If you consider yourself health-conscious—you take your vitamins, eat your greens, post your smoothies to Instagram—chances are you’ve heard of adaptogens. The term has been making the rounds a whole lot on social media these days, though adaptogens are hardly new. Read on to learn about the trend and if it’s right for you.
What Is An Adaptogen?
An adaptogen is a type of substance that helps the body respond and adapt to stress. According to a review published in Pharmaceuticals, adaptogens help our bodies maintain homeostasis (a.k.a. balance) and lessen the effect of stress on our hormones and immune system. They may have both short-term (think performance under pressure) and long-term (think vitality and energy) impact.
“These compounds mediate the effects of stress-related hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can cause increases in appetite and body fat, and changes in energy levels, memory, and sleep quality,” explains Brian Tanzer, M.S., C.N.S., nutritionist and manager of scientific affairs for The Vitamin Shoppe.
How exactly do these substances work? Researchers believe it comes down to their molecular structure. Adaptogens are very similar to other compounds that come into play when our body senses stress, according to the Pharmaceuticals review.
These compounds are found in certain plants, many of which are native to Eastern Asia. Perhaps the best known and most researched adaptogen is ginseng (Panax ginseng).
A study published in Physiology & Behavior, for example, found that healthy young adults performed memory and math tests with both greater speed and accuracy after supplementing with ginseng. Plus, a review published in the Journal of Ginseng Research suggests that ginseng may have a positive impact on both mental and physical work performance because of its support of blood circulation and neurotransmitter activity in the brain.
Related: The Many Benefits of Ashwagandha
A study out of Uppsala University in Sweden found that four weeks of rhodiola rosea supplementation significantly improved computer test concentration and performance, as well as the cortisol (stress hormone) response to stress in patients with fatigue syndrome.
Meanwhile, a study published in Phytomedicine found that 270mg of ADAPT-232 (a combination of Rhodiola rosea, Schisandra chinensis, and Eleutherococcus senticosus) significantly improved attention, speed, and accuracy on a cognitive test in participants with self-reported chronic stress.
Where Can We Find Them?
You can find adaptogenic herbs in extract form as powder, tablet, or capsule supplements. You’ll probably see terms like ‘ginsenosides’ on Panax ginseng labels, ‘rosavins’ on rhodiola labels, and ‘lignans’ on schisandra labels, calling out the superstar compounds in each of the herbs, says Tanzer. You can find supplements that are standardized for just these specific compounds or that contain the whole herb.
If you’re under intense stress, feeling fatigued, are in poor spirits, or are struggling with occasional sleeplessness, adaptogens may help to promote a healthy stress response and energy levels, says Tanzer.
Though the University of Maryland Medical Center recommends further research on the long-term effects of taking adaptogens, current studies have not reported negative side-effects with moderate supplementation. If you are pregnant or have any preexisting health conditions, though, talk to your doc before stocking up on herbs, says Tanzer.