If someone offered you an experimental supplement used on WW2 Soviet Union fighters to improve your response to stress and fatigue, would you take it? I will be honest—as a working parent who increasingly feels the effects of age, there are days when caffeine doesn’t measure up against my exhaustion, and combat-level solutions sound enticing. What the Soviets were serving their soldiers wasn’t as scary as one may think. They experimented with plant-based compounds called adaptogens.
Adaptogens are active ingredients found in plants and mushrooms and, for a long time, have been thought to improve how the human body deals with and adapts to stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression or an underperforming immunity. The Soviets became obsessed with the idea of performance-enhancing benefits of plants, and the defence ministry reportedly conducted studies, the results of which were kept a secret.
They got their inspiration to develop adaptogens for indefatigable soldiers from the Nanai hunters, indigenous to southeast Siberia. The Nanai used to munch on the schisandra berry to improve their night vision, ward off fatigue, and reduce their hunger while hunting and tracking sable all day.
India, too, is home to a few indigenous adaptogens (tulsi and ashwagandha, for example). Adaptogens have been part of Ayurveda practices for thousands of years, but have only recently exploded into the conventional wellness industry, touted as cure-alls or exotic treatments. Their purpose, dosage, benefits and drawbacks of adaptogens are often washed into the background noise of marketing jargon and excited influencer videos.
In response, particularly scathing articles such as The Problems with Adaptogens, published by McGill University, question the efficacy of the ways in which we wish adaptogens worked in comparison with how they actually do. This is a vital place to start the conversation—can we use adaptogens the way nature intended, or are we too impatient?
How adaptogens work
The chemicals in adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, according to the article What are adaptogens and the possible benefits of taking them, published by UCLA. The HPA axis is a messaging system within our bodies that initiates our stress response. Instead of blocking out the stressor, our bodies, with the adaptogen’s help, become better at handling it.
But not all adaptogens work exclusively on stress and anxiety levels. Some improve concentration, focus, alertness, or immunity. Other adaptogens help pep you up, some help calm you down, and some may even enhance your athletic performance or endurance. Adaptogens may also be able to tweak your hormonal production and physiological responses to stress.
Before you get excited and flock to the store to stock your shelves, it is worth noting that none of the adaptogens will work immediately. Some show results only after you have taken them in small doses for weeks at a stretch. And not all plants, herbs, and mushrooms classify as an adaptogen; there are specific criteria around what is and what is not an adaptogen.
To be an adaptogen, it must first be non-toxic at standard doses (which seems reasonable and relatively necessary), support the body’s response to stress, and help it return to homeostasis (no crash). There are plenty of adaptogens, but some of the popular ones which meet the criteria are Indian ginseng (Ashwagandha), Holy Basil (Tulsi), Schisandra, Rhodiola Rosea, Siberian Ginseng, Maca, Reishi, Lions Mane, Chaga and Cordyceps. You can take them as pills, powders, teas, or tinctures, making them relatively easy to consume.
Curb your enthusiasm
Although some promising science is out there explaining how the adaptogen interplays with an individual’s body to help improve its function, plenty of scientific discoveries must be made to back up the claims fully. This is where I will issue some caution because, even though adaptogens are derived from plants or mushrooms and look and sound innocuous, there is an impact on your body.
When anything impacts your body’s functions, there is a potential for an adverse effect. Although the direct side effects of taking an adaptogen are minimal and may be no worse than a bit of nausea or minor gastrointestinal issues, there is a potential for interplay between the adaptogenic nature of these plants and both homeopathic remedies and allopathic medicines. Some of the typical conflicts are hypothyroidism, hypertension, diabetes, and depression, so it is crucial to alert your doctor and discuss what adaptogens make sense to introduce into your diet.
Despite all the good that adaptogens can do, we must curb our enthusiasm and take them into our diet and lifestyle with caution and care. That’s because the benefits of adaptogens are not universal. What works for you may not work for someone else, so don’t let your friends and family “diagnose” you before speaking to your doctor. And if you finally decide to include an adaptogen into your diet, it’s worth doing some self-reflection to find out if any of your lifestyle habits are contributing to the problem. In this case, fix your lifestyle, and use adaptogens for what they really are—a supplement to an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
Jen Thomas is a master women’s coach.