Adaptogens 101: What They Are + How They Can Help With Your Stress & Fatigue

Adaptogens have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and we think they may just be the next big thing in fighting anxiety and insomnia. We're republishing this piece by Dr. Frank Lipman to give you a refresher on what they are, how they work, and which ones to check out.

Judging from the proliferation of coffee and cupcake shops popping up these days, clearly caffeine and sugar are what a lot of folks are using to try to fight back against stress and fatigue.

The problem is, these quick fixes don’t actually work. The crash is never far behind — so it’s back to Starbucks to start the cycle again, turning your day into a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. Fortunately, there are healthier ways to get through the day. One of my favorites is with adaptogens — herbs that help your body adapt to stress and resist fatigue. Please consult a trusted health care practitioner before making any decisions about your health.

Here’s my adaptogens-at-a-glance guide:

Adapta-what?

Adaptogens are a unique group of herbal ingredients used to improve the health of your adrenal system — the system in charge of managing the body’s hormonal response to stress. They enhance the body's ability to cope with anxiety slowly and gently, without jolts or crashes. They’re called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to your body’s specific needs. Though their effects may initially be subtle, they’re real and undeniable.

Where have they been all my life?

Adaptogens weren’t born yesterday. In fact, they’ve been used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Recently, several studies have found evidence to support what those of us in the sustainable wellness field already knew — that adaptogens offer positive benefits and are safe for long-term use.

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How do adaptogens work?

Adaptogens work a bit like a thermostat. When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high it brings it down and when the temperature is too low it brings it up. Adaptogens can calm you down and boost your energy at the same time without overstimulating. By supporting adrenal function, they can help counteract the adverse effects of stress and normalize body imbalances. They help cells eliminate toxic byproducts of the metabolic process, access more energy and utilize oxygen more efficiently.

Which adaptogens should I use?

The following are four adaptogen herbs I consider most important. You can take these adaptogens individually or in a combination formula (like my Be Well Adaptogens) but be sure to consult a doctor before you start taking them and pay attention to the cautions I've listed below.

Asian Ginseng

For thousands of years, Asian Ginseng has been one of the most valued (and most expensive) medicinal plants in the world. It has been studied extensively for its ability to help the body withstand stress and is believed to influence metabolism within individual cells. Western herbalists say that it restores and strengthens the body’s immune response, promotes longevity, and enhances the growth of normal cells.

Recommended dose: 100 to 200 mg per day of a standardized extract — most standardized ginseng extracts supply approximately 4 to 7% ginsenosides. Or 1 to 2 grams per day of the dried, powdered root, usually taken in gelatin capsules.

Caution: Ginseng is generally safe at the recommended dose, but occasionally it may cause agitation, palpitations or insomnia. Consuming large amounts of caffeine with large amounts of ginseng may increase the risk of overstimulation and gastrointestinal upset. If you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure should be monitored when taking it. Ginseng is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Eleuthero

Eleuthero is used in traditional Chinese medicine for muscle spasms, joint pain, insomnia, and fatigue. In Germany, its use is approved for chronic fatigue syndrome, impaired concentration, and convalescing after illness. Western herbalists note that it improves memory, feelings of well-being and can lift mild depression.

Recommended dose: 2 to 3 grams per day of the dried root.

Caution: As with Asian Ginseng, Eleuthero is generally safe, but has occasionally been associated with agitation, palpitations or insomnia in patients with cardiovascular disorders. If you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure should be monitored when taking it. I generally don’t recommend it for pregnant or breastfeeding women, even though limited research shows no evidence of harmful effects on the fetus.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. Like Asian Ginseng, ashwagandha is used to help increase vitality, energy, endurance and stamina, promote longevity, and strengthen the immune system. Today, herbalists often recommend it for people with high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and impotence associated with anxiety or exhaustion. It's been shown to enhance endocrine function, especially in the thyroid and adrenals. Ayurvedic healers have long prescribed the herb to treat exhaustion brought on by both physical and mental strain.

Recommended dose: 3 to 6 grams per day of the dried root

Caution: Avoid if you're pregnant, taking sedatives, or have severe gastric irritation or ulcers. People who are sensitive to the nightshade group of plants (i.e. potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers) should be careful when taking Ashwagandha as well.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola helps raise and lower the cortisol levels in your body as needed. What’s more, Rhodiola has demonstrated a remarkable ability to support cellular energy metabolism and positively affect brain function, depression, and heart health. In my experience, most patients who take rhodiola start feeling better within a few weeks to a month.

Recommended dose: 200 to 600 mg per day of a Rhodiola rosea extract standardized to contain 2 to 3% rosavins and 0.8 to 1% salidroside. Or 2 to 3 grams per day of the non-standardized root.

Caution: Avoid if you have manic depression or are bipolar. Rhodiola is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Although it’s unusual, rhodiola can cause insomnia at high doses.

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