Over the years we have been bombarded with supplement after supplement, all of which have claimed to help us in some way. Whether it be fat burners, testosterone boosters, muscle gainers, etc. we have all likely dabbled in the world of sports supplementation. These days, it is hard to find a supplement that lives up its hype. As such, many of us hold a healthy skepticism for the efficacy of any new supplements that hit the market. This skepticism is even more profound when it comes to herbs and supplements used in “western” medicine. As such, many people have been highly doubtful about the usefulness of a class of supplements known as Adaptogens.

These substances have long been used in other parts of the world as cognitive, stress, and immune system modulators. They also hold excellent reputations among holistic practitioners as health and longevity promoting compounds. But of course, our system of validation gives little weight to anecdotal evidence. It’s great and all that adaptogens seem to have helped many people feel better, but is there any real science to these claims? As it turns out, scientists have been studying their effects for quite some time now. It may surprise you to find out that certain adaptogens do seem to deliver on the claims that have been made about them.

 

What Are Adaptogens?

Some of you may have heard the term “food is medicine” at some point in your life. In this case, that term is taken quite literally. Adaptogens are essentially plants and herbs that have a marked impact on the body usually related to stress adaptation, mood, or immune function. Generally speaking, these adaptogenic herbs are non-toxic and are meant to impart only beneficial effects on the body. In other words, they should not do any harm to us upon ingestion. Their name was coined by a Russian toxicologist named N.V. Lazarev. In naming them, Lazarev meant to imply that these substances have a non-specific effect on the host, although they tend to enhance our ability to deal with stress.

As was implied by Lazarev, these herbal compounds don’t actually have a specific effect on our physiology. Instead, they sort of enhance or inhibit different systems depending on the status of the individual. For example, if you are highly stressed, they will work to decrease your stress response and perhaps lower cortisol. On the other hand, if you are enjoying a period of low stress, they will simply aid in keeping you level. As is apparent in their name, these herbs seem to “adapt” to whatever situation is present in the body.

 

How Do They Help?

As stated above, adaptogens are most famous for their purported influence on stress response. It was hypothesized that these herbs are effective in decreasing our sensitivity to stressors in our environment. By helping us be less reactive, they effectively lower our stress response and overall stress. Indeed, several studies have shown that adaptogens have a significant impact on our levels of cortisol [9][12]. This is, of course, our chief hormone related to stress. A lower circulating level of cortisol is well accepted as a sign of lower overall stress levels, but the impact that adaptogens have on cortisol isn’t the only evidence that we have for their protective effects. Mechanistically, these adaptogens seem to stimulate the expression of Heat Shock Proteins and the FOXO1 pathway [11]. This leads to enhanced repair of damaged cells, enhanced resistance to stress, and increased longevity.

These long term adaptations are already impressive findings. However, there have also been purported benefits in terms of short term improvements to cognitive function and physical function. A study was conducted which investigated the use of adaptogenic herbs on mental working capacity in 161 cadets. Results showed that the adaptogenic herb produced significant differences in mental fatigue and had a lowering effect on blood pressure as well [14]. Additionally, adaptogens have been found to increase time to exhaustion and VO2 peak compared to placebo after a single dose of administration [4].

Finally, certain adaptogenic herbs seem to have a profound impact on the brain by directly impacting neurotransmitter metabolism. Some have been found to directly inhibit acetylcholinesterase, which is the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine in the body [3]. This basically enhances our brain function and provides a nootropic-like effect. Additionally, certain adaptogenic compounds have been found to directly impact the release of other neurotransmitters such as glutamate and dopamine [15].

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