How do Adaptogens Actually Work?
To keep the answer simple, adaptogens are made up of a variety of botanicals, herbs, and mushrooms that support your body’s stress response. In other words, it helps your body “adapt” in response to stress.
These stressors could range from physical to emotional. Adaptogens are known to be non-specific meaning they help the body respond to any external stressors that would cause your body to be out of balance.
Although they are considered non-specific, different varieties of adaptogens are known to be more effective in certain areas such as gingko biloba’s effects on cognitive function, reishi’s effects on immunoregulation, and ginseng’s effects on energy production just to name a few.
Side note: My first intro into adaptogens came during my Ayurveda course that I took in school. I remember being in class learning about all the benefits of adaptogens. From what I initially heard, adaptogens bring you back to balance whether you’re too “up” or too “down”. What this means is that it brings you back to where you need to be by acting on different pathways in the body.
The idea that adaptogens could affect change based on what was happening internally and adapt their function to your body’s specific needs was so fascinating to me. That’s where I delve deeper to understand more about adaptogens and the types of adaptogens available to us.
What’s the science behind Adaptogens?
If you’ve done your research, it’s tough to find one definitive answer as to what exact mechanism adaptogens work on. However, there’s one consistent mechanism that comes up throughout research and that’s adaptogens and their role in influencing the HPA axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, and Adrenal Glands) in response to stress.
So, here’s my quick and easy explanation…cue science music…
We all know that external sources of stress cause an increase in the secretion of stress hormones like cortisol, inflammatory cytokines, and angiotensin (which is responsible for increases in blood pressure).
In response to this, the HPA axis works at adjusting this stress response by secreting neuropeptides (signaling molecules that influence the activity of the brain and the body in specific ways) and catecholamines (neurotransmitters) that help the body adjust to those stressors.
With all that said, adaptogens support the body’s stress response by increasing these messenger substances depending on whether the body is too “up” or too “down”.
Here is a simple guide to Adaptogens and their primary functions.
Cordyceps – known for its anti-aging, immune-supporting and athletic performance benefits.
Panax Ginseng – known for its positive effects on immune, mood and cognitive benefits. It may exhibit testosterone-like effects on the body.
Rhodiola – known for its anti-fatigue and neuroprotective benefits. Rhodiola is best known for its ability to combat fatigue and enhance cognitive performance in times of stress.
Ashwagandha – As one of the most famous ayurvedic herbs, ashwagandha is known for reducing stress while having some positive effects on athletic performance. However, rather than overstimulate the body, its benefits are more known for its calming effects. Adaptogens like Ashwagandha have been shown to improve people’s resistance to stress.
Reishi – known to support the body’s sleep cycle and relieve stress. Reishi is also known as an immune system regulator that can reduce and enhance activity depending on what is needed in the body.
Lions Mane – Known to enhance cognitive function, support the immune system, digestive system and reduce inflammation.
Astragalus – Known for its anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective benefits. Astragalus has also shown to activate the immune system.
Holy Basil (Tulsi) – Holy Basil has been shown to have relaxing effects while modulating the immune system.
Final Thoughts on Adaptogens
The mix of research and traditional use of adaptogens makes them worth a shot if you’re trying to support the way your body handles stress. We currently live in an era where evidence-based studies on adaptogens are becoming more prevalent.
To add to this, it’s important not to discredit the historical use and effectiveness of adaptogens.
Of course, lifestyle habits such as exercise, sleep, meditation, and nutrition are all lifestyle factors that should be addressed first. Once you’ve found a good sweet spot for those things, then adaptogens may just be your secret weapon.