In India and China, soldiers have used adaptogens for centuries to handle the stress of combat, recover faster, and increase their energy. Today, you can use adaptogens for – you guessed it – their adaptogenic properties: they help your body adapt to biological and psychological stress by making it easier for you to balance your hormonal systems. Some adaptogens can also help with common symptoms of living in the modern world, including fatigue, impotence, and infertility.
Even though these herbs have worked for thousands of years, scientific research is only beginning to reveal to the West the potential that adaptogens have to upgrade your stress response and energy levels.
Think of it like this. If you’ve ever driven a sports car, when you step on the gas, it very quickly moves forward, and when you let off, it slows down quickly. In contrast, in your grandmother’s car, you can pin the accelerator to the floor, but you have to wait two seconds for the car to lurch forward. When you release the gas, it kind of coasts.
Your adrenals are the same way. You want them to make stress hormones quickly when needed, then to stop making the hormones as soon as you’re done. That’s what adaptogens do – they make your adrenals react more quickly, so you spend less time and energy making stress hormones.
This article will walk you through seven adaptogens I’ve used for more than a decade, and dig into some of that research to help you decide if adaptogens are right for you. You don’t have to take all of these, or any of them for that matter. Different ones work for different people. That’s why we have functional medicine docs, Ayurveda, herbalists, and even shamanic practitioners who work with herbs.
Panax ginseng, pictured above, is probably the most well-known adaptogen. Traditional Chinese Medicine has used ginseng for a wide variety of treatments, especially in preventative practices and as a performance enhancer and immune booster. You may have also heard that it enhances libido, although that aspect is way over-marketed.
There are more than a dozen forms of panax ginseng. Only five of them are used medicinally, and two very popular ones are Korean red ginseng and white ginseng. There’s science to back up claims about this root that resembles two legs of a human. Studies show that ginseng is effective when used to improve cognition and focus, increase overall sense of well-being, and can even improve the quality of erections in men suffering from erectile dysfunction [1, 2, 3, 4].
The improvement in cognition is most likely a result of a decrease in fatigue (kinda like coffee!). In studies where individuals were not already experiencing fatigue, they did not see an increase in cognition.
There’s also some evidence that ginseng can lower blood glucose levels, although it doesn’t appear to have any effect on people that don’t have an existing condition like diabetes or hypertension, for example.[5, 6] Large human studies are lacking though and there’s conflicting results in the studies that do exist.
There’s also conflicting evidence when it comes to using ginseng as a mood-booster, with ginseng having the same effects on mood as the placebo. Other studies, however, do show that in healthy people, ginseng does have a mood-boosting effect and can increase calm and improve memory and performance.
To sum it up, ginseng:
- decreases fatigue
- balances blood glucose levels
- improves erectile dysfunction
- boosts your mood
One annoying thing is that most studies don’t use the same forms or the same preparations of ginseng, so it’s hard to know if you’re getting the right stuff, or even if there’s anything besides sawdust in your capsules. Real ginseng is expensive and fake stuff is all over the place. I’ve used panax ginseng occasionally as an energy booster but not daily most of the time.
Ashwagandha, which translates to ‘smell of horse,’ is used in Ayurvedic practices for all kinds of things, most notably for reducing stress. (Remember that stress comes from exercise, diet, infection, fear of stuff, and even your mother-in-law…and your body doesn’t care about the source.)
Several human studies show that ashwagandha decreases anxiety, stress, c-reactive protein and cortisol.[9, 10, 11] The decrease in cortisol is worth talking about, especially when you compare the effects of ashwagandha to those of other stress-reducing supplements. Studies show ashwagandha decreased stress 14.5-27.9% in healthy but stressed people. (note: if you check email or Facebook, at least part of your body is stressed…you’re human.)
Ashwagandha may also be effective when used synergistically with alcohol to reduce stress and anxiety, although I think you’re better off skipping the alcohol or at least choosing a clean one and mitigating its harmful effects when you’re stressed.
Another cool thing about ashwagandha is that it shows promise in improving memory formation. This could be important in research for treating Alzheimer’s patients. More large human studies are needed to show how and why this might be effective, but there is research to suggest that Alzheimer’s could reverse the effects of neurological toxins associated with neurodegenerative diseases.[14, 15]
To recap, ashwagandha:
- reduces stress and anxiety
- decreases c-reactive protein levels
- decreases cortisol
- improves memory formation
- may help with neurodegenerative diseases
I’ve taken this stuff daily for years, particularly because of the memory formation and neurological toxin effects. Reducing exposure neurological toxins (like Ochratoxin A, the most common coffee mold neurotoxin) can improve performance, and I feel the difference.
Holy basil (Tulsi/Ocimum sanctum)
Holy basil, or Tulsi, is an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine and is traditionally used as an adaptogen, aphrodisiac, and liver supporter. It’s also used for longevity!
Studies show that this herb can be an effective liver protector, and is especially potent when paired with milk thistle, another liver supporter. Other practices include using holy basil as a stress reducer, antioxidant, and anti-anxiety supplement.[17, 18, 19, 20]
Holy basil is high in ursolic acid, a compound also found in apple peels, that may affect body composition by increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat, although there’s not enough solid evidence out there yet showing this really works.[21, 22] (I’ve used other forms of ursolic acid for body composition too…an interesting idea, but I couldn’t tell if it worked in my very short and not well controlled n=1 experiment.)
Holy basil is also known to be both an anti-fertility agent and libido enhancer, so this could be a fun herb for couples not ready to conceive. Holy basil is one of the only aphrodisiac and testosterone boosting-supplements, while also being reducing fertility in men, and researchers aren’t entirely sure why. Some animal studies suggest that it could also be tied to its high ursolic acid content.[23, 24] The ursolic acid could prevent spermatogenesis.
In summary, use holy basil to:
- reduce stress and anxiety
- support your liver
- possibly change your body composition
- as an antifertility agent
- boost your (or your partner’s) libido
I love the anti-inflammatory effects of holy basil, but I have some concern that anything that reduces fertility is often harmful to the rest of your cells too. Your swimmers (or eggs) are great signs of how healthy your system is. But I use it whenever I’m inflamed because it works.
Bacopa monnieri is a creeping marsh plant that is traditionally used as a nootropic (cognitive enhancer), for longevity, and to help with anxiety and depression. It’s possible that the improved cognition is likely a result of the reduced anxiety. Bacopa is an effective adaptogen and can help you cope with stressful situations and decrease stress in all regions of the brain. It’s also an antioxidant.
There’s some solid research on its effects on memory and can reliably improve memory in both healthy people and those experiencing cognitive decline. Studies show improvements in verbal learning, memory acquisition and delayed recall. Other studies showed an increase in retention of new information, likely from a decrease in forgetting (as opposed to an increase in rate of learning).[26, 27] Bacopa promotes communication between neurons by increasing the growth rate of nerve endings.
The evidence for Bacopa as a stress-reducer (and adaptogen), is solid. Research shows it reduces the effects of physiological stress, especially when taken in advance.
This adaptogen does take time to work so you likely won’t see immediate results when you start taking it. It is also fat-soluble, so you can take it the traditional way, with ghee, or with your Bulletproof Coffee.
You may have heard that Bacopa contains mercury and that’s probably because a crop in the past did. This isn’t a common occurrence and, on top of that, Bacopa is actually protective against the oxidative and adverse effects of metals on the brain, mostly iron and aluminum, but also mercury.[29, 30]
To recap, bacopa:
- reduces anxiety and stress
- relieves symptoms of depression
- can possibly improve cognition
- is an antioxidant
- improves memory
- protects you from toxic metal overload
This is a potent herb, one I use often and really like. I’m sad to see that many supplement marketing companies include small amounts of it in their formulas for cognitive enhancement, but they don’t include enough to actually work. Some of the most famous nootropics do this, and it sucks. When I use it, I take about 600mg per day. That won’t fit in over-hyped nootropic “stacks” capsules, so they put in decorative amounts.
Astragalus is a fundamental herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and is primarily used for longevity, to fight inflammation, and for kidney support. It can also reduce levels of c-reactive protein, one of the inflammation markers that you can drive down with the Bulletproof Diet. Astragalus has 126 useful components, mostly flavonoids, saponins and polysaccharides.
Astragalus is particularly interesting in that it’s the only natural substance that contains cycloastragenol, a molecule that can lengthen telomeres by activating telomerase production by 2-3x.[32, 33] Telomeres are structures on the end of chromosomes that, the shorter they become, the closer that cell is to dying. By lengthening telomeres, you could essentially delay cell death. Telomeres could be a key to aging gracefully.
You may have heard of TA-65. This is the branded and patented form of cycloastragenol. While studies do show that this substance is effective in increasing telomerase activity, but many of those studies were also conducted by the manufacturer of TA-65. It doesn’t make them irrelevant, it’s just something to keep in mind.
For the last two years, I’ve been taking up to 200 mg/day of cycloastragenol, which takes about 100 pounds of astragalus to make. It’s freaking expensive, so I stopped. Really hoping my telomeres are grateful, and wishing I’d measured them beforehand. My telmere measuring kit is on it’s way.
Astragalus also has immune-boosting properties and can activate T-cells even more than echinacea.
To sum it up, astragalus:
- reduces c-reactive protein
- may have longevity effects
- lengthens your telomeres
- boosts your immune system
You should probably take astragalus to live longer because of inflammation and immunity, but don’t count on it to lengthen your telomeres unless you are willing to forego buying a car to get cycloastragenol. (Seriously…that stuff starts at a couple hundred dollars a month and ranges up to thousands; I was fortunate to get some samples.)
This herb is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and is often used to promote vitality and immunity. Rhodiola can reduce fatigue and exhaustion in prolonged stressful situations and can also reduce c-reactive protein.[35, 36] (If you commute, you’re in prolonged stressful situations every day!)
Studies show that if you take rhodiola for longer periods of time, it helps even more. There does appear to be a bell-curve response, so finding the right dose matters, and mega-dosing is counterproductive. (and expensive!) It can also have a slightly stimulatory effect, so it might be better to take in the morning. Some people find it helpful when trying to go off of caffeine.
In the Bulletproof Coffee shop in Santa Monica, we will gladly blend this into your Bulletproof Coffee!
There’s also plenty of evidence to show that rhodiola will improve cognition, independent of fatigue-reduction. A study on the effects of rhodiola on physicians on night duty fatigue showed that the herb could improve performance by about 20%, regardless of fatigue levels.
Rhodiola could also improve your mood and decrease the symptoms of depression. Improvements in feelings of well-being might be, in part, caused by rhodiola’s effect on serotonin levels.
In summary, use rhodiola to:
- reduce fatigue
- reduce c-reactive protein levels
- improve your mood and sense of well-being
- improve cognition
Traditional healers have used Siberian ginseng (not to be confused with panax ginseng) to fight fatigue, maximize physical performance, and improve overall immunity and longevity. Research backs their practices.
Looking to up your endurance? In one study, Siberian ginseng increased subjects’ time to exhaustion by more than 500% . Other research shows that it can improve resistance to both cognitive and physical fatigue.[41, 42] There’s also promising evidence that this adaptogen has immunity-boosting effects and can increase t-cell count.
To recap, use Siberian ginseng to:
- Fight fatigue
- Improve endurance in strenuous activity
- Increase cognitive and physical performance
- Boost your immune system
Consider adding adaptogens into your day, especially when you’re going to have a big day, or when you were out late partying or otherwise didn’t recover well the night before. There’s an argument for taking them every day, which is what I do. That’s why I created a special blend of adaptogens that is available only at the Bulletproof Coffee shop in Santa Monica. Take the time to look around online, and try single adaptogens so you know what works best for you!
Let me know how it works on Facebook…really interested in your results!
Click to read the complete list of references.