- Adaptogens are defined as herbs and mushrooms that help the body handle physical and emotional stress.
- Several adaptogens have been shown in clinical studies to protect against the effects of long-term stress, acute stress, and anxiety.
- Adaptogens increase our work capacity and ability to concentrate when we feel fatigued.
- Adaptogens such as lion’s mane mushrooms, maca, and ashwagandha can be easily added to our daily diets and offer many health benefits.
What exactly are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are simply plants, usually herbs and mushrooms, that help our bodies “adapt” to or resist physical or psychological stress. They have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to help us find balance when overwhelmed by physical, chemical, or biological stressors. Adaptogens also reduce anxiety, decrease inflammation, and boost immunity.
Where does the term adaptogen come from?
The word adaptogen was coined by Soviet scientists in the 1940s. It refers to any plant that helps our bodies adapt to and defend against stressors. To classify a plant as an adaptogen, it should: not influence normal bodily functions more than necessary, act as a nonspecific aid to help the body adapt to and defend against a variety of stressors, and offset the physical disorders caused by the effects of stress.
How exactly do adaptogens work?
Regular consumption of adaptogens normalizes stress hormone levels and can decrease our predisposition to anxiety. Adaptogens work with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s main stress response center, and the sympathoadrenal system, which is also involved in the body’s response to stress. The stress-protective activity of adaptogens helps to regulate our body’s homeostasis, the natural state of health and wholeness that we experience when our systems are functioning normally and without interference.
If the body is producing too much of the stress hormone cortisol, adaptogens intervene and help bring us back to balance. Adaptogens modify hormone production and the physiological responses to stress to keep our mind, immune system, and energy levels from being adversely affected. They also reduce inflammation in the body, which is often associated with many diseases and chronic conditions.
Have adaptogens been studied?
While these herbs and mushrooms have been safely used for thousands of years, modern research shows that scientists still do not fully understand the way adaptogens assist in so many different processes. As more people look to natural solutions to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and neurological disorders, clinical research and studies are ongoing to further explore the many benefits of these plants.
Studies on isolated neuron cells, people, and animals show that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, anti-depressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and central nervous system stimulating activity. For example, one clinical study found that ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic herb, reduced cortisol levels and greatly improved the sleep quality of study participants.
Clinical studies also show adaptogens increase tolerance to mental fatigue and enhance focus and endurance to increase performance. Stress contributes to a lack of concentration, anxiety, depression, and lower energy levels, so adaptogens help to increase mental performance and improve mood by decreasing these symptoms.
Numerous other studies show that adaptogens may help prevent heart disease, aid in weight loss, lower cholesterol, and even fight cancer. Research continues to show that these herbs and mushrooms, alone or combined, are a powerful and safe way to restore balance to the body in times of physical or emotional stress.
Which foods are considered adaptogens?
- Mushrooms such as lion’s mane, reishi, and chaga are powerful adaptogens. All three of these mushrooms are packed with antioxidants, reduce inflammation, and boost immunity. Powdered mushrooms easily blend into tea, supplements, and cacao drinks so we do not need to eat large amounts of mushrooms to enjoy their benefits.
- Lion’s mane mushrooms stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) and myelin, both crucial for brain health. They also improve cognition and memory and relieve stress. L-theanine in lion’s mane stimulates alpha brain waves to increase focus and attention while also decreasing anxiety.
- Reishi mushrooms contain the compound triterpene to calm anxiety and promote better sleep. They also suppress tumor growth and are being studied as a therapy for breast and other cancers. Reishi can increase focus, alleviate depression, and aid in weight loss.
- Chaga mushrooms fight free radicals, inflammation, and oxidative stress. Chaga also lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol and slows the growth of cancer cells.
- Ashwagandha is one of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. It reduces cortisol levels to decrease the symptoms of stress and anxiety and promotes stamina and focus. Ashwagandha reduces symptoms of depression and protects nerve cells from free radicals. It has been used for thousands of years in India as a tonic to reduce inflammation, insomnia, and a host of physical ailments.
- Cordyceps, a genus of fungi, reduces fatigue and improves physical performance and sexual function. Cordyceps fight cell damage by neutralizing the free radicals that cause disease and aging. They have also been shown to inhibit the growth of human cancer cells and relive the side effects of cancer treatments.
- Maca root is a vegetable native to Peru that has been used to treat everything from infertility to anemia. Modern research shows that maca is effective for fighting free radicals, lowering blood pressure, and boosting libido. Maca also relives anxiety and depression and improves memory.
Why should adaptogens be a part of my nutrition plan?
While some stress is a natural part of life, chronic stress and anxiety are linked to a host of ailments and emotional problems. From reduced immunity and increased risk of heart disease to difficulty concentrating or sleeping, stress is something that affects every aspect of our lives. Even bouts of temporary or acute stress from work or family issues can lead to difficulty sleeping, decreased cognitive function, and lowered immune response.
Combined with a regular exercise routine, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep, daily consumption of adaptogens increases our mental performance, physical endurance, and improves our emotional health. Most of the adaptogens mentioned here are easily consumed in delicious beverages and as healthy snacks. Combining adaptogens like ashwagandha, mushrooms, and maca together gives us a powerful and natural way to reduce the impact of stress and increase our quality of life.