Your autonomic nervous system performs a delicate balancing act between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. While your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for how your body reacts to danger and its “fight or flight” response, your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for maintaining homeostasis, a state of balance. Stress can be thought of as any stimulus that disturbs the body’s homeostasis, which is our body’s state of balance. These stimuli do not just include physical threats, but anything we mentally perceive as a threat.
The purpose of taking adaptogens is to return your body to a state of homeostasis amid stress, anxiety, and fatigue. In other words, they help to cushion and optimize your stress response so you can return to an optimal state more effortlessly. Aside from taking adaptogens to reduced stress, fatigue, or alleviate anxiety, they may also be taken to help cope with trauma, regulate emotional reactions, and boost one's immune system.
Adaptogens are active ingredients found in certain plants and mushrooms. They primarily work by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), which is the body's main stress response. Don’t forget to keep in mind that adaptogens work only as a temporary solution and that they’re not a long-term solution for stress. They are supplements to support the body when needed. For a plant to be an adaptogen, it must meet certain requirements: it is non toxic when taken in a regular dose, it helps your body manage stress, and it encourages the body to return to homeostasis. There are several types of adaptogens, and the most common ones include:
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium)
This adaptogen offers immune support that helps reduce inflammation to relieve pain. It also combats stress and boosts your nervous system, which improves how you react to activating stimuli.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha has a positive effect on the endocrine, nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems by regulating your metabolism and helping you to relax by calming how your brain responds to stress. It also has anti-inflammatory properties.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
This helps relieve mental and physical fatigue. It can help improve your energy and performance during stressful activities.
Eleuthero relieves stress and fatigue. It boosts immune function and behaves as an immune modulator.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
This adaptogen helps to alleviate fatigue, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.
Lion's main is an adaptogenic mushroom that may reverse stress-related changes to neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin. It is worth noting that research on this specific adaptogen is still in its infancy and requires further study.
Reishi is a type of mushroom that supports the function of the adrenal glands which support a stress hormone, called cortisol. Reishi also has anti-inflammatory effects.
Adaptogens are plants, so you can take them in several ways: add them to food or beverages, take them as capsules, or use tinctures (i.e. a liquid form of a plant extract). Adaptogens are generally very well tolerated by the human body, so side effects are rare, but not impossible. Remember that adaptogens target specific reactions in the body, so the timing of consuming them is essential. For example, you wouldn’t want to take an adaptogen that would increase your energy levels right before bed.