Dr. Jason Fung is stopping by the blog today to share a bit about using adaptogens for stress. Enjoy, everybody—and be sure to share any questions you have on the comment board.
“Adaptogens.” Something about the word is reminiscent of Transformers—you know, those robots that look like a normal automobile or airplane—and then turn into something so much more powerful.
In truth, adaptogens aren’t that different from Transformers. They look like normal herbs, roots, and mushrooms. You’ll perhaps even recognize some of the adaptogens discussed in this article and will have eaten them before.
But adaptogens aren’t just normal plants and mushrooms. Research tells us that adaptogens can transform us into people who are less affected by stress.(1)
And, in the modern world, being less stressed certainly sounds like a superpower, right?
So, let’s take a research-based look at how adaptogens work and which ones you might try. We’ll focus in particular on the best adaptogens for stress reduction.
How It Works: Taking Adaptogens for Stress Reduction
It could be that you’re physically stressed from exercise, worn out from fighting off an illness, or emotionally stressed by a work-life balance issue. In any of these situations, adaptogens can help reduce cortisol levels, balance your hormones, and leave you feeling calmer.
In short, adaptogens help with stress reduction because they increase your tolerance for stress.
The reason adaptogens can assist with a broad range of stressors has to do with the mechanism by which they reduce stress. Rather than going to the specific site of our stress—an injured body part or rush hour traffic (wouldn’t that be nice?)—they go to work on our hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. These are the parts of our anatomy that signal and respond to stress.
As a result of this interaction, our “fight or flight” response is less likely to be triggered by every little thing that is happening in our day. And our overall cortisol levels are less likely to skyrocket in response to modern-day stresses that don’t actually deserve a physical response (back to that rush hour traffic).
Conversely, chronically high stress levels—and chronically high cortisol—can lead to adrenal fatigue, digestive issues, and even premature aging. So, the fact that adaptogens can reduce stress is important on a physical level, not just an emotional one. Reducing stress can keep us younger and healthier.
5 Adaptogens That Will Help You with Stress Reduction
So, how do you go about incorporating adaptogens into your diet or supplement regimen? It’s actually pretty easy, and you will recognize some of the names of the adaptogens below. While all adaptogens will reduce your body’s stress response, they each have their own special qualities and methods for attacking stress.
Let’s discuss five adaptogens that you can easily get ahold of and why they might be a great addition to your daily health routine.
1. Chaga Mushroom
Chaga comes first in this list because of its broad spectrum of benefits. Chaga has been used for hundreds of years in a variety of Eastern European countries and may even have been used as far back as Roman times.
It is extremely high in antioxidants and is therefore known for its anti-aging properties. These same antioxidants may be behind chaga’s traditional use as a cancer treatment, as well.(2)
But chaga’s ability to boost the immune system (3) also means it has the benefit of stress reduction. How many of us have experienced the two-fronted attack of stress and illness? Don’t you always come down with the flu or a cold at the worst possible time? A 2011 study demonstrated that mice treated with chaga had an increased ability to fend off viruses and bacteria.(4)
This knobby looking root is one of the adaptogens you’re more likely to already be familiar with. Ginseng has trended in and out of fashion in the Western world, but in Traditional Chinese Medicine it has long been a powerful tool for reducing stress, anxiety, and mental fatigue.
There are many recent studies available that demonstrate ginseng’s status as one of the powerful adaptogens for stress reduction. Here are just a few:
A 2003 study on rats found ginseng to be an effective strategy against chronic stress.(5)
A 2010 study on a group of thirty human volunteers showed ginseng improved calmness.(6)
A 2013 meta-analysis of both human and animal studies found ginseng to be an effective “actoprotector,” which means it can increase mental and physical performance. The meta-analysis authors suggested ginseng deserved further research regarding its ability to influence mental work capacity.(7)
Note: because ginseng can also be a natural energy-booster, it can be an effective way to kick a caffeine habit and switch to something more beneficial.
3. Reishi Mushroom
Reishi mushrooms have been used therapeutically for over two thousand years because of the multitude of benefits this mushroom imparts.
In China, reishi mushrooms are considered to symbolize “success, well-being, divine power, and longevity.” (8) On a more practical level, reishi mushrooms are a good source of all nine essential amino acids. (9) This means reishi can assist with muscle growth and recovery, hormonal balance, antibody production, and more—all things that can help us recover from stress and fight it off to begin with.
Reishi has also proven effective in fighting fatigue from various sources. A 2005 study conducted on neurasthenia sufferers—a condition that results in chronic fatigue, irritability, headaches, and more—found consuming reishi resulted in a significant improvement in their symptoms. (10) Another human study found reishi reduced fatigue and improved quality of life in breast cancer patients. (11)
4. Rhodiola Rosea
The adaptogens in rhodiola come from the roots of the plant. Rhodiola is good both for regulating mood and improving cognitive function.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine demonstrated that participants experienced a significant improvement in their generalized anxiety disorder. (12) And a 2009 study from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology (conducted in a laboratory and using neither humans nor animals) showed that rhodiola roots possessed “potent anti-depressant activity” due to its ability as an MAO inhibitor. (13)
For the most effectiveness, take rhodiola first thing in the morning before you eat.
While this root has long been prescribed in India for a wide range of issues—everything from inflammation to insomnia—modern science does indeed back up ashwagandha’s claims to positively impact our stress level.
According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, study participants’ serum cortisol levels were “substantially reduced.” (14) In this study, participants took 300 mg of high-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha extract twice a day for sixty days.
As you can see from the diversity of the research, adaptogens are not a simple substance—but their benefits are simple to understand. By improving our immune system, reducing our cortisol, boosting our brain function, and reducing our anxiety, these seemingly “normal” herbs, roots, and mushrooms can drastically reduce our everyday stress levels.
The Chaga Energy Elixir is a perfect way to begin your day. Blended with N.American ginseng and burdock root, it boosts brain function and energy—and is a great alternative to caffeine. (Or you can add it to your coffee or tea, if you’d like!)
The Reishi Calm Elixir is a great way to complete your day. Drinking it in the evenings can help you wind down from work while it also supports your immune system, combats stress, and regulates your mood.
No matter which adaptogens for stress reduction you decide to try, get ready to feel less anxious and more balanced. Both science and traditional medicines tell us this is true. It’s amazing how many benefits such a simple substance can bring to our lives.
Thanks again to Dr. Jason Fung for his post today. Questions about adaptogens for stress management? Share them below. Have a great week, everybody.