What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogen is the term used to describe a group of plants (certain herbs, roots, and medicinal mushrooms) that help your body react to and recover from physical, mental, and environmental stressors. The effect is subtle, but many people swear by their benefits—and they’ve been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda to restore balance.
Adaptogenic plants are thought to be able to restore homeostasis by adapting their functions to your body’s specific needs. For example, if you’re too amped up, adaptogens may help calm you down; and if you’re feeling run down, they may help subtly elevate your energy.
While each individual adaptogen has slightly different properties and benefits, they’re all believed to exert a normalizing effect on the body that helps bring you back to a healthy, balanced state.
How we think adaptogens work
The term “adaptogen” dates back to the 1940s when researchers were looking for ways to keep Russian soldiers and workers energized and resilient in extreme climates. This gave rise to research into plant medicines and the discovery of plants that exhibited adaptogenic effects, like Rhodiola rosea. From there, a number of other plants have been categorized as adaptogens, based on their similar effects on the body.
While more research is needed on adaptogens, some experts believe certain adaptogens work by interacting with a part of your body called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which governs the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress. When a person experiences a stressor—whether it’s a work deadline, too many social or family responsibilities, or any type of dangerous situation—the HPA axis activates and triggers the release of hormones such as cortisol, which prepare your body for action.
In the short term, this response allows us to escape dangerous situations. However, when we experience chronic, unrelenting stress, stress hormones like cortisol can become chronically elevated, which has serious health consequences. According to a recent podcast interview with Lise Alschuler, ND, naturopathic physician and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Arizona School of Medicine, this can cause our cells to become resistant to cortisol, which, in turn, can increase inflammation, degrade the quality of our tissues, and trigger the development of digestive issues, joint disorders, cognitive issues, mood disorders, and more.
Adaptogens are beneficial because—to a certain extent—they appear to hit the reset button on an overactive HPA axis, improve your response to stress, and mitigate the physical and mental consequences of chronic stress such as anxiety, depression, and hormone imbalances. Research also suggests that some adaptogens can have an anti-fatigue effect and boost energy by improving our body’s ability to make ATP; while other adaptogens (mainly medicinal mushrooms) help restore balance to the body’s immune system.
What Adaptogens are in Ka'Chava?
The adaptogens in Ka’Chava include maca root, reishi mushrooms, cordyceps mushrooms, maitake mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, and ginger root and they’ve been associated with benefits such as improved immune function, increased exercise stamina, improved mood, and reduced fatigue. Learn more about each one below.
Native to the rugged terrain of the Andes mountains, maca root’s popularity for everything from improving energy to enhancing libido spans centuries—and a growing population swear by its benefits today. The best part: Research on maca root, while preliminary, is starting to support many of its anecdotal perks in regards to improving stamina and energy, balancing hormones, and improving libido, and researchers often refer to it as an adaptogen in their papers.
- Many adaptogenic plants are known for their mood-stabilizing, stress-reducing properties—and maca is no exception. In one study, postmenopausal women who consumed maca daily for 6 weeks experienced a significant reduction in anxiety and depression symptoms (as well as blood pressure). More research is needed to explain the exact mechanism, but other studies suggest maca’s mood-enhancing effects may come from an ability to dopamine levels and combat oxidative stress in the brain.
- Maca may also enhance energy and stamina. One small study found that male cyclists who consumed maca for two weeks experienced improvements in their 40-kilometer cycling time, but it didn’t pinpoint the exact mechanism.
- Maca may have a hormone-balancing effect on women. One study found that women who took daily doses of maca experienced a significant reduction in menopausal symptoms including night sweats and hot flashes, which are commonly caused by fluctuating levels of estrogen.
Taking maca improved self-reported levels of sexual desire in men without having an impact on sex hormones like testosterone, per one study; and maca helped improve sexual desire and arousal among women taking SSRI antidepressants, which are known to impair libido, according to another study.
There are a variety of medicinal mushrooms that many experts classify as adaptogens, including shiitake, maitake, reishi, and cordyceps. Many medicinal mushrooms contain compounds that enhance immune health (either boosting your immune system or calming an overactive immune response), including polysaccharide compounds like beta-glucans, which have an immunostimulating effect that contributes to antiviral and antitumor benefits. But mushrooms’ benefits also extend to things like stress reduction and improved stamina.
Reishi mushroom is an immune-supporting favorite, which has been shown to help combat a number of viruses, from hepatitis to herpes, likely due its effect on white blood cells. In one study, reishi improved the function of lymphocytes—another immune system cell—among athletes who were exposed to stressful conditions. This improved immune response despite exposure to stress demonstrates reishi’s powerful adaptogenic characteristics.
Cordyceps is a medicinal mushroom known for its subtle energizing, endurance-boosting benefits, which appear to be a result of its influence on the adrenal glands or the HPA axis and its potential to support healthy ATP levels. In one study, people who took a supplement containing cordyceps and rhodiola for two weeks, while participating in physically and mentally stressful high-altitude endurance training, were able to run longer than the placebo group. Other studies on cordyceps have demonstrated benefits for improving exercise performance among older individuals and for reducing fatigue after exercise.
Maitake mushrooms contain a variety of polysaccharide compounds, including D-fraction, which appears to contribute to its immune-stimulating properties. Preliminary research suggests maitake may help lower blood sugar levels and possibly benefit cardiovascular health by lessening age-related increases in blood pressure.
Like other medicinal mushrooms, shiitakes contain immune-supporting polysaccharide compounds that may contribute to both antiviral and anticancer benefits. Supplements containing shiitake have also been shown to help counteract age-related decline in immune system functioning.
The spicy root that’s often attributed to improved digestive health appears to have adaptogenic qualities as well. While research on ginger as an adaptogen isn’t robust, preliminary studies suggest that ginger influences the HPA axis. In one study, animals treated with a ginger extract performed better during swimming endurance tests and when exposed to low-oxygen environments. Stressful conditions like this normally alter levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, cholesterol, and steroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands—but in this study, the treatment with ginger beforehand significantly reduced these alterations. Other benefits of ginger include improved attention span and cognitive function, which may or may not be attributed to its adaptogenic qualities.
The Bottom Line…
Consuming adaptogens regularly is a simple way to improve your resilience to stress and restore mind-body balance—something we could all use more of lately. Often, you can find adaptogen blends sold as powders and capsules or incorporated into food products (like Ka’Chava), but you can also find supplements containing specific adaptogens that may offer more focused benefits such as supporting energy and stamina. It may take some trial and error before you find the one that works best for you.