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ADAPTOGENS EXPLAINED – Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola And The Science Of Stress Graphic © healthpowerboost.com. Background photo: Pixabay (PD)
With the hustle and bustle of life, it’s common to feel worn out and fatigued. As such, many people are looking for ways to manage their anxiety and stress—which might explain the proliferation of coffee shops. The problem is that a caffeine fix is followed by a crash and can subject you to a rollercoaster of energetic (and emotional) highs and lows.
Fortunately, there’s a supposedly healthier solution to managing stress. Adaptogens are gaining popularity for their potential benefits in reducing the negative effects of stress. Let’s get acquainted with the science behind how these substances work.
What Are Adaptogens?
As the name implies, adaptogens help the body adapt to stressors. One group of scientists defined adaptogens as natural bioregulators that minimize “the bodily response to stress, reducing the negative reactions during the alarm phase and eliminating, or at least decreasing, the onset of the exhaustion phase that is part of the so-called general adaptation syndrome.” 
Adaptogens may be enjoying new-found fame in the west, but as mentioned by Dorian Wilson in his comprehensive video explanation, they have in fact been staples in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for centuries. The term “adaptogen” itself was coined in the 1990s by scientist N. Lazarev.
It’s important to understand that the term “adaptogen” does not refer to a specific chemical. It’s more about how the substances affect the body. Adaptogens are non-specific, with widespread influence in many bodily systems. The effects of an adaptogen may differ from one person to the next—but they typically help your body cope with mental or physical stress. 
How Do Adaptogens Work to Counter the Effects of Stress?
According to a study published in the journal Chinese Medicine, adaptogens may help people suffering from hormonal imbalances, sleep problems, inflammation, and fatigue (mental and physical).  The researchers suggest that adaptogens may confer these health benefits through their influence on a process known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS).
GAS happens when your body responds to mental or physical stressors. There are three stages, namely:
That crash you feel during a stressful event may be a result of progressing to the “exhaustion” phase. Adaptogens are believed to manage stress by prolonging the “resistance” stage—hence delaying exhaustion.
Research also suggests that adaptogens may achieve their unique benefits by interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. 
The HPA axis plays an important role in controlling the release of certain hormones. When your body is exposed to stress, the HPA axis is activated—prompting the release of hormones such as cortisol (also known as the “stress hormone”).  This helps prepare your body to tackle the emergency or stressor.
While cortisol is important and necessary in the short term, it may have negative effects when its levels are frequently elevated—which may be caused by a constantly activated HPA axis.  And this is where adaptogens come in.
The stress-protective activity of adaptogens is linked to their ability to regulate the HPA axis.  They may help curb the negative effects of an out-of-control stress response and restore homeostasis.
Some research also suggests that adaptogens may play a role in improving our ability to produce the energy-carrying molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—whose depletion is linked to oxidative stress. 
Examples of Adaptogens for Stress
Some of the most popular and well-researched adaptogens include:
The name ginseng in fact refers to several different varieties of short herbs with fleshy roots. Research shows that ginseng may help reduce oxidative stress, ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression, enhance physical performance, and fight fatigue.  One study appearing in the Journal of Pharmacological Sciences concluded that the ginseng extracts “possess significant anti-stress properties and can be used for the treatment of stress-induced disorders.”  The adaptogen can be taken raw, steamed, or as a supplement.
Ashwagandha is arguably one of the most popular adaptogens. The herb has been an important part of Ayurveda for centuries—and is admired for its potential ability to improve concentration, increase energy levels, relieve stress, and reduce anxiety.  A 2019 study claimed that ashwagandha may help reduce the activity of the HPA axis and control mediators of stress such as cortisol, stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK-1), and heat shock proteins (Hsp70). 
Rhodiola rosea has been used to address depression, fatigue, and anxiety for centuries in Scandinavian countries. Research shows that the plant may help improve stress-related burnout, boost energy metabolism, alleviate fatigue, and improve physical performance. 
Research suggests that adaptogens such as Rhodiola, ashwagandha, and ginseng can help people better handle fatigue, stress, and anxiety. But as always, talk to your doctor before adding new supplements to your health routine. And make sure you buy high-quality varieties from trustworthy sources.
 Liao, L. Y., He, Y. F., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, Y. M., Yi, F., & Xiao, P. G. (2018). A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chinese medicine, 13(1), 1-12: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6240259/
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 Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress—protective activity. Pharmaceuticals, 3(1), 188-224: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/
 Tiwari, B. S., Belenghi, B., & Levine, A. (2002). Oxidative stress increased respiration and generation of reactive oxygen species, resulting in ATP depletion, opening of mitochondrial permeability transition, and programmed cell death. Plant physiology, 128(4), 1271-1281: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC154255/
 Seo, S. K., Hong, Y., Yun, B. H., Chon, S. J., Jung, Y. S., Park, J. H., … & Lee, B. S. (2014). Antioxidative effects of Korean red ginseng in postmenopausal women: a double-blind randomized controlled trial. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 154(3), 753-757: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24814037/
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 Tandon, N., & Yadav, S. S. (2020). Safety and clinical effectiveness of Withania Somnifera (Linn.) Dunal root in human ailments. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 255, 112768: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32201301/
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