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Stress-Fighting Foods: What are Adaptogens?

08/26/2021

Stress is commonplace in our society. Whether it’s financial troubles or health concerns, Americans deal with stress every day. This normal physical response has been amplified more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 80 percent of people say the pandemic has caused significant stress in their life and an additional 67 percent say they have experienced more stress during COVID, according to the American Psychological Association.

With more stress comes an increased sense of urgency to find stress-relieving remedies, ranging from calming activities to breathing routines. Many people also turn to foods and herbal supplements, such as adaptogens, to help fight stress for them. But do these plants really work and should you try them? We will answer these common questions and provide you with information about side effects and risks to consider.

 

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are plants or herbs that are designed to increase your body’s ability to deal with stress. In other words, adaptogens help your body “adapt” to external stressors that can impact your health.

While adaptogens have increased in popularity with a movement toward organic, whole foods and natural medicinal practices, the term dates to 1947. In fact, the concept of using adaptogens for health purposes existed thousands of years ago in India. Ayurveda, a natural type of medicine, used plants, oils and spices for various treatment methods.

All adaptogens have three commonalities: they must be nontoxic at normal doses, they should help your ability to cope with stress and they should help the body return to a state of homeostasis.

Research on adaptogens is limited, although its proponents view adaptogens as a way to train your body for the stress endured daily. More specifically, one theory revolves around how adaptogens affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates the stress response, metabolism and immune system responses. By influencing the HPA axis, the belief is these adaptogens keep your stress levels in a more neutral state.

Despite its claims of stress-reducing properties, the FDA has not approved the use of adaptogens — and therefore doesn’t regulate them — as a therapeutic treatment or as a substance that meets the criteria for medical use. This is a way of the FDA saying it’s unclear if adaptogens can cure or prevent any illnesses or ailments. Instead, adaptogens are considered dietary supplements, which don’t require as much oversight as prescription medications.

List of adaptogens and their benefits

Adaptogens come in many forms. Some can be eaten with meals, while others are too bitter to be consumed whole. As a result, many companies have marketed adaptogens as teas or tinctures (concentrated extracts of herbs soaked in water). Others come in powders that you can add to smoothies.

There are dozens and dozens of plants and herbs that are considered adaptogens. Here are some of the more common adaptogens and their potential benefits: 

Ginseng

A popular herb among tea drinkers, ginseng comes in two forms as an adaptogen: Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). In animal studies, ginseng improves stamina and may also boost the immune system. Side effects include high blood pressure and tachycardia (rapid or irregular heartbeat).

Eleuthero

What used to be known as Siberian ginseng is now known as eleuthero to avoid confusion. Herbalists claim eleuthero can give you energy while also helping you sleep. Side effects can include mild drowsiness, anxiety and irritability. The use of eleuthero can impact people who have pre-existing cardiovascular health issues. 

Schisandra 

In various smaller studies, this fruit extract from a berry found in Asia was said to have some positive effect on liver conditions, stomach disorders, fatigue and sleep. Schisandra is also known as a five-flavor berry as an ode to the five flavors of traditional Chinese medicine: sour, bitter, sweet, salty and pungent. The fruit can cause digestive issues such as heartburn, upset stomach, decreased appetite and stomach pain.

Ashwagandha 

Ashwagandha comes from the root of an evergreen shrub found in parts of Africa and Asia. It has calming properties instead of a stimulating effect. Some proponents claim ashwagandha can help regulate cortisol levels, thus controlling stress. Chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to a litany of health problems, ranging from cardiovascular problems and weight gain to anxiety and depression. The most common side effects of ashwagandha impact the digestive system, including diarrhea, upset stomach and nausea. People with hyperthyroidism should avoid taking this adaptogen. 

Rhodiola 

In traditional Eastern medicine, this plant root is a stimulant used to reduce mild anxiety, depression and fatigue due to stress. You shouldn’t take rhodiola if you’re already prescribed high blood pressure medications, antidepressants or other central nervous system drugs. Side effects include dizziness and dry mouth.

Tulsi (Holy basil)

Similar to the basil you use for culinary dishes, tulsi is a fragrant herb from Asia that produces purple flowers. The chemicals in holy basil, which is spicier and more bitter than traditional sweet basil, are thought to lower stress levels. Holy basil could worsen symptoms for people with hypothyroidism and may also interfere with diabetes medications. It may also cause your blood to clot more slowly, especially when combined with other drugs that slow blood clotting.

Astragalus

The root of this plant may boost your immune system, while increasing stamina and strength. Side effects may include fatigue, headache and low blood pressure. Astragalus can interfere with drugs that suppress the immune system.

Cordyceps

This is a fungus that grows on caterpillar larvae in China. The fungus is hard to cultivate, so the cordyceps found in dietary supplements can be grown in a laboratory. In lab tests, cordyceps has been known to help stimulate immune system cells and is known for its calming effects. Because it can cause bleeding issues, you should avoid taking cordyceps if you’re on blood-thinning medications.

Reishi mushroom

This Asian mushroom has plant sterols, which block cholesterol from being absorbed. It can also help stimulate the immune system and may also assist in improving adrenal gland function to reduce stress. Avoid taking reishi mushrooms if you are on blood thinners or are immunocompromised. Side effects include nausea and insomnia.

 

Foods that cause stress

Aside from adaptogens and other foods that may be beneficial in fighting against stress, there are also other foods to avoid that can cause stress.

There is a direct connection between foods and your emotional state — 90% of neurotransmitter serotonin receptors are in the gut. Gut bacteria play an important role in your microbiome, and any disruptions can lead to increased stress.

In addition, processed foods full of sugar and sweeteners create an inflammatory response. Those same foods also cause constant blood sugar spikes that can affect your emotions and mood. This explains why the symptoms of a sugar rush — the high followed by a sudden crash — can mimic a panic attack.

The simple answer is to cut back on sweets, sugary drinks and other processed meats that contain sugar and sodium. Swap out these foods for fruit, vegetables, plant-based proteins and more fish. A study from 2018 found a healthy diet, more specifically the Mediterranean diet, or avoiding a diet high in foods that cause inflammation, can help protect against depression.

 

Consult your doctor before trying adaptogens

The broad nature of adaptogens make it difficult to know which herbs, plants or supplemental mixes are right for you. It requires an extensive knowledge of how each plant works and how it may interact with a particular individual based on their medical history.

With that in mind, consult your primary care physician before trying any adaptogens. Certain supplements can negatively interact with prescriptions you take. They may also cause various side effects, especially if taken in higher doses. Some adaptogens affect your hormones, so avoid using any of these substances if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Here is a list of additional foods to avoid if you’re breastfeeding.

Since dietary supplements aren’t subjected to strict regulation, drug manufacturers can market their products without oversight. Be wary of any adaptogens marketed as supplements that can cure your anxiety or depression. There are limited studies of the effects of adaptogens and more research is needed.

For example, several drug manufacturers found themselves in hot water with the FDA for claiming certain adaptogens could help treat or prevent COVID-19. One company falsely marketed ashwagandha and echinacea as two herbal supplements that could help treat COVID. Another company incorrectly claimed that adaptogens, such as ginseng and ashwagandha, could mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose or cure COVID-19.

In addition to discussing dietary supplements with your doctor, check the labels of products you intend to buy for United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) seals.

 

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