Adaptogens: Do they really work?


By Leanne McCrate



Dear Dietitian,

I’ve heard of herbs called adaptogens that supposedly help with stress. I’m in danger of losing my job because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I thought things would be back to normal by now! Do these adaptogens really work?

John

Dear John,

These are stressful times, especially with the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. Many people have lost their jobs or have been furloughed. What was once a tight budget is now having trouble putting food on the table. Relationships may be strained as a result of financial pressures.

Adaptogens are a group of herbs that support the body’s ability to adapt to varying physical and emotional stressors. Adaptogens are considered to be regulators and supporters of the stress response system. In doing so, they help modify and regulate hormone production and flow.

When we encounter stress, our bodies go through a series of physical and emotional responses. If a situation is dangerous, we have a “fight-or-flight” response, so-called because it is an instinctive survival mechanism. Unfortunately, our bodies can overreact to other types of stress. Prolonged stress has harmful effects on your health, as it may contribute to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and addiction. Long periods of stress can even affect our immune systems.

Panax ginseng, Rhodiola, and Ashwagandha are examples of adaptogens. Panax ginseng labels claim to promote energy, stamina, and endurance while supporting cognitive function and memory. However, study results are conflicting. In a study of 112 healthy adults, 400 mg of Panax ginseng per day for eight weeks resulted in better and faster simple reactions and abstract thinking but no change in concentration or memory. A randomized, controlled study of 384 postmenopausal women found that consuming Panax ginseng for 16 weeks brought significant improvement in symptoms of depression and general well-being (1).

Ashwagandha is a small evergreen shrub that grows in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. Its name comes from the Sanskrit language, meaning “the smell of a horse,” which implies the herb may give one the vigor and strength of a stallion. In a well-designed study of 64 adults, Ashwagandha was effective in reducing stress and anxiety and improving general well-being (2).

Rhodiola is used in traditional medicine in Eastern Europe and Asia as a stimulant to improve performance and to reduce fatigue and depression. In a high-quality research study of 60 participants, those who received Rhodiola exhibited increased mental performance, particularly in the area of concentration (3).

While the above adaptogens are considered safe, some people should avoid them. Included in this group are: those who take insulin or blood thinners; people who take antidepressants; those who drink alcohol beyond moderation; and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Always talk to your doctor before beginning a supplement regimen.

Until next time, be healthy!

Dear Dietitian

Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, CNSC, is an award-winning dietitian based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her today at deardietitian411@gmail.com. Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs, or diet plans.

References

1. Kiefer D, Pantuso T. Panax Ginseng. Am Fam Physician 2003 Oct 15;68(8):1539-1542.

2. Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty, S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwaganda root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul-Sep;34(3):255-262. doi 10.4103/0253-7176.106022

3. Olsson EM, von Schéele B, Panossian AG. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta Med. 2009;75(2):105-112. doi:10.1055/s-0028-1088346

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By Leanne McCrate

Leanne McCrate is an award-winning dietitian based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate the public on sound, evidence-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her at deardietitian411@gmail.com.

Leanne McCrate is an award-winning dietitian based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate the public on sound, evidence-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her at deardietitian411@gmail.com.