What are adaptogens? How do you use them? Do they actually work?
They are a standard part of traditional medicine. However, in North America, they often get dismissed as a useful tool for supporting your health.
In this article, I explain what they are, how they work, and review some of the health benefits of adaptogens. I also highlight some of the best adaptogens for you to start with.
Don’t Be Misled or Misleading
As you’ll see, adaptogens can be helpful for almost everyone. But they’re not magic.
I’m tired of people making exaggerated claims about supplements, essential oils, and other health products. Though these natural products can help to support your health, they don’t work if your nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle choices are a disaster.
As I say in one of my Tom Nikkola 365 messages:
Many of the health problems people face today, including stress, low libido, low testosterone, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc. are the result of poor nutrition, lifestyle, and exercise (or lack of it) choices.
An adaptogen will have little to no effect if:
- you lack sleep
- you don’t get to the gym and workout
- you hang around with energy-sucking, pessimistic people
- you don’t eat enough protein to support your body’s recovery needs
Just taking a supplement, essential oil, or adaptogen isn’t going to fix the problem.
If you’re not willing to tackle that stuff first, don’t waste your time and money on adaptogens. And please…don’t get suckered into buying something from someone who’s selling you a solution to your problems that’s just a pill or powder. Especially if they don’t follow the fundamental health habits above themselves.
Assuming you have those habits in place, using adaptogens each day is a great way to further support your health, so let’s keep going and find out why, and then which ones to use.
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens help your body maintain metabolic balance. For example, if you feel overly excited or anxious, an adaptogen may have a calming effect. In you feel low or down, it could have an excitatory effect.
For those familiar with Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, adaptogens are nothing new. For those who’ve grown up with conventional, Western medicine, they might sound too good to be true.
The main problem with them becoming accepted in the West is their general, rather than specific effect on the body, and difficulty in pinpointing exactly how they work.
When you take one of those compounds out of the whole, it doesn’t always have the same effect as leaving it with the other compounds. Western doctors and scientists often want to isolate individual compounds to test their effects, and end up seeing minimal effect compared to the combination in the body. Then, they shrug them off as ineffective.
With all that said, there is now plenty of convincing research supporting the health benefits of adaptogens. So, any doctor who shrugs them off today isn’t keeping up with the research.
How Adaptogens Work
In 1998, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined an adaptogen as a new kind of metabolic regulator that has proved to help in environmental adaptation and to prevent external harm.Liao L, et al
Brekhman’s and Dardymov’s 1969 definition is easier to understand. They said plant-originated adaptogens:
- Reduce harm caused by stressed states, such as fatigue, infection, and depression
- Have a stimulating or excitatory effect on the body
- Stimulate without side effects like insomnia or a significantly increased metabolic rate
- Do not cause harm to the body
Primary adaptogens help your body respond well to stress by directly affecting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
The hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands all play important roles in your body’s stress response. When one stops working right, the whole axis becomes dysfunctional.
Secondary adaptogens affect the endocrine, immune or nervous system without directly affecting the HPA axis.
Stress and Adaptogens
Stress gets a bad name today. I even came across some research papers that suggested stress was an epidemic. Unfortunately, that kind of perspective about stress does more damage than stress itself.
The avoidance of stress is way too common today. Adults live for the weekend to forget about stress. College students hide in “safe spaces” to avoid it. Parents intervene with their kids’ schools to try to protect their kids from it.
The truth is, we all need to face, and recover from, increasing levels of stress as we mature.
The Stress-Recovery Cycle
To grow, develop, and mature physically, mentally, and emotionally, we need to live in a consistent cycle of stress and recovery. Over time, you adapt to higher levels of stress, and get better at recovering from that stress.
STRESS ⟺ RECOVERY
For optimal health, you need to live in a balance of sufficient stress and sufficient recovery. When one side gets out of balance, you develop disease or physical or mental dysfunction.
You need enough stress to stimulate change, the right recovery strategy to change, and then you need to face a new, and more intense stress, to grow and change some more.
The key is in avoiding an excessive level of stress, or too much recovery.
This is where adaptogens come in. They help your body maintain a more healthy metabolic state in the midst of a stressful situation. Then, they help you recover from that stress faster than you’d do on your own.
Adaptogens, as their name suggests, help you adapt to stress.
For example, elevated blood sugar can cause oxidation and cellular damage. Blood sugar that’s too low can be a problem as well. Not surprisingly, adaptogens support normal blood sugar, meaning they can help your body bring elevated blood sugar down, and low blood sugar back up.
As you’ll see, adaptogens have similar metabolic effects throughout the body. So, even though you might feel the difference from adaptogens in your emotions or energy levels, their effects aren’t subjective, they’re cellular.
Health Benefits of Adaptogens
Research shows adaptogens clearly work, but how they work is still a little bit of a mystery. That’s the problem with their acceptance in North America. If scientists can’t fully explain how they work, many discount their effectiveness.
I’m of the opinion that if something is safe, and seems to work based on thousands of years of use, then it’s worth a try. With that in mind, here are some of the benefits of adaptogens based on scientific evidence to date.
Support a Normal Stress Response
Your ability to handle stress is directly related to the level of stress you’ve overcome in the past, and your ability to recover from the stress you face today.
Stress isn’t a problem. Your resilience to stress is.
Consistently dealing with more stress than you recover from can lead to conditions like adrenal fatigue and metabolic syndrome. There’s even some convincing research suggesting stress can lead reduced brain mass, dementia, and cancer.
Adaptogens support your stress response as well as your recovery from stress, in part, by supporting your adrenal glands, the cortisol-producing glands most responsible for your body’s stress response.
Support Healthy Inflammation Levels
Inflammation is an immune response. Your immune system responds to perceived threat. Sometimes that means attacking your own tissue, such as in arthritis.
Research shows some adaptogens may provide relief or slow the progression of arthritis.
Enhance Sleep Quantity and Quality
Stress elevates cortisol and can also change the daily rhythm of cortisol production. It should be highest in the morning, and lowest before bed.
However, in cases of adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion, cortisol can be low in the morning and high at night, or low all the time. In either case, it prevents you from getting sufficient deep and REM sleep.
Because adaptogens help support more normal cortisol rhythms, they may also support sleep quantity and quality.
Enhance Metabolic Function and Energy Production
Adaptogens affect your how your body uses or stores carbohydrates (glucose), protein (amino acids), and fat (fatty acids). Though they don’t significantly increase overall metabolic rate, they can change where the calories you burn come from.
It’s plausible they could have a minor effect on body composition by causing you to burn more fat instead of stored carbohydrate.
Support Cardiovascular Health
Chronically elevated cortisol can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. It increases blood pressure and heart rate, causes muscle tissue breakdown, and increases storage of visceral fat, which then increases inflammation.
Though adaptogens won’t do their job on their own, their effect on cortisol could help lessen the risk of developing cardiovascular disease when combined with a good exercise, nutrition and lifestyle plan.
Balance Sex Hormones
Low testosterone leads to numerous health problems in men and women. It isn’t just about sex drive and muscle mass.
Low testosterone is more common than ever in men and women, and the answer isn’t injections or pellets in your butt. It’s good nutrition, exercise and lifestyle choices. That said, adaptogens can support healthier testosterone levels as well.
When cortisol levels are high, it prevents production of testosterone. By helping support normal cortisol levels, it makes more of the building blocks of testosterone, like DHEA, available.
In addition, some adaptogens may act directly on the pituitary gland, which is part of the process in testosterone production.
This is impossible to test in humans. Our lifespans are too long, and there are too many variables to account for.
However, research on other living things, such as the nematode C. elegans, shows that they may extend lifespan, at least for nematodes.
Might they help you live longer?
Perhaps. By how much? Nobody will ever know. So, if someone tries to sell you on an adaptogen, claiming that it will extend your lifespan, they’re full of crap.
The only accurate claim here is that it could extend lifespan, but you’ll never know.
The 6 Best Adaptogens
Dozens, if not hundreds of adaptogens exist. Based on my own experimentation, experience with others, and the research I’ve reviewed, these six are my most-recommended adaptogens.
1. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, has been used for over 4000 years.
It directly affects adrenal function, which supports your body’s normal stress response. It also enhances thyroid function. Research shows it can increase production of T3 and T4.
Supplementing with Indian ginseng helps normalize blood lipid levels and reduces platelet aggregation.
Note: Improving thyroid function often has a positive effect on cholesterol levels. That’s why I always encourage people to get a full thyroid panel before getting started on statins. Sometimes, improving your thyroid function resolves your cholesterol issues.
Ashwagandha enhances immune function and supports normal inflammation levels. Research shows it may help relieve symptoms related to both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.
Because it affects adrenal function, Withania somniefera may reduce feelings of fatigue and depression, increase mental energy, and help calm feelings of anxiety.
The word somnifera is Latin for “sleep-inducer” so it’s no surprise that it improves quality and quantity of sleep.
It may improve memory and cognitive health, especially with aging.
Taking ashwagandha supports sexual function, enhances libido, and may help reduce water retention. I can’t speak from experience, but with those last two benefits (improved libido and reduced water retention), maybe taking it would help you get in the mood better when you’re feeling bloated.
Indian ginseng also has antioxidant properties, which may support longevity and reduce the spread of free radicals.
There’s even some evidence from animal research that Withania somnifera can help in overcoming opiate addiction.
With so many health benefits spanning across so many systems in the body, it’s no surprise that ashwagandha is the most popular and most-recommended adaptogen of all.
I take it each day as part of an adaptogenic formula called PowerGize from Young Living.
2. Tribulus Terrestris
Tribulus terrestris, or just “Tribulus,” is also known as puncturevine, goat head and devil’s thorn. It’s a plant originally found around the Mediterranean.
I’m not sure why, but Tribulus hasn’t gotten the attention I think it deserves. Perhaps, it’s because its effects are more related to maintaining sex hormone balance than minimizing stress.
Sex hormone imbalance, especially low testosterone, is common in those with high levels of physical or mental stress. For health and longevity, maintaining optimal testosterone is as important as healthy blood sugar levels or thyroid function.
That’s why tribulus is in my top six list.
Tribulus contains compounds called saponins, which affect sex hormone production.
Traditional medicine doctors have recommended it to enhance libido and deal with impotence and fertility for thousands of years.
Supplementing with tribulus is probably a better option than oysters as an aphrodisiac. It can get you in the mood without your breath smelling like seafood. Research shows it can be effective both men and women.
In men, research shows it can increase production of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a prohormone for testosterone production. Research shows it may also support production of leuteinizing hormone, dihydrotestosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate.
Tribulus terrestris has been shown to improve sperm quality in men with idiopathic infertility. “Idiopathic” is just a scientific way of saying the cause is unknown.
In women, research shows supplementation with tribulus was shown to increase sexual desire, arousal, frequency of orgasm, and sexual satisfaction. Some research shows it can also lead to increased lubrication and decreased pain with sex.
Not all research supports the testosterone-supporting effects of Tribulus. A 5-week study with elite rugby players taking 450 mg of tribulus, at a standardized dose of 60% saponins, showed no difference in strength, lean mass or testosterone levels between those taking tribulus and the placebo group.
Another study, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and using young male adults, showed no effect on strength, body composition, or hormones.
However, it’s possible this age group was at the prime of hormone production and strength and muscle growth already, so Tribulus wouldn’t have an effect. I’d expect it to be more powerful for middle-aged to older adults, but that’s just my opinion.
The impact on libido in men and women alone is a good reason to take it regularly (not because you need to be “turned on” all the time, but because you need to take it regularly to experience the benefits).
Animal research shows tribulus also supports normal triglyceride and cholesterol levels. That’s pretty interesting, since it’s been used in traditional medicine for heart diseases. It also seems to protect cells from the free radicals caused by elevated blood sugar in diabetics.
A three-month study with diabetic women showed that supplementing with 1000 mg per day of tribulus led to lower blood glucose, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
I personally take tribulus each day as part of the PowerGize supplement I mentioned above.
3. Relora® (Magnolia officinalis & Phellodendron amurense)
Third on my list is actually a combination of two adaptogens, as they seem to work best when combined in their trademarked formula.
Relora is made of a combination of Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense. Each of these adaptogens has been used in traditional medicine since about 100 A.D.
Just to be clear, these plants are different from the magnolias and philodendrons you my might plant in your garden, so don’t start eating your flowers in hopes you gain some of these health benefits.
Though each of the plants contains dozens of compounds, each plant has one constituent that’s been well-researched on its own.
Magnolia officinalis contains honokiol, a powerful anti-anxiety compound. Phellodendron amurense contains berberine, which supports normal cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It also has anti-anxiety effects. In addition to Relora, I take berberine every day.
Animal research shows they’re as effective together as diazepam for dealing with anxiety, without being as sedating.
These two adaptogens affect production of neurotransmitters and their enzymes such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), acetylcholine, choline acetyltransferase, and acetylcholinesterase.
In highly stressed, but otherwise healthy people, Relora has been shown to blunt increases in cortisol, and increase the testosterone precursor dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
Another study showed that 30 days of supplementing with Relora, while participating in a higher-intensity training program, thereby increasing physical stress, led to a significant difference between the test group and the placebo group.
It would be a great supplement to include in a training program like VIGOR Strength Athlete.
Similar results on mood states were seen when premenopausal women used Relora.
Like ashwgandha, Relora has a significant calming effect. The first time I used it was before a major stage presentation. I took it about 20 minutes before my presentation and within about 15 minutes, felt more calm and relaxed without feeling drowsy. It definitely gave me an edge.
The standard Relora recommendation is 500 mg per day, divided over two separate doses. It probably doesn’t matter whether you take Relora with food or not. For convenience, you can take it with other supplements at meal time.
I take Relora every day: One capsule of Relora Plus at lunchtime, and another 200 mg as part of the Thorne Multi-Vitamin Elite evening formula, which is a multivitamin I co-created with Dr. Mario Roxas from Thorne.
4. Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Eleutherococcus senticosus, or Eleuthero for short, is native to the Russian Far East, which is why it’s more commonly known as Siberian ginseng. It’s also found in China, Korea, and Japan.
The term adaptogen was actually coined by Dr. Israel Brekman, a Soviet doctor who spent much of his career researching Siberian ginseng. In fact, through the mid-1900s, when people referred to an adaptogen they often meant Siberian ginseng.
Before it became popular worldwide, it was used by Soviet athletes as an ergogenic edge, especially in endurance sports. It may increase oxygen consumption at peak intensity levels, which increases fat metabolism and preserves glycogen.
Research on chronic fatigue has been mixed. It seems that those with mild to moderate fatigue do experience a benefit from the use of Eleuthero, but those with severe fatigue do not.
Some research also shows Eleuthero supports normal cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
5. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodioloa rosea, also known as simply rhodioloa or Golden Root, was first written about in medical texts in 77 A.D. It contains more than 140 chemical compounds, some of which act on serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
Hundreds of studies have been published on Rhodiola.
At a standardized dose of 340 mg per day for six weeks, study participants experienced a reduction in symptoms of depression, insomnia, and emotional instability. Those who took 680 mg per day experienced similar benefits, but also saw an improvement in measures of self-esteem.
In another study, a daily dose of 576 mg helped people combat fatigue and improve mental performance and concentration while under stress.
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that supplementation with Rhodiola reduced the time on a cycling time trial, and reduced the rate of perceived exertion during the trial.
For sport, Rhodiola seems to most benefit endurance exercise. However, its effect on reduced rate of perceived exertion and improved exercise recovery would benefit most forms of exercise or sport.
I would also recommend Rhodiola for physique or bodybuilding contest prep. The effects on aerobic energy metabolism could help mobilize fat stores. The reduction in rates of perceived exertion could help with people get through the monotony of cardio and the exhaustion of exercising with so little energy.
Rhodiola may also improve cognitive function and mental focus, and help people avoid mental or physical fatigue or burnout.
Normal rhodiola doses range from 200 mg to 700 mg per day. Interestingly, lower doses seem to be more stimulatory and higher doses more calming.
If possible, take it on an empty stomach before meals, but if you forget, just take it. It’s best to take smaller doses two to three times per day instead of taking your whole daily dose all at once.
Highly sensitive people may want to take their last dose by late afternoon to early evening. It’s possible the stimulating effects could keep some people up at night, though it’s not that common.
6. Turmeric / Curcumin
Curcumin has been used in traditional medicine for more than 5000 years. It’s the subject of more than 3000 research papers and review articles.
Curcumin is the main, active compound in turmeric. It’s what gives curry its yellow-orange color. But beyond being an ingredient in some amazing recipes, it does a lot for your health, too.
Hindu medical practitioners recommend curcumin for muscle and connective tissue injuries.
Chinese medicine doctors use it for abdominal pain.
In Ayurvedic medicine, it’s used for obesity, arthritis, trauma, ulcers, jaundice, and skin issues.
Like some of the other adaptogens, curcumin helps maintain healthy levels of inflammation. As such, it shows potential in helping with symptoms of inflammatory diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and dementia.
It is effective in relieving occasional aches and pains.
A daily dose of 2 grams of curcumin phytosome was effective in relieving pain. The results were even superior to acetaminophen.Chuengsamarn S, et al.
I recommend curcumin phytosome when dealing with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Most non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) relieve muscle soreness, but they also interfere with muscle growth. Curcumin relieves muscle soreness without interfering with muscle growth.
Animal research shows curcumin can also stimulate tissue regeneration, which is important for exercise and injury recovery.
Curcumin improves beta-cell function in the pancreas, which is one of the reasons it has been shown to support normal blood sugar levels. In addition, it supports normal blood lipid levels and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), risk factors for metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
Like other adaptogens, curcumin has a positive effect on mood and cognitive health.
Curcumin has been shown to improve levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps to stimulate the development of new brain cells.Akazawa N, et al.
As beneficial as curcumin is when it reaches your bloodstream, it’s actually difficult to get it there. Curcumin is poorly absorbed on its own.
However, there are two ways to take curcumin and get it from your digestive tract to your bloodstream:
- Curcumin + piperine
- Curcumin phytosome
Combining curcumin with piperine, one of the main compounds in black pepper, or black pepper essential oil, significantly increases curcumin absorption.
Curcumin phytosome, on the other hand, is a patented way to produce certain botanical supplements. Indena, the company who patented this method, wraps the curcumin in a fatty acid shell. Fatty acids freely pass from the digestive system into your circulation, making it a highly absorbable form of curcumin.
It’s a supplement I’ve consistently used for many years now.
I use and recommend Thorne Meriva 500. I take 1 gram of Curcumin Phytosome with dinner each night. If I’m unusually sore from working out, I’ll take an additional gram at lunchtime. And during the recovery from my bicep tendon rupture, I took much more each day.
Honorable Mention: Hemp or CBD Oil
Though hemp is not technically an adaptogen, some of the effects of hemp or CBD oil are similar:
- Enhanced immune function
- Supports normal inflammatory levels
- Improved sleep
- Reduced pain
- Improved mood
How To Get Started With Adaptogens
While you might notice the effects of some adaptogens on your mood shortly after using them, most of the benefits come from continued use.
I use at least two, and often more, every day, and have for many years.
Remember, the main reason to use them is to become more resilient to the physical, mental, and emotional stressors you face. The more resilient you are, the easier it is to thrive without getting knocked on your butt.
With that said, for adaptogens to be effective, you need a meaningful dose. As supplement companies, tea brands, and even “functional foods” have tried to capitalize on the popularity of adaptogens, many use them as “window dressing.”
This is a term common in the supplement world, where companies use a tiny amount of an ingredient, just so they can put it on the label and mislead consumers.
For example, when Dr. Roxas and I outlined the formula for the Thorne Multi-Vitamin Elite, we could have included numerous adaptogens and put a claim on the label that it “includes X, Y, and Z.” We didn’t do that. We wanted an efficacious dose to support rest and sleep, so we chose one…Relora…and included 200 mg in it for the evening dose.
I also need to caution you against buying adaptogens from lower quality manufacturers. Over the years, there have been numerous cases of products found to be tainted with chemicals, hormones, or drugs that weren’t on the label.
Pay more to buy your adaptogens, and any other natural products, from companies with a strong safety and purity record, and who invest in their own testing as well as third-party testing, to make sure what’s on the label is in the bottle, and that if it isn’t on the label, it isn’t in the bottle.
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