Adaptogens: Close to The Magic Pill

We just want the magic pill.  We want it so we can fall asleep, lose weight, get rid of headaches, aging, back pain, depression. But unfortunately, in order to succeed in any or all of the above, we need to do the internal work and the physical self-care needed. There’s just not One Pill to solve it all. But… It turns out, in the 1950s Soviet scientists were assigned the task to find substances that would increase efficiency in the military and production forces and stumbled upon some very interesting herbs from different traditions that help balance, restore and protect the body. They named them adaptogens. And although I don’t want you to use them ignoring your own needs and overwhelming your life with even more stress just because your body is more resilient, I do want to talk about them as an option to support life and find more relaxation in it. 

What exactly are adaptogens? During the Cold War, Russian scientists researched hundreds of herbs used in different folk medicines such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Indian Ayurveda and classified some as adaptogenic due to their capacity to increase resistance to stress, while improving concentration, performance and endurance during fatigue. Adaptogens have the ability to “adapt” their function to our body’s specific needs. For example, if someone is not producing enough of a certain hormone and takes a particular (or combination) of adaptogens, can see the hormone level rise. Another person can take the same herb because he/she is producing too much of that same hormone, the herb will adapt to the body’s needs and help hormone levels lower down. Pretty fantastic, right?

Adaptogens have an inner “intelligence” that help our whole body come back into equilibrium. They “help your body to cope more easily with the demands of everyday life, providing a sense of calm and energy at at deep level,” writes Aviva Romm, M.D. “They also help you to establish a new stress set point—reprograming your nervous system, boosting energy and relieving chronic fatigue, enhancing memory and metal stamina, improving mood, calming inflammation, regulating immunity, and helping to restore hormone balance.” 

Adaptogens don’t target a specific body part or region. Their effects at the beginning are usually subtle (so don’t expect coffee or sugar’s instant hit). The amount of time for effects to show varies depending on the symptoms you are trying to improve, finding the right dose and the right herb for you. It usually takes a few days to notice improvement in sleep, muscular relaxation and pain relief. If you are treating energy, mood, inner calm, sense of well-being and brain-fog relief, it might take a couple of weeks. If treating hormonal imbalances such as PCOS, infertility, or blood sugar, it might take at least 45 days to notice any changes in lab work (even up to a few months).

Adaptogens can be used for long periods, even up to 1 year. You can actually take them for as long as you are receiving the benefit. If the benefits wane, you can take a 2 week break and restart. If the same herb doesn’t work, you can try a different one or a blend.

Always start with the lowest suggested dose, and if after a few days you don’t experience any improvement at all, you can increase a bit at a time. We are all different, so be observant, aware of how your own body reacts, and adjust accordingly. Always ask your doctor before taking them, especially if you are taking prescription meds. Although adaptogens rarely react with other medications, don’t take them if you are taking blood pressure or immunosuppressive drugs, or if you are pregnant.

Long gone are the days when these herbs were of exclusive use within the Communist block. American capitalism is now banking on them with companies such as Moon Juice, Four Sigmatic, Gaia Herbs, Sun Potion and many more, marketing products based on different herbs and blends that can support some of our most concerning needs. I’m sure there are still many more adaptogens to be discovered and researched. There’s a whole revolution ahead!

 This is how a small health food store adaptogen section is looking nowadays....

This is how a small health food store adaptogen section is looking nowadays....

In order to select the best one for you, choose one that seems most specific to your needs. After a few weeks, you can combine them if you’d like to leverage their effects. Some companies, such as the mentioned above make very good quality blends, besides producing single powders, extracts, tinctures and capsules. 

Below find some great adaptogenic herb options, their uses, preferred brand (click to see and buy) and doses. There are many others such as licorice (great for digestive problems, strong anti-inflammatory, and wonderful to counteract severe adrenal exhaustion with low cortisol and low pressure—do not use if you suffer from high blood pressure), ginseng (energizing, glucose balancing), shilajit (great antioxidant, it is used for immunity, energy, memory, nerves and sexual health), mucuna pruriens (naturally rich in L-DOPA, a precursor of dopamine; a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers, regulate movement and emotional responses. Mucuna has been shown to be more effective than synthetic L-DOPA in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease treatment), but the following are the ones I use/recommend the most. Read carefully and select one that responds to what you’d like to improve upon. You can take them in capsules or in powder. All except medicinal mushrooms should be eaten raw (they can be added to hot beverages, but right before drinking and after turning heat off. Ashwagandha is better absorbed in hot liquids). You can add them to energy balls, teas, smoothies, etc... 

*ASHWAGANDHA

Origin: India (Ayurveda)

Used to help increase vitality, energy, endurance and stamina, promote longevity, and strengthen the immune system. It can improve high blood pressure, thyroid imbalances, sleep, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, chronic joint pain and arthritis, memory, and impotence associated with anxiety or exhaustion. 

Dose: Start with 2 (400mg) capsules a day for a total of 800g, but you can go up to 6,000mg

Caution: Avoid during pregnancy or if you are taking sedatives or if you have severe gastric irritation or ulcers. Also people who are sensitive to the nightshade group of plants (tomato, potato, chilli and bell peppers, tobacco, goji berries) should be careful.

ELEUTHERO (AKA SIBERIAN GINSENG)

Origin: China (TCM)

Increases energy and stamina, mental alertness and performance. Enhances immunity (especially viral), improves detoxification. Helps muscle spasms, joint pain, insomnia, and fatigue. It tends to work well for those whose sleep routine is affected, such as  people who work night shifts, very long hours, or have babies. 

Dose: 2-3 grams per day of the dried root.

Caution: Eleuthero is generally safe, but occasionally it has been associated with agitation, palpitations or insomnia in patients with cardiovascular disorders. If you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure should be monitored when taking it. Not recommended during pregnancy nor for people who suffer insomnia. Women with uterine fibroids, endometriosis, or breast cancer should avoid eleuthero. Take in the morning, not at night.

*HOLY BASIL (AKA TULSI)

Origin: India (Ayurveda)

It’s a gentle but effective tonic for the mind, mood and immunity. Improves energy, anxiety and mild depression. It is very motivating and protects from inflammation, and helps people experiencing nicotine withdrawal. It lowers blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol levels.

Dose: I love drinking a tulsi tea after dinner every night. It’s a lovely and healthy way of ending the day.

IMG_0366.jpg

*MACA

Origin: Peru (Quechua Indians)

Maca enhances mood, and improves anxiety, depression and vitality. It increases libido (for both, men and women) and fertility. It helps regulate hormonal imbalances and aids sexual disfunction in postmenopausal women. It is also used to treat menstrual and menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness.

Dose: 75 to 2,000 mg/day gelatinized.

Caution: Make sure you take it in the morning, as some people report insomnia if taken at night. Not safe during pregnancy. Note: in my personal experience, a few of my clients have had a strong and unpleasant digestive reaction to mama. Start with the minimum dose in gelatinized form.   

MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS (don’t take during pregnancy)

*Chaga: Compounds in this medicinal mushroom have shown to kill cancer cells selectively and stimulate the immune system. Chaga can also reduce fatigue and inflammation, as well as increase mental sharpness

*Cordyceps: A Chinese fungus used as a tonic and restorative. It strengthens the immune system and calms the nervous system. It improves athletic performance. It can be taken in capsules or drank as tea made from powdered cordyceps. To treat general weakness, take once or twice a day, following the dosage advice on the product. For health maintenance, take it once or twice a week. I’m a fan of Four Sigmatic’s Mushroom Hot Cacao Mix with cordyceps (although it contains a tiny bit of added coconut sugar, it’s barely sweet but very rich and chocolatey and infused with the mushroom extract)

Lion’s Mane: A culinary mushroom that can be found in powdered form and as capsules. It is believed to stimulate nerve growth and improve mild cognitive impairment.

Reishi:  Strictly a medicinal mushroom, not a culinary one. It can improve immune function and inhibit the growth of some malignant tumors. It also shows significant anti-inflammatory effects, reduces allergic responsiveness, balances blood sugar, and protects the liver. Supports adrenal function and detoxification processes. It calms the nervous system and can be taken before bed to promote a deeper sleep. You can buy dried, ground mushrooms and use them to make tea if you don’t mind the bitterness. Otherwise, buy reishi capsules, and follow the recommended dosage. Take reishi every day for at least two months to experience its effects.

Caution: avoid any medicinal mushrooms if you are allergic to mushrooms or if pregnant.

*RHODIOLA

Origin: Arctic Areas of Eastern Europe and China

This herb helps improve mental and physical performance, reduces fatigue, anxiety and depression. Rhodiola helps regulate cortisol (one of the main stress hormones) levels. 

It strengthens the immune system, it is used in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and stress headaches. It boosts libido and fertility, and helps improve disordered eating. A study suggested that it might aid in weight loss. Rhodiola regulates mood, supports the nervous system, reduces stress and improves sleep. However, it is a stimulating herb, so it should not be taken before bed. 

Dose: 100 to 400mg in capsules

Caution: Take in the morning. Avoid if you suffer from bipolar depression with manic behavior and if pregnant.

SCHIZANDRA

Origin: China (TCM)

Schizandra has a calming, anti anxiety effect, and at the same time improves mental focus. It supports the liver and due to its rich antioxidant activity, protects from cellular and genetic damage. It can have a blood sugar regulating effect and might help reverse the resistance of tumors to chemotherapy drugs. 

Dose: 2 to 4 capsules/day

SHATAVARI

Origin: India (Ayurveda)

It’s considered a rejuvenating and hormone balancing tonic for women, but also supports men’s reproductive wellness. Shatavari is great for improving irritability and mood/emotional symptoms related  to hormone imbalances, as well as vaginal dryness, low libido, and sleep problems during PMS, perimenopause or menopause. It increases fertility, breast milk production, and improves insulin secretion and cholesterol levels.

The most common Ayurvedic practice is to use the powder form because tasting the herb starts the digestive process.

Dose: 500 to 1,000 mg twice daily 1 to 2 teaspoons).

Caution: Avoid if there’s a history of estrogen-receptive-positive cancer

*My personal faves

Adaptogen Mexican Chocolate Energy Balls

IMG_0376.jpg

Makes about 16 (1-inch dm) balls

1/3 cup raw, unsalted nut (almond, walnut, cashew, etc) or seed (sunflower, tahini) butter

1/4 cup flax or chia seeds, ground

2 tablespoons Shore Magic marine collagen, or protein powder

1/2 teaspoon ashwagandha powder

1/2 teaspoon maca powder

1/2 teaspoon cordyceps or chaga powder

2 to 3 teaspoons raw cacao powder

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon canela (Ceylon cinnamon)

1/4 teaspoon vanilla powder

2 tsp pure maple syrup or raw honey

pinch Himalayan or sea salt

1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut or cacao nibs, for topping

METHOD

1. In a medium bowl mix with a fork nut/seed butter, seeds, collagen/protein, adaptogens, cacao, spices, maple syrup and salt, until well combined.

2. Grab a small piece (about 2 tsp) dough and press it in while you roll it into a ball in the palm of your hands. Repeat with remaining dough.

3. Pour coconut or cacao nibs (topping) into a small bowl. Roll the balls in topping until fully coated. Repeat with remaining balls and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. 

Enjoy!

Brain Food Latte (or chai, if spices are added)

IMG_0379.jpg

Makes 1 serving

1 teaspoon lion’s mane powder

3 tablespoons unsweetened, full fat coconut milk

1 cup filtered water

Pinch ground cardamom, optional

Pinch ground canela, optional

Pinch ground ginger, optional

Pinch vanilla powder, optional

1/2 teaspoon rhodiola

1/2 to 1 teaspoon raw (preferably unfiltered) honey, optional

METHOD

  1. Place lion’s mane, coconut milk, water, cardamom, canela, ginger and vanilla (if using) in a medium saucepan and warm over low heat for about 10 minutes or until warmed through. Stir occasionally. 
  2. Remove from heat. Add rhodiola and honey, of using. If you have a milk frother, by all means use it, and make your latte foamy! Serve and enjoy.