In the world of natural health care, adaptogens are a trendy remedy, marketed as a natural solution to combat stress. Although the science is slim on how much these herbs and roots really do in easing anxiety and other stressors, these plants have found many true believers.
“Adaptogens help your body handle stress,” Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, tells Time. “They’re meant to bring us back to the middle.”
The term “adaptogen” describes plant compounds that increase the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factors, according to the National Institutes of Health.
They have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing practices and have recently been experiencing a renaissance in modern alternative medicine. They are said to strengthen the body’s response to physical, chemical or biological stress.
If you want to try adaptogenic plants, try starting with your health care provider or an alternative medicine practitioner who specializes in herbs.
The list of adaptogenic herbs is long because the definition is so broad, but here’s a look at some of the more popular plants, how they’re used and what science says about whether they work.
Ashwagandha — Known as “Indian ginseng,” this plant has been used as a tonic for everything from sleep disorders to backaches. There is some evidence that it can help with anxiety if it is combined with deep breathing and a special diet, says WebMD. But on its own, the effect of the plant on anxiety is unclear.
Holy basil — Considered a holy plant by the Hindus, holy basil has been used traditionally as a tool to cure everything from the common cold and headache to heart disease and malaria. Some research suggests this aromatic shrub, also known as tulsi, may ease stress.
Asian ginseng — Also known as panax ginseng, this plant is used by some to improve memory and concentration, as well as increase physical endurance and treat depression. There are some studies that show it might improve mental performance for people with Alzheimer’s disease and possibly some other conditions such as multiple sclerosis-related fatigue. But there’s insufficient scientific evidence that it can help with anxiety or stress.
Rhodiola rosea — Some information at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health suggests that rhodiola, or golden root, may ease mental fatigue and reduce symptoms of depression. Some people use rhodiola to boost energy and strength, to improve attention and memory, and to help cope with stress.
Licorice root — Commonly taken for many digestive complaints ranging from heartburn to ulcers, licorice also is used by many for various bodily infections and some say it can regulate the hormone levels linked with stress. There’s little proof it helps with any specific health conditions. In large amounts and used long-term, licorice root can cause high blood pressure and low potassium levels, which can lead to heart and muscle issues.
Siberian ginseng — Yet another ginseng, this plant is used by some to improve athletic performance, boost the immune system and combat flu symptoms. There’s some evidence this root, officially called Eleutherococcus senticosus, can reduce some stress.
Astragalus — Used to strengthen the immune system, combat allergies and control diabetes, this root is often used in combination with other herbs, such as ginseng and licorice. Although some people take it to ease the effects of stress, there are no high-quality studies in humans that support the plant for any health condition, according to the NIH.
Schisandra — As an adaptogen, schisandra is used to purportedly increase resistance to disease and stress, as well as increase energy and endurance. Some people also take it in hopes of combating coughs, sleep issues and gastrointestinal problems. Few human trials have been performed, although some early studies have shown it may be improve concentration and attention.
Adaptogens are natural substances, but talk to your doctor before adding any of them to your diet. Supplements can often interact with prescription medications, and people often forget to tell their health care providers about any vitamins and supplements they take.
Although adaptogens are probably safe for most people, Powell tells Time that it’s better to get to the real cause of your stress instead.
“People are basically wanting to take these adaptogens all the time for their chronic stress that they’re not managing otherwise,” Powell says. “It’s easier to take a pill than change your lifestyle.”
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What are adaptogenic herbs, and can ashwagandha or ginseng help you?