What Are Adaptogens and Can They Help Power Up Your Workouts?

Plus, why these herbs have been getting so much buzz.

Photo: S847 / Getty Images.

Charcoal pills. Collagen powder. Coconut oil. When it comes to pricey pantry items, it seems there's a new "must have" superfood or super-supplement every week. But what's that saying? What's old is new again. This time around, everyone from naturopaths and yogis to stressed-out execs and functional fitness fans are talking about something that's been around for a long time: adaptogens.

What are adaptogens?

While you may just be hearing the buzz around adaptogens, they have been a part of Ayurvedic, Chinese, and alternative medicines for centuries. ICYDK, they are a class of herbs and mushrooms that help boost your body's resistance to things like stress, sickness, and fatigue, says Holly Herrington, a registered dietitian with the Center for Lifestyle Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Adaptogens have also been thought to be a helpful tool for balancing the body by regulating hormones, says functional medicine practitioner, Brooke Kalanick, N.D., a licensed naturopathic doctor. To take it a step further, Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof, describes them as herbs that fight biological and psychological stress. Sounds powerful right?

How do adaptogens work in the body?

The medical theory is that these herbs (such as rhodiola, ashwagandha, licorice root, maca root, and lion's mane) help restore communication between your brain and adrenal glands by balancing the hypothalamic-pituitary-endocrine axis-which is also known as the body's "stress stem." This axis is responsible for regulating the connection between the brain and your stress hormones, but it doesn't always work perfectly, says Kalanick.

"When you're under the unrelenting stress of modern life, your brain is constantly asking your body to help manage that stress, which causes the timing and release of the stress hormone cortisol to go awry," says Kalanick. For example, that could mean that it takes your body too long to produce cortisol, and then consequently too long for it to level out, says Asprey. Basically, your hormones get off-kilter when there's a brain-body disconnect.

But adaptogens may help restore this communication between the brain and adrenal glands, which are responsible for producing and regulating a variety of other hormones such as adrenaline, by focusing on the HPA axis, says Kalanick. Adaptogens may also play a role in managing your hormonal response to certain high-anxiety situations, adds Herrington.

Maybe you're thinking this herbs-fix-everything idea is too good to be true? Or maybe you're all in, and ready to dive headfirst into your local health food store. But the bottom line is this: Do adaptogens really work? And should you be adding them to your wellness routine or skip them?

What are the health benefits of adaptogens?

Adaptogens are not necessarily on the radar of many mainstream health care providers, says Herrington. But some research has found that adaptogens have the potential to reduce stress, improve attention, increase endurance, and fight fatigue. And within the broad category of "adaptogens" there are different types, explains Kalanick, which have each been researched to varying degrees.

Some adaptogens such as ginseng, rhodiola rosea, and maca root may be more stimulating, which means they may enhance mental performance and physical endurance. Others, such as ashwagandha and holy basil, may help the body chill out on its cortisol production when you're super stressed. And you probably didn't know that the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric are part of why this superfood spice is also in the adaptogen family.

Will adaptogens help with your fitness performance?

Because adaptogens are supposed to help your body adapt to stressful situations, it makes sense that they would also be inherently connected to exercise, which puts stress on your body, says registered dietitian Audra Wilson, with the Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital.

Adaptogens could play a role in short and long workouts for both strength and endurance athletes, says Asprey. For example, after a short CrossFit WOD, you want your body to reduce the amount of cortisol being produced so that you can recover more quickly, he says. But for endurance athletes who are going to be running for five, six, seven hours, adaptogens can help keep stress levels steady so that you don't go out too hot, or fade mid-run.

But exercise pros aren't convinced. "There is very little conclusive research on adaptogens as a whole, and if you don't know for certain that a supplement you're taking is going to help with performance or recovery, I recommend leaving it out," says exercise scientist, Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York and author of Strong and Sculpted. "I don't personally recommend them because there are more research-backed ways to power your workouts," adds exercise physiologist Pete McCall, C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness podcast. "But that's not to say that they won't make an individual feel better." (ICYW, science-backed things that can improve your fitness: sports massage, heart-rate training, and new workout clothes.)

But even if they might improve fitness recovery and performance, adaptogens don't work like a cup of coffee, says Herrington-you won't feel the effects immediately. You'd need to be taking them for six to 12 weeks before they'd build up in your system enough to make any noticeable difference, she says.

How can you get more adaptogens in your diet?

Adaptogens come in a lot of different forms, including pills, powders, dissolvable tablets, liquid extracts, and teas.

For each adaptogen, how you take it may be a little different. For example, you could get turmeric as a fresh juice shot, dried turmeric powder to put into smoothies, or order a "golden milk" turmeric latte, suggests Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., author of The Superfood Swap. To reap the benefits of ginger, you can try ginger tea or stir-fry dishes.

If you opt for an adaptogen supplement, Asprey recommends making sure you're getting a pure form of the herb. But note that adaptogens are not officially approved for specific holistic use nor regulated by the FDA.

The bottom line on adaptogens: Adaptogens might not necessarily help with conditions such as anxiety and depression, says Herrington. But they could offer some benefits for healthy people who are looking for a natural way to decrease stress. This can be applied to your workout recovery as well. For example, if you're training for an event or a race, and feel like your muscles (or mental muscles) are recovering slower than normal, it might be worth consulting with your doctor about trying, say, turmeric (which is known to help reduce inflammation), says Wilson. This consultation with a pro is nonnegotiable because some adaptogens can interfere with certain prescription medications, adds Herrington.

That said, adaptogens shouldn't be used in place of active recovery, says McCall. "If you're worried you aren't recovering from your workouts properly, I'd recommend that simply adding an extra rest day to your training schedule, which has been shown to help muscle repair, as opposed to adaptogens, which are still shaky on the research," he says. (Overtraining is real. Here are nine reasons you shouldn't go to the gym every day.)

But if you want to give adaptogens a try remember that they are only one part of a wellness routine that must include healthful nutrition and recovery protocols as well. So if you're really looking to improve your sports performance and recovery, Schoenfeld suggests focusing on the basics: a diet dense in whole foods, high-quality proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats in conjunction with active recovery and rest days.

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