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What are Adaptogens?

If you take the word adaptogen apart, you get “adapt” which means to change what is going on. Adaptogens are thus plants or plant extracts that increase the body’s ability to adapt or respond to particular stressors, to balance hormonal changes and improve immune function. (1) On the whole, they help the body resist and handle stress, restore the balance of cardiovascular, immune, endocrine and central nervous systems.

These plants have been used by Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda for thousands of years, but it is not until the 1940s that the concept of adaptogenesis was initially created in Western society. (2) Dr Nikolai Lazarev a Russian scientist first coined the term “adaptogen” in 1947 and Dr I.V. Darymovhe created the formal definition. According to the formal definition, an adaptogen has to fulfil this criterion:

Non-toxic to the userProduces a non-specific response in the body to increase the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical and biological agentsHas a normalising effect on the physiology of the body, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms as a result of the stressor.

In other words, an adaptogen ought to be safe, reduce the body’s stress and support overall health by helping the body achieve a balance that is known as homeostasis.

How do Adaptogens Work?

To better understand how these bad boys work, we need first to comprehend how stress comes about at the cellular level. Throughout the body induces metabolic responses to situations by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Note that these situations can range in their intensity and it is not just “high-stress” situations that cause the secretion of stress hormones.

Cortisol is a responsive hormone that functions by lowering movement of glucose from the bloodstream into the muscles. This action is intended to conserve glucose for other essential functions. (3) Although elevated cortisol is not harmful in the short-run and in fact needed for optimal functioning, it can be dangerous if elevated for too long. In the long run, the stress response causes a beta-lipoprotein build up which inhibits passage of energy through cell walls. As a result, cells do not receive sufficient energy for their optimal functioning, and that means poor performance, constant fatigue and even illnesses. (4)

Biologically active substances in adaptogens modify all these stress responses. First, they prevent formation and accumulation of the beta-lipoproteins mentioned above, allowing more conversion of glucose into reusable energy. (5) Second, they increase the ability of cells to build mRNA and tRNA. Some also stimulate the mitochondria (cells that produce energy) while others support the liver function to remove toxins. All of these changes mount an appropriate response to protect the cells’ energy resources from depletion, ensure access to adaptive energy and help maintain the optimal cellular function.

Why Take Adaptogens?

3.1 Helps Control Cortisol & Stress

Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” is a steroid hormone that is released by the adrenal gland. The brain triggers its release mainly during times of stress (hence its name). However, when the levels of cortisol are too high for too long, they can hurt you more than they help.

When you look at other stress hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine, they are released on a need be basis during emergencies (remember the kind of surge that you get when you are extremely frightened such as when almost causing an accident? These two hormones are responsible for that surge). On the other hand, cortisol is constantly released in the body in response to relatively low-grade stressors. (6)

Chronically elevated cortisol levels cause a myriad of health problems ranging from increased blood sugar levels, weight gain and obesity, immune suppression, fertility issues, cardiovascular diseases to gastrointestinal problems like indigestion. (6) Furthermore, since cortisol is released by the adrenal glands, these glands get worn out from excessive demands of the hormone. Exhausted adrenal glands leave you feeling fatigued, wired and totally worn out. Adaptogens normalize the levels of cortisol and support worn out adrenal glands. The best thing about adaptogens is that they work effectively regardless of the cause of stress. (7)

The benefit of lowering cortisol is related to the ability of adaptogens to interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and to mediate the key role players in stress response. Such one specific critical player is a stress-sensor protein known as Hsp70 which is directly associated with the production of cortisol and nitric oxide. (8) Prevention of stress-induced nitric oxide and cortisol increases energy production resulting in improved performance and endurance. Moreover, the stress response enhances mental and physical performance.

3.2 Possesses Nootropic Properties

Other than stress fighting, adaptogens can also give the brain an extra boost. Adaptogens as nootropics, protect the brain, boost memory and improve cognitive processes. The truth about modern life stressors whether biological, environmental or psychological, have long-term effects on the brain. These stressors seem to have a flip switch in the stem cells of the brain, preventing nerve connections, resulting in the prevention of learning and memory.

In the brain, adaptogens work by balancing the production of neurotransmitters, improving blood flow, boosting nerve cell signalling and protecting brain cells from damage. (9) The unique thing about adaptogens is that they not only protect the brain from stress. They also boost cognition, boost memory, promote mental clarity and even improve memory.

Some of the adaptogens like Rhodiola Rosea (10) have been used in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety. They stimulate the brain by mediating changes in serotonin and dopamine, the two critical neurotransmitters related to mood.

Must-Have Adaptogens

Here is a list of 6 Adaptogens that all high-impact entrepreneurs and athletes need to consider!

4.1 Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is one of the most powerful adaptogens that is well known for its restorative and rejuvenating benefits. It is actually the most widely used and extensively researched adaptogen. In Sanskrit language, ashwagandha means “the smell of a horse”, and in other cultures, it is believed to have a smell reminiscent of sweat of a horse. This coincides with the traditional belief that ingesting it has the potential to exhibit the vigour and strength of a stallion.

Ashwagandha has been used for over 2000 years in India, Middle East and North Africa. It is in India that ashwagandha was deeply rooted, and for this reason, it is also commonly referred to as Indian Winter cherry or Indian Ginseng. (11) It was first described in the sacred Ayurvedic texts where it was widely regarded as a tonic, aphrodisiac, thermogenic and stimulant.

Ashwagandha is primarily used for prevention of anxiety, and it also shows promise for treating insomnia and stress-induced depression. Beyond that, ashwagandha can significantly lower cortisol levels, immunosuppressive effects of stress, improve physical performance, endurance and muscle strength.

Studies on athletes show that ashwagandha helps improve physical endurance by increasing the body’s oxygen carrying capacity during exercise, through increasing hemoglobin and red blood cell count. (12) High-impact exercises need maximum oxygen consumption not only for adequate tissue perfusion but also for energy production. Increase in red blood cell production increases the capacity of the blood to transport oxygen directly to the exercising muscles, therefore, enhancing direct aerobic capacity.

Another benefit to exercise is that it has some anti-fatigue action by improving clarity and focus. Fatigue is caused by an interplay of thermoregulatory, psychological, cardiovascular and mental factors. Through its rejuvenation effects, ashwagandha significantly improves the time to exhaustion. Ashwagandha has also shown to have moderate ability to increase in lean mass and a positive impact to lower total body fat. (13)

The typical recommended dosage of ashwagandha for energy and muscle strength is between 300 and 1000mg although doses up to 2grams have been used along with other combinations and as a root. (14) Large doses can cause abdominal discomfort, diarrhea and more potentially serious effects like hyperthyroidism. 

4.2 Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea or golden root, is traditional Chinese medicine, ancient Greece and Scandinavian herb that is one of the most popular adaptogens. (15) Dioscorides, a renowned Greek physician, wrote extensively about Rhodiola in his book, De Materia MedicaIn the book, Dioscorides refers to Rhodiola Rosea as Rodia Riza, a name given to the herb by Carolus Linnaeus, a Swiss taxonomist. Linnaeus chose the name because of the rose-like smell from a freshly cut stem. That fragrance is due to geraniol essential oil found in the stem.

The Vikings and Sherpa people were said to be very fond of Rhodiola Rosea because it helped them with their stamina and to bear the cold, subarctic weather. They needed the herb to keep their energy levels high so that they could loot and plunder to their best abilities. The ancient Chinese brewed it in tea to treat colds and flu while the Siberians used it for the newlyweds to boost fertility and to encourage the birth of a healthy baby.

In sports, Rhodiola Rosea is a popular anti-fatigue agent. It appears to significantly reduce the effects of prolonged and minor physical exhaustion, factors that result in fatigue. Rhodiola Rosea has also been shown to reduce fatty acids meaningfully. Moreover, supplementation can minimize lactate levels and other parameters of muscle damage, thus helping in muscle recovery after exhaustive exercise sessions (16)

Non-athletic benefits include reduction of stress (although it is less effective than antidepressants), protects the skin and prevents premature aging, prevents altitude sickness and lowers high-cholesterol and blood sugar.

Rhodiola Rosea is taken in strengths of 100-600mg on an empty stomach as a dietary supplement and 500 to 1500mg as a sports performance enhancer. (17) To improve athletic performance, the Canadian Academy of Sports Nutrition recommends that Rhodiola Rosea should be taken 30 to 60 minutes before exercise. Note that Rhodea is a stimulant and if taken close to bedtime, it can cause sleep disturbance and nervousness.

4.3 Astralagus

Astralagus, a plant belonging to the legume family, is one with a long history of immune boosting and disease fighting properties. It has its roots in the Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it was discovered by a Chinese legend known as Shen Nong more than 5000 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest plants used medically. The name astralagus translated into Chinese means Hung Qi, meaning yellow leader, because of its colour of the root. In traditional medicine, it was used for night sweats, fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite and diarrhea. (18)

Astralagus has active saponin compounds such as those found in oats and spinach, which play the significant role in strengthening immunity. In people with low white blood cells, astralagus has been known to increase the levels to improve the ability to fight diseases. (19) Astralagus is also a known antioxidant, which prevents many diseases through neutralisation free radicals.

Other than restoring the immune system, astralagus is also well known for promoting strong muscle development and general fitness. (20) It is considered particularly helpful in high energy output and high demand exercises. This is because astralagus makes energy metabolism more efficient (by stimulating mitochondria’s oxidation of fatty acids) and protects muscles from breakdown, which is the long-term goal of any athlete.  

Other researchers also suggest that astralagus stimulates the kidneys to secrete more erythropoietin (EPO). EPO promotes the formation of red blood cells by the bone marrow, meaning that more oxygen will be delivered to the tissues. If you have been in high impact exercises, you already know that erythropoietin dramatically improves aerobic capacity and delays fatigue. The advantage of asparagus is that it is natural and does not rapidly elevate EPO levels, meaning that taking it is not doping.

There are several preparations of astralagus and thus, varying doses. Generally, most people tolerate doses between 600mg and 2 grams. For the dried root, 3 to 6 grams in 12 to 16 ounces of water 3 to 6 times a day is effective. 2 to 5mls of fluid extract or tincture can also be taken 3 times a day.

4.4 Panax Ginseng

Often referred to as the lord of herbs, Panax ginseng is one of the many types of ginseng used in herbal medicine. It was first recorded in the books of Chinese medicine more than 2000 years ago. It is a renowned tonic and restorative herb whose name (Panax) in Greek means “all-healing.” On the other hand, ginseng means ‘man ginseng’ due to the shape of its roots, which are human-like. (21)

Panax ginseng has become revered for its strength-giving and rejuvenating powers that it has for the human body. It is actually one of the most adaptogenic plants. It is, therefore, a subject of interest for sciences. For this reason, there are over 600 books and more than 2000 scientific articles dedicated to Panax ginseng.

The active compounds of Panax ginseng are thought to be steroid-like elements known as ginsenosides. The compounds are regarded as tonics that not only improve a wide range of conditions but also prevents them. Particularly, Panax prevents overstimulation and exhaustion of adrenal glands, which occurs as a result of overproduction of stress hormones. It is also known to boost exercise performance, improve memory, lower blood sugar and cholesterol, prevent premature skin aging and fight off infections. (22)

Panax ginseng can be taken in doses of 100 to 400mg for general prevention purposes and for libido enhancement, doses up to 3 grams (3 divided doses of 1000mg) may be taken. (23) Some specialists also suggest that doses as low as 40mg may also be effective. Of importance to note is that Panax ginseng should not be taken with blood thinners such as aspirin and warfarin.

4.5 Reishi Mushrooms

Another adaptogen with miraculous effects is the reishi mushroom, which is also known as LingZhi in Chinese. The name lingzhi represents a spiritual potency and an essence of mortality. Furthermore, the name reishi brings to mind Chinese emperors, spirituality, and herbal apothecaries. It is thus no wonder that reishi mushrooms have their history of origin in China.

Reishi mushroom is an oriental fungus that is large, dark with a glossy exterior and woody texture. There are about six different types of reishi- red, purple, green, white, yellow and black. The powerful effects of these various types have been inscribed in texts and art as early as 1400AD. (24) Modern science has also shown that reishi is a medicinal that is an immune modulator and a very potent antioxidant.

Reishi mushrooms have multiple active compounds which stabilise blood sugar, blood pressure, lower cholesterol and have an effect on free radicals. Some of the active ingredients, beta-D-glucans also stimulate the immune system while triterpenes inhibit anti-inflammatory responses. The action of triterpenes also eases allergic reactions, improves oxygen exchange and promotes liver and adrenal functions. (25)

For athletic performance, you may call reishi mushrooms the mushrooms of the millennia, because of their long-known energy boosting effects. They act on the supply of glucose to muscles, counteract oxidative effects that may cause muscle damage, and improve pain tolerance.

The Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China recommends a dosage of 6 to 12 grams of reishi mushroom extract daily. (26) Higher doses may be damaging to the liver, can cause dryness of the throat, nasal areas and mouth or a bleeding disorder.

4.6 Schisandra

Schisandra is a type of berry, but do not think of it as the usual superfruit like goji. Think of it as a medicine that is sweet, sour, salty, bitter or pungent. The schisandra plant was first used nearly a thousand years ago when it was used to treat various diseases such as coughs, premature ejaculation, dysentery and insomnia. There are two types of the plant- one that red berries and the other, black berries. The variety of red berries is more common while the black one is rare to find outside of Asia.

Schisandra has two main active compounds, schisandrin and schisandrol. (27) Both of them protect the liver and promote liver regeneration, scavenge free radicals, are anti-inflammatory and protect the body against tumours. As you can see, this is a liver treatment herb that is effective against liver infections and improves poor liver function.

It also stimulates the nervous system by increasing the speed reflex nervous responses. The result is a significant improvement in mental focus and clarity. Schisandra thus improves your concentration and coordination, to smash your goals. (28) Although it has stimulatory effects, Schisandra is one adaptogen that works in contradictory ways to restore body function. When compared to other stimulating agents like caffeine and Panax ginseng, Schisandra does not cause sleep disturbances. In fact, it is used to treat insomnia and improve sleep quality. (29)

As a general adaptogen, acceptable doses are between 1.5 and 6 grams daily. For improving athletic performance, 91mg of pure extract per day is sufficient. Due to its effect on the central nervous system and liver, toxic doses (more than 3.6g/kg) may cause liver damage and convulsions. (30)

Ways to Include Adaptogens in your Diet

Adaptogens come in a wide variety of forms, from pills, powders, dissolvable tablets, liquid extracts, tincture form and even teas. For each adaptogen, how you take it may be different depending on the result that you want to achieve.

Perhaps the most straightforward way of taking your adaptogens is either by swallowing the capsulated supplements or taking as a concentrated mixture with just a little water. If you cannot stomach a straight shot, other ways to consider include:

Sip your adaptogen in your most soothing teas. This actually one of the most traditional ways to consume adaptogens and is even referred to as teapot medicine.Add to food by gently simmering for an hour or more, then add to your meal of choice as it cooks. Adaptogenic mushrooms like reishi or roots like astralagus are the best options for adding to food as they lend a mild, slightly sweet flavour.Use premixed powder to spice up your smoothies, soups, or as salad dressingsDissolve the tablets in waterMix the adaptogen especially, Ashwagandha with honey or ghee then steep in hot water for 10 to 15 minutes

Precautions & Facts

Adaptogens are generally safe when taken in the right portions, but they can cause some unwanted effects, interact with other medications and even make some medical conditions worse. For instance, Panax ginseng may affect hormone levels, and so can cause deterioration of hormone-related conditions like cancer of the breast, ovaries, prostate or uterus, fibroids, endometriosis among many others. It is thus essential to always consult a specialist if you are dealing with any medical condition.

If you are taking any medication, it is also critical to consult your pharmacist or doctor, to be sure that there will be no drug interactions. Moreover, you should never stop taking your medication or replace it with an adaptogen before consulting your physician.

For the side effects, very few adaptogens have adverse effects, but it is best to investigate each of them and their specific response to your body. For one person, an adaptogen may be unbearable, but to another, it may be the one that works. The most common side effects include:

Stomach upsetNausea and vomitingInsomniaFast heart rateOverstimulationIrritabilityLoss of appetite

Pregnant and nursing women should not use the discussed adaptogens as there is no reliable scientific evidence on their safety to the fetus or nursing child. Some of them like the Schisandra can even stimulate the uterus to cause premature labour or even a miscarriage.

Final Thoughts: The Bottom Line on Adaptogens

Adaptogens have Nootropic properties, meaning that if you want to improve your cognition on the field, in the gym, and in the office, you better be taking adaptogens.Adaptogens are a special group of plants or plant extracts that help the body adapt to stress and restore the body’s balance.According to the criteria of adaptogens, they should be safe, produce a non-specific response to multiple stressors and have a normalising effect on the physiology of the body.They help mitigate stress responses by bringing the hormone of the adrenal system back to normal and thus overcoming adrenal fatigue, a common problem in chronic stress.

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Other than being a powerful weapon to stress, these adaptogens are also potent antioxidants, support physical endurance, improve mental clarity, boost the immune system, improve energy levels and metabolism and promote overall wellness.The most common adaptogens include ashwagandha, astralagus, Rhodiola Rosea, Panax ginseng, reishi mushrooms and SchisandraAdaptogens can be taken in capsulated supplement form, as meal spices, brewed in teas, in soups, smoothies, with honey or in plain water.Adaptogens have no major side effects but can sometimes cause nausea, vomiting, overstimulation, sleep disturbances and caffeine-like jitters. These signs subside with time and are less likely if you adhere to the recommended dosages.Adaptogens are generally not recommended for pregnant and nursing women.