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The Down-low On Adaptogens

What are they, and should you be adding them to your diet?…
By Karen Kwan
Are you feeling out of sorts and more stressed, or tired and anxious? Perhaps you’re finding it hard to get back into the swing of things after the holidays, or feeling the pressure of adopting new habits with your New Year’s resolve to achieve your goals. Adaptogens could solve your malaise – at least, that’s what proponents and any number of trendy wellness companies say. These natural remedies have been steadily gaining popularity – prettily packaged beverages, powders and teas, in appealing pastel hues, promising to improve your health.
But what exactly are these on-trend players in the wellness sphere? Adaptogens are plants such as herbs, mushrooms and roots that are said to provide a wide array of health benefits (everything from helping you sleep to relieving stress), and they’ve long been part of Chinese and Ayurvedic healing remedies. Adaptogens purportedly boost your health by helping your body manage how it responds to physical, biological or mental stress. When we experience stress, the body responds by going through general adaptation syndrome, which is composed of three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. What adaptogens do is get the body to remain longer in the resistance stage. Instead of falling quickly into the exhaustion stage, your body is protecting itself by helping you achieve balance; with this balance, you can move forward past the stressor. This balanced state is referred to as homeostasis. And by being better able to cope with stress, with this balanced state your overall health improves.
Given that stress is at the root of many health concerns – including low immunity, insomnia and digestive problems – adaptogens are also thought to help with these common issues. While some adaptogens may be unfamiliar to you (ashwagandha, for example, is an evergreen shrub that is said to help with anxiety), others, such as certain types of ginseng (long believed to be an immune booster), are more well known.
But before you start incorporating adaptogens into every part of your diet, is there evidence that these herbal pharmaceuticals actually work? While there are many claims and proponents of adaptogens, the research is not conclusive; studies have been on a small scale and focused on animal subjects or cell samples.
As you should do before trying any new treatment, talk to your doctor first. Some herbals have contraindications. Once you have your doctor’s recommendation, be sure to follow the recommended dosage. If you’re unsure of the dosage you should be taking, speak to a naturopathic doctor, who can also recommend how to adjust the dosage based on your needs. An ND can also help you with planning when to take your personal adaptogen lineup; if an adaptogen has a stimulating effect, such as red ginseng, for example, it should be taken early in the day.
While more research does need to be conducted on the benefits of adaptogens, most doctors believe they are unlikely to cause any serious side effects (although being a plant, they could potentially cause an allergic reaction or upset stomach). If you’re in the midst of a particularly chaotic period and are curious about whether adaptogens can help, talk to your doctor for advice.

KAREN KWAN is a freelance health, travel and lifestyle writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at @healthswellness and on Instagram at @healthandswellness.

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