A Guide To Adaptogens
I have seen adaptogens on instagram, in Sephora and at my local juice bar. They are everywhere and it is time to give you a little more insight into these powerful herbs and elevate the science behind them. This is a wellness trend that I can get behind, but first let’s look at the science, best ways to use these powerful herbs and how they can help boost your wellness.
Science Behind Stress
Adaptogens are herbs that help your body respond to stress more efficiently. They impact the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) which is the way our body responds to stress.
Stay with me, I am going to dive into the science for a minute.
Our hypothalamus perceives stress and releases corticotropin-releasing factor / hormone (CRF) which bind to our pituitary gland. Our pituitary gland responds and releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which binds to the adrenal cortex and cortisol is released. This puts your body on high alert until the stressor is gone and then over the next couple hours your body can calm down.
Here is a simple way to think about it. You are at a kids birthday party and all the kids are playing calmly together. A child (aka your hypothalamus) wanders off and finds a spider and freaks out and scares the 3 closest kids to him (your pituitary gland), who then proceed to freak out the entire group of kids (your adrenals) and chaos ensues. Eventually they realize they don’t even see a spider and everyone calms back down and resumes playing. Now let's look at how adaptogens impact the body.
The HPA axis also plays a role in immune function, digestion, metabolism and mood. This is why we see an impact on many other areas of health than just the stress response, after all, the body is one complex system.
The Power of Adaptogens
Think of this as your adaptogen cheat sheet. I will break-up each adaptogen into a category of what it does best and include some relevant studies to showcase its function. But first, let's look at some best practices for use:
•Use for 6 weeks and rotate. This gives your body varied exposure to the different nutrients each herb contains
•Take them daily. Add to your tea, smoothies, oatmeal or any other daily routine
•Don’t over do-it. Take only what is recommended and monitor how your body feels, a functional medicine practitioner or ND can help you get on the right dose
•Don’t overpay! Check out Mountain Rose Herbs for the best priced organic adaptogens
Calm You Down
Action: Helpful for those who are fatigued during the day but have a hard time sleeping at night - wired and tired, decreases serum cortisol levels
When to take: Nighttime, calming effect
Science: Participants reported a decrease in stress and anxiety
Caution: Thyroid and pregnancy
Action: Calms down the body, may improve anxiety - decreases the cortisol response to stress
When to take: Mid-afternoon or during a stressful time or before bedtime (if you are extra sensitive - do not take before bed)
Science: Participants with mild anxiety were given rhodiola and reported a decrease in their symptoms
Caution: Antidepressant medications
Ramp You Up
Asian Ginseng (Panax Ginseng)
Action: Immune system booster, improves cognitive function, can wake you up!
When to take: Take in the morning, has stimulating properties
Science: Studies have shown it can help decrease the risk for upper respiratory tract infections during flu season. It can also help keep the mind sharp and was shown to increase working memory in study participants
Caution: It may raise blood pressure, increase anxiety, decrease blood glucose levels
Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng)
Action: Increase energy and focus, improve sleep - good for those who work hard and play hard!
When to take: Take in the morning or afternoon to give you some pep
Science: Increased endurance and mental performance in patients with fatigue and weakness
Caution: Cardiovascular disease - could cause palpitations
Action: Increase physical stamina, protect against stress, improves concentration - alters basal levels of nitric oxide to deliver oxygen more efficiently throughout the body and improves adrenal function
When to take: Morning or afternoon
Science: Animal studies have shown an increase in physical working capacity and has a stress-protective effect on the body.
Caution: Diabetics and those with high blood pressure
Try Something New!
These are the adaptogens I like to use in my practice and in my day to day life. Remember to pick the one that is best for you and take it daily for 6 weeks. Then rotate through some other options and see how you feel. We want to support our health and adaptogens can be used as part of balanced and healthy lifestyle.