What Are Adaptogens?
The term “adaptogens” was originally proposed in 1940 and was described as herbs that can enhance the human body. Since then, the definition has transformed many times. For all intents and purposes, adaptogens are compounds that provide resistance and help us adapt to environmental stressors. While a newly surfaced term in Western society, these compounds have been used for centuries in Eastern medicine and Ayurveda. For this reason, there is limited evidence-based research on these functional foods.
Adaptogens are believed to function by affecting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the peripheral nervous system (1). The compounds are typically classified into three groups: mushrooms: maitake, cordyceps, reishi, lion’s mane; herbs: Ashwagandha, schisandra, turmeric, maca, rhodiola rosea; foods: garlic, ginger, green tea
The Stress Response
What the Science is Saying
Rhodiola Rosea has been shown to combat fatigue while stimulating mental rejuvenation (2). A scientific trial studied the effectiveness of daily Rhodiola Rosea intake in physicians working the night shift for two weeks. Researchers found that participants who consumed the adaptogen daily demonstrated significantly less fatigue and improved concentration levels when compared to the control group (3). However, this study was only a duration of two-weeks. Therefore, additional studies with an increased time period are needed to determine is these results are truly valid.
Ashwagandha is one of the most studied adaptogens. A study conducted in 2012 experimented effectiveness of daily ashwagandha consumption on participants with chronic stress for 60 days (4). Researches found that participants who consumed ashwagandha showed significantly reduced stress levels than the control group. Furthermore, participants in the ashwagandha group had a 30% reduction in cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of the primary stress hormones and increased levels indicate more stress. However, this study was only a duration of 60 days and included 64 participants. Therefore, it can not be determined if the same results would have been concluded had the study been longer and included more participants.
There is not a lot of research on maca to date but limited studies have suggested it may increase energy levels, endurance, and fertility (5). What we do know about maca is that it is a good source of nutrients. A 15-gram serving of maca is high in copper and manganese, and a good source of vitamin B1 and iron (5).
The Bottom Line
Adaptogens are a new and exciting field of nutrition research in Western society. However, there is very little research regarding the types of adaptogens and mechanisms in which they work. Likewise, adaptogens are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Therefore, consumers need to take caution when choosing an adaptogen supplement, especially those in pill form. Furthermore, if you take prescription medication it is important to discuss with your physician and a registered dietitian which adaptogens you intend to take so they can determine any harmful interactions that may occur.
Due to the fact that all bodies are different, not everyone will have the same experiences with adaptogen consumption. I recommend them out in small doses at first and assessing how you feel. If you find one or two that make you feel great–I support it! However, I do not recommend using adaptogens as a solution to stress or fatigue. It is important to get to the root cause of stress and get enough rest. Use adaptogens as little superheroes that give you that extra boost, not as your band-aide.
As more research emerges on adaptogens I will update this post accordingly. Additionally, I will be posting recipes on how I incorporate adaptogens into my daily routine so be on the look out for those. I would love to know if you’ve tried any adaptogens and your favorite ways to use them!