What Actually Are Adaptogens?

Nov 24, 2019
What Actually Are Adaptogens?
From intuitive eating to mindful drinking, there’s no doubt that there’s a whole range of wellness lingo you’d be forgiven for not being entirely clear on. And half sounding like a face cream, half sounding like a foodstuff, for most people, adaptogens will be fairly high up the list. Fear not, we’re here to shed some light on this latest buzzword.

What are adaptogens?

Put simply, adaptogens are plant-based non-toxic substances, predominantly herbs, that are believed to quite literally help the body adapt to external stressors, whether they be physical, emotional or environmental. Popularised in Europe by Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev back in the late 1950s, they’ve actually been a staple of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for centuries.

Credited with everything from reducing anxiety to helping ward off insomnia, adaptogens are best known for their stress-busting properties. In this context, we don’t just mean offering an antidote to a bad day at the office, but to the constant bombardment of your brain in an always switched-on world. It’s believed that adaptogens work by increasing your body’s resistance to these external factors, such as lack of sleep or loud noises, which in turn controls the need for your body to produce its natural knee-jerk hormonal responses to a stressor.

Take ashwagandha for example. Officially called as Withania Somnifera, it is commonly regarded as being among the most popular and well-known of adaptogen herbs. Proponents credit this root with having the ability to ward off raised cortisol levels, aka the stress hormone, and in doing so helps the body avoid adrenal fatigue. Turmeric – which is often celebrated for its anti-inflammatory properties – is known for its ability to control cortisol, while ginseng for its ability to boost the immune system and physical stamina by controlling your body’s flight-or-fight response.

Do adaptogens really work?

The jury is still out on that one, but the signs so far seem to suggest that there might be something in it. One review into previous studies found that: “Studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity”, adding that their use can increase “mental work capacity against a background of stress and fatigue, particularly in tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention” (1).

But there is a catch, as most of the research completed so far has focused on the effects of adaptogens on animals, rather than humans. What does that mean? Well, before it can be said with any certainty whether they’re worth the money, more work needs to be done to find out if the benefits work in the same way for both groups.

How can you incorporate them into your diet?

The simplest way to do this is to add them into your food, whether this means adding premixed powders to your stews and soups, swapping your morning English breakfast brew for a ginseng tea. Although you can get supplements, be sure to look at how much product these contain!

  1. Panossian, A.; Wikman, G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals 2010, 3.

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