Nutrition / Food

The Beginner’s Guide to Adaptogens

Learn the basics of these trendy, healing herbs.

Adaptogens are having a moment. This is largely thanks to these plants’ apparent abilities to help diminish stress, improve focus, and balance out the body. From the sound of it, these natural healing foods appear to be a cure-all. But, as is with any trending superfood, it’s important to separate fact from fiction. Adaptogens can have plenty of health benefits. However, before you start stocking your kitchen cabinet with fancy powders, you’ll want to make sure that you’re choosing a substance that’s right for you.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are plants, usually herbs and roots used in herbal medicine that decrease your body’s sensitivity to stressors. “Essentially, this means that the consumption of these substances may result in increased stress protection and resistance,” says Registered Dietitian Carrie Walder, MS, RD. “I like to think of adaptogens as substances that help us ‘adapt’ to various stressors and environmental challenges.”

Traditionally used in Chinese and Indian medicine, adaptogens have risen in popularity recently, thanks to health and wellness Instagrammers and influencers. Brands like Sun Potion, Moon Juice, and Four Sigmatic have also been marketing these products to the mainstream.

The most commonly used types of adaptogens include ashwagandha, reishi, and cordyceps. But there are plenty of other herbs that fight stress as well. “Current research has cited more than 70 different plants with adaptogenic properties,” says Walder.

What are they good for?

Healthy people commonly use adaptogens to reduce the negative effects of stress. “In today’s day and age, stress is all too common. We know that prolonged exposure can lead to decreased mental and physical well-being,” says Walder. “Adaptogens, therefore, may be a way for individuals to help cope with increased environmental demands and everyday stressors.”

These herbs work by targeting your adrenals and managing your body’s hormonal response to stress. They work to bring it back to homeostasis. Different adaptogens have different benefits. People choose to use them for everything from stress and anxiety, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and a stronger immune system.

Do they really work?

There are some scientific studies to support the potential benefits of adaptogen use. But research is still in the early stages. According to Walder, more research needs to be done on the subject. In particular, scientists need to understand the specific interactions and mechanisms between adaptogens and stress response at a higher level. He says this is particularly true for research in human subjects. Many of the current studies were conducted in either animal or human cell samples. Of those studies, the ones that were published appeared in smaller journals. Luckily, there is little evidence so far that taking adaptogens can cause negative side effects. It can’t hurt to add some ashwagandha powder to your morning smoothie, just in case.

Which should you be using?

With so many adaptogens to choose from, it can be overwhelming to decipher which will suit your needs. “Specific adaptogens are thought to have specific benefits. Recommendations for use should be personalized to the individual taking them,” says Walder. “As with all herbal supplements, it is important to use them with discretion and to listen to your body when taking them.” We also recommend always talking to your doctor before taking any adaptogens. He or she will best be able to give you individualized guidance on adding supplements to your diet.

Below, we’ve broken down a list of the most commonly used adaptogens.

Ashwagandha

One of the most commonly used herbs in Ayurveda is ashwagandha. “It is the most extensively studied adaptogen. Evidence has suggested that it may play a role in lowering blood sugar levels, reducing stress and anxiety, and supporting brain function,” says Walder.

Astragalus

Astragalus is best known for its immune-boosting properties. “Lab studies and animal studies have shown this herb to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. But larger studies are needed to prove the efficacy of this root,” says Luisa Sabogal, MS, RDN, CDE. It is also good for stress, as it can temporarily reduce cortisol levels.

Chaga

Another antioxidant-filled adaptogen are chaga mushrooms. They are good for the immune system. Additionally, studies have shown them to fight oxidative stress and inflammation. They may even help prevent against certain types of cancer.

Cordyceps

Like chaga, cordyceps are another type of healing mushroom. They are known for their energy-boosting properties. They work by increasing stamina and fighting fatigue, which makes them popular with athletes. Cordyceps also work to strengthen the immune system.

Holy Basil

“Tulsi, or Holy Basil, is another herb, known as ‘the elixir of life’ in Ayurvedic medicine,” says Walder. “This adaptogen has a peppery taste and can be used in spicy dishes, such as stir-fries or soups. Some studies have suggested that tulsi may be useful for reducing blood glucose, metabolic syndrome, and psychological stress.”

Maca

This adaptogen differs from the others in that its main use is an aphrodisiac. “Maca root belongs to the tuber family and is native to Peru,” says Walder. “It has traditionally been used to increase libido, and to enhance [both] fertility and reproductive health.”

Reishi

A type of mushroom, reishi is good for calming nerves, as well as managing blood sugar. “It can help regulate hormones and decrease stress,” says Registered Dietitian Abby Langer. “It can also increase ‘good’ cholesterol.”

Although, there is a need for more thorough research, adaptogens seem to be a promising way to help your body fight off the damages of stress.

Food Nutrition

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