Ever feel like your equilibrium is off or you need a helping hand to calm and centre your nerves? Adaptogens are made to help your body adapt to everyday stressors and restore your hormone balance. There are plenty of useful adaptogens out there, each with a different health benefit to suit your needs. Keep reading as we outline the best adaptogens for stress, sleep, fatigue and health.
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are natural substances that help your body adapt to mental and physical stress. This class of herbs target different bodily processes, such as increasing your ability to perform while fatigued, regulating your bodily functions and optimising stress responses. They can even improve your overall health by supporting your immune system.
Despite becoming a popular health supplement in recent years, adaptogens have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
When we face everyday stressors, caused by things like work, illness, trauma, injury, personal life, etc, it triggers a chain of responses called general adaptation syndrome (GAS) within our body. This three-stage response consists of alarm, resistance and exhaustion. In the alarm stage, our adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol to give us adrenaline to respond to the stressor. The resistance stage is our body’s way of adjusting to the stress and healing itself. Here, cortisol production, heart rate and blood pressure slow down.
If we don’t adjust to the stressor or are unable to manage the stress, our body enters the exhaustion stage. This stage is the result of prolonged or chronic stress and can cause damaging effects on your mental state and body. These can be fatigue, depression, burnout and anxiety.
Being in the exhaustion stage also means that our body has been unable to regulate cortisol production. This can lead to adrenal fatigue, which can cause a lower resistance to stress. So when you next feel stressed, your adrenal glands aren’t fully equipped to deal with it.
Adaptogens help us to remain in the resistance stage for longer by stimulating an effect that delays the exhaustion phase from setting in. This means that instead of crashing or breaking down, adaptogens allow us to be resilient and continue on.
In essence, adaptogens work to inhibit the effects of stress so that we can find a better way to cope with the cause of the stress or perform better despite it. This can then help to improve our overall health and wellbeing. For example, stress can induce insomnia, but adaptogens can mitigate its effects so that we can have a good night’s sleep.
How to take adaptogens
Each adaptogen affects the body differently, so it’s important to choose one that will give you the result you’re looking for. Because of the way they adapt to your body’s state, they are generally very safe and gentle to take. However, they may also produce mild side-effects that differ in each person so you should always consult a doctor or GP before deciding to try them.
Adaptogens in their natural form are plants, but they have been turned into a range of forms optimised for consumption. You can take them as capsule supplements, as powders to blend into smoothies or steeped into teas or soups. Many adaptogens have an unfavourable taste which is why it’s common to take them when they’re mixed into something else.
The time of day that you take them is also important. Some adaptogens are stimulants and are best taken in the morning or early afternoon so that you can reap their benefits without them disrupting your circadian rhythm. Others are calming and these are best to take in the evening. Despite this, they can even be taken in the day as they aren’t potent enough to have a sedative effect.
Adaptogens are often used continuously for a period of time to gain the best results. This can be whenever you feel like you need a bit of help or if you’re going through a stressful time. It’s recommended that you rotate your adaptogens every six weeks so that your body can feel the effects of a different set of herbs.
The best adaptogens for stress
Ashwagandha is one of the most well-known adaptogens because it’s brimming with potent health benefits. Also classed as a nootropic thanks to its ability to boost cognitive function, ashwagandha is an ayurvedic herb found in parts of Northern Africa and India.
Ashwagandha’s main use is for encouraging a state of calm and easing anxiety. It does this by mimicking neurotransmitters in the brain that are responsible for feelings of wellbeing. This boosts serotonin and stops signals in the brain that occur due to stress.
As well as being excellent at reducing stress by balancing stress hormones, ashwagandha can also support the body’s inflammatory response, optimise blood pressure and improve memory function.
Holy basil, not the kind that you make pesto or marinara sauce with, is a green, leafy herb native to Southeast Asia. Also known as Ocimum sanctum or tulsi, it has long been used in Indian medicine for a range of maladies. Uses for this plant range from adaptogen to aphrodisiac and liver support to longevity.
When used as an adaptogen, holy basil leaves have been recorded to reduce stress and anxiety thanks to the antidepressant and anti-anxiety-like compounds that it contains. It acts remarkably similar to diazepam and other antidepressant drugs.
Holy basil is naturally caffeine-free and its leaves are often made into a tea for convenient consumption. The act of drinking it as a tea is thought to be a soothing activity that calms the mind and body.
The best adaptogens for sleep
Valerian root, or valeriana officinalis, is an ayurvedic herb native to Asia and Europe. The flowers of the plant have historically been used to make perfume, whereas the roots were used in traditional medicine. This is thanks to its ability to promote relaxation and sleep.
Sometimes referred to as “Nature’s Valium”, valerian contains valerenic acid, isovaleric acid and a number of antioxidants. These are the active ingredients which cause it to reduce anxiety. This is because valerian inhibits gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) breakdown in the brain, which results in feelings of calmness and ease. Anti-anxiety medications like Valium and Xanax also work in this way.
To help encourage sleep, the antioxidants hesperidin and linarin found in valerian root have been found to have sedative and hypnotic properties.
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The best adaptogens for fatigue
This adaptogen and nootropic helps your body to adapt to stress by combating fatigue and exhaustion. Another popular adaptogen plant, rhodiola Rosea has over 140 active ingredients to help balance your mood.
It does this by regulating your cortisol levels during stressful situations. Excess cortisol can eat away at your nutrient reserves, impair memory function and affect blood pressure, blood sugar and metabolism. Rhodiola rosea can also help those suffering with adrenal fatigue by increasing energy and concentration.
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The best adaptogens for immune health
Astragalus is one of fifty fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. Its revered status comes from its ability to support overall health, as well as to target more serious conditions.
Packed full of plant compounds, astragalus is used to promote longevity, fight inflammation, strengthen the immune system and treat heart and kidney conditions.
What makes astragalus so unique is that it’s the only natural substance to contain cycloastragenol. Cycloastragenol is a molecule that can lengthen telomeres by encouraging telomerase production. The shorter telomeres are, the closer that cell is to dying. Therefore longer telomeres extend the lifespan of cells and slow down the aging process. The length of telomeres is also related to lifespan as well as cell life cycle, which makes astragalus vital for longevity and anti-aging.
Like astragalus, reishi mushrooms are a popular choice for supporting the immune system. A type of fungus that grows in hot and humid regions of Asia, these mushrooms have been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years. Reishi mushrooms can be eaten fresh, but it’s common to see them ground down into a powder form for easier and more convenient consumption. Whichever way you take reishi, it’s important to note that they should only be eaten for medication and not consistently as part of a diet.
Reishi are full of antioxidants which combat oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Some strains of reishi have even been found to alter inflammation pathways in white blood cells, which help to fight infection and cancer.