If, like me, you love a good scroll through instagram, you may have noticed many high profile health and wellness gurus using adaptogens in their morning coffee, matcha or smoothie.
What are adaptogens? Are they right for you? And are they safe to self prescribe?
The driving principle of herbal medicine and naturopathy is to correct any internal dis-ease or imbalance, rather than treat specific symptoms. In other words, we aim to treat the root cause of any illness rather than “band-aid” symptoms.
Adaptogens are a wonderful example of this. They work to support the body’s resistance to physical, environmental, or emotional stressors (1). Essentially, they enable your body to naturally adapt to any ongoing stress.
If I’m completely honest I’m not really comfortable with the self-prescription of herbs. Even though they are natural they are a medicine, which means they may have unwanted side effects, interact with other medicines (natural or not), may not be safe for those with certain health conditions, and may not be appropriate for pregnant or breastfeeding women. I do understand that there are some very influential people out there in instagram-land, but please be mindful and chat with a naturopath or herbalist before using any herbal products. In saying that, I do love that herbal medicine is becoming increasingly popular, because herbs are magical. And adaptogens are a beautiful class of herbs that are generally safe.
Here are a few adaptogens that seem to be popular among wellness circles.
- Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) – Ashwaganda is a beautiful Ayurvedic herb. It’s the herb that I am seeing most of around the internet, and there’s good reason for that (if I had a favourite herb Ashwaganda would be up there, but choosing a favourite herb is kind of like choosing your favourite child). It’s very gentle, with a mildly sedative effect so is particularly helpful for those who are stressed and tired but also feel wired or overstimulated. Studies support its use in anxiety (2), stress, and in improving overall wellbeing.
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) – Astragalus has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 5000 years. It is said to be a herb that tonifies Qi (our life-force/energy) and blood, therefore is traditionally used after childbirth or significant loss of blood. It is most often used in Western herbal medicine for it’s immune tonifying qualities, but we also love it for its adaptogenic qualities. It is particularly useful for fatigue and raising vitality. Astragalus is generally safe, however is contraindicated in acute illness or infection (for example a cold or flu).
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) – Rhodiola is another favourite of mine and I’ve seen it work wonders for patients with fatigue. It’s more of a punchy adaptogen, and is great for stimulating the nervous system. It influences the level and activity of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine and studies support its use in depression (3). It is also great for enhancing mental and physical performance, reducing fatigue and improving sleep patterns, and supporting the body during intense physical or intellectual stress (4). Given that it is more of a stimulating herb it is not recommended to take this with other stimulants (so perhaps don’t mix this one in with your coffee or matcha).
- Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) – there are a number of adaptogens in the ginseng family, with Eleutherococcus being the most gentle (or only mildly stimulating). Studies demonstrate its effectiveness in reducing the effects of chronic stress, exhaustion and chronic fatigue, insomnia and depression. Given that it is a stimulant, I wouldn’t recommend this one for particularly sensitive folk as it may cause insomnia, heart palpitations and increased blood pressure.
- Medicinal mushrooms (Reishi, Chaga, He Shou Wu) – medicinal mushrooms are considered more of a tonic, whereby they support the function and energy of the whole body or body system. He Shou Wu is wonderful for the nervous system and supports energy; Reishi also supports vital energy and is useful in chronic fatigue syndrome; and Chaga is known as the king healer and is a strong promoter of energy and wellbeing.
Remember, please consult with a naturopath or herbalist before using any herbal products. If you have any questions, or feel that any of the above herbs might be useful for you please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
(1) Bone, K. & Mills, S. (2013). Principles and practice of phytotherapy (2nd). Sydney, Australia: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone
(2) Pratte, M. A., Nanavati, K. B., Young, V. & Morley, C. P. (2014). An alternative treatment for anxiety: a systematic review of human trials reported for the Ayurvedic herb ashwaganda (Withania somnifera). Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 20(12), 901-908.
(3)Amsterdam, J. D. & Panossian, A. G. (2016). Rhodiola rosea L. as a putative botanical antidepressant. Phytomedicine: An International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology, 23(7), 770-783.
(4) No author listed (2002). Rhodiola rosea, Monograph. Alternative Medicine Review, 7(5), 421-423.