Adaptogens: The History and Science Behind These Stress Equalizers

Hard to pronounce supplements like ashwagandha, ginseng, cordyceps, astragalus that can supposedly reduce stress, improve brain function, and boost physical performance are taking the wellness world by storm. These foods are known as adaptogens, or substances that enhance the state of nonspecific resistance in stress. But, what does this mean? How do they work? Where do they come from? 

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Understanding the answers to these questions and differentiating the benefits of different adaptogens can be a confusing process. To make it easier, we’ve taken a deep dive into the history and the science behind modern adaptogens and compiled a list of the benefits of some of our favorite ones. 

HISTORY//

The idea that a supplement could improve physical and mental health came about during World War II. In 1940, a scientist from the USSR coined the term when describing a plant known as Schisandra chensis, which has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for generations. In traditional Chinese medicine, Schisandra is known to be beneficial to qi, or the life force energy that is present in all living things. It is believed to have a positive impact on the heart, lungs, and kidneys. It may also help to increase lifespan, normalize blood sugar and blood pressure, stimulate the immune system, and help with speedy recovery after surgery.

Schisandra caught the interest of Soviet scientists after ethnopharmacological investigations in the Far East region revealed that Nanai hunters used the berry and seed of Schisandra to reduce thirst, hunger, and exhaustion and to improve night vision. Scientists used the term adaptogen to refer to plant derived substances that can non specifically enhance the human body. Non specifically refers to having a wide range of effects, helping to protect against mental, physical, chemical, or environmental stressors including pollution, radiation, diseases, and interpersonal conflict. 

The concept of adaptogens was based on a theory of stress and the body's response to stress developed by Hans Seyle which posits that you go through three phases when experiencing stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. 

As scientists continued to study adaptogens, the definition continued to change. In 1969, the definition of adaptogens was modified to include the fact that they must reduce the harm caused by stressed states (ex. fatigue, infection, depression etc.), must not have negative side effects associated with traditional stimulants, and must not harm the human body. Today, adaptogens are classified as a pharmacotherapeutic group (aka therapeutic drugs) defined as herbal preparations that can increase attention and endurance in fatigue and reduce stress induced impairments and disorders related to the neuro-endorcine and immune system. 

Research into adaptogens currently falls into four areas: phytochemistry (the study of the structure and active parts of adaptogenic plants), biochemistry and molecular biology (looking at how adaptogens can protect against stress at the molecular and cellular level), experimental and clinical pharmacology (the study of the safety of adaptogens to treat stress related disorders), and pharmaceutical development (trying to create medicines with adaptogens). 

SCIENCE//

So, how do adaptogens actually work? To break down the complex biochemistry behind it all, we should first understand the typical states of a cell in your body. A cell can either be in balance (aka homeostasis), stressed (the homeostasis is threatened), adapting to stress (in a state of nonspecific resistance to stress) or in a state known as apoptosis (or cell death). The compounds in adaptogens work to help your cell compared to the stressor, bringing it back into the balanced state. You can think of them as stress vaccines, they activate stress induced self defence mechanisms that help the cell and therefore the whole organism (ie you) mitigate the negative impacts of stress. Adaptogens are able to do this because they contain bioactive compounds such as phenolics or tetracyclic triterpenoids which interact with your cells and influence your bodily functions and hormone production.

Dr. Brenda Powell, the co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute told Time Magazine that basically adaptogens “do this by interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system, both of which are involved in the body’s response to stress. Adaptogens may tweak hormone production and physiological responses to stress to ensure that your body—from your mind to your immune system to your energy levels—functions as it should.” 

Although Dr. Powell claims that there is not much scientific research into how adaptogens impact human health, research indicates that “adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity. In addition, a number of clinical trials demonstrate that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental work capacity against a background of stress and fatigue, particularly in tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention” (cite).

OUR FAVORITE ADAPTOGENS//

We love the following adaptogens for their powerful adaptogenic properties. Before diving into our favorites, we want to remind you then when looking for adaptogenic supplements, be sure you are getting all natural organic herbs that are certified by third party agencies such as the US pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.com. And, experts recommend taking adaptogens consistently to see the benefit and rotating them every six weeks to benefit from the differences between the herbs.

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  1. Chaga- Chaga is a mushroom that grows on birch trees in northern Europe, Asia, Canada, and northeastern United States. It contains a lot of the pigment melanin, which is a potent antioxidant. Because of its high melanin content, chaga has one of the highest oxygen radical absorbance capacity of any food-- basically it is one of the strongest antioxidants out there. We love adding some to our morning coffee to help reduce our daily stress and boost our immune health.
  2. Ashwagandha- Ashwagandha is a small evergreen shrub that grows in India, the Middle East, and northern Africa. The root and berry/leaves are used to make medicines/extracted for adaptogenic purposes. Ashwagandha has been used for over 3,000 years to relieve stress and improve both energy and concentration. The health benefits may come from its high concentration of withanolides, compounds that have been shown to help fight inflammation and tumor growth. Consuming consistently may help to reduce cortisol levels, stress, anxiety, inflammation, cholesterol, and symptoms of depression and may help to improve fertility, strength, muscle mass, and brain functioning. We love to mix our ashwagandha into a post workout protein smoothie with (you guessed it) chocho. 
  3. Holy Basil/Tulsi- Holy Basil is a plant that originates from India but is now cultivated in Australia, West Africa, and the Middle East. Tulsi is the Hindu name for holy basil, and means “the incomparable one” as it is considered a sacred plant by Hindus.  Chemicals in holy basil may decrease pain, swelling, and inflammation and may lower blood sugar in people with diabetes. Holy basil seed oil may help slow progression of certain cancers. Like other adaptogens, it helps to reduce your stress response, and can reduce sleep problems, forgetfulness, and exhaustion. Holy basil may also help to protect the stomach by increasing both mucus production and the number of mucous cells and by reducing stomach acid. We are big fans of holy basil/tulsi tea.  
  4. Suma- Suma is a rambling ground vine that is often referred to as the Brazilian ginseng and the root is used to make medicines/adaptogenic supplements. Suma has been used by indegenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest region for generations to increase energy, boost sexuality, reduce anxiety, treat ulcers, and more. In Ecuador, suma is used as a medicinal plant to treat a variety of ailments. Suma may help to: stimulate the appetite, increase hormone levels, balance blood sugar, improve memory, boost immune system, improve blood circulation, and improve sports performance. We like to eat the suma root or boil it in water to make suma tea.
  5. Guayusa- Guayusa is a holly tree native to the Amazon Rainforest and is mostly cultivated in Ecuador. Guayusa is a potent source of caffeine and is rich in antioxidants, consuming it may help to improve mood and concentration, stabilize blood sugar, and may provide a crash free/less anxiety inducing caffeine alternative. We take guayusa in tea form, usually in the morning instead of a cup of coffee.

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