We’ve all had those days that just don’t stop. On the best of those days, it can feel as though you’re riding an adrenaline-soaked high. On the worst, you’re happy just to make it to the finish line.
Either way, that adrenaline comes at a price. Your adrenal gland releases a huge amount of cortisol, a natural stress response that makes us a little more awesome, helping us supposedly evade a lion or weave through traffic by bike, car or foot (traffic: modern day equivalent of a lion?). Cortisol increases blood sugar levels, reduces the feeling of pain, enhances short-term memory (so you won’t walk back into the lion’s den) and pulls calcium from our bones.
While North American lions are few and far between, high-stress situations like money problems, tests and traffic jams are often longer-lasting, which means cortisol is continuously pumping. Imagine sneaky lions showing up every hour on the hour.
Wouldn’t that mean we’d get to be super humans more often?
Unfortunately, no. We end up physically and emotionally exhausted – the classic feeling of burn-out. Calcium really should stay inside our bones or we’ll start falling over like noodles. Excessive cortisol can also make us accumulate fat, struggle to think clearly and become sick more easily thanks to a depressed immune system.
Adaptogens are the body’s natural cortisol tonic – these superfood herbs and mushrooms help you adapt to stress or deal with it effectively. They work by either calming your adrenal system or preventing your natural stress response from activating in the first place. They’ve long been used and lauded by people in the places where each is grows natively, e.g. ashwaganda in India, ginseng in Asia and rhodiola in Siberia.
The best part is that adaptogens are meant to bring you back into balance rather than send you into a caffeine-loaded high to counteract adrenal fatigue. While some have stimulating properties, and might affect someone who doesn’t drink any caffeine at all, they’re much milder than coffee or even kombucha. They also often come with perks, including lowered blood pressure, improved concentration and increased libido. If you ever want to make a Malaysian saleslady laugh, just go into her dried goods shop with a significant other and ask what ginseng does.
- Maca: A great energy booster, this resilient root is sometimes referred to as Peruvian ginseng because it grows in the Andes. In addition to gently wiping away your morning sleepiness without coffee jitters or an impending post-caffeine crash, it can help you maintain balanced energy levels throughout the day. Other perks include increased fertility in men, reduced menopause symptoms in women and boosted memory function and ability to focus.
- Eleuthero: This powdered root is said to help with fatigue, slow metabolisms, cardiovascular performance and osteoporosis. In China, drinking a tea made from the shrub’s leaves is a common way of accessing the plant’s adaptogenic benefits.
- Holy Basil: This anti-oxidant also contains triterpenoic acids said to help manage the body’s stress response. Look for supplements containing all of the herb’s key active components and multiple extracts (alcohol, CO2 and distillation).
- Schisandra: This berry is native to China and Russia and is called the “five flavour fruit” because of its sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy taste. It’s said to enhance the immune system, improve memory and physical performance and increase energy.
- Astragalus Root: This flowering perennial is native to Mongolia, Korea and northern and eastern China. The root contains saponins, flavonoids and polysaccharides, which might improve immune response, prevent heart disease and have anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Licorice Root: This sweet herb, Glycyrrhiza glabra, comes from Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia. In addition to lowering cortisol, it’s thought to reduce heartburn, nausea, indigestion and hot flashes in menopausal women.
- Reishi Mushrooms: While there are six types of reishi, red reishi might best for boosting the immune system. It might also help with high blood pressure, insomnia and asthma.
Are Adaptogens Dangerous?
Generally, no, but it’s important to follow dosage information. Schisandra isn’t recommended for people with epilepsy or intracranial pressure. Ashwaganda is not recommended for people who are pregnant or have hyperthyroidism. And since maca resembles estrogen, it’s not recommend for constant usage, especially for people with certain cancers or endometriosis, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
While research is ongoing, even those not effected by hormone-sensitive conditions might be best taking a one-week break from maca after every three weeks, before starting to use it again. Other adaptogens might also be best when cycled in this way.
Where to Find Adaptogens (and Some Awesome Recipes)
We might be lion-free these days, but until the world is stress free, why not add something healthful and maybe even delicious to our diets? You can find adaptogens in teas, tinctures, tonics and supplements. Maca powder is commonly found in smoothie mixes and protein powders, where it adds a nutty taste. It also combines well with chocolate (adaptogens for dessert!), like in these great recipes:
- Iced chai maca latte
- Reishi chocolate cups from Natural and Nurtured
- Maca sweet potato fries
- Ginseng, cocoa, star anise and vanilla squares from Ascension Kitchen
- Chia pudding with ashwaganda and moringa from Chloe’s Countertop
Here’s to a calmer, happier you!