Adaptogens: Are They Legit?
by Molly Rieger, RD, NLC and Leah Silberman, RD, NLC
Your morning just began and your inbox is already inundated with emails, reminding you that there’s no end in sight to your “to-do” list. You’re supposed to go grocery shopping after work, but at this rate you’ll be lucky if you even have time to eat dinner.
The pressure is on figuratively and literally to get everything done AND stay healthy, as that discomfort in your sinuses is warning you that a headache is on the horizon. Your normal fix would be to pop a couple pain relievers and hope they kick in. Fast. But what if there’s a way to avoid the stress headache from coming on in the first place?
Rather than turning to Western medicine to relieve the anxiety-induced pain, there may be a solution growing right in your garden.
Adaptogens are a specific group of herbs that have been used for thousands of years in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. They’ve gained attention recently for their ability to help our bodies better cope with stress and fatigue. Today, you can find the adaptogens herbs in supplement form in the aisles of most health food stores and vitamin shops.
They definitely sound appealing, but are they worth the money or are they another passing health fad? Let’s dig deeper.
How do Adaptogens Work?
Adaptogens work by strengthening the adrenal system and moderating stress responses. They tend to be good sources of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, which helps to prevent cellular damage.
When the body is under stress, it pumps out adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that spike our blood sugar and increase our heart rate in order to face the stressor. In other words, that feeling you get when your boss throws an urgent assignment on your desk when you were about to leave for yoga.
Our amazing bodies are built to slow back down again and regain homeostasis when the stress is over. (i.e. when you finish that assignment and walk out of the office feeling like a BOSS).
However, when we face constant stress (and who doesn’t have at least a little daily stress), the stress response system stays turned on, potentially leading to problems such as chronic inflammation and adrenal fatigue. Adaptogens work to mitigate this response system by reducing the effects of stressors.
Though it is difficult to test for adrenal fatigue, as testing is conducted in a multitude of forms—hormone testing (especially cortisol), questionnaires, or a combination of the two —there are some common symptoms that may help tip you off.
For instance, someone with adrenal fatigue may experience: sugar or caffeine cravings, difficulty concentrating, high blood sugar, frequent colds, hormonal imbalances, anxiety and depression, troubling waking up, and weight gain around the abdomen. Any sound familiar??
Adaptogen supplements got their name because once they enter the body they “adapt” to the individual’s specific needs either by gently energizing or calming the body.
As Dr. Frank Lipman, internationally recognized expert in the fields of Integrative and Functional Medicine, explains, “Think of adaptogens like your body’s thermostat.” They are able to calm you down or boost your energy subtly. For instance, stress may cause unwanted spikes in blood sugar. Adaptogens work to reduce this effect and stabilize blood sugar. Sounds like a better alternative to sugary energy drinks, doesn’t it?
Are Adaptogens Worth Jumping On the Bandwagon?
If you’re experiencing constant stress and think you might be suffering from adrenal fatigue, there’s no real downside to giving adaptogens a try. Adaptogens have been recognized by herbalists as non-toxic and safe for centuries. Since dietary supplements in general are not USDA or FDA regulated, it is up to you, the consumer, to read the ingredients carefully. While there is no one formula for an effective adaptogen, you should see at least some of the herbs below in the ingredient list:
- American and Asian Ginseng root
- Ashwagandha rootA
- Dang Shen root
- Eleuthero root
- Holy Basil herb
- Jiaogulan herb
- Licorice rhizome
- Reishi fungus
- Rhaponticum root
- Rhodiola root
- Wu Wei Zi berries/seeds (Schisandra)
The impact and effectiveness of the herbs depends on how they are grown, harvested and processed as well as how the herbs are combined. As each herb has a different effect on the body, herbalists aim to create the right harmony of calming and energizing herbs to create a balancing supplement. Herbalists recommend taking adaptogen supplements for at least 3 months to fully feel the benefits.
Molly Rieger and Leah Silberman are registered dietitians and the co-founders of Tovita Nutrition, a virtual nutrition counseling and concierge service. As graduates of the NYU masters of clinical nutrition program, they combine their science and clinical backgrounds with the counseling and business skills learned at The Nutrition School.