracts.
As a naturopath, I most frequently prescribe adaptogenic herbs in tinctures and liquid extracts (these preparations use alcohol to extract herbal constituents, and are frequently used in herbal medicine). Tablets and capsules are another easy way to incorporate adaptogens which also allow you to bypass the herbal taste. And for those who are extra game, the whole dried herb can also be used in powder form mixed into lattes and smoothies (which seems to be becoming more popular recently).
No matter which way you choose to take adaptogens, it is vital that you source a high-quality product from a reputable company that subjects products to appropriate testing. This is because the way that a herb is grown and harvested can greatly effect the concentration of active constituents and therapeutic efficacy. For this reason, the best option is always to consult with a naturopath or herbalist who can prescribe a high quality product.
How long should you use adaptogens?
Adaptogens are particularly useful when used intentionally during periods of greater stress (think: starting a new job, during exam period, facing a challenging life transition). I generally don’t suggest taking adaptogens for very extended periods of time – instead, it is important that we incorporate stress management practices into our daily lives. Dosages should also be considered and vary depending on the herb used and form taken. As always, consult with a naturopath or herbalist to determine the correct dosage (and to prevent drug-herb interactions) before supplementing with adaptogens.
Benefits of Adaptogens: Reduce Stress, Anxiety + Fatigue
Given the world we live in today, many of us could benefit from taking adaptogens periodically. Adaptogens can be particularly helpful when dealing with:
- Stress: Adaptogens increase our ability to cope with stress. Stress comes in many different forms (think: relationship difficulties, psychological stress, chemical stressors) and we each have an individual level of tolerance to stress.
- Anxiety: Given their stress-reducing effects, adaptogens can also be included in the holistic treatment of anxiety. In many cases, these herbs can be combined with anxiolytic or nervine herbs to calm the nervous system.
- Physical and mental fatigue: Several adaptogens may also be beneficial for fatigue, and have been shown to improve cognitive function, concentration and mental performance (3). This is especially true in the context of stress-induced fatigue, though adaptogens may also be considered in other conditions presenting with fatigue including fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Top 5 Adaptogenic Herbs
Which adaptogens should you take? Remember that adaptogens are not a one-size-fits all, and what works for one person may not be most suitable for you.
Herbs are often complex and have multiple actions (i.e. they are rarely just adaptogens). Their effects can be quite nuanced, and for this reason certain herbs may be more suited to specific conditions or symptom pictures. As always, working with a naturopath or herbalist is the best way to determine which herbs may be beneficial for you!
Read on for our top 5 adaptogens:
#1 Ashwaghanda (Withania somnifera)
Ashwaghanda has been receiving a lot of attention lately – and for good reason! The root of this Ayurvedic plant has been used since 6000 B.C. in India, where it continues to be highly regarded for its tonic and stimulant properties. The name originates from the word Ashwa meaning ‘smell of a horse’ (a word of caution if you’re using the dried herb!) (4).
These days in the West, Ashwaghanda has experienced a resurgence in popularity for its potent adaptogenic activity. The root contains a class of chemical constituents, known as withanolides, which are thought to contribute to its stress-relieving effects (4, 5).
Benefits of Ashwaghanda:
- Reduces stress and anxiety: Studies have also demonstrated promising results, with Ashwaghanda extracts shown to significantly reduce stress and anxiety scores, and lower cortisol levels (our stress hormone) (6).
- Boosts memory and concentration: Ashwaghanda may also improve mental performance, memory, attention and the speed at which we can process information (7).
Precautions: Ashwaghanda may stimulate thyroid hormone production, and caution should be taken if you have a thyroid condition or take thyroid medications (8, 9). Interactions can also occur with several medications including benzodiazepines, immunosuppressants and antihypertensives. Ashwaghanda should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation.
#2 Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
Rhodiola is another popular adaptogen for supporting mental performance and reducing mental fatigue. Traditionally, Rhodiola root has been used in Europe and Asia where it was known for stimulating the nervous system, reducing fatigue and enhancing work performance (10).
In particular, Rhodiola is thought to be beneficial in fatigue states (especially when caused by stress!), simultaneously boosting cognition and lowering stress levels. Rhodiola contains several active constituents, namely rhodioloside and salidroside, which are thought to provide many of the herbs stress-relieving effects.
Benefits of Rhodiola:
- Reduced fatigue + better mental performance: Rhodiola has been shown to significantly reduce fatigue symptoms in several studies (11, 12, 13). Rhodiola may also improve mental performance and concentration (14).
- Reduced stress and anxiety: Studies also indicate that Rhodiola may reduce symptoms of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), stress and improve overall mood (15, 16).
- Improved physical endurance: Preliminary studies also suggest that Rhodiola may enhance physical endurance during exercise (17, 18).
- Mood booster: Rhodiola has also been studied for its mild anti-depressive activity. In one study, extracts of Rhodiola were shown to improve depressive symptoms, reduce emotional instability and insomnia (19).
- Neurodegenerative diseases: There is also interest in the therapeutic potential of Rhodiola in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, though more studies are required.
Precautions: Rhodiola may influence serotonin levels and may interact with SSRI medications (20). Interactions can also occur when used alongside antihypertensive, immunpsuppressing and anti diabetic drugs. Rhodiola should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation.
#3 Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
You may have heard of Schisandra for supporting your liver, but did you know it is also a powerful adaptogen? Schisandra berries have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine for a variety of health complaints, and to support the body in fatigue and weakness (21).
These days, Schisandra is often used to support liver health and to enhance our ability to cope with stress. Many of the diverse effects of Schisandra are thought to be related to lignans which have hepatoprotective, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Benefits of Schisandra:
- Better concentration: Schisandra has been used alongside other herbs to improve attention, speed and accuracy during stressful tasks (22).
- Stress less: Preliminary animal studies suggest that Schisandra may relieve stress and reduce HPA-axis dysfunction (our stress-response system) (23, 24).
- Liver support: Schisandra has potent antioxidant activity and preliminary animal studies suggest that its use may support liver health and protecting against fatty liver disease (25, 26).
Precautions: Schisandra interacts with several drugs and is not suitable for use during pregnancy or lactation.
#4 Korean Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
Korean ginseng has been used in China, Korea and Japan and is well-known for its anti-anxiety, antidepressant and cognition enhancing effects. The main active constituents include ginsenosides, which are thought to impart its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Benefits of Korean ginseng:
- Reduce fatigue: Korean ginseng has been found to reduce chronic fatigue (27). It has also been shown to improve fatigue related to several conditions including in cancer and multiple sclerosis (28, 29).
- Improve memory: Studies suggest that Korean ginseng may improve cognitive function (30).
- Improve recovery post-exercise: Korean ginseng may improve muscle fatigue after resistance exercise, reduce soreness and enhance recovery (31, 32, 33).
- Neurodegenerative diseases: Studies suggest that Korean ginseng may improve cognitive performance in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s (34).
Precautions: Interactions can also occur with several medications including antiplatelet and antidiabetic drugs. Korean ginseng should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation.
#5 Siberian Ginseng or Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Not to be confused with Korean ginseng or Panax – Siberian ginseng is also well known for its adaptogenic effects. Siberian ginseng has been regarded as a powerful tonic in traditional Chinese medicine. It has been used for over 2000 years to treat a variety of health concerns, including stress induced illness and inflammation (35).
In recent times, Siberian Ginseng is used primarily as an adaptogen and to support the immune system. Several active constituents are thought to produce these immune-modulating and anti-stress effects, including lignans and phenolic compounds.
Benefits of Siberian Ginseng:
- Reduces psychological stress: Siberian Ginseng was found to reduce heart rate and blood pressure under stress (36).
- Physical endurance: Animal studies show that it increases exercise tolerance and reduces physical fatigue (37). It may also enhance endurance capacity, cardiovascular function and energy metabolism (38).
- Immune modulating: Siberian ginseng has a modulatory effect on the immune system, inhibiting various inflammatory cytokines at certain dosages (39).
Precautions: Siberian ginseng interacts with several drugs including antidiabetic, antiplatelet and immunosuppressant medications. Siberian Ginseng should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation.
How Can Adaptogens Support You?
If you would like to learn how adaptogens can support you, Amy is currently available for naturopathy consultations in Brisbane, Australia. As a naturopath, Amy takes a holistic approach towards your health considering the impact of diet, lifestyle, environmental and emotional factors.
Naturopathy can support you in the prevention and management of a variety of complex health conditions, including stress, fatigue + mood disorders. Amy can create a personalised treatment plan for you – which may include herbal medicine, nutritional supplementation, diet and lifestyle changes.
To learn more or book an appointment with Amy, click here.