Most people haven’t heard the word adaptogen, even though they likely would be able to name one quite easily (turmeric, anyone?) In reality, adaptogens are one of the newest frontiers in CBD supplements, while simultaneously being one of the oldest products on Earth. These almost mythical natural products have been said to have a lot of different health benefits, but what is the real truth? What exactly are adaptogens and do they really work like they claim? Let’s do a deep dive and find out all about them. Do they live up to the hype?
What Exactly Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are essentially herbal pharmaceuticals. They are non-toxic plants, including herbs, mushrooms, and roots, and have been in use in Ayurvedic and Chinese traditional medicine for centuries. They have also slowly been gaining popularity in the United States over the last decade or so, likely due to their reported ability to help the body counteract stress (by helping it to return to homeostasis, or the body’s natural state of balance). Essentially, adaptogens help the body “adapt” to stress… hence the name!
This is an important benefit for all humans, because stress can cause all kinds of both physical and emotional reactions, most of them negative. In fact, under periods of extreme stress, the body can even undergo actual physical damage (especially to the endocrine, immune, and neurological systems). We’ll get into this more later.
To be officially considered an adaptogen, the plant must meet all three of the following criteria: it must be “generally” non-toxic (in recommended amounts), produce a nonspecific response to cellular level stress (by creating an energy reserve), and help to normalize the systems of the body (using a bidirectional approach).
This bidirectional approach is what makes adaptogens so unique. Prescription medications and other non adaptogen herbs perform one action and one action only. For instance, they lower blood pressure or make someone sleepy. Adaptogens, unsurprisingly, “adapt” to the need of the body and can perform either function. One adaptogen can raise or lower blood pressure, or help someone either sleep better or stay awake easier.
One last interesting fact about adaptogens is that scientists from the Soviet Union during World War II actually studied and developed them as a way to help their pilots perform better and longer. Their name was actually coined by these scientists around the 1950s (the exact date has not been proven). The scientists focused their studies specifically on the adaptogen Schisandra chinensis, due to its reported ability to reduce exhaustion, hunger, and thirst as well as improving night vision. Eventually, in the 1960s, this study evolved into the scientific field of biomedicinal research.
Ok, Then How Do Adaptogens Work?
While there isn’t an abundance of scientific research on adaptogens, there are a few things that we know for sure. But let’s start by learning a little bit more about the physical effects of stress on the human body, so that we can truly appreciate how beneficial adaptogens are.
When our bodies go through periods of stress (remember, stress can be either physical or mental… or both!), they go through three distinct stages. These stages are collectively known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS) and together consist of the alarm phase (fight or flight), the resistance phase (higher metabolic level), and the exhaustion phase (self explanatory).
Another side effect of stress on the body is the release of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, during the alarm phase of GAS. Cortisol is produced and pumped out by the adrenal gland. It is released to provide the body with more energy to help it push through the stress. While this energy boost is great temporarily, over time the effects of cortisol will ultimately wreak havoc, causing problems like weight gain (especially around the abdomen), muscle weakness, fatigue, restlessness, and distraction.
Of the three GAS phases, the resistance phase is the one often referred to as the “sweet spot.” This phase is where adaptogens truly shine. Adaptogens are theorized to work by stretching that resistance phase out so that our bodies can experience its benefits for a longer period of time. During the resistance face, the body is working hard to repair itself while also maintaining an elevated state of energy, awareness, strength, etc. It has all of the positive benefits of fight or flight without as much energy expenditure (and fear!). Obviously, being able to experience that as long as possible would be very helpful to combat stress on both the physical and mental level.
But how do they do that, exactly?
Adaptogens have been scientifically proven to affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (or HPA axis) as well as the sympathoadrenal system. Both of these areas of the body impact and control the production of hormones (cortisol, namely) and other physiological responses, including immune function, emotions, mood, libido, and energy expenditure. When their effects are boosted by adaptogens and the resistance phase is extended, we are much better at weathering the storm of both mental and physical stress. Simply, we “adapt” better.
Studies of adaptogens have shown that they are beneficial for a whole host of medical conditions: chronic inflammation, stress-induced fatigue, cancer, and mental illness. Some preliminary research has also shown that adaptogens may even be useful to help treat some of the neurodegenerative aspects of aging, helping elderly people live longer, happier, healthier lives.
To get the maximum benefit out of any adaptogen, it needs to be taken regularly for an extended period of time. Don’t expect to take a magic pill and feel better right away. Consistency is key. Adaptogens also work best, just like CBD, when combined with focusing on maintaining a healthy lifestyle also designed to reduce stress—exercise, meditation, and quality sleep.
What Are Some Common Adaptogens And What Do They Do?
Each adaptogen functions in a slightly different way. While that may seem overwhelming, that also makes it easy for people to choose the right one for the specific symptoms they may be experiencing.
Ashwagandha (herb) — One of the most frequently studied, Ashwagandha is commonly used in ayurvedic medicine to reduce stress levels, improve concentration, and increase energy. Ashwagandha is also considered an anti-inflammatory, and has been reported to help with anxiety, insomnia, and balance cortisol levels in the body.
American and Asian Ginseng (herbs) — Both herbs are said to boost memory, the immune system, reaction time, feelings of calm, and overall wellbeing. They have been used in traditional Native American and Chinese/Korean medicine for centuries.
Astragalus root (herb) — Although it is an herb, it is actually the root of this plant (which comes from the bean family) that has been used in Chinese medicine to help combat fatigue, reduce stress, treat heart disease, and slow down the natural aging process. It may also be helpful in treating the common cold by helping support the immune system.
Chaga (mushroom) — Chaga grows only on birch trees and is rich in antioxidants that boost immunity and reduce inflammation. It was used by soldiers in Finland as an alternative to coffee in World War II.
Cordyceps (mushroom) — This adaptogen is actually a combination of a fungus and a caterpillar (sounds weird, we know, but it has been scientifically studied). It helps boost the immune system, combat fatigue, balance hormones, decrease inflammation, increase energy, and reduce stress.
Goji Berry (fruit) — Also known as wolfberry, goji berries are very popular due to their ability to help boost energy levels, mental and physical performance, and overall sense of wellbeing. It has also been said to improve sleep.
Holy Basil/Tulsi (herb) — A traditional herb commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine, Holy Basil helps calm the nerves, promotes relaxation, and reduces stress.
Maca (vegetable) — In the same family as broccoli and cauliflower, Maca improves mood and increases energy.
Mucuna Pruriens (bean) — Also referred to as the “dopamine bean,” Mucuna Pruriens is promising for its ability to be able to treat psychological stress. Some people also believe it is a natural aphrodisiac.
Reishi (mushroom) — This adaptogen works as an antioxidant that enhances immune response and keeps the skin looking young. It also helps the body adapt better to stress and promotes good sleep.
Rhodiola rosea (herb) — Another frequently studied adaptogen, Rhodiola (or arctic/rose root) can increase energy and endurance, and lower anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
Schisandra (fruit) — This adaptogen is said to stabilize blood sugars and help the liver stay healthy. It is also helpful to soothe stomach disorders and has been beneficial as an antioxidant.
Siberian Ginseng (plant) — Not an herb, and not even actually Ginseng, studies have shown that Siberian Ginseng can help fight depression, fatigue, and stress by providing the body with more energy.
Turmeric (spice) — Commonly used in Indian cuisine, turmeric boosts brain function while also reducing depression and helps to maintain healthy levels of cortisol in the body.
Wild yam (plant) — Another plant that has been used for centuries in traditional medicine, wild yam helps regulate female hormones (specifically during menopause) and reduces muscle cramping.
This is only a small sample of the many unique varieties of adaptogens in the world. There really is an adaptogen out there for every purpose, although it may take a little digging and experimenting to find the right one for you.
Let’s Do Some Myth Busting
Along with any trend comes myths and half truths. While, in the majority of cases, adaptogens do live up to their hype, there are still a few common myths out there we’d like to bust for clarification.
MYTH: Adaptogens have no side effects
TRUTH: Like anything people put on or in their bodies, there is always a possibility of side effects. Luckily, those side effects are very rare. In those cases, people have reported headache, fatigue, diarrhea, and dry mouth. This is most likely to be the case when first starting a new adaptogen, and each does come with their own specific potential side effects.
MYTH: Adaptogens work the same for everyone
TRUTH: Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Not every adaptogen works the same way for everyone, and some don’t work at all for certain people. For instance, ginseng. It has been proven to raise blood pressure in some people, while lowering it in others. A lot of the difference in how adaptogens can work for individuals is part of what makes them so amazing—their ability to “adapt” to each person’s specific needs (whatever will return them to homeostasis) using their bidirectional approach.
In addition, adaptogens historically were used in medicine only after a thorough, whole body exam and evaluation of the patient by an alternative medicine practitioner. However, many people in the United States are picking and choosing to “spot treat” issues on their own instead of considering their overall health and consulting a professional, which can lead to issues and ineffectiveness.
Let’s look at ginseng again. People who take it that are under the age of 40 often report that it doesn’t work well, if at all, for them. However, because most people in this demographic are experiencing a different issue with energy than older people (younger people are said to produce “too much” energy, making it harder to circulate, while older people are said to not produce enough), it may appear that ginseng “doesn’t work.” However, it’s likely just the wrong adaptogen to treat the issue.
MYTH: Adaptogens can be toxic
TRUTH: While people can be individually allergic to any adaptogen, one of the key properties of all adaptogens is that they must be non-toxic (See: “What Exactly Are Adaptogens?”). It is also important for all consumers of adaptogens to be aware that it is possible even for the most safe herbal supplements to interact with specific prescription medications (the most common offenders are Ashwagandha, American and Asian Ginseng, Astragalus root, Schisandra, and Rhodiola rosea). To avoid a potential drug interaction, speak with your doctor before starting any new herbal regimen if you are currently on any prescription medication.
MYTH: Adaptogens are habit forming
TRUTH: Studies have shown that adaptogens do not possess any potential for abuse, addiction, or tolerance. They also do not impair any mental functions, or cause any psychotic symptoms when people stop taking them. Compared to some of the prescription alternatives many people rely on to help cope with stress (Xanax, for instance), this is a huge selling point especially for people who may have a history of drug or alcohol addiction.
MYTH: CBD is an adaptogen
TRUTH: Technically no, CBD is not an adaptogen. While it does have many of the same qualities and impacts the body in most of the same ways as an adaptogen, CBD is a molecule instead of a plant. However, there are some studies that are trying to get hempseed classified as one, although it hasn’t officially happened to date.
Where Can I Buy Adaptogens?
Luckily, due to the increasing popularity of adaptogens in the United States, there are plenty of places where they are available to purchase. Many companies (both brick and mortar stores as well as online retailers) specialize in selling only adaptogens. Certain adaptogens, like ashwagandha, can even be purchased at chain and big box stores like GNC and Walmart. If possible, it’s always best to support local and small businesses, though. It is also much easier to get your questions answered.
Before starting, everyone should be aware that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not currently evaluating either the quality or the purity of any adaptogens. This makes it incredibly important for consumers to source all of their adaptogen products through trustworthy, transparent companies.
How Can I Add Adaptogens To My Diet?
That really depends on the adaptogen being chosen! Luckily, due to their surge in popularity, even well-known food related magazines have started to pay attention and given people even more options for how to add them into any diet.
Take moon milk for example. Warm milk has been used for centuries as a natural sleep remedy, and moon milk is a great way to combine that natural calming feeling with adaptogens (specifically, ashwagandha and turmeric). The base recipe can even be traced back to Ayurvedic medicine.
While the most common way to add adaptogens into the diet is still by powder or capsule (as many of them can have a very bitter taste), there are now companies who are serving them up in new and different ways. Coffee mixes, hot chocolates, tea blends, and liquid elixirs/tonics are some of the newer options that help people get the amazing benefits of adaptogens into the diet seamlessly.
Before consuming any adaptogen though, please verify that it has been third-party tested and certified (by a company like U.S. Pharmacopeia or Consumerlab.com) to be 100-percent pure and organic.
Do Adaptogens Integrate with CBD?
While CBD is not an adaptogen on its own (as explained above), the two do work very similarly. Both CBD and adaptogens aim to bring the body back to homeostasis (balance), reduce anxiety and depression, combat fatigue, pain and inflammation, and help boost the immune system. When used together, they’re basically the dream team, seriously reducing our overall stress response.
Certain adaptogens paired with CBD are hypothesized to produce something known as a “synergistic effect.” This happens when two drugs/supplements are combined to provide a greater effect together than they would have separately. Essentially, CBD and those adaptogens play off each other and help the other be even more effective. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been proven by any scientific research at this point, but the research is ongoing.
Companies, like FOCL, are trailblazers at creating a single product that combines CBD with adaptogens like Ashwagandha and Rhodiola rosea. Having one product that contains both, instead of having to remember to take two separate products, is not only a timesaver but also helps take the guesswork out of which work together well and which do not.
Adaptogens are possibly the best thing to happen to CBD… ever. Learning about what makes these incredible products tick and what they can do for you, especially when combined with a high quality CBD product, can completely renovate and reinvigorate your life and routine. Always remember, though, that before starting any new supplement or product, it is important to contact your physician for guidance (especially if you have any medical conditions or take any prescription medications). You deserve to live your best life, and adaptogens can definitely help you do that.