All about adaptogens: Do these healing herbs really work?


by Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN

Aug 11, 2020

Adaptogen products are everywhere in the food and supplement market right now. Curious about what these supplements are and if they are worth the hype? Let’s find out!

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are defined as herbs or roots that possibly act like a “stress vaccine” in the human body. Ultimately, they’re proposed to reduce chronic stress and fatigue through the adaptation of stress. 

What are adaptogens used for? 

Adaptogens have been around in Chinese Functional Medicine and Indian Ayurveda Medicine since ancient times. They became more popular during World War II when Russian scientists were looking to improve soldiers’ stamina through herbal medicine. 

The idea is that adaptogens are similar to catecholamines, neurotransmitters involved in stress situations. Common catecholamines are adrenaline, epinephrine, dopamine and norepinephrine. Since adaptogens are mild stressors, the theory is that they build the body’s immunity up to be able to adapt and control future severe and moderate stress situations. 

These stress-protective effects mainly help the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis and SAS system. They are responsible for controlling the body’s stress responses during times of stress — mental health disorders, traumatic injury, exercise, eating disorders, surgery, malnutrition and low blood sugar, amongst other conditions.

The adrenal glands are small triangular shaped glands located on top of the kidneys. They produce hormones that help regulate your immune system, blood pressure, metabolism and response to stress, amongst other functions. Any time your body signals to produce processes that stimulate a stress response, this system is involved. 

How stress affects the human body

Many people do not know this, but some stress is essential for the body. Stress responses are critical for short term situations — for example, when you injure yourself, compete in a sport or try to protect yourself in a dangerous situation. 

But stress becomes a problem when it is long term such as with mental disorders, chronic inflammation or lack of sleep. There are times when people do not realize they are stressed or anxious because they physically feel fine. However, multiple minor stressors can add up over time and still cause chronic stress. 

Chronic stress can impact your risk for conditions like:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Fertility issues
  • Lowered immune system
  • Other mental health disorders 

People are looking to adaptogens as a natural way to control chronic stress and reduce the negative impact of excessive secretion of hormones like cortisol and epinephrine.

Many people also look to adaptogens to fix adrenal fatigue — keep in mind that this is not a medical term nor official health condition. Talk to your doctor if you feel like you are suffering from chronic fatigue or think you may have adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s Disease. 

Common adaptogens include: 

  1. Ashwagandha
  2. Asian Ginseng
  3. Rhondiola Rosea
  4. Holy Basil
  5. Schisandra
  6. Medical Mushrooms (Reishi, Chaga, Lion’s Mane and Cordyceps)
  7. Maca Root
  8. Licorice Root 

Ways to consume adaptogens

Herbal teas, powders, capsules, roots and herbs are all ways to purchase and consume them. Many food companies are starting to add adaptogens to granolas, protein powders, oatmeal, smoothies, baking flour, espresso drinks and other food products. If you are interested in adding it to foods or beverages, buying the powder or herb forms may be the easiest to incorporate while cooking. 

Keep in mind that supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Talk with your doctor before purchasing supplements or herbs to ensure there will be no interactions with current medications and/or conditions you may have.

When purchasing these products, try to look for ones that are third party tested (USP). Also be sure to check the FDA Safety Portal and NIH Website for details to see if consumers have reported products for safety concerns. 

Cautions for using adaptogens 

Safe dosing has not yet been determined, so it could be easy to take too much at one time. Remember that less is more and always read the label.

Taking adaptogens in the short term — a few months — seems relatively safe, but long-term impacts are varied and have not yet been determined. 

Side effects of adaptogens are typically minor, but Ashwagandha and possibly other adaptogens can cause upper gastrointestinal discomfort or distress, loose stools, diarrhea, vomiting and drowsiness. It’s important to talk with your doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms or any others that you find concerning.

Certain populations that should avoid adaptogen use include:

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • Diabetics 
  • People with high or low blood pressure
  • People with stomach ulcers or history of them
  • People with autoimmune disorders — especially thyroid disorders
  • Surgery candidates

What does the research say? 

There is currently a small body of research on adaptogens. Many are focused on Ashwagandha, Rhondiola Rosea and Schisandra. 

Most research has been performed in-vitro, meaning in a test tube, or in animal studies. Not a lot of human, clinical blind-placebo studies have been performed, which are considered the gold standard of research studies. The clinical human research that is out there has a lot of flaws and many studies were also poorly documented. 

There is some promising research on the impact of adaptogens on stress, inflammation, pain, mental health and cognitive disorders. This research shows that adaptogens may not only help the body deal with stress more effectively, but they may also help increase quality of life, improve longevity and protect neurological health.

If you have weighed the pros and cons with your doctor and feel this could be beneficial for you in the short-term, go for it! However, keep in mind there is not enough research yet to prove that adaptogens can help with chronic stress or other claims. Make sure to talk with your doctor if you plan on implementing adaptogens into your daily diet.

Questions? Consult a registered dietitian today.

About the Author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

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