Adaptogens are herbs that aid our bodies in reacting to or recovering from both short and long-term physical or mental stress. Some adaptogens also boost immunity and overall well-being. Research shows adaptogens can combat fatigue, enhance mental performance, and ease depression and anxiety.
When we are stressed, our bodies go through what’s called general adaptation. GAS is a three-stage response: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Adaptogens help us stay in the resistance phase longer. Adaptogens stimulate our bodies to hold off the exhaustion.
Your adrenal glands secrete more than 50 hormones, including aldosterone (which helps regulate blood pressure), cortisol and adrenaline. Persistent stress caused by overwork, chronic inflammation or long-term illness can result in a common condition called “adrenal fatigue”.
“Cortisol is often the culprit for weight gain, especially around the belly area,” says Tara Nayak, a naturopathic physician in Philadelphia who recommends adaptogens to her clients. “When you reduce stress with adaptogens, you reduce stress hormones and hence their effect on weight gain.”
Adaptogens have the potential to help indirectly with other health issues, like pain, digestive concerns, insomnia, and more.
Our bodies can handle stress in short bursts. It is a hormonal response that is responsible for getting us out of scary situations. Stress is what is commonly called your “fight or flight” response.
Unfortunately, most modern-day stresses are ongoing. When your adrenal system remains in a constant active state, it throws your body out of balance. Constant stress can wreak havoc on your body, especially on your digestive system and energy levels.
Adaptogenic compounds help mitigate the stress response. They work to bring the hormones of your adrenal system back into balance and overcome adrenal fatigue. They can help with endurance during physical stress like exercise and return your body to normal when you’re faced with chronic stress.
Adaptogens offer several other health benefits, including:
- A boost for the immune system
- Support for managing a healthy weight
- Increased physical endurance and mental focus
- Reduction in discomfort caused by poor health
- Encouraging a balanced mood
Take stimulating adaptogens earlier in the day, before 3 pm, to align with the body’s natural rhythms. Calming adaptogens, like holy basil can be taken both in the daytime and before bed. They aren’t strong enough to have a sedative effect.
You can use adaptogens for a few days or weeks to get through a busy time at work. Or take them for a stretch of chronic chaos. Rotate the type of adaptogen you’re using after six weeks so that your body can benefit from the subtle differences among herbs. I like herbs from Moon Juice and Herb Pharm.
Ashwagandha is a native herb to Asia and India. While some adaptogens are stimulants, this is not the case with ashwagandha. It can be taken in the morning to boost your exercise routine and, when taken prior to bed, it can help you get a good night’s sleep. Use 100% ashwagandha root, free of fillers, additives and excipients, to ensure quality.
- Help your body adapt to stress by balancing your immune system, metabolism and hormonal systems
- Increase strength. It is excellent for enhancing athletic performance, endurance, and exercise recovery
- Protect your brain from oxidative stress
- Support healthy levels of total lipids, cholesterol and triglycerides
- Support optimal thyroid and adrenal function
- Reduce cortisol levels
- Restore insulin sensitivity
- Stabilize mood
Rhodiola is a perennial plant sometimes called “golden root”, “roseroot” or “arctic root”. It is a powerful adaptogen known to help the body maintain homeostasis and adapt to physical, chemical and environmental stresses. Rhodiola supports your nervous system, working as an antidepressant and has anti-anxiety benefits. It slows the enzymatic breakdown of neurotransmitters involved in mood and mental well-being, such as serotonin. Evidence suggests that rhodiola can raise serotonin levels by as much as 30%. Psychiatrists use it for treatment of mild to moderate depression.
Rhodiola is fast-acting and has been shown to improve symptoms of burnout. In a study, individuals suffering from burnout were given 400 mg of rhodiola rose extract for 12 weeks. They experienced significant improvements, reporting lower levels of emotional exhaustion, fatigue and exhaustion, and greater joy.
- Have potent anti-inflammatory activity
- Enhance nervous system health and cognitive function
- Protect against viral infections
- Improve male and female sexual functioning, reproductive health and fertility
- Enhance athletic performance and shorten recovery time
There are several different types of ginseng. American ginseng is a tan a gnarled root. It contains ginsenosides, which are thought to be responsible for many of its medicinal properties. In Chinese medicine, it is considered a “cool” and calming tonic. Asian ginseng is sometimes referred to as Asian or Korean ginseng also contains ginsenosides. According to Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng is a “hot” stimulant. Like ashwagandha, Asian ginseng impacts thyroid hormones. It contains properties that block production of excessive amounts of reverse T3.
Siberian ginseng is not a true ginseng and does not contain ginsenosides. Its active components are called eleutherosides, which are thought to stimulate your immune system. Like American and Asian ginseng, Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen that is traditionally been used to increase energy, stimulate the immune system and increase longevity.
Studies show that Siberian ginseng can help prevent or slow down the loss of motor function associated with Parkinson’s. It also has mild anti-depressive effects and is useful for insomnia, behavioral and memory problems. It increases oxygen utilization in the body.
Tulsi is also known as Holy Basil. This herb goes under a few names including tulsi, sacred basil and holy basil and can be found in tulsi tablets, tea, powder, and tulsi essential oil. Tulsi tea contains hundreds of beneficial phytochemicals. These compounds have adaptogenic and immune-enhancing properties that combat stress, support your immune system and promote healthy metabolism.
Take Pine Pollen for:
- slowing aging
- reducing fatigue
- boosting testosterone
- treating a variety of conditions, including colds, constipation, and prostate disease
- Leaves are rich in many important nutrients, including protein, vitamin B6, vitamin C, riboflavin and iron
- Rich in various antioxidants, including quercetin and chlorogenic acid. Moringa leaf powder can increase blood antioxidant levels
- May lead to reduced blood sugar levels
- Lower your cholesterol levels, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease
Maca mainly grows in the Andes of central Peru, in harsh conditions and at very high altitudes above 13,000 feet. Maca is a cruciferous vegetable and therefore related to broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale. It has a long history of culinary and medicinal use in Peru. The main edible part of the plant is the root, which grows underground. It exists in several colors, ranging from white to black. Maca root is generally dried and consumed in powder form, but it’s also available in capsules and as a liquid extract. The taste of maca root powder, has been described as earthy and nutty. Many people add it to their smoothies, oatmeal and sweet treats.
- High in carbs and rich in a number of nutrients, including vitamin C, copper and iron. It also contains many bioactive plant compounds
- Maca increases sex drive in both men and women.
- Maca can increase sperm production and improve sperm quality, thereby enhancing fertility in men.
- Maca can improve symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes and disrupted sleep at night.
- Supplementing with maca may improve exercise performance, particularly during endurance events.
- When applied to the skin, maca extract may help protect it from the sun’s UV rays.
- Some evidence indicates that maca, in particular the black variety, can improve learning and memory.
- A large prostate is common among older men and can cause issues with urination. Animal studies suggest that red maca can reduce prostate size.
Cordyceps and medicinal mushrooms, goji berries, licorice root, schisandra berry, turmeric all have adaptogenic properties. I will talk about these in future posts.
One of the most popular mushrooms is the shiitake (Lentinus edodes), which grows on decaying hardwood trees such as oaks, maples, chestnuts, hornbeams and ironwoods in their natural environment. They are also grown commercially.
A unique molecule in shiitake mushrooms known as lentinan improves your immune system, enhancing resistance against infections and helps to slow the growth of tumors. Rather than killing cancer cells directly, lentinan, a sugar molecule, instead enhances your immune system, which may help slow the growth of tumors.
Shiitake mushrooms were used in folk medicine for treating tumors, flu, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, weakness and fatigue. Shiitakes are loaded with vitamins, minerals and compounds, even though they are close to 90% water.
Compounds in these fungi were found to effectively treat or protect against:
- Cancer, including breast cancer, certain colon and bladder cancer cells, and tumors, inhibiting cancer growth and inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death, a good thing)
- Infectious diseases
- High blood pressure
- Heart and liver problems
There is also evidence of cognitive benefits, as people who ate mushrooms twice or more per week, compared to those who ate them less than once per week, were found to have a 50% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.
Some of the most dramatic benefits are for specific areas of your body:
- Bone health – Vitamin D in edible mushrooms helps absorb calcium, which helps strengthen bones. In fact, exposing mushrooms to ultraviolet (UV) light increases the vitamin D levels. An animal study found that mice fed UV-exposed mushrooms and calcium, compared with other mice deprived of vitamin D and calcium, exhibited higher bone density.
- Cancer-fighting properties – A review of five edible mushrooms – button, oyster mushrooms, maitake mushrooms, and shiitakes – revealed that they all share anti-cancer compounds such as polysaccharides, proteoglycans and steroids. Lentinan, a polysaccharide in shiitakes which can be used along with chemotherapy to improve survival rates even in advanced cases, reportedly activates your immune system to halt the proliferation of leukemia cells.
- Antimicrobial properties – One of the most concerning problems related to health care today involves the common use of antibiotics and resulting resistance. An example is tuberculosis, which researchers have found may be remedied by the antimicrobial properties of the lentinan in shiitake mushrooms.
- Dental health – A 2016 study notes a recent upsurge of interest in mushrooms, particularly shiitakes, as a caries preventive food. It notes a number of ways its compounds exert antimicrobial activity.
- Heart health – Several compounds in shiitake help lower cholesterol and may reduce your risk of heart disease.
The nutrients in 4 dried shiitake (15 grams) are:
- Calories: 44
- Carbs: 11 grams
- Fiber: 2 grams
- Protein: 1 gram
- Riboflavin: 11% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Niacin: 11% of the DV
- Copper: 39% of the DV
- Vitamin B5: 33% of the DV
- Selenium: 10% of the DV
- Manganese: 9% of the DV
- Zinc: 8% of the DV
- Vitamin B6: 7% of the DV
- Folate: 6% of the DV
- Vitamin D: 6% of the DV
In addition, shiitake contain many of the same amino acids as meat.
Most people can safely consume shiitake, although some side effects may occur. In rare cases, people can develop a skin rash from eating or handling raw shiitake. This condition, called shiitake dermatitis, is thought to be caused by the sugar in the mushroom that I mentioned above, lentinan.
In addition, using powdered mushroom extract over a long period may cause other side effects, including stomach upset and sensitivity to sunlight.
Some also claim that mushrooms’ high purine levels can cause symptoms in people with gout. Nonetheless, research suggests that eating mushrooms is linked to a lower risk of gout.
How to Buy
Shiitake mushrooms are often sold dried. Before cooking, soak them in hot water to soften them.
To select the best fresh specimens, look for ones sold whole rather than sliced. The caps should be thick with deep, white gills.
You will find them in the cooler of your market. They are tan to dark brown, with caps that grow between 2 and 4 inches.
How to Store
Shiitake mushrooms should be stored in a breathable paper bag in the refrigerator.
If the mushrooms you brought home were whole and unbruised, you should get up to seven days of healthy, dry-to-the-touch mushrooms before the mushrooms go slimy.
How to Cook
Shiitake mushrooms have a buttery flavor, which becomes rich and smoky when dried. Shiitakes can be sautéed in coconut or avocado oil, used as a sandwich filling and diced to use in soups, casseroles and stir-fries.
When cooking with fresh shiitake mushrooms, remove the stems, which remain tough even after cooking. Save the stems in the freezer for making veggie stock.
You can cook shiitake as you would any other mushroom. Here are a few suggestions:
- Sauté shiitake with greens and serve with a poached egg
- Add them to pasta dishes or stir-fries
- Add them to soups
- Roast them for a crispy snack or side dish.
Sticky Shiitake Mushrooms
- 1/4 cup coconut oil
- 2 cups shiitake mushrooms (thickly sliced & dipped in water)
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 cloves garlic (minced)
- 1 inch ginger (minced)
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 tsp cornstarch (mixed with 1/2 tsp water)
- 1/4 cup soy sauce – I use Tamari, a gluten free soy sauce
- 1 tsp Sriracha (more if you like spice)
- Put the Shiitake mushrooms in a bowl, pour in the cornstarch and stir them round making sure they’re well covered.
- Warm the coconut oil in a wok (make sure it’s nice and hot), pour in the mushrooms and fry them for 4-6 minutes (make sure they’re cooked through and slightly crisp on the outside).
- Take the mushrooms out of the wok, put them in a bowl and set aside.
- Turn the heat down and pour in the sesame oil (make sure the wok is clean – carefully use a paper towel if needs be)
- Add the garlic and ginger and cook them until you release the aromas.
- Add the brown sugar to the wok and stir it around until it’s caramelized.
- Add the cornstarch, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, stir them until the sauce has thickened slightly.
- Add the Sriracha and stir it into the sauce
- Pour the cooked mushrooms into the sauce and stir them around so they’re warmed through and completely covered.
- Serve the Chewy Mushrooms over basmati rice and garnish with scallions and sesame seeds.