When you’re stressed and frazzled, it’s not always easy to turn to healthy coping mechanisms (like going to a yoga class). Sometimes you end up pouring a glass of wine, eating chocolate and indulging in Netflix— and that’s okay. It’s all part of being human.
The problem with short-term stress coping mechanisms is that they don’t do anything to help your body recover from the negative effects of prolonged stress. We’re talking about mental exhaustion, cellular damage, premature aging, a weakened immune system, burn out, or worse.
What if you had a natural buffer that could protect you from the deadly consequences of stress?
One that would allow you to react less to the things that stress you out, and help you feel calmer, energized, and focused when life gets crazy?
Sign me up for that! Studies suggest a group of plants and mushrooms called adaptogens just may be the answer.
What Are Adaptogens?
Simply put, adaptogens are herbs, roots, and mushrooms that can help increase your resistance to stress.
Studies show adaptogens protect against the negative effects of stress by going straight to the root of where the stress response takes place: the hypothalamus (which signals stress) and the pituitary and adrenal glands (which respond to stress).
It may seem like adaptogens just recently popped up at juice bars and supplement stores, but they’ve actually been used as far back as the 1940’s. An adaptogenic berry called Schisandra Chinensis was given to World War II pilots and members of submarine crews to improve their physical and mental performance under taxing circumstances. (1)
How Do Adaptogens Work?
In a nutshell, adaptogens help lower the stress response by decreasing your sensitivity to environmental stressors. (1)
You see, stress can be triggered by a million reasons — from catching a cold to intense exercise, traffic, an impossible boss, or trying to outrun a hungry lion that escaped from the zoo.
The crazy thing is that your body DOES NOT KNOW the difference between life-threatening danger and everyday stressors. The stress response is always the same. Sounds exhausting, right?
Let’s quickly clarify one thing: not all stress is bad, and short-term acute stress can actually be beneficial. For example, the fight or flight response can give you a quick burst of energy and focus to help you meet a tight deadline under pressure.
Stress only becomes a problem when it’s happening repeatedly, long-term. The “fight or flight” (stress) response isn’t something you’re meant to experience daily or multiple times daily— which in reality, so many of us are.
This is why adaptogens may be not only useful but necessary for staying healthy in today’s busy lifestyle.
By increasing your tolerance to stress, adaptogens have an overall balancing and restorative effect on the body. They prevent you from overproducing cortisol and sounding the “fight or flight” alarm any time you encounter a stressful situation.
Basically, adaptogens meet your adrenals with a serving of chill zen vibes.
Adaptogens Have a Non-Specific Effect. Here’s How That Benefits You
The fascinating thing about adaptogens is that they have a non-specific effect.
In other words, they don’t just target one symptom or condition. Instead, they adapt their function to what your body needs in times of stress. (2) Pretty impressive, right?
To translate these benefits to real-life scenarios, let’s say you’re an athlete running a marathon. Adaptogens can help improve energy and reduce recovery time by speeding up tissue repair. In fact, Soviet Olympic athletes swear by an adaptogen root called eleuthero to boost stamina and endurance. (3)
Another example could be if you’ve just gone through a rough break up. If you’re experiencing intense emotional stress, adaptogens may work instead to reduce elevated cortisol and help you feel calmer and less anxious.
While all adaptogens balance hormones and help your body handle stress, they each have their own unique set of health benefits. Let’s take a look at a few different adaptogens, and why they may be worth adding to your diet.
Top 4 Adaptogens for Reducing Stress
1. Rhodiola Rosea
What is it?
Rhodiola is a flowering plant found in Europe or Asia. The adaptogens are contained in the root of the plant, which is turned into an extract.
Uses: Energy, Memory, Regulating Mood
Rhodiola has been studied for its ability to improve memory and learning and reduce mental fatigue, as well as reducing anxiety in those with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). (4)
Studies suggest Rhodiola could be an effective natural alternative to antidepressants, because it helps regulate neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine. (5)
How to take it:
You can take Rhodiola root extract in capsules. For optimal cognitive benefits, Rhodiola is best taken first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.
What is it?
A root commonly used in Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine).
Uses: Immunity, Libido, Cognitive Function, Longevity
Ashwagandha has been used in India for more than 3000 years.
As an anti-inflammatory adaptogen that acts as a stimulant, aphrodisiac, tonic, and diuretic, ashwagandha can truly be considered a “jack of all trades” amongst herbs.
In India, it’s recommended for a laundry list of symptoms and conditions— from increasing sperm count and treating malnutrition, to boosting immunity, preventing mental breakdowns, and relieving insomnia.
In the Western world, ashwagandha is commonly used for stress support and energy and has been proven to lower cortisol levels in those who are under extreme stress.
A study done on 64 patients with a history of chronic stress showed that taking 300mg of Ashwagandha twice per day for 60 days could lower cortisol levels by 28%. (6) While it may take longer to feel the effects of ashwagandha, we’d say this makes it worth the wait.
How to take it:
In a tincture, supplement, or fine powder. Ashwagandha has a slightly bitter, earthy taste, and is delicious in a smoothie with bananas, cinnamon, almond butter, and nut milk.
What is it?
Commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is a gangly looking root that belongs to the Panax plant family.
Uses: Chronic Fatigue, Mental Focus, Energy
If you’re an anxious, exhausted coffee drinker, ginseng might be just the adaptogen you need to say goodbye to your caffeinated brew.
Ginseng has the unique ability to calm and stimulate the nervous system at the same time. This means it can help boost energy levels and focus without making you feel jittery, and reduce anxiety and mental fatigue.
Studies suggest ginseng could also be a promising solution for unexplained cases of chronic fatigue— a symptom that over one million Americans are said to live with. (7)
In 56% of cases, clinical studies showed that ginseng effectively reduced chronic fatigue with an unknown cause, and suggested it may even be helpful for reducing fatigue related to serious illnesses, such as cancer. (8)
Ginseng works quicker than some other adaptogens, and its effects can start to be felt between 24-48 hours (depending on the dosage and your current state of health).
Ginseng is available for purchase as Korean, Chinese or North American ginseng, depending on where it’s grown. All varieties have similar benefits, and are helpful for boosting cognitive function. Note: Asian ginseng can be more stimulating than North American ginseng, so it’s not recommended for children or anyone prone to panic attacks.
How to Take it:
In Asia, ginseng is steeped in hot water with lemon or used to make soup. In North America, it’s more common to take ginseng as a powder, tincture, in tea or in capsule form.
4. Chaga Mushroom
What is it?
A fungus that grows on birch trees in cold climates, like Russia, Canada, and Siberia. It’s said to be the oldest and most potent member of the medicinal mushroom family.
Uses: Anti-aging, Immunity, Stress Relief
Chaga is the king of antioxidant power, with the highest ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbent Capacity) score for antioxidants out of any natural food on the planet!
This is why chaga has been used for over 2,000 years as an elixir to boost immunity, reduce chronic inflammation, and prevent signs of premature aging— all of which are linked to stress.
As an adaptogen, chaga also brings stress-busting benefits to the table. It’s a powerful nerve tonic that can help you feel more calm, focused, energized, and leveled out during the day.
Are you a coffee drinker? Some people think the flavor of chaga is similar to medium roast coffee. And since coffee stimulates the adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline and cortisol (which can worsen stress and anxiety), drinking chaga first thing in the morning in place of your morning cuppa could be a game changer for both your mind and adrenal health.
How to Take it:
You can find chaga in powdered form for making smoothies and tea, in elixirs and teas, and tinctures.
It’s important to always check with your healthcare practitioner before adding an adaptogen to your supplement routine. Some adaptogens aren’t meant to be taken long term or mixed with other supplements, while others may need to be cycled in order to fully experience the health benefits.
Adaptogens are herbs and mushrooms that increase your resistance to stress. By lowering the stress response, adaptogens help you feel balanced physically, mentally, and emotionally, especially during times of pressure and stress.
By reducing the negative effects of stress— such as mental fatigue, poor concentration, memory loss, insomnia, weakened immunity, and exhaustion— adaptogens could be the best-kept secret for staying healthy and revitalized in a busy, stressful lifestyle.