You may have noticed products with fancy names — ashwagandha, ginseng, or chaga — popping up on the shelves of health food stores. They look like herbs and have promising benefits. They’ll provide numerous health benefits, enhance your physical appearance, and make you feel a better version of yourself. But what exactly are they and how do adaptogens work?
These life-changing supplements are a class of herbs and mushrooms, called adaptogens. Some of the most notable adaptogen benefits include anti-inflammatory and anti-stress properties. But how do adaptogens work? Or, in fact, do adaptogens really work?
Keep reading for your comprehensive guide on these supplements, including what adaptogens do. So, let’s get started!
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are “herbal pharmaceuticals” (or supplements). While we use the term to refer to the plants themselves, adaptogens are actually ingredients in these plants/mushrooms that help combat stress. They help your body respond to anxiety and fatigue while improving general well-being.
Stress and fatigue have physical effects on the body. The most notable (and worrisome) of these is the harm they do to the neurological and immune systems. Adaptogens work by counteracting these negative effects. However, adaptogens work as temporary solutions, and may not be the permanent treatment for chronic stress.
When Were Adaptogens Discovered?
These stress-fighting ingredients were first studied during World War II. Scientists were looking for power pills that helped pilots perform their best. After conducting several studies, they found these qualities in adaptogens.
What Are Adaptogenic Herbs?
Adaptogenic herbs are simply another name for adaptogens. To qualify as an adaptogenic herb, the candidate plant must have the following qualities:
- It is non-toxic to consume when taken in calculated amounts.
- It helps the body fight stress.
- It restores the natural of the body — in other words, they maintain and recover homeostasis.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
As proven by clinical trials and animal studies, adaptogens have neuroprotective, anti-depressive, and anti-fatigue properties. These aid them in fighting stress and anxiety, resulting in increased well-being.
But how do adaptogens work, precisely? Let’s find out!
Adaptogens work at molecular level. Basically, they regulate the balance of the glands involved in your body’s stress response. These are the hypothalamic and pituitary glands in the brain, and the adrenal gland on top of the kidneys.
In scientific terms, we say adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. In addition to stress response, this HPA axis is essential for the body’s homeostasis and energy metabolism.
When we are stressed, our bodies generally go through three phases — alarm phase, phase of resistance, and exhaustion phase. When we encounter a stressor (say, we lift something heavy), our body releases hormones to enhance muscle performance and allow us to better concentrate on the task. This boost to fight the stressor helps us feel energized.
Immediately afterward, our body enters the exhaustion phase and begins to feel tired. When we consume adaptogens, they work by extending the phase of resistance, allowing us to feel stronger for a longer period of time.
This is also why they’re called “adaptogens”; they adapt to what the body currently needs. According to the dermatologist, Alan Dattner, these plant extracts work by “regulating the body rather than pushing it in one direction or the other”.
Additionally, adaptogen benefits include enhancing attention spans and increasing mental work capacity.
How Do Adaptogens Work For The Skin?
Adaptogens also work wonders for the skin. If you tend to break out due to stress, adaptogens rebalance the hormone cortisol and prevent bursts of acne. Even if you do not suffer from such acne, stress shows up on the skin, making it appear tired and worn-out. A boost from adaptogens (such as ginseng) helps with this dullness, adding a fresh glow to the skin.
Because adaptogens work by regulating the adrenal system, they can also help with skin issues, such as rashes. According to Dr. Michael Forman, “since skin rashes can often be traced back to a hyper- or hypo-adrenaline condition, they (adaptogens) can also benefit the skin”.
Adaptogens also help slow down the process of aging. “Eleuthero has antioxidant properties that may help delay skin aging by preventing free-radical damage to the skin”, says Joe Feuerstein, associate professor of clinical medicine. He also states that the herb angelica has effects similar to the hormone estrogen, ensuring the skin looks young and maintains its youth.
Finally, adaptogens protect the skin against environmental aggressors, thanks to their high antioxidant content.
What Kind Of Adaptogenic Herbs Should I Use?
Now that you know what adaptogens do, let’s discover the variety most suitable for you!
Over 70 types of herbs and plants are classed as adaptogens. As research continues, more and more varieties are added under the category. Below, we have listed the top 4 adaptogenic herbs that have been scientifically proven to benefit the body — and are also readily available in stores near you.
Rhodiola is a mushroom derivative that is incredibly powerful in dealing with mild to moderate depression. It has a long history of medicinal uses, and has been used over the years to increase work performance and endurance, and treat weakness and fatigue.
Rhodiola is effective in treating particular deficiencies, such as exhaustion and daytime sleepiness. It also helps improve motivation levels. So, it is ideal to consume if you have a tough time getting out of bed or struggle to keep your eyes open during work. Rhodiola is also the adaptogen for people who suffer from insomnia at night and depression.
Moreover, rhodiola alleviates stress in the skin and associated problems, such as dryness and itchiness. If you have sensitive skin, rhodiola should be your go-to!
It is best to take rhodiola on an empty stomach, preferably first thing in the morning. Avoid taking it before bedtime, as this adaptogenic herb has a slightly stimulating effect.
Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub that grows abundantly in India and the Middle East. It has been used in the Hindu history of medicine for years, and is now becoming popular worldwide as an effective herb to fight anxiety and slow the process of aging.
Ashwagandha contains chemicals that calm the brain and lower blood pressure. Additionally, it helps resist physical and mental stress. If you suffer from anxiety or have trouble staying calm, try Ashwagandha for soothing and relaxing yourself.
This medicinal herb is also rich in antioxidants, which incredibly reduce symptoms related to aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles. If you’re aiming to maintain the youth of your skin, Ashwagandha is a suitable option.
Ashwagandha is also believed to improve memory — if you can’t recall what you had for lunch yesterday, this is your call to incorporate Ashwagandha into your diet. The herb is currently being tested as an alternative treatment for dementia, too.
You can consume this adaptogen any time of the day, though many people incorporate it into their nightly routine to promote a peaceful night’s sleep.
Chaga, a mushroom variety, is a powerhouse of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It helps with internal oxidative stress, that is, the damage caused to your cells by free radicals.
Chaga is a potential remedy for inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, and high blood pressure. It also lowers blood sugar and cholesterol levels. If you suffer from such conditions, try incorporating this herbal pharmaceutical into your diet. Research suggests that chaga slows down the progression of cancer cells, too.
Moreover, consuming chaga reduces skin sensitivity and combats acne. It contains betulonic acid that regenerates skin cells and supports skin growth. When applied topically, the kojic acid in chaga, a superfood ingredient, helps achieve nourished and hydrated skin.
Have a mug of chaga tea early in the morning (or delay it to mid-day). It’s ideal to use any time of the day, year-round, though!
Ginseng is similar to chaga in terms of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It lowers blood sugar levels, helps with tiredness, and enhances brain function. Additionally, it improves overall health by strengthening the immune system and helps fight off disease.
Ginseng is rich in vitamin D and B12. As a result, it helps with saggy or crinkled skin and loss of collagen, making your skin soft, supple, and elastic. Researchers are also finding it to be an effective herb to use against certain skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis.
If you tend to wake up lacking energy, ginseng is a useful herb to try. It is also useful if you experience a lack of elasticity in your skin.
It is recommended to consume ginseng before meals to ensure maximum absorption — and to leverage its benefits to the fullest.
Note: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or suffer from an autoimmune disease, you may want to avoid the use of adaptogens. There isn’t enough reliable information to understand whether they’re safe to use in such conditions or not.
Adaptogens For Performance
Several adaptogens are proven to aid with athletic performance. This benefit was first leveraged in ancient times to help pilots fly better and for longer periods.
This is primarily because they help the body adjust according to — and resist — physical, biological, and chemical stressors. As a result, adaptogens allow athletes to feel more energized and powerful during sports.
Studies have proven that rhodiola supplements enhance endurance and improve body composition (less fat and increased muscle mass). This leads to better performances over time.
Another type of adaptogens, cordyceps, increase “breathing threshold” and help sustain through high-intensity workouts without getting tired easily.
What is the most powerful adaptogen?
It would be tricky to label a single adaptogen as the “most powerful” — several varieties are strong contenders on this list. These include:
- Licorice: Fights with lethargy and helps with strenuous workouts
- Ashwagandha: improves memory and calms the brain
- Astragalus: Effectively works against stress and improves blood circulation
- Holy Basil: Strengthens the immune system and helps with the common cold
How long does it take for adaptogens to work?
Adaptogens take some time to build up and work in the body before showing results. This means you’d have to wait at least three weeks to be able to see the first signs of their magic. However, adaptogens take around three weeks to reach their full potency. Patience is key with these herbal pharmaceuticals — stay consistent and you’ll slowly begin to notice their effects.
What do adaptogens do to my body?
Adaptogens maintain the balance in your body (homeostasis). They also affect the chemical reactions in your body, depending on what you need at the moment. For example, when you’re stressed, the cortisol levels in your body increase. Adaptogens react by reducing the levels of cortisol. On the flip side, if you experience fatigue and low cortisol, adaptogens will increase its levels in your body to bring it back to normal again.
Do adaptogens really work? How do adaptogens work? We hope you now know it all!
Although adaptogens have been used in Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, they’re a relatively new buzzword in the modern world of wellness and beauty. If your body is feeling stressed (and your skin is showing it), these plant extracts are just what you need for luminous skin and controlled stress levels!
Adaptogen benefits go beyond the skin and maintain balance in the body, enhance mental capacity, and increase attention spans. What adaptogens do is a work of art — they go at molecular level to provide a plethora of benefits.
Ready to incorporate these wondrous plant extracts into your diet and feel (and look) your best? We definitely are!
- Alexander Panossian,…, “Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity” [Online]