In the Eastern world, adaptogens have been used for centuries to treat an array of conditions ranging from the common cold to muscle soreness in fatigued soldiers. As the West continues to discover and adopt traditional practices in search of alternative medicinal compounds, the popularity and use of adaptogens have seen a marked increase in recent years. Derived from unique plants and herbs, these compounds offer widespread support in regulating hormonal systems; they help bring the imbalanced, stressed body back to equilibrium by allowing it to better adapt to biological and psychological stressors.
Throughout history, adaptogenic herbs have been used for their proven neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, anti-depressive, anxiolytic and CNS stimulating properties as well as their ability to adapt functions to an individual body’s specific needs. Their primary function is stress management through adrenal gland support, which helps manage hormonal responses to stress – the source of many chronic health conditions. However, each adaptogen carries additional therapeutic advantages, such as dopamine and serotonin-boosting properties, which contribute to beneficial effects on overall wellbeing.
Adaptogenic Solutions for Modern Life
Adaptogens have multi-faceted and wide-ranging effects on physical and mental wellness, promoting a sense of calm while also enhancing cognitive function – making them a promising natural solution to the stressors of daily life. Instead of treating a specific condition, adaptogens aim to boost overall wellbeing by supporting bodily mechanisms and enhancing an individual’s ability to adapt to different situations. While some – such as rhodiola and Siberian ginseng – have a primarily stimulating function meant to enhance mental performance and physical endurance, others – like ashwagandha – help relax the body by soothing the adrenal glands and nervous system.
Whether it’s combating mental exhaustion, increasing attention span, boosting mood, or reducing anxiety levels, there seems to be a potential adaptogenic solution.
Perhaps one of the most commonly known adaptogens, ashwagandha is derived from a small shrub native to India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Thus far primarily used in Ayurvedic medicine to promote a healthy state of mind, the herb has seen an upsurge in consumer demand as research continues to prove its potency as an anti-stress agent.
Some studies have found that ashwagandha is able to suppress cortisol levels in order to calm the nervous system. A double-blind, randomized trial evaluated the effects of the herb on stress and anxiety levels in subjects with a chronic history of stress. Participants given high-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha displayed a marked reduction in stress and serum cortisol levels alongside improved general wellbeing compared to the control group. The findings confirmed that the adaptogen can safely and effectively improve stress resistance and quality of life.
Rhodiola rosea, also known as the “golden root”, is an herb indigenous to the cold, mountainous regions of Europe and North America. It has been utilized for centuries by Russian and Scandinavian people to boost mental endurance and as a treatment for anxiety, fatigue, and depression. Currently, the Rhodiola root, which contains more than 140 active ingredients, is becoming widely used in dietary supplements due to its anti-depressive, anxiolytic and mood-boosting properties.
The herb has been found to increase serotonergic activity by slowing down the monoamine oxidase enzyme, which helps metabolize serotonin and dopamine, leading to enhanced mood, increased focus and boosted energy levels. Additionally, rhodiola has the ability to change cortisol production during periods of emotional stress, helping to regulate emotional and mental wellbeing. Its anti-depressive effects are correlated with both its effects on cortisol secretion and monoamine oxidase production.
A recent study published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice analyzed the effects of daily rhodiola rosea intake on life-stress symptoms at work and within a social/family context. Participants who consumed 200mg of the extract twice daily demonstrated significant improvement in stress symptoms, fatigue, mood, concentration, and an overall therapeutic effect. The study’s findings suggest the wide-ranging benefits of incorporating a rhodiola extract supplement, particularly for stress reduction and mood improvement.
A fundamental adaptogenic herb used in traditional Chinese medicine, Astralagus promotes longevity, fights inflammation and supports healthy kidney function optimizing physical wellbeing. While there is still limited research on the benefits of astralagus, it has frequently been used in treating seasonal allergies, colds, heart conditions, and chronic fatigue.
Additionally, Astralagus is believed to have longevity-boosting properties as it is the only natural substance containing cycloastragenol, a molecule that is purported to stimulate telomerase production. Increased telomerase activation can lengthen telomeres which in turn has been found to delay cell death and slow down the aging process.
Used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for years, mucuna pruriens is a tropical legume native to Africa and tropical Asia. Commonly known as cowhage or velvet bean, this adaptogen has a history of use for depression, Parkinson’s Disease, chronic fatigue, and decreased libido. Due to its high content of L-dopa, the precursor to dopamine, mucuna pruriens has been frequently used for Parkinson’s Disease management as it has the potential to alleviate and suppress symptoms.
The exotic legume has been associated with mood improvement, stress, and anxiety reduction, focus strength, and enhanced cognitive functioning. Although more evidence is needed to determine its efficacy at treating a variety of health conditions, adding mucuna pruriens to the diet could prove beneficial for calming the nervous system, reducing stress, and even alleviating depression for optimal mental wellbeing.
While there are many more in existence, these adaptogenic herbs are among the most popular and widely available. Although the use and efficacy of adaptogenic herbs have yet to be evaluated by the FDA, a growing body of research suggests they do have neuroprotective, anti-depressive, anxiolytic, and CNS stimulating properties. Further research is necessary to determine the underlying causes of adaptogen-based symptom improvement and to evaluate their efficacy in a clinical environment.
However, for the majority of healthy individuals incorporating adaptogens into their daily intake involves little risk. Herbs such as rhodiola rosea and ashwagandha have been reported safe in acute and subacute toxicity studies. Moreover, results were suggestive of their anti-toxic activity in the body and associated side effects are rare. In contrast to conventional stimulants, adaptogens do not contribute to addiction, tolerance or abuse risks, and do not impair mental function or lead to psychotic symptoms with long-term use. For those looking for alternative natural solutions to improve their physical and mental wellbeing, incorporating adaptogens may be a great place to start.