Maca, Ashwagandha, and Reishi! Oh My! What Are Adaptogens?
By: Megan Perez, dietitian at Nourishing Minds Nutrition
The word “adaptogen” can be found everywhere in the wellness world these days: from my inbox to my instagram and all that’s in between! They are even being sold at some of my favorite local coffee shops and markets. But what is Reishi anyways? Here at Nourishing Minds Nutrition, we love utilizing well-studied supplementation in protocols, but we also enjoy incorporating herbs, spices, and other plant foods into our life (in a non-obsessive way, of course!).
Adaptogens are ancient herbs and plants that have been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese cultures for centuries. This term was coined in the 1960’s by a Russian scientist who was looking for ways to improve performance in soldiers at war and resistance to stressors. While most of you reading this may not actually be at battle right now, you have likely experienced excess stress at one time or another.
Let me start off by explaining that our bodies do have mechanisms in place to combat acute or short-term stress (our bodies are SO smart). Acute stress is actually normal and necessary! These mechanisms are controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system, and they work to maintain balance in our bodies. This means that they sense stressors and respond to them, usually by producing hormones. Consistent stressors or long-term stress on our body could lead to wear-and-tear on our adrenal glands and possibly end in poor health conditions such as anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, or heart disease. In order to prevent stress from causing health problems, I recommend developing stress management practices and coping techniques. Adaptogens could also be a tool to add to your toolbox, but are definitely not essential to maintain good health.
The word “adaptogen” is derived from the Greek language and means, “to adjust”. In 1998, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined an adaptogen as “a new kind of metabolic regulator that has been proved to help in environmental adaptation and to prevent external harms.” Over the last few years, more and more research has been conducted on adaptogens. We have evidence that these herbs do in fact improve our resistance to stress, and that they support our bodies in maintaining homeostasis. Adaptogens may lessen the negative effects of stress on our body, which can help prevent or reduce the likelihood of illness or disease caused from stress. There is even research supporting adaptogens on increasing energy levels, improving cognitive performance, and strengthening our immune system.
Adaptogens work by targeting our central nervous system, and they respond based on what our body needs in that moment. I like the example of a thermostat. The thermostat in your home senses when the temperature is getting too high, and adapts by turning on the cool air. When the temperature begins to go too far in the other direction, the thermostat responds by turning off the cool air. Adaptogens can both calm you down and provide you with energy. There are several different types of adaptogens, and each one has unique properties that contribute to different effects and results. They work on our hormones that are involved in HPA axis regulation, and they also work on molecules that play a role in our inflammatory response. There are some adaptogens I recommend to clients in therapeutic doses for help with hormonal regulation. I also personally love incorporating adaptogens on occasion into my morning and nighttime routines.
Here are a few of my favorite ones:
Ashwagandha – This herb has been shown to reduce stress in adults. It is primarily used to improve our body’s stress response, but may also play a role in improving cognition and psychomotor function. I like to occasionally add this powder to my matcha lattes or smoothies in the morning.
Maca – This root can help your body adapt to stressful situations that may be depleting your hormone production. It is commonly used for combating low energy levels, low sex drive, mood swings and depression, and PMS symptoms. Maca has estrogenic properties.
Reishi – This mushroom is packed full of antioxidants. It has been studied for its anti-cancer effects, and it may even help reduce symptoms of PCOS. I love drinking the Four Sigmatic reishi hot cacao mix in the evenings to help promote relaxation and sleep.
Holy Basil – This herb can support a healthy adrenal response and hormonal balance. It has been shown to support glucose metabolism and liver detoxification, both of which are important for easing PMS symptoms. Some refer to this herb as “liquid yoga” because it leads to feelings of calmness.
Taking adaptogens is generally safe and may ease hormonal symptoms while reducing the negative effects of stress on your body; however, it is always important to investigate the root cause of your stress. Masking symptoms is not helpful in the long term. It may be beneficial to work with a professional to help you determine the root cause of your symptoms. Adaptogens are not miracle potions, and they will not work on their own. I recommend addressing hormonal issues first, and then incorporating these in (if you decide) as a supportive addition. At the end of the day, if food or supplements are causing you stress, they are not healthy! If you are ready for gentle nutrition, feel free to do you research, experiment, and have fun with adaptogens!
A note from Victoria: We love using adaptogens as part of a gentle nutrition approach and also targeted supplementation for holistic healing. Please keep in mind we will not share dosage, time of day, recommendations in blog posts as this is highly individualized. Please find an educated health care provider to work with if you need more advice on how to incorporate herbal supplementation into your healing plan.
Tell us: We love chatting adaptogens and other herbal supplementations! What further questions do you have about them?
Want to learn more?
We talk about adaptogens all the time on the Nourishing Women Podcast!