6 Things You Need To Know About Adaptogens—Nature's Answer To Valium

Know what you’re getting into with these healing herbs.

July 13, 2017
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Adaptogens are a whole new level of superfood. Members of this unique class of herbs and roots have been used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, lauded for their ability to reduce the effects that stress hormones can have on the body. But before you head for the supplements aisle, here are 6 things you should know about adaptogens, and what they do–and what they don’t do.

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Adaptogens don’t cure stress

Though some health gurus claim that adaptogens “cure” stress, let’s get one thing straight: adaptogens’ power doesn’t lie in reducing feelings of anxiety, but rather in decreasing the effects of hormones and other compounds that are released into the body in times of stress, such as kinase, nitric oxide, and cortisol. Adaptogens’ adeptness at reducing the presence and harmful effects of these compounds has been observed in clinical studies, such as a 2007 report from Drug Target Insights or another 2010 paper in Pharmaceuticals.

Related: 4 Healing Soups To Boost Your Immune System

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Not every medicinal herb is an adaptogen

That said, the category of adaptogenic herbs is rather murky territory. Many lists of adaptogenic herbs and roots contain dozens and even hundreds of items, but in reality, this is a very exclusive category comprising herbs and roots that “lower blood levels of stress hormones, demonstrably,” according to Chris Kilham, the author and plant medicine expert who CNN dubbed “the Indiana Jones of natural medicine.”

Most experts agree that there are just over a dozen true adaptogens, including ashwagandha (a member of the nightshade family), astragalus (the root of a perennial plant), cordyceps (a fungi), eleuthero (also known as Siberian ginseng), jiaogulan (a medicinal vine), maca (the root of a Peruvian plant), panax ginseng or panax quinquefolius (“true” ginseng), reishi mushrooms, rhaponticum (a perennial thistle-like flower), rhodiola (the root of Rhodiola rosea plant, used by the Vikings), schisandra (the berry of a Chinese vine), sea buckthorn (a shrub), and tulsi (also known as “Holy basil”).

Other plants like turmeric and garlic, while certainly good for you, don’t have this desired effect and can’t be counted as members of this unique category.

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Not every adaptogen works the same way

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, an internationally recognized expert in natural and herbal medicine, defines adaptogens as members of “a certain class of herbs that basically help the body adapt to stressful situations and environments, predominantly by working through the adrenal glands.”

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That said, while this is the basic role of an adaptogen, not every member of this class works in the same way. Some adaptogens, like rhodiola and ginseng, help energize the body and are great for people who often feel lethargic and fatigued. (Here are 7 foods that wake you up better than a cup of coffee.) Others, like astragalus, help fortify the immune system against viruses. Still others, like maca, have been proven in clinical studies to help boost the libido.

Dr. Low Dog recommends ashwagandha for those worn out, frazzled feelings that perturb so many of us. “Ashwagandha is so nice, I think, for Americans, because it’s the only really, truly sedating kind of adaptogen that we have, meaning that it’s very, very calming.”

Related: Ashgawada, The Ancient Herb That Counters Stress

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Not every adaptogen will work for you

Of course, the fact that each adaptogen works differently means that different adaptogens will be right – or wrong – for different people.

“It’s interesting how these plants are almost made for certain people,” Dr. Low Dog says. “Each one has a very unique kind of characteristic, and people – if you give them the wrong adaptogen – tend to feel kind of terrible. If you give them the right adaptogen, they feel great.”

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Some adaptogens can be harmful

As with anything, it’s always important to check with a doctor or herbalist before introducing new adaptogens into your daily routine. Not only can the wrong adaptogen exacerbate issues rather than assuage them, but some adaptogens can have adverse effects, for example ashwagandha, which has proven in some patients to encourage hyperthyroidism.

There is not yet much data in pregnancy, so pregnant or nursing women especially should speak with their doctor or midwife before adding adaptogens to their routine.

That said, for the most part, adaptogens are non-toxic, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, one of America’s foremost alternative medicine specialists. “There is always the possibility that an individual will experience an adverse reaction, but this is rare,” he says.

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You need to take them every day

Experts agree that adaptogens work best when consumed daily.

“The nature of an adaptogen is that it strengthens the body over time,” explains Low Dog, who recommends taking an adaptogen daily or nearly daily for six to eight weeks to see true results. As for how best to take them? The ideal way to consume adaptogens will differ for everyone.  Adaptogens can be taken straight, imbibed as a tea, or even cooked into recipes. (For easy and practical ways to take adaptogens daily, check out these 5 easy ways to include adaptogens in your diet.