What The Hell Are Adaptogens, And Should We Care?
Chaga mushroom latte anyone? Or maybe you’re after some lion’s mane in your maca smoothie?
These new kids on the block, called adaptogens, are joining so-called super foods on menus with a bold promise to improve health and vitality.
And while they may sound like they’ve been plucked from a Hogwarts textbook, these ingredients actually have a long history of being used in traditional medicine throughout Europe and China.
The word ‘adaptogen’ refers to any edible, plant-based substance that increases the body’s resistance to physical, environmental, or emotional stressors. It’s a fairly broad term that basically means anything that boosts energy, improves mood, or helps with physical and mental performance.
Up until recently they were mostly found in capsules, tablets, and sport supplements. Now, however, these herbs are being blended into smoothies, whipped up into lattes, and pulverised into ready-to-buy powders for use in the kitchen.
With interest in natural health on the rise, researchers have started to take a look at adaptogenic herbs to identify what benefits they might offer, if any at all. So far the results are mixed, but there are a few that outshine the others.
Rhodiola rosea, or rose root, is one of the more promising adaptogens. It’s thought to act on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a driver of the stress response.
Early research on rhodiola suggests it may reduce symptoms of fatigue and improve self-reported feelings of overall wellbeing.
The small print is that most of the research has been conducted using a standardised extract rather than the raw product, and so there is no way of knowing the quality or concentration of active compounds in dried rhodiola root when used as a super food.
What’s more, most of the benefits were reported after 2-6 weeks of consistent use. So for now, you’re probably better off asking a health professional if a standardised rhodiola extract is right for you.
This best seller of the supplement aisle comes in a variety of forms. Korean ginseng is probably the best known of the bunch and is said to be the ‘true’ ginseng. In particular it shows promise in improving sexual function in both men as well as women. In fact, despite the multitude of natural products that promise to lift libido, Korean ginseng is the only one that has proven itself in trials.
Siberian ginseng, on the other hand, has been suggested to improve energy and reduce the symptoms of professional fatigue and burnout over twelve weeks — when combined with other natural compounds, that is.
Schisandra has been of more interest in terms of its effects on improving physical performance than it has on mental wellbeing. It’s for this reason that extracts of this berry are often found in sports supplements used to increase strength and stamina.
It’s said to increase nitric oxide in the blood, which acts to dilate the blood vessels and improve oxygen supply to the muscle tissues.
Are they worth it?
Adaptogens sound pretty amazing. I mean who doesn’t want more energy and less stress? And with centuries of use behind them, there’s definitely a case for getting your daily dose.
But it’s the general nature of the term that is problematic. As it gathers speed as a buzzword, the term ‘adaptogen’ is being slapped on products containing ingredients that, in many cases, weren’t even traditionally known to have adaptogenic properties.
The other issue is that most of the research we do have looks at standardised extracts and combination products, and can’t be translated to a sprinkling of the raw product over your paleo granola.
For now, if you’re keen to try natural therapies to improve energy, stamina, and concentration, you’re probably best to get the advice of a qualified practitioner, stick to the tried and tested formulas, and not expect a silver bullet. It definitely looks like certain adaptogens may help with energy and vitality, but for a truly holistic approach you’ll need to also look at diet and lifestyle to see more meaningful, long-term results.
Reece Carter is a qualified Naturopath, herbal medicine expert and Australia’s very own ‘Garden Pharmacist’. From the planter box to the pantry and with a lifelong passion for all things green, this self-professed herb-nerd has all the answers.