Adaptogenic herbs: Do these ancient healers really work?

Feeling frazzled? Instead of reaching for a caffeine hit or smashing a block of chocolate, maybe an ancient herb can help get you through the day.

Adaptogens may sound like the latest health food hype, but these traditional herbal remedies have been rooted in Ayurvedic and Chinese healing for hundreds of years.

And while clinical trials are still in the early stages, research is beginning to suggest they could combat everything from fatigue and mental exhaustion to stress and anxiety.

So, what exactly are adaptogens and how do they work?

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are non-toxic plants, herbs and roots that can be eaten, brewed into teas or tinctures, or taken as supplements.

They are believed to help the body adapt to environmental and psychological stress, explains naturopath and nutritionist Yvette Lee-Archer.

“Adaptogens help us adapt by restoring balance when things have gone off-track,” Yvette says.

“They modulate our stress response by stabilising adrenal, hypothalamic, and pituitary glands.

“For example, they can raise production of some hormones when your body is under-producing them, and they can lower hormone production when your body is over-producing.”

What are the benefits of adaptogenic herbs?

Clinical naturopath Helaina Lungu says because adaptogenic herbs contain a wide variety of phytochemicals, their therapeutic uses extend beyond stress relief.

“Adaptogens are used with conditions such as anxiety and adrenal exhaustion,” Helaina says.

“(But) they may also help to balance the immune system, relax the body, promote overall health and vitality, improve energy and fertility, and aid recovery from chronic illness or injury.”

There are dozens of varieties of adaptogens, but some of the main ones include:

Alma: Also known as Indian gooseberry, it’s high in antioxidants and Vitamin C and used to balance the neuroendocrine system and improve immunity and vitality.

Ashwagandha: One of the most well-known adaptogens, this root is used to calm the mind, lower inflammation, enhance immunity, stimulate the thyroid, boost iron and ease anxiety.

Cordyceps: This rare combination of caterpillar and fungus is used in Chinese and Tibetan medicine to improve energy, stamina, libido, endurance, sleep, liver and kidney function, and immune function.

Ginseng: Made from the root of the plant, this ancient Chinese medicine is used to treat a wide range of ailments, but recent studies have shown its efficacy in reducing stress and anxiety.

Lion’s mane: These white, globed mushrooms are believed to support brain and nervous system function and treat depression.

Maca: Sometimes referred to as Peruvian ginseng, this cruciferous plant related to broccoli is used to boost fertility, address hormonal issues, improve libido and balance adrenal glands.

Maitake: This Japanese mushroom can be consumed for taste alone, but it’s also believed to alleviate symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, hepatitis, hay fever, diabetes, PCOS, high cholesterol, assist weight loss and aid immunity.

Rhodiola: The root of this plant is used to treat stress and fatigue and help manage depression and anxiety.

Shitake: Due to its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, this mushroom is believed to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, and treat diabetes and eczema.

Tulsi: Also known as holy basil, there is now mounting evidence that tulsi can reduce physical, chemical, metabolic and psychological stress.

Are there risks in taking adaptogenic herbs?

Research into the full uses and risks of adaptogens is ongoing, so a cautious approach is always recommended.

A 2018 study found some common herbal supplements can interact negatively with prescribed medications.

Helaina says adaptogens, like most natural medicines, generally have a good safety profile.

“However, it’s always advised to discuss your medical history with a natural health practitioner or doctor prior to starting use,” she says.

Written by Dimity Barber.