Browse through your Instagram feed these days, and you'd think that everyone–from your friends to colleagues, to family members–was adding 5 different powders (captioned as 'adaptogens') to everything they consumed. What's the deal with that? But perhaps the more pressing question in your mind is, 'What the f- are adaptogens, anyway?'
Let’s clear things up with this article.
What are adaptogens?
While you may just be hearing about adaptogens for the first time recently, they’ve been a part of Ayurvedic, Chinese, and alternative medicines for centuries.
They are a class of non-toxic plants–including mushrooms, herbs, and roots–that theoretically ‘adapt’ to what your body needs and help protect against various stressors (sickness, fatigue, etc.)
That said, because of how many adaptogens there are, each one does something different in the body. But the general idea remains the same: they all help your body handle stress.
How do adaptogens work?
But wait–as of now, it all sounds incredibly vague. How do adaptogens help your body ‘handle stress,’ exactly?
The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
See, when you face a stressor–be it physical or mental, your body goes through what’s called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which is a three-stage response:
Alarm – Familiar with the ‘fight-or-flight-response?’ That’s what’s happening here: your heart rate increases, your adrenal glands release cortisol (aka stress hormones), and you receive a boost of adrenaline, which increases energy.
Resistance – Here, your body releases a lower amount of cortisol, and your heart rate and blood pressure begin to normalize. Although your body is in a recovery state, it remains in high alert for a while. If the stressor is still present, your body will stay in the resistance stage; and when not resolved for an extended period, you'll enter the exhaustion stage.
Exhaustion – Struggling with stress for long periods can drain your mental and physical resources to the point where your body no longer has the energy to fight stress. Signs of exhaustion include burnout, depression, and fatigue.
Adaptogens help you, well, adapt to stress
Here’s the answer to your question.
Adaptogens help you stay in the resistance stage for longer, via a stimulating effect that holds off the exhaustion stage. So, instead of crashing right in the middle of a stressful task, event, or moment, you can attain equilibrium and soldier on.
Ultimately, adaptogens do not impact your experience of stressful events, but rather, they improve the way your body responds physically to stress.
Through helping your body better adapt to stress, adaptogens enable you to perform better and feel better–despite what’s stressing you out in the first place (i.e. an upcoming deadline, relationship problems, or that race you signed up for without preparation).
Which adaptogens are best?
As mentioned previously, adaptogens all work a little differently, so you might want to do your research before blindly copying your colleague’s morning blend! Just in case, you know, they’re using adaptogens to help with something you don’t need any more help with.
To help kickstart your search, here are five popular adaptogens, and their respective health benefits:
Nonetheless, it’s always crucial to remember that adaptogens aren’t a cure-all, nor a substitute for healthy habits (like getting in enough sleep or taking good care of yourself). Use them as they’re meant to be: as supplements.