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Adaptogens Are Up for Debate

Ancient Remedy or Modern Marketing?

the benefits of adaptogens

By Jessica Scarpati –

Life these days is tense. It’s no surprise, then, that more people are discovering the benefits of adaptogens—reputed to be nature’s little helpers in the battle against stress. These powerful plants and mushrooms have been used for centuries in Eastern medicine to promote calm and help the body better tolerate stressful situations.

Now, adaptogens are making a modern comeback in the form of herbal supplements to dissolve anxiety, powdered mushroom “coffee” for increased focus sans caffeine and alcohol-free tinctures that promise a booze-free buzz.

Adaptogens can affect how much cortisol is released in your body when you’re stressed. Less cortisol can mean less of a physical stress reaction,” explains the Cleveland Clinic. “As stress is connected to your nervous, endocrine and immune systems, it can cause physiological changes like an increased heart rate. Again, adaptogens can help how your body responds physically to stress.”

Some are already familiar with various adaptogenic substances, such as ginseng, a root that has been proven as an effective treatment for fatigue. Other popular adaptogens include ashwagandha, a shrub that has been shown to help treat depression and anxiety and reishi, an immune-boosting mushroom.

It’s believed that these plants and other substances interact with what’s known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a communication system between three glands in our bodies that regulate our response to stress. Time magazine notes “Adaptogens may do for your adrenal glands what exercise does for your muscles.”

“When we exercise, it’s a stress on our body. But as we continue to train and exercise, our body becomes better at dealing with the stress of it, so we no longer get as tired or as high a heart rate,” said Brenda Powell, MD, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, in an interview with Time. “[Adaptogens are] training your body to handle the effects of stress.”

This is all intriguing. But while companies hawking adaptogenic products make big promises, experts caution that there isn’t a ton of evidence to support them. That doesn’t necessarily mean their claims are false, but rather that adaptogens simply haven’t undergone rigorous scientific study in humans in the same way that, say, antidepressants have.

“Very often there is some science to back these claims, but the science is often not as definitive as we’d like it to be,” said Adam Perlman, MD, MPH, a physician and integrative and functional medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic, told The Washington Post. “Even though there’s a trial looking at ashwagandha or a particular mushroom that maybe has a particular physiologic effect, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily translate into a clinical effect.”

Modern use of adaptogens has also triggered some skepticism among experts. Whereas the cultures using these herbs, roots and fungi for thousands of years have incorporated them into regular practice, today’s consumers are most likely to use them inconsistently.

“If you’re putting a smudge of ashwagandha in your smoothie here and there, it’s unlikely to do too much,” New York-based nutritionist Lauren Slayton, MS, RD, told The New York Times.





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