What to Know About Adaptogens
Experts are split over the effectiveness of the herbs because much of the science on how (and if) they help remains inconclusive. “I don’t recommend them to my athletes because there are less expensive, better-researched ways to improve your fitness performance,” says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness podcast. “If you don’t know for certain that a supplement is going to help with performance, I recommend leaving it out,” echoes Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York and author of Strong and Sculpted.
Yet, because adaptogens are said to help your body adapt to stressful situations—exercise falls under this category—Dave Asprey, founder, and CEO of Bulletproof, is hopeful these herbs are the key to faster recovery for both endurance and strength-training athletes.
Are adaptogens exactly what you need to boost your fitness performance? Here, we break down the latest science behind nine common adaptogens so you can decide for yourself if you want to add them to your life.
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That “golden milk” turmeric latte you love so much is loaded with antioxidant compounds, most notably curcumin, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. While some inflammation from exercise is normal and actually beneficial because it signals to your immune and musculoskeletal systems to repair and recover—coming back stronger than before—too much inflammation can cause severely delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and worsening joint pain over time. But just 2.5 grams of curcumin two times a day could reduce symptoms of post-workout DOMS, according to a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. Research has also pointed to this potent compound’s ability to alleviate joint pain.
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Want to give this antioxidant-packed herb a try? Athletes and weekend warriors alike can add turmeric to their diet in the form of a fresh juice shot or the dried, powdered version to put into smoothies or coffee, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., author of The Superfood Swap. Or try a turmeric supplement for on-the-go relief from aches.
Thanks to teas, smoothies, and curries, there are lots of ways besides sushi that you can get your fill of ginger. In fact, consuming half a teaspoon of ground ginger or sliced, fresh gingerroot can help decrease DOMS by 25 percent, according to one study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, perhaps because of the anti-inflammatory gingerols compounds in ginger. To emphasize those effects, another study found that runners who took ginger supplements felt less sore after a long run than those who took a placebo.
There’s no such thing as a millennial who couldn’t use an energy boost, and this ancient antioxidant might just do the trick. In fact, you’ve probably noticed ginseng on the ingredient list of many energy drinks.
It’s not surprising that people would experience benefits from ginseng because, like curcumin and gingerol, it’s an antioxidant, says Audra Wilson, registered dietitian at the Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital. Antioxidants fight signs of aging and inflammation, and they can even help promote weight loss, as we reported in “How to Live to 100, Starting Today.”
In fact, Kalanick says that this is the supplement she recommends most for active women. Want to give ginseng a try yourself? Try ginseng tea or ask your doctor about ginseng supplements.
Maca root has been used for centuries in Eastern medicine to treat infertility, but one study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine found that the adaptogen may boost physical and mental energy, reduce stress, alleviate depression, and calm anxiety while also stimulating brain activity. Science also points to maca working with the hypothalamus and pituitary areas of the brain to help boost focus.
“This suggests that maca has the potential to be an effective supplement for prolonging energy levels the way a cup of coffee might,” says registered dietitian, Jim White R.D.N., exercise physiologist, and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. That’s why maca could be an especially good pre-workout option for those who are caffeine-sensitive, he says.
Ashwagandha is a shrub, but it’s the roots that people mostly ingest. It holds its rightful place among other adaptogens because it helps protect the body against the effects of mental and physical stress.
A review published in the African Journal of Traditional, Contemporary and Alternative Medicines found that consuming ashwagandha can modify cortisol levels. “This herb is the ultimate cortisol-balancer, and because exercise is a physical stressor on the body (increasing cortisol levels), it may aid in recovery,” says Wilson. Ashwagandha also has strong anti-inflammatory properties—also good for rehabbing tired muscles.
Ever feel foggy in the head (even after you’ve had your morning coffee)? Holy basil is known as the wellness-routine superstar by those who struggle with brain fog. One review published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that holy basil has a calming effect that leads to clarity of thought, along with a more relaxed and calm disposition.
Plus, “holy basil can be great for those who train regularly as it increases physical endurance,” says Kalanick. In fact, research published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that holy basil improved the swimming times of animals in a lab setting.
Serious about your fitness? This might be the one adaptogen that piques your interest the most. Rhodiola has been used for decades by professional athletes, including Olympic champions, because of its potential to enhance cognitive function, help physical performance, and prevent mental fatigue.
While research on these effects is still fairly limited, one review published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that Rhodiola may be helpful in enhancing physical performance and alleviating tiredness. But, warning: If you are extra sensitive, Rhodiola might keep you up at night because it’s a stimulant, says Kalanick.
Ever heard of a parasitic mushroom that grows on caterpillars typically found in China and Tibet? Didn’t think so. Well, turns out that some athletes and sports experts are saying that this shroom called cordyceps can significantly increase your body’s ability to produce adenosine triphosphate or ATP for fuel, and the research is promising.
This is great news for anyone who is working on endurance or power—or really just looking to feel less fatigued during their workouts, says Sage Dammers, founder of Addictive Wellness.
“Coffee is one of Mother Nature’s adaptogenic herbs,” says Asprey. However, it works slightly differently on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis than the other adaptogens on the list, so you don’t have to increase your already strong java habit to reap the performance benefits.
One small study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that drinking a cup of joe before a workout could actually make the training session more enjoyable. Other research has found that drinking coffee before a run could knock up to four seconds off your pace. Probably not too surprising, considering caffeine is a stimulant to the central nervous system, which makes it a potential option for when you’re looking to boost performance during aerobic sports like running and cycling, explains registered dietitian Joy Dubost, L.D.N., founder of Dubost Food & Nutrition Solutions. Basically, having a cup of coffee before you work up a sweat can help you get revved up and stay up, perhaps giving you the edge you need to finish that last set.