This article was originally published on the Onnit Academy website.
– Adaptogenic supplements are derived from plants and help the body handle stress.
– Adaptogens put your body in recovery mode, so it can restore itself before another bout of the fight or flight response.
– Adaptogenic supplements include turmeric, ashwagandha, rhodiola, cordyceps, and ginseng.
Whether it comes as the result of a busy week at the office or a grueling workout in the gym, stress is the body’s response to a demanding or threatening situation. When your brain senses you’re in any kind of danger, the body’s defense mechanisms activate the fight or flight response.
This is your body’s survival instinct kicking in to protect you, honed from years of evolution. It’s designed to clear your mind, boost your energy, and enhance your focus, so that you can figure out how to overcome the problem you’re faced with, or escape from it intact. In essence, stress is actually a good thing, since it can save your life.
These days, we don’t encounter saber-toothed tigers or hostile cavemen to fight or flee from, as our ancestors did. And while the stresses of work, family commitments, traffic, etc., may be minor compared to what humans dealt with a few thousand years ago, they’re much more constant, and regular or even chronic stress is a bad thing. It keeps the body in fight or flight longer than it was ever intended to be, and forcing it to work at this revved-up pace long term can seriously damage our health, mood, and quality of life over time.
Nature has an answer, however. Just as it can bring us stress, it also provides nutrition in the form of adaptogenic compounds. Drawn from plants, these compounds can help ease us out of that fight or flight state so that our bodies—and minds—can recover and restore themselves.
Adaptogens are compounds extracted from non-toxic plants that help regulate the body’s stress response. They can come from herbs, mushrooms, and roots, and many have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.
Scientists think adaptogens work by acting on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—the interaction between the brain and adrenal glands—and the sympathoadrenal system—the part of the nervous system that helps control the body’s stress response. According to an article in the journal Pharmaceuticals, adaptogens may help boost attention and endurance in situations where fatigue and/or sensation of weakness might decrease performance. They may also help the body resist stress-induced impairments of the neuroendocrine and immune systems.
Some research suggests that adaptogens may benefit those with age-related disorders and cardiovascular problems. The authors of the aforementioned article wrote, “Thus, elderly people may be able to maintain their health status on a normal level, improve their quality of life and may increase longevity.” Doctors also believe that adaptogens could help support standard therapies used to aid patients fighting a range of health issues.
The short answer: help the body deal with stress. The most accurate answer, however, is that adaptogens are used to help the body maintain the resistance phase of general adaptation syndrome for longer, helping to fend off the exhaustion phase.
So what does that mean, exactly?
When we’re faced with a stressor (any source of mental or physical stress), our bodies handle it through a process called general adaptation syndrome (GAS). This process consists of three phases: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
The alarm stage is the fight-or-flight reaction described above. Something worrisome appears, so your heart rate goes up, adrenaline pumps, and the hormone cortisol is released. These changes make you feel alert and energized so you can protect yourself from whatever is threatening you.
The resistance stage is what happens right after you fight off the tiger, take your exam, or finish your workout. Your body begins to recover from the trauma of the event, returning your blood pressure to normal and trickling off the cortisol release. If the source of your stress is completely gone, then your body will return itself to its pre-stress state. However, if stress lingers long term and you remain on alert, your body will try to adapt to this condition, recognizing it as the new normal. In other words, you learn to live with stress. This is acceptable, to a degree, but if your body continues on this border between alarm and resistance for a while, without time for proper recovery, stress will overtake the body and you’ll enter Stage 3 of GAS—exhaustion.
The exhaustion phase is exactly what it sounds like. You can feel tired and anxious, suffer from a poor mood, and be more susceptible to illness due to a compromised immune system. At any rate, if you find yourself in exhaustion, you need rest, or you’ll see a serious decline in health and performance.
Adaptogens help keep you in the resistance phase of GAS longer, so your body has time to recharge itself before any major damage is done. In this respect, adaptogens are thought to have a stimulatory effect, revving up the recovery process that supports healthy stress hormone levels.
Nevertheless, people tend to respond to different adaptogens very individually. One compound may not have the same effect on you as it did for a friend who told you about it. For this reason, if you choose to experiment with adaptogens, do so one at a time to determine the exact effect each has on you.
Studies suggest adaptogens may possess neuro-, mood-, and energy-boosting benefits. They may help to regulate cortisol and support athletic performance.
Supplements containing adaptogens can come in the form of capsules, tablets, tinctures, and powders to be mixed with water or sprinkled on food. While most adaptogens are considered safe, it is recommended to talk to a healthcare professional before adding adaptogens to your diet. Some common herbal supplements may interact with certain medications while others may cause mild allergic reactions or some digestive discomfort—so take precautions.
“Adaptogens are great for helping to regulate the stress response,” says Shannon Ehrhardt, RD, CSSD, an EXOS Performance Dietitian. “However, they may not be for everyone. Just like anything else out there. Those who should be especially cautious are people with autoimmune disorders or anyone taking any sort of immunosuppressant. Adaptogens could cause the immune system to become more active. That’s a good thing for generally healthy people, but may create complications for those whose immune systems already aren’t working properly.”
While adaptogens on the whole may help us handle stress better, each has its own list of benefits. There are five adaptogens you should know.
Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family, most famous for its use in Indian curries. It gets its stress-managing support from its curcumin content. A review in the journal Foods determined that curcumin aids in regulating inflammatory responses, which may help with exercise recovery, including muscle soreness. Curcumin may then assist with recovery and performance in active people. Furthermore, the researchers stated, “a relatively low dose of the complex can provide health benefits for people that do not have diagnosed health conditions.” In other words, turmeric may make for an ideal supplement for just about anyone.
It’s important to note however, that curcumin alone may not be very helpful, due to its poor bioavailability. To increase its absorption and effectiveness, look for a product that includes black pepper extract—piperine. This can increase bioavailability, the researchers explain, by 2000%, as it inhibits enzymes that break down curcumin in the body. “Curcumin is also fat soluble,” says Ehrhardt, “so combining it with lipids will help absorption even more.” Curcumin is available in products that also contain various oils and fats.
An herb popular in India, ashwagandha appears to be one of the most powerful and diverse adaptogens, offering both health and performance benefits.
A study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that ashwagandha supplementation helped boost subjects’ resistance to stress, thereby improving self-assessed quality of life. In another study on chronically stressed adults, ashwagandha users experienced significant reductions in cortisol—the stress hormone that spikes the fight-or-flight response. Those who took the highest doses of ashwaghanda had the greatest reductions in cortisol—30% on average.
On the performance side, ashwaghanda was shown to benefit aerobic endurance, and also strength performance, as well as muscle mass. Finally, a 2014 trial showed that ashwagandha aided reaction time and performance on cognitive and psychomotor tasks.
A flowering plant grown in arctic regions, rhodiola has been studied with respect to its effects on stress, fatigue, athletic performance, and energy. A trial in Phytotherapy Research found that just four weeks of rhodiola intake helped with life-stress symptoms (although the subjects were not blinded—that is, they knew they were taking rhodiola). Another study showed it helped boost participants’ time to exhaustion by 24 seconds on endurance exercise.
Traditional Chinese medicine used this hybrid fungus for a variety of functions, but it’s mainly seen today as a performance-boosting supplement. Cordyceps is rich in adenosine, a component of ATP, which is the energy source the body uses for all its movements. For this reason, cordyceps is thought to aid ATP production, thereby promoting endurance performance.
A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that cordyceps supplementation helped boost metabolic thresholds (a marker of aerobic performance) in older people. Meanwhile, a 2017 study found that cordyceps militaris—a synthetic form of cordyceps—as part of a mushroom blend aided performance with respect to time to exhaustion during exercise, and VO2 max.
Read more about cordyceps in our complete guide HERE.
Cordyceps pairs well with other adaptogens such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, and astragalus, helping to promote daily energy and exercise performance. This combination appears in the pre-workout supplement Shroom TECH Sport, and the daily support formula Total Human. (Read this author’s review of Total Human on his website, HERE.)
“Shroom TECH Sport is one of my favorite products to use with athletes’ nutrition programs,” says Ehrhardt. “It gives them support from the beginning of the workout through to the recovery phase. They don’t seem to get as exhausted and they can recover a little more quickly—not only during the workout but also for the next session.”
This root is hugely famous in Chinese medicine for its ability to fight inflammatory responses and to help boost immune and cognitive function, due mostly to the compounds ginensosides and gintonin.
A Korean study had subjects take ginseng or a placebo a week prior to exercise and four days afterward. Seventy-two hours after the workout, the ginseng users had significantly lower markers of muscle damage. Meanwhile, a 2014 study demonstrated a boost in cellular health when women took ginseng for 12 weeks.
A trial in Human Psychopharmacology concluded that ginseng helped subjects with feelings of calm, and assisted in their ability to think through math problems—within only eight days of usage. (You might want to keep this in mind if you’ve got an algebra test coming up…)