Adaptogenic plants have long been celebrated in alternative medicine, but recent scientific interest in these natural supplements has revealed evidence for their nootropic-like benefits, including cognitive, neuroprotective and mood-boosting effects.
What are adaptogens?
In a nutshell, adaptogens are non-toxic plants that are believed by practitioners of alternative medicine to help create resistance in the body to physical, chemical, and biological stressors that may cause illness and disease. adaptogenic herbs have been a cornerstone of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, consumed in food, tea, or made into a supplement to treat a variety of ailments.
Medical and scientific researchers in the Western world developed an interest in adaptogens as early as the 1940s, when scientists were looking for supplements that would increase the focus and performance of pilots during World War Two. Since then, studies have shown that some adaptogenic herbs do have beneficial effects, particularly for things such as reducing anxiety, increasing mental alertness, reducing fatigue, and boosting mood.
What is Ayurvedic medicine?
Ayurvedic medicine, or Ayurveda, is an ancient alternative medicine system originating in India. It is based on holistic principles of balancing the mind and body by keeping the various “energies” that govern the body in harmony.
Though Ayurveda is considered pseudoscientific, many Ayurvedic medicines derived from plants and minerals have been observed over thousands of years to have health benefits. Scientific research into certain aspects of Ayurvedic medicine has provided evidence of the efficacy of many of the herbs and supplements used in the ancient healing system.
The most useful feature of adaptogens, however, is not their ability to treat any one particular health issue, but their potential to increase general stress-resistance in the body… Researchers theorize that adaptogens may have a similar effect on the body as exercise does – putting our system through a short-term period of stress in order to reap long-term benefits (just as stressing your muscles through weight training leads to your muscles getting stronger over time). Counterintuitively, our bodies respond positively to the right kind of stressors (such as exercise) by developing resistance which makes us stronger. Adaptogens appear to mimic this effect, leading to many positive long-term health outcomes.
To understand how this works, we need to understand how the body responds to stress. When our bodies encounter a stressor (such as a loud and sudden noise, or a threat of danger) our central nervous system kicks into gear and releases hormones to help us deal with that stressor (such as adrenaline). These hormones course through the body, kicking our senses into high-gear and putting us on alert (known as the fight-or-flight response). Exposure to long-term stress or repeated stressful situations has a toxic effect on our minds and bodies; causing severe anxiety and lowering our immune systems which make us more susceptible to infection and disease.
Counterintuitively, however, some stress, and particularly certain types of stress, have a positive effect by helping us build resistance to the negative types of stressors. When we exercise, our bodies respond to this “stress” by producing many of the same hormones involved in our response to negative stressful situations. However, once this initial spike wears off, our bodies continue to produce hormones such as testosterone and norepinephrine to help fuel and focus us during the period of physical activity. Studies have shown that the hormones produced during exercise have a positive effect on other stress hormones, such as cortisol, which is lowered during and after physical activity. By regularly subjecting our bodies to this type of stress response (i.e., regular exercise), we develop a resistance to the more negative stressors and become less vulnerable to the negative effects of many different toxic chemical, physical and environmental agents.
Some adaptogenic plants appear to have a similar effect on the body when consumed regularly through tea, food, or in supplement form. Studies have shown that adaptogens can actually expand the length of time that we’re in that “resistance” phase, resulting in an increased ability to strengthen our resistance to stressors long-term. The longer we can stay in the resistance phase (during which beneficial hormones are being released) the better our cells become at resisting stressors of all kinds. The science behind this is quite complicated, and still in the early research phase, but the basic process is thought to be something like this:
- A number of plants have adaptogenic effects due to the certain chemical compounds contained in the plant.
- These chemical compounds have an anti-anxiolytic (anti-anxiety, or relaxing) effect on our body’s defense systems (e.g. our Central Nervous System, which releases hormones when we’re stressed).
- This results in our bodies producing less of the damaging stress hormones and more of the mediating (or regulating) beneficial hormones.
- As a result, adaptogens help regulate our body’s endocrine (stress) response and in doing so reduce the damage from the hormones released during our own body’s defense reaction, making our response more efficient over time and increasing resistance to physical, chemical, or biological harmful agents.
This unique ability of adaptogens has implications for a range of health benefits, as being able to better regulate our body’s stress response and increase our resistance to harmful agents means that adaptogenic plants could play an important role in reducing anxiety and stress, better regulation of sleep cycles, increasing our ability to fight off infections and disease, as well as provide potential cognitive benefits.
There exist a great number of plants that may have adaptogenic effects, but it is important to note that most of the research into adaptogens is relatively new and as such more studies need to be done before we will be able to say with confidence which plants are adaptogenic and the specific benefits they can provide. However, a number of studies into several plants used frequently in ayurvedic medicine have produced evidence for many of the benefits we would expect to see.
Ashwagandha is probably the most-studied adaptogenic plant, with an ever-increasing list of clinical trials testing it’s anti-anxiety and neuroprotective effects. This fruit-bearing shrub is commonly consumed in powder or capsule form, and a growing body of evidence supports the use of this herb for a range of benefits such as reducing stress, regulating sleep, boosting mood, and improving male fertility.
Read our article about the benefits of Ashwagandha to learn more this incredible plant.
Neuroprotective effects, physical performance, cognitive effects.
3. Bacopa Monnieri
Anti-anxiety, improving memory, boosts brain function.
4. Rhodiola Rosea (golden root)
Reduces fatigue/increase energy, cognitive effects.
5. Schisandra Chinensis (magnolia berry)
Improves sleep, increases energy, reduces blood pressure.
More generally, nootropics aim to enhance brain performance, while adaptogens focus more on reducing physical and mental stress. However, they both have very similar effects.
This similarity plays in nootropics’ users’ favor since it allows for a strong potential for synergy and complementation. Combining two or more adaptogens into a singular nootropic stack could remarkably enhance cognition-boosting and stress-reducing properties. Try for example stacks with Citicoline and Rhodiola Rosea.