Stress is a normal part of life, whether triggered by traffic, annoying people, travel, financial or business issues, major life changes, challenging physical demands, or exposure to toxins. But beyond a certain point, it can do more than set our nerves on edge. Stress can make us tired, irritable, depressed, or anxious. It can disrupt sleep and hormone balance, give us heartburn or a headache, provoke cravings, and make it easier to catch a cold or the flu.
Rather than addressing specific symptoms, one category of herbal supplements bolsters our natural ability to deal with stress and rebalances whatever went out of whack, regardless of the trigger. They’re called adaptogens.
What Are Adaptogens?
Herbs that fall into this group have been used therapeutically for thousands of years, but the word “adaptogen” wasn’t coined until the 1960s by two Russian scientists who were studying plants, Drs. Israel Brekhman and Nikolai Lazarev. They found that certain herbs were particularly good at adapting to and surviving in harsh conditions, and had been helping humans to do the same for a very long time.
In traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, they may have been called tonics or elixirs because of their wide-ranging benefits. Before trade existed on a global scale, different ones were used only in their native regions but now, the sheer number of choices can lead to confusion.
Each adaptogen has some unique characteristics, which can make it easier to pick one. However, according to Brekhman and Lazarev, all adaptogens also possess these three qualities:
The multiple mechanisms and benefits of adaptogens are unlike any drug, and the concept of such substances is foreign to the symptom-fix mentality of Western medicine. With their ability to restore harmony among the processes that drive our bodies on a daily basis, adaptogens offer a rejuvenating, holistic path to wellness. And they’re growing in popularity, not only in supplements but also in teas, coffees, and other beverages.
Among the many choices, these are some of the top adaptogens, research highlights, and, in addition to stress relief, main benefits of each one.
A Canadian study of herbs that are used in Ayurveda, India’s ancient healing system, called ashwagandha “the best known and most scientifically investigated of these herbs.” Other research, which was reviewed in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that the herb reduced anxiety scores by 56 percent, whereas psychotherapy reduced scores by only 30 percent.
Ashwagandha calms the central nervous system. In addition, because it reduces unhealthy levels of inflammation, it can also help relieve arthritis. In lab and animal studies, the herb has suppressed the growth of leukemia and prostate, lung, colon, and breast cancer cells.
There are two patented ashwagandha extracts found in many supplement brands:
KSM-66: Benefits include fewer stress-related food cravings, enhanced muscle strength and endurance, better recovery after exercise, improved memory, and improved sexual function in both men and women.
Sensoril: Benefits include less short-term memory loss, improvements in
mental function among people with bipolar disorder, reduced anxiety, and healthier function of arteries, which reduces risk for heart disease.
Key properties: Anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, antioxidant, immune balancing, and rejuvenating.
Nicknamed “magic mushroom” and “caterpillar fungus,” cordyceps is technically neither one. Its shape resembles a mushroom but it is a fungus that doesn’t literally grow on caterpillars. It comes from a Himalayan region of northern India, where it grows on caterpillar larvae that lie about 6 inches underground. Traditionally, it has been used for many ailments but especially to enhance longevity and treat erectile dysfunction.
In recent years, cordyceps has been recognized for improving energy and sexual function, enhancing immunity, and protecting against or helping to reduce the effects of type 2 diabetes. For kidney transplant recipients, it has improved kidney function and reduced inflammatory damage to the organ. For people who exercise, it can improve endurance and stabilize levels of blood sugar during prolonged physical activity.
Key properties: Energy-enhancing, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, immune balancing, and reduce damage from radiation treatment for cancer.
There are two varieties of ginseng, Asian and American, and another herb that sounds similar—Siberian ginseng, also called eleuthero—which isn’t, botanically speaking, the same herb. All three are adaptogens and are sometimes combined.
American and Asian ginsengs share multiple qualities: enhancing strength, stamina, and sports performance; improving blood sugar and insulin function in type 2 diabetes; protecting against cancer; and enhancing immunity, leading to fewer colds, for example. American ginseng has also been shown to improve memory in healthy people and in those suffering from schizophrenia. Asian ginseng has reduced menopausal symptoms and improved postmenopausal heart health, relieved cold hands and feet in women, and helped alleviate chronic fatigue syndrome.
Eleuthero, or Siberian ginseng, also enhances immunity, physical performance, and endurance. Better neurological health and, in postmenopausal women, healthier bones and cholesterol levels are other benefits.
Key properties: Performance-enhancing, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, memory enhancing, and immune stimulating.
Used traditionally in Asia and Eastern Europe, rhodiola relieves depression, as well as enhancing energy, improving mental performance, increasing endurance, and reducing anxiety. A study of people with mild to moderate depression found that rhodiola relieved most symptoms. In a study of doctors on a night shift, rhodiola improved mental function. Another study found that among military cadets undergoing sleep deprivation, the herb reduced fatigue. And in another, students taking stressful exams functioned better mentally and were less tired.
Key properties: Performance-enhancing, both mentally and physically, anti-depression, and anti-anxiety.
Article written by Vera Tweed, with permission from Better Nutrition.