Stress-Relieving Adaptogens: Do They Work?


Could a group of herbs called ‘adaptogens’ be the key to helping us manage our stress levels?

Adaptogens are the latest buzzword in wellness. Thought to help your body better adapt to stress, this group of herbs is used in everything from calming supplements to stress-relief tea. Rooted in Ayurvedic healing traditions, the most common ones include: ashwagandha, a plant that grows in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa; and ginseng, a plant tuber native to eastern Asia and North America. They’re no newbie on the wellness block but emerging research means they’re only now being considered legitimate and natural de-stressors in today’s busy world.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are a group of plants thought to curb the effects of stress on the body, while encouraging physical, mental and emotional balance. They’re used traditionally in herbal medicine and were first studied during World War II as a way to help pilots and submarine crews work more efficiently while coping with stress.

“Think of adaptogens as the grease for a squeaky door hinge,” says Elle Fox, naturopath from the College of Naturopathic Medicine. “Without oil, the door will become slower and noisier and might eventually seize. Just as oil allows the door to open squeak-free, adaptogens can help you cope gracefully with stress.

Do they really work?

This is currently being debated and researched. “There’s no deep body of evidence about the health properties of these plants and, in fact, it could be the placebo effect,” says Dr Sarah Schenker, dietitian and spokesperson for The British Dietetic Association. “It could be that the benefits come from focusing on your health and switching to more plant-based foods, with all their vitamins and antioxidants, rather than the specific ‘adaptogen’ itself.”

However, Fox highlights that adaptogens can be effective. “There’s a lack of funding for studies about herbal medicine,” explains Fox. “But there’s lots of both traditional and modern scientific evidence demonstrating the beneficial actions of these herbs.”

How do adaptogens work?

Each functions in a different way but, in general, all adaptogens are said to help decrease the effects of stress and to reduce anxiety and tiredness. A study by the Swedish Herbal Institute reported that adaptogens can help to maintain the production of our stress hormone cortisol, as well as balance our blood glucose levels and support our nervous and immune systems.

Adaptogens may also help balance body systems that are out of kilter. “They’re not like a sticking plaster, fixing just one particular spot,” says Fox. “An adaptogen will support all your systems, from your cardiac to your immune system.”

Which are the most common adaptogens?

While they are all said to reduce stress and increase energy, each adaptogen has a slightly different emphasis. Medical herbalist Gabriella Clarke recommends these four:

1. Ashwagandha

This is one of the most popular adaptogens, as it is said to help our bodies by promoting a healthy response to stress. It therefore might be helpful for anxiety.

2. Chamomile

Most chamomile teas are made by brewing the crushed or whole chamomile flower. “It helps relax the nervous system, taking the edge off stress and nervousness,” says Clarke.

3. Siberian ginseng

“This is a gentle energiser, sometimes used by women going through the menopause,” says Clarke. It may also aid in recovery from physical and mental exertion.

4. Liquorice

This ancient herb has been said to support the digestive system, which, in turn, can help to ease stress in the body.

How do you use them?

They’re available as tinctures (extracts or infusions) from herbalists, or alternatively as capsules or teas from health food stores. Also, look out for fresh leaves to sprinkle into food, says Fox. Always read the label carefully before use.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t take them?

Experts suggest avoiding adaptogens if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, aged under 12 or taking certain medications, says Clarke. Always ask your GP for advice before introducing something new.

Should we just rely on adaptogens for managing stress?

Rather than being a fix-all, permanent solution, it’s wise to consider adaptogens as a potential boost through a particularly troubling life phase – for example a new job or house move. “Make sure you also support your body with plenty of sleep, a healthy diet and regular exercise,” says Clarke. “Once you’re coping better, take a month’s break and review how you feel.”

And make sure you look at the bigger picture, too. “Remember that adaptogens won’t help fix the root cause of your stress, for example a relationship problem or job worry,” says Clarke. If you feel like stress is taking over, look to professional help. Try having an open conversation with your GP or exploring the idea of talking therapy to help you cope.

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