Adaptogens are plant-based ingredients that are said to protect against the harmful effects of excessive stress. But do they really do anything or is it all in our heads? Nutrition Diva explains.
Today's topic was requested by Nurition Diva podcast listener Willow:
"I would love to know more about adaptogens. Are they real? Can they reduce stress? We've been under a lot of stress in the last year, so anything that can help to reduce sounds wonderful."
Many of us feel like we've been under more stress in the last year than ever before. But even prior to the pandemic, a majority of adults surveyed by the American Psychological Association believed that their levels of day-to-day stress were unhealthy. And adaptogens are nothing new either.
The history of adaptogenic herbs
Although the term adaptogen is relatively new, many of the herbs now considered to be adaptogens have been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. These include ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola, and schisandra chinensis. In these ancient medical systems, these herbs were typically thought of as "tonics," or all-purpose remedies that were good for whatever ails you.
Beginning in the 20th century, natural and alternative medicine practitioners latched on to them as an antidote to the seemingly unprecedented levels of stress that accompany modern life. The term "adaptogen" was coined around 1940 and was initially defined as a plant-based medicine that helped the body withstand or overcome the physiological effects of stress -- be it psychological, emotional, chemical, or environmental.
Just in the last 20 years or so, they've attracted more attention from researchers interested in testing whether these plants really do affect our physiological stress responses and, if so, how exactly they work. In 1998, the FDA proposed the following definition: “A new kind of metabolic regulator that has proved to help in environmental adaptation and to prevent external harms.”
The term "adaptogen" was coined around 1940 and was initially defined as a plant-based medicine that helped the body withstand or overcome the physiological effects of stress.
Stress is not always bad
Hans Selye is perhaps the father of our modern ideas about stress. And one of his key insights was that stress is not always (or only) bad. Getting a promotion, falling in love, or having a child are all examples of highly stressful -- but positive -- situations. The excitement you feel just before you pop the question to your beloved and the fear you feel before giving a big presentation at work are both accompanied by the same stress hormones.
When we experience stress or excitement -- anything from stage fright, to a roller coaster ride, to extreme temperatures, to emotional duress -- our sympathetic nervous system is activated. A rush of adrenaline makes our heart beat faster and increases our alertness. Our blood sugar and blood oxygen levels increase, priming our muscles to spring into action.
But it's thought that we spend too much time in this ramped up state -- and that this constant flood of stress ("emergency") hormones eventually damages our organs and increases our disease risk.
Adaptogens are theorized to help by buffering the harmful effects of an overexcited sympathetic nervous system. The idea is that these substances do not directly raise or lower the level of specific stress hormones, but rather support our ability to maintain a balance (homeostasis) between the sympathetic nervous system, which ramps up our fight/flight response when we perceive a threat, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which chills us back out when the threat or excitement has passed.
How stress harms us
Are our lives really more stressful than our prehistoric ancestors? The sources of stress have definitely changed. But is a crushing deadline at work or caring for our children or parents really more stressful than fending for ourselves in the wild? I'm not so sure. But one advantage that our prehistoric ancestors had over us is that they weren't stressed out about their stress levels.
And indeed, research has shown that stressful events do more physiological damage when we believe that stress is harmful. If we are primed to see stress as a positive thing -- as a challenge or as excitement -- it does far less damage to our bodies.
So it's very possible that by taking a tonic that we believe protects us against stress, we do in fact experience less harm. However, it may be our belief and not the substance that's responsible for this.
There's a lot of anecdotal evidence on the effects of adaptogens. And controlled studies can help us distinguish biological effects from psychological ones.
It's very possible that by taking a tonic that we believe protects us against stress, we do in fact experience less harm. However, it may be our belief and not the substance that's responsible for this.
Research on adaptogens
Twenty years is not a lot of time in biological or medical research and although the number of studies has increased dramatically, the science on adaptogens is still in its preliminary stage. Studies on animals and cells in petri dishes suggest that these plants may indeed have pharmacological effects on a variety of hormonal and cellular systems involved in the stress response. But there's a lack of well-controlled studies on the impact of adaptogens on actual humans experiencing actual stress. Do they actually change how everyday stress impacts our organs? Do they reduce stress-related symptoms or lower our disease risk? We just don't know.
There's still a lot to learn about how these plants work in our bodies, which situations they are best suited for, which dosages and combinations are most effective, and whether there are any safety concerns or unwanted side effects. In the meantime, I think there's a lot we can do to mitigate the harmful effects of stress.
How to reduce the harmful effects of stress
- Start by not stressing about how stressed you are. It's not helping. Instead, remind yourself that stress is just part of life and that we can actually use it to fuel more creative and productive action.
- Identify and remove optional sources of stress. It's definitely worth it to do an audit of the things in your life that you regularly feel stressed by to see which ones could be reduced, removed, or avoided. (Often, the most effective stress management technique we can learn is the ability to say "No").
- Don't compound the problem with coping mechanisms that just create more stress. For example, a lot of people that I work with tell me that stress causes them to overeat -- and that one of the primary source of stress in their lives is the fact that they are overweight.
- Learn how to restore calm. Because a certain amount of stress is inevitable, it's also worth learning how to invoke your parasympathetic nervous system to calm your body and brain. There are many effective techniques, including gentle movement practices like tai chi, yoga, meditation, visualization, breathing techniques, chanting, singing, biofeedback, or self-massage. Sample them all and pick one or two that feel comfortable and effective for you. Then, make them a regular part of your routine, so that when you need them, they are easy to access.
If you decide to use adaptogenic herbs as part of your stress-mitigation program, here are some things to keep in mind:
Because adaptogens are considered dietary supplements, they are not very tightly regulated. Unlike pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements are not required to be effective. It is perfectly legal to sell a dietary supplement that has no demonstrable biological effect.
In fact, supplements must include a disclaimer on the label, stating that they are "not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." As long as your marketing doesn't cross the line into a health or disease claim, however, you can say pretty much whatever you want. So, be skeptical about any claims that aren't backed up by solid, verifiable evidence.
Manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements are legally obliged to make sure that their products are safe and accurately labeled. However, this doesn't mean that all dietary supplements are safe or accurately labeled -- any more than our tax laws mean that no-one cheats on their taxes. So, only buy dietary supplements from companies and vendors you trust.