Clinical studies show adaptogens can help change people's lives by overcoming health and lifestyle issues, from managing stress, anxiety and endurance to improving your joints, mental health, brain function and muscle mass. Here we explain adaptogens, how they work and five of the best adaptogens to look out for.
What are adaptogens?
An adaptogen is the name given to plants and herbs that regulate pathways in the body and increase resistance to stress and may help to increase physical endurance and energy. Due to their properties, adaptogens are used for a wide range of reasons. Some of the best adaptogens are Ashwagandha, Schisandra, Cordyceps, Rhodiola and Turmeric.
How do adaptogens work?
Adaptogens work on a molecular level by regulating the balance of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. These are glands in the brain and on top of the kidneys and they have a very close relationship with each other. You may enjoy our blog: How adrenal glands affect stress and endurance.
Adaptogens are very popular for the fact that they are 'balancers' of your glands, whether they're over functioning or under functioning. There is also some good evidence for their use, and numerous studies have been conducted on their efficacy.
5 adaptogens that can change your life
Ashwagandha is a shrub belonging to the nightshade family. It also goes by the name of Withania somnifera, winter cherry or Indian ginseng. Its active constituent is called 'withanolides' and these are responsible for its therapeutic properties. Ashwagandha has many beneficial properties and uses for the body.
Ashwagandha balances the stress response, lowers cortisol levels and helps your body to deal with stressful situations, increasing emotional resistance and improving relaxation. Lowering cortisol levels with Ashwagandha may have a profound effect on stress related conditions.
High cortisol levels inhibit melatonin, your sleep hormone, and is a common cause of poor sleep. Through its role in helping balance and lower cortisol, research shows Ashwagandha can indirectly help your body produce melatonin, your sleep hormone, and enable more complete sleep.
Brain function, anxiety and depression
Ashwagandha has potent antioxidant properties and provides some protection to the nerve cells from free radical damage. The antioxidants provided by Ashwagandha help to balance the free radical-antioxidant ratio and promote healthy brain tissue and function. In some studies, Ashwagandha improved a type of memory called spatial memory and others show an improvement in reaction time.
Ashwagandha has been used in a few studies on patients with anxiety and depressive symptoms with positive results. However, if you think you are suffering from depression, it is important to chat to your GP before taking Ashwagandha or any other natural remedy.
Improving testosterone levels and muscle mass
Ashwagandha may help to improve testosterone levels in men affected by stress. Cortisol and testosterone are created from the same substances in the body. Lowering cortisol levels allows more of the substances to be made into testosterone. Improving testosterone levels has a positive effect on sperm count and motility.
The increase in testosterone seen in men who supplement with Ashwagandha directly increases the rate at which muscle is built. It also encourages the burning of fat stores, and increases the rate at which fat is lost. Testosterone is also important for women - learn more in our nutritionists' article 'Why is testosterone important for women.'
Schisandra (also called 'schisandra chinesis') is a vine-like plant that produces purple-red berries. Although it isn’t generally consumed as a food, these berries are described as having 5 different tastes – sweet, bitter, sour, salty and pungent. The berries contain lignans which is the active component, and is the reason Schisandra is taken as a supplement and herbal medicine. The lignans are categorised into schisandrins A, B & C, and are the bioactive compounds.
Schisandra helps to bring balance and may help to decrease night sweats, mood instability and memory loss associated with the drop in hormones that occurs during menopause. One study that looked at the benefits of Schisandra on menopausal women concluded that Schisandra was beneficial, safe and effective for symptoms of the menopause including hot flushes, sweating and heart palpitations.
The adaptogenic effects of Schisandra have a positive influence on the stress response. One study concluded that schisandra significantly prevented chronic, unpredictable and mild stress behavioural and biochemical alterations. Reducing the level of stress helps many other functions in the body affected by stress such as mood, immunity and sleep. You may enjoy our article 'Foods and vitamins to help relieve anxiety'.
Turmeric is a yellow spice from the root of a plant traditionally used in Asian cooking. It contains three active compounds called curcuminoids. These curcuminoids are biologically active in the body and provide a multitude of benefits. Turmeric can be added to foods or drinks and even used topically, or taken as a turmeric supplement.
Curcumins, and in particular curcumin, reduces inflammation in the body by stopping the body from making inflammatory compounds. Curcumin works on the same pathway as a lot of anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving medicines but without the side effects. The pathway it targets is called NF-KB. NF-KB is indicated in many inflammatory and chronic diseases.
Joint pain can occur for a few reasons, most often due to arthritis or an injury. However almost all joint pain will involve some form of inflammation contributing to the pain. Reducing inflammation in the body helps to ease the symptoms of sore joints. Curcumin has been shown to be helpful to people with rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, some research has shown curcumin to be even more beneficial than anti-inflammatory drugs.
There is research to suggest that in some cases of depression, there is low-grade inflammation in the body. The adaptogenic properties of Turmeric help to balance the adrenal glands and may help with depression. Curcumin increases a substance in the brain called brain-derived neurotropic factor which is a type of growth hormone for the brain. One of the health conditions linked to low levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor is depression.
Learn more about 5 benefits of Turmeric.
Rhodiola, also known as arctic root or golden root, is a herb that grows in mountain regions. It contains over 140 active compounds, with the most active being rosavin and salidroside.
Rhodiola helps to reduce fatigue by reducing physical and mental stress. The adrenal glands play a huge role in balancing blood sugar levels and maintaining sustained energy. One study conducted with 100 people with fatigue took Rhodiola for 8 weeks and experienced significant improvements.
Cordyceps is a fungus with over 400 species that in the wild grows in the body of insects. For supplementation use however it is grown on grains.
As an adaptogen, Cordyceps is particularly effective at supporting energy levels throughout the day and supports the body in delivering the energy to the muscles, making it excellent for endurance sports.
Cordyceps may help the body to regulate blood sugar levels by mimicking insulin. Studies have been conducted and have shown Cordyceps to decrease high blood sugar levels.
Cordyceps may also be useful for diabetics with kidney damage as studies have shown Cordyceps to improve kidney function.
View our range of vegan adaptogens, probiotics, vitamins and minerals.
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