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Adaptogens 101: How Plants Can Help You Deal with Stress

Updated: Feb 21


mushrooms, adaptogens

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all of the stress your body and mind are facing? And what about the additional overwhelm from the influx of buzzwords and stress remedies you see online, in the news, and through social media? How many times have you opened Instagram or Facebook and found the words “chronic inflammation” paired with an intensive and unrealistic “detox” or “cleanse”? Does it ever feel like trying to find ways to reduce stress is actually causing you more stress?


While there are ways to reduce stress, like taking a walk, journaling, exercising, and meditating, there is another form of stress management that may be new to you. One of the oldest forms of medicine used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine provides insight into how plants and fungi (mushrooms!) may prevent disease and support optimal health by helping you deal with stress. Certain plants and fungi are known as adaptogens, which have been used for centuries to combat mental and physical fatigue associated with diseases like cancer, insomnia, menopause, Alzheimer’s, and more. If you are thinking, “Hold on. What the heck is an adaptogen?” — don’t worry! We're about to dive into these magical ingredients.


Your body on stress

stress, ansiety

Adaptogens can help us maintain stress homeostasis, or balance, within our bodies. When we hear the word “stress,” we might think of the night before a big exam, starting a new job, or moving into a new home. These can absolutely be stress-causing events. However, stress goes beyond our life events.


Lifestyle diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, can also be significant stressors on the body and stress can lead to lifestyle diseases — it’s a two way street.


Physiological stress can also be anything that shifts the body away from that optimal state of homeostasis, including things we may not consider, such as air pollution, poor diet, negative thoughts, a rough night sleep, loud noises, and more. In a nutshell, there are many daily factors that can throw our bodies out of balance, disrupting homeostasis and, ultimately, overall health.


A stressful event puts our body into “fight-or-flight” mode, which essentially prepares our body to deal with an alarming situation. Some physical sensations you may feel upon hearing a loud crashing sound or receiving upsetting news might include increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and shallow breathing. This response can be beneficial short-term, preparing the body for that stressful event. However, chronic stress can keep our bodies’ response and stress hormones elevated. Long term, this could lead to inflammation, a compromised immune system, disrupted gut health, aging, and more.


Enter ... adaptogens!


What are adaptogens?

adaptogens

Adaptogens may be used to help maintain physiological balance during times of stress. Adaptogens increase our resistance to stress and decrease our sensitivity to stressful events. This results in protecting us from the detrimental effects stress can place on the body, and helps to keep our bodies in balance.


Adaptogens may offer incredible benefits, such as supporting the immune system or combatting fatigue, as they contain numerous phytochemicals, substances found in plants that provide benefits beyond essential nutrients, like vitamins and minerals. The numerous phytochemicals found in each adaptogenic plant can all work in different ways, allowing one medicinal plant or fungi to potentially help a wide variety of symptoms from a condition. In addition, many adaptogens can work bidirectionally, whereas prescription drugs typically work in one direction. For example, blood pressure medication may lower your blood pressure, while an adaptogen, like Ashwagandha, may stabilize your blood pressure, preventing it from getting too low or too high. You could think of an adaptogen as being the perfect weight on one side of a seesaw, keeping that seesaw balanced no matter who gets on the other side. Pretty impressive, right?


A major issue adaptogens face is being accepted by Western medicine. There is limited research on the amazing benefits of these medicinal plants and fungi, and, therefore, Western medicine has yet to incorporate these powerful substances into treatment protocols. That being said, some research has been done, and the results are very promising! Keep reading to learn about some popular adaptogens and their benefits.


Common Adaptogens


Echinacea

echinacea

Echinacea is a plant native to North America that has been used to treat the common cold and flu. Although the research is limited, some studies have found that those who supplemented echinacea had a shorter duration of the cold or fewer symptoms, while others have found that it may reduce the chances of actually catching a cold. This adaptogen works to increase specific immune cells, like natural killer cells and inhibits certain viral proteins that contribute to illness. Echinacea can come in different forms, such as extracts and powders, and although it isn’t well studied, some research shows that 5 ml of extract twice daily for 10 days can help shorten a cold. Echinacea may cause some gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea and heartburn, but if you do not experience these symptoms, consider taking advantage of the potential benefits of echinacea, as cold and flu season is just around the corner!


Ginger

ginger

Ginger is native to Asia and has been used for thousands of years in TCM. As you probably know, it’s a very common remedy for nausea. Studies have shown that ginger may help reduce nausea associated with pregnancy and potentially help treat chemotherapy-related nausea when used in parallel with other treatment options. It is believed that ginger helps to increase the rate of stomach emptying and stimulate the release of blood-pressure-regulating hormones, which can contribute to relieving nausea. In addition, ginger may help reduce PMS cramps and pain associated with strength training, osteoarthritis, and back issues. The benefits of ginger were typically seen in study participants when taking 1 to 2 grams daily. If you don’t experience heartburn, diarrhea, or throat irritation when taking ginger, it may be a great option if you’re feeling a little queasy or are experiencing pain.


Ginseng

ginseng

Ginseng has also been used in TCM to help treat a wide variety of illnesses and symptoms. One study showed that ginseng can help lower and stabilize blood glucose, and, although there were limitations to the study, this may be promising for people with diabetes. For those who live a very active lifestyle, studies have also shown that ginseng can potentially reduce inflammation and fatigue, and may also help with improving mood. Ginseng can come in various forms such as teas, powders, capsules, or oils, and studies have shown that benefits can be seen when taking 200 to 400 mg of extract daily. If you are anything like me, always on the go and keeping busy, ginseng could be a great addition to help maintain blood sugar and energy levels throughout a busy workday while helping to keep a smile on your face!


Turmeric

turmeric

If you have ever cooked with a spice that turned your hands a yellowish orange hue, then you have most likely consumed turmeric! Turmeric is native to Asia and has been used as a medicinal plant in TCM and Ayurveda for many years to treat conditions such as upper respiratory, digestive, and joint disorders. Multiple studies have concluded that those struggling with different types of arthritis saw benefits when taking turmeric such as pain relief, increase in physical function, and reduction in the amount of pain medications taken. Also, some research has shown turmeric to help stabilize blood sugar and lower fasting blood glucose. Although the data is inconsistent across studies, it is still promising in its potential benefits for those with type II diabetes. Some studies have also found that turmeric can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which is great news for everyone. The various anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric are believed to result from increasing antioxidant enzymes and reducing reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can cause cell damage in excess. Research has shown that benefits can be seen when taking anywhere from 150 mg to 2.5 grams daily, so work with your doctor to find a dose that will suit your needs. If you are looking for a fun way to introduce turmeric to your diet, here is a recipe to try! P.S. Pairing turmeric with a pinch of ground black pepper can increase the absorption of curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, by 2000%!


Lion’s Mane


Lion’s mane is a medicinal mushroom that can be found on dead hardwood trees like oak. You would understand how it got its name if you ever saw it. It truly does look like a lion’s mane! Recently, you may have heard talk about some bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, which makes infections extremely difficult to treat. Thankfully, studies have shown that lion’s mane may help the body fight off some of these bacteria, such as Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA, and other common bacteria such as H. Pylori and Salmonella. In addition to its antibacterial properties, research has also found that lion’s mane has been effective in relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety, working alongside chemotherapeutic drugs to fight certain types of cancer and reduce fatigue. Some of these studies were only done on animals, but hopefully, these will act as the foundation for future studies that can help us see the excellent benefits in humans, as well. Lion’s mane comes in multiple forms, including capsules, tablets, liquids, and powders, and although the research is limited, 1 gram per day for 16 weeks has been generally considered safe.


Ashwagandha

ashwagandha

Do you feel achy and restless due to poor sleep and anxious for the day or week ahead? If so, ashwagandha might be the perfect act of self-care for you. Studies have shown that this adaptogenic plant has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce pain and swelling. Other research has shown that taking ashwagandha daily can decrease stress, reduce cortisol, help manage anxiety, improve insomnia, and positively impact perceived quality of life. It is thought that ashwagandha helps decrease the reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the part of the brain that stimulates our response to short-term stress, which can help reduce our overall stress levels. Most of these studies concluded that more significant improvements were seen at higher doses, while typical doses are around 250 to 500 mg once daily for at least 30 days. I don’t know about you, but this adaptogen sounds like an answer to my anxiety!


Maca

maca

Before jumping into all the wonderful benefits of Maca, I have to mention that Maca is native to the highlands of Peru, withstanding extreme altitudes and temperatures for centuries. Sometimes, it is hard to believe the resilience and beauty of plants! Beyond its ability to endure harsh climates, Maca has been shown to increase athletic performance and libido and help mitigate some symptoms associated with menopause. One study found that cyclists who took Maca saw significant improvements in the time it took them to bike 40 km and also saw increases in their libido. Maca has also helped reduce blood pressure and psychological symptoms, such as feelings of depression and anxiety, that are associated with menopause. Menopause treatments may come with risks and side effects, or they may not work well. Macas could be an option for women who are transitioning in perimenopause or menopause. It is believed that maca helps nourish and stimulate the body's endocrine glands, aiding in regulating and stabilizing hormones, which can contribute to some of the benefits seen in the research. The standard dose of maca is 1.5 to 3.5 mg daily for 6 to 16 weeks, which can be in powder or capsule form, but speak with your healthcare provider to find a dose that is right for you. Visit our full article on maca root’s potential benefits here.


These are just a few of the more popular adaptogens, but there are so many more out there with different benefits. Hopefully, this helped you understand the magic behind these unique medicinal plants, and now you can feel some of the benefits for yourself. As a reminder, always consult your doctor before introducing any of these adaptogens to ensure they are right for you.


Have you been taking adaptogens and noticed their benefits? Please share below!






Hello everyone! My name is Darian Williams, and I am a Graduate Nutrition student at Georgia State University. Regarding nutrition, some of my interests include women's health, diabetes care, and intuitive eating, and I hope to work with these topics in my future practice. In addition, I love spending time outdoors, hanging out with my family and dogs, and reading.



Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/#:~:text=Adaptogens%20increase%20the%20state%20of,homeostasis)%20is%20attained%20the%20heterostasis.

https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1536/lions-mane-mushroom

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874109005728?casa_token=AH6ltSxrj_4AAAAA:P0Tu4-YddRxGhqUMTZTRbhyYEBpADFvx9dZVImrWCwV-Kq_C39DPE4OvkBdXQHcyM9O4LkqX2A

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24931003/




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