AdaptogensAdaptogens have been around for thousands of years in the Eastern world as a part of Ayurvedic medicine, which originated in India and is based on the concept that herbs, diets and other health practices could improve health. It is a major part of the Eastern health care system and is supported by extensive research carried out by academic institutions and governments. To sum up Ayurvedic medicine into a short article like this would not be doing the practice justice. Learn more about Ayurvedic medicine here.

Although adaptogens have been present for thousands of years in Ayurveda, the term adaptogen originated from a Russian scientist named Israel Brekham in the 1960s. The concept exploded in the Soviet Union.

Adaptogen is an intuitive word, as it translates to a substance that can help the body adapt. It is defined as “a nontoxic substance and especially a plant extract that is held to increase the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning.”

Adaptogens are known for their touted benefits of improving the body’s reaction to stress and helping well-being. However, like Ayurvedic medicine as whole, they are not widely accepted in Western (conventional) medicine.

Below, I am going to review three popular adaptogenic herbs and the research behind each one.

Three Popular Adaptogenic Herbs

According to the University of Illinois, an herb is often referred to as “any plant or plant part that has historically been used for medicinal, culinary or fragrance purposes.”

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha HerbAshwaganha (typically from the plant Withania somnifera), also known as “Indian Winter Cherry or “Indian Ginseng,” has been used in Ayurveda since its origination as a “rasayana” (rejuvenator). The term Ashwagandha means “horse smell” in Sanskrit, and is interchangeable among various species of plants depending upon location. It does not refer to the actual scent given off by horses but does refer to the power and strength of a horse.

The herb is typically ground to form a powder from the leaves and roots of the plant. It is sold in powder-form, capsule-form and liquid form.

Ashwagandha has been said to relieve multiple types of illness by improving the body’s response to stress. It has also been touted to improve cognitive function, prevent anxiety, have anti-carcinogenic properties, improve sexual and reproductive function and aid the immune system.

What does the research say about ashwagandha and stress relief?

A number of small-scale, rodent studies have found that ashwaganda increased endurance, helped adrenal gland function in relation to the secretion of cortisol and ascorbic acid and reduced the prevalence of gastric ulcers.

In the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 64 subjects with chronic stress were recruited to either take 600 milligrams of “high-concentration full-spectrum” capsules containing ashwagandha or a placebo. After 60 days of supplementation with ashwagandha, stress assessments were conducted and serum cortisol levels were taken from all subjects. The study found that subjects taking ashwagandha at 600 milligrams daily for 60 days reported a significant reduction in stress levels and displayed reduced serum cortisol levels.

A study published in the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that ashwagandha could improve physical stress. The study involved 29 subjects taking 600 milligrams of ashwagandha capsules daily for eight weeks while undergoing resistance training. The results found that subjects taking ashwagandha had “significantly greater increases in muscle strength on the bench-press exercise and the leg-extension exercise, and significantly greater muscle size increase in the arms and chest.”

A review study published in the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine screened 62 trials and five human studies met criteria. All studies showed improvement in anxiety and stress in participants taking ashwagandha, but the review concluded that results of all five studies needed to be taken with caution, as there was potential bias and varying study methodology.

Ashwagandha is known to be possibly safe for short-term use with small dosing in healthy, non-pregnant or breastfeeding individuals. Those with any medical condition should air on the side of caution prior to taking ashwagandha.

As I stated before, ashwagandha has been a topic of interest in research for quite some time, resulting in touted health benefits like stress relief. Most research, at least available to the Western hemisphere, involves a small subject size and varying methodologies. Could it be possible that ashwagandha does have health benefits, but Western medicine is reluctant to buy into it? Or maybe Eastern medicine research may not meet the criteria standards per Western medicine for conclusive research? Either way, I am looking forward to further conclusive clinical trials involving ashwagandha supplementation.

Astragalus

AstragalusAstragalus is a genus of plant (a part of the legume family) native to China and its root has been known to provide medicinal benefits. It is commonly known as “bei qi, huang qi, hwanggi, and/or milk vetch.” Astragalus is available in liquid-form, capsule-form, injectable-form and topical-form.

Astragalus has been known for its potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits for the common cold and other respiratory health concerns, treatment of heart disease, strengthening of the immune system, the reduction of the stress response in the body, lowering of blood pressure and helping to treat diabetes in Ayurvedic medicine. Research continues to be ongoing for the possible benefits of astragalus, and I am going to discuss what the research says about stress and astragalus.

 

 

What does the research say about astragalus and stress relief?

A rodent study published in the Korean Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology found that rats supplemented with Astragalus membranaceus at 400 milligrams per kilogram body weight displayed less stress-induced side effects on cognitive ability.

Another rodent study published in 2016 discovered that rats given 100 milligrams of astragalus per kilogram of body weight daily displayed reduced exercise-induced fatigue compared to rats who were not. This study was published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity and focuses more on how astragalus affects cellular processes involving energy production.

Astragalus is considered to be generally safe in small doses, but does interact with medications that suppress the immune system and contain lithium.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola RoseaRhodiola rosea, a part of the rhodiola genera and Crassulaceae family, was discovered thousands of years ago in traditional Chinese medicine and was also used in Scandinavia and Russia. It is commonly known as arctic root, rose root and/or king’s crown. It is available in capsule-form, dried powder and liquid-form.

Rhodiola rosea has been proposed to reduce the body’s response to stress and anxiety, boost athletic performance, alleviate depression, prevent cognitive decline, enhance the immune system and regulate blood sugar levels.

What does the research say about Rhodiola rosea and stress relief?

A review study that analyzed 10 randomized control studies found that over 50 percent of the studies that were reviewed supported improvement with mental and physical fatigue. However, the authors of the review study reported that “all of the studies exhibit either a high risk of bias or have reporting flaws that hinder assessment of their true validity.”

A small study supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) reviewed the efficacy of Rhodiola rosea compared to sertraline (a drug) in participants with mild-to-moderate major depressive disorder (MDD). Researchers found that Rhodiola rosea and sertraline displayed similar efficacy, and those taking Rhodiola rosea experienced less side effects.

A study published in Phytotherapy Research found that subjects who were supplemented with 400 milligrams of Rhodiola rosea tablets daily reported less stress, anxiety, depression and anger after 14 days compared to those who did not take the Rhodiola rosea supplements.

It is important to note that there is contradicting evidence on the possible health benefits of Rhodiola rosea. Like other research involving herbs, there are varying methodologies that may skew results.

The safety of Rhodiola rosea is unknown for long-term use in healthy individuals. Those who have medical conditions should consult their physician before taking Rhodiola rosea.

Are the Claims of Adaptogens Too Good to Be True?

Some websites boost herbal remedies in the context of curing specific diseases or disorders. Claims involving the curing of a disease are quite lofty and confusing to people who are looking for solutions. Please be careful when reading information about complementary medicine and air on the side of caution. If you are curious, speak to your physician about herbal remedies that could help a condition, and certainly do not stop taking medication based on information that you read on the internet.

Western and Eastern medicine can certainly work in conjunction, and I think there is a lot of work to be done on the relationship between the two different approaches.

 

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