Adaptogens: The latest trend to the line of superfoods

Ashwagandha plant is a small shrub with yellow flowers Picture: Pexels / Pille R. Priske

Ashwagandha plant is a small shrub with yellow flowers Picture: Pexels / Pille R. Priske

Published Oct 12, 2022

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Whether or not you are knowledgeable about adaptogens, you have probably encountered them listed as an add-in option on the menu of your neighbourhood Instagrammable coffee shop or artisanal smoothie bar.

Wherever they may be, their acceptance and attractiveness appear to be expanding, and a wide range of claimed advantages are being discussed, from preventing cancer to enhancing sexual function.

The Nutrition Society of South Africa describes adaptogens as a group of herbs (available in many herbal supplements) that are meant to increase your threshold for and endurance to both mental and physical stress.

They evolve to match your needs, just as their name implies. According to that reasoning, this collection of more than 70 plants promotes equilibrium in a similar manner to how a thermostat regulates temperature: they increase your vitality when you're tired and aid in your relaxation when you're restless.

Additionally, they are said to treat conditions as diverse as difficulty focusing, headaches, dry eyes, high blood pressure, and even cancer.

In an interview featured on the EatingWell Health webseries, Dr Keri Marshall, a naturopathic physician and director of scientific affairs at Pharmavite, states that "You essentially need an adaptogen when you're experiencing additional or even significant stress in your life."

Adaptogens may affect the amount of cortisol released during times of stress, hence lowering blood pressure. Your immune system is the other major system they help.

Yes, adaptogens are trending right now, but the term was first coined in 1947 by a scientist in the Soviet Union, pharmacologist Israel Brekhman, as stated by the American Botanical Council in a paper entitled, “Adaptogens: A Review of their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits”, written by Alexander Panossian and Hildebert Wagner.

The paper surmises that more resistance was required from Russian soldiers, and adaptogens were used to help their bodies focus, cope with stress, and adjust to it in a healthy way. There, the Siberian highlands' Rhodiola, one of the first adaptogens, was discovered.

Ginseng and astragalus are two of the first adaptogens. According to Keri Marshall, "In an effort to re-establish equilibrium in your life, adaptogens are created to literally help you ground yourself so that you can reclaim your roots."

This is according to traditional ayurveda and Chinese medicine. The plant's roots make up a large portion of the parts used to make adaptogenic herbal tinctures and powdered extracts.

More recently, a number of adaptogens have undergone extensive scientific research and received what would be considered a scientific "thumbs up."

Clinical studies have discovered specific herbal preparations including adaptogens to lessen stress-related immunological and endocrine dysfunctions while also enhancing focus, stamina, and weariness.

An adaptogen must be taken consistently for a few weeks in order to be effective.

Additionally, liquid alternatives are usually preferable than powdered ones.

Due to this, "With very basic solvents like water and alcohol, you may remove the key therapeutic components from a liquid extract while leaving behind the molecules you don't want“.

A liquid extract is, in essence, more "pure," the Association for Dietetics in South Africa's (ADSA) spokesperson, Faaizah Laher, a qualified dietitian, explained.

"To ensure that you receive all of the components, not just the ones you're looking for, powders can occasionally be made by simply grinding the entire herb or root. Some powders are the dried, powdered versions of liquid extracts,” said Laher.

“In general, liquid extracts or a liquid extract transformed into powder are preferred forms, as opposed to, say, a whole root. If you are taking immune-modulating medication, you should exercise caution and avoid taking additional immune modulators in the form of adaptogens. In a similar vein, you wouldn't want to combine steroids and adaptogens.

"No credible study supports the idea that adaptogens are a panacea. They surely aren't a replacement for proven methods of stress management and medical attention," added the dietician.

However, there is growing proof that they may contribute to a relatively healthy lifestyle by reducing stress. They are less regulated than prescription drugs, like other supplements, so do your research before buying your preferred adaptogen.

You can also consult a practitioner for advice. Consistency is essential. The desired effects of an adaptogen should manifest after a few weeks of consistent use. But a dash of, say, ashwagandha in your smoothie every now and then – not so much.

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.