Need a helping hand for facing life’s daily stressors? If the buzz surrounding adaptogens is to be believed, then these fatigue-fighting herbs could be just what you’re looking for.
Far from being new, their origins go back centuries with their roots steeped in ancient Chinese and ayurvedic medicine. “The term adaptogen was coined in the late 40s and refers to a substance or herb which promotes adaptation by the body to all kinds of stressors,” explains Shabir Daya, pharmacist, natural health specialist and co-founder of VictoriaHealth.com . “These could be physical, emotional or environmental.” From boosting energy levels to strengthening immunity to soothing sleep patterns, there’s an adaptogen fit for helping address a range of different purposes (more on that later though…). “Consider adaptogens as food for the body,” says Shabir. “Unlike medicinal herbs that you take now and then to counter a concern, adaptogens help nourish the body.”
They can be separated into two main categories. "Adaptogens are generally classified as being primary or secondary," he explains. "Primary adaptogens are the most well-known and most studied and include Siberian ginseng, schizandra and reishi. Secondary adaptogens such as ashwagandha tend to have some normalising effects but are not that well studied. Some other adaptogens include gotu kola which helps brain function and circulation."
Noticeably more holistic in their approach (particularly from a beauty perspective), adaptogens have also made repeat appearances on Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness website, Goop, having been highlighted by Functional and Integrative Medicine specialist Dr Frank Lipman for their anti-ageing, de-stressing and energising abilities. How can they fit into your lifestyle? “Adaptogens are useful in cases where high stress levels are an issue,” says nutritional therapist Zoe Stirling . “They can contribute to rebalancing and restoring the body as well as protecting it during times of stress.”
Could they have a place in your anti-stress artillery too? We took a closer look to find out more about their uses, benefits and how they work.
What’s their point of difference?
When it comes to supplements claiming to bring body and mind back into balance, one look at our supermarket shelves reveals that supplies are in no danger of running low any time soon. With so many on the market, what makes adaptogens different from the rest? “Unlike many herbs, vitamins and minerals, adaptogens can for example, help achieve homeostasis in the body whereas many herbs only produce an effect, e.g. stimulate the immune system, but cannot normalise an overactive immune system,” Shabir explains.“They basically allow the body to return to a normal state.”
How do they do this exactly? “Many of these specific herbs have an effect on the endocrine system which releases hormones in the body,” says Shabir. “Since all hormonal glands communicate with each other using hormones as chemical messengers, an imbalance in any hormone can result in an impact on all of the other glands. Adaptogens may perhaps work to restore endocrine balance and hence prevent other symptoms from arising. Generally speaking, adaptogens create wellness in the body rather than treating a deficiency or a concern.”
Do their benefits extend to beauty?
If our skin concerns are stress-related, then yes. “Generally they have health benefits which then indirectly may help with skin,” explains Shabir. “An example would be stress linked to skin health. By countering stress, one could improve skin health.” Such examples include stress-related breakouts and dark circles through lack of sleep.
“All and all, adaptogens are serious ‘skinside out’ team players,” explains wellness coach and Founder of Naomi’s Kitchen , Naomi Buff. “The body thrives and maintains optimum health when in balance and not in a state of stress and this extends to external beauty."
“Psychodermatology is a fast growing term that describes the connection between mind and skin and addresses the link between our emotional state, the body’s physiological response to our emotional state and the outcome of this response on our skin, body, health and wellbeing,” she adds. “Put simply, stress can have a negative impact on skin’s health, and adaptogens have incredible abilities to restore it.”
How should you choose your adaptogen?
Choosing an adaptogen primarily depends on the specific concern you want to address. “Each may have individual properties, although there is invariably an overlap,” says Shabir. “For example, astragalus strengthens immune function and has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Rhodiola regulates stress hormones and is an anti-fatigue and antidepressant. Ashwagandha, which is used extensively in ayurvedic medicine, is a calming herb and balances thyroid hormones and enhances energy.”
Can you mix your adaptogens? “You can indeed mix them because stress can often result in lowered immunity (not everyone, but some people may be stressed and be more liable to colds etc.),” says Shabir. “In this case, one could use rhodiola alongside astragalus.”
Is there anyone who should avoid adaptogens?
“There is an adaptogen for everyone however, each individual herb may have side-effects that are contraindicated with any conventional medicine that a person may be taking,” cautions Shabir. “The moral here is that it is best to investigate each herb individually since they each have their own effects.”
With that in mind, expectations should be managed accordingly. “Most adaptogens produce a positive effect on the body as long as you have studied that they are suitable for you,” says Shabir. “Some adaptogens are stimulating while others are calming. Stimulating adaptogens may include ginsengs while some like ashwagandha may be calming. It is important to differentiate which ones are suitable for each individual to get the maximum benefit.” Depending on your needs and prior health history, consult your doctor first to ensure your choices are conflict-free.
How can you incorporate them into your diet?
In many different ways. “Many of these adaptogens are available in powder form (think mushrooms), tea form and liquid forms as tonics,” says Shabir.
Top adaptogenic picks
Viridian Rhodiola Rosea, £29