Meditation, massage and yoga all have a crucial role to play in balancing mind and body, but recently there’s been a rapid rise of another ancient tool to add to your stress-busting arsenal: adaptogens. So what exactly are they? Adaptogenic ingredients are plant-based compounds that help your body adapt to physical and emotional stress. These natural healers have adapted to thriving in stressful conditions and have become adept at sharing their survival properties and techniques.
‘Adaptogenic herbs have a balancing effect, reducing the negative changes that can happen in the body in response to stress,’ explains Sebastian Pole, herbal director of Pukka Herbs. ‘There’s good evidence that adaptogens can help boost energy, lessen fatigue, reduce anxiety, encourage positivity and improve focus – with no known negative effects. ’You can buy adaptogens as supplements, but they each offer slightly different benefits so make sure you choose the herb that’s right for you. Look out, also, for innovative new products using adaptogenic ingredients, such as the I AM superfoods blends from Naomi’s Kitchen. Read on for more on five key adaptogens.
KOREAN GINSENG – BEST FOR: STAMINA
Ginsenosides, the active ingredient found in ginseng, has been found to boost memory, alertness and thinking processes. The herb is widely used by athletes to improve performance and prevent injury. In an Italian study, gym-goers who’d taken ginseng before a punishing treadmill session showed greater oxygen uptake and improved stamina, compared with a placebo group. It also helps boost immunity by encouraging production of interferon, the body’s own antiviral compound, according to University of California researchers. TRY IT: Power Ginseng (£7.90 for 30 capsules; powerhealth.co.uk).
REISHI MUSHROOM – BEST FOR: SLEEP
This medicinal mushroom has been used in East Asia for thousands of years to boost immunity, fight fatigue and boost sleep quality – and the Western world is finally catching on, too. A 2012 study on rats saw a marked improvement in the length and depth of sleep, as well as a reduction in the time it took to fall asleep in the first place, after just three days of reishi treatment. What also sets reishi apart is that it appears to offer a double-whammy calming and energising effect: as stress fades away, you’ll have bags more energy. TRY IT: Mikei Red Reishi Essence (£47.99 for 30 capsules; mikei.co.uk).
ASHWAGANDHA – BEST FOR: CALMING
One of the most widely used herbs in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is perfect for those with a busy, stressful life. It helps protect and support the nervous and immune systems, as well as boosting energy. But it also has a calming effect at the same time: unlike many other adaptogens, it doesn’t act as a stimulant. In a 2012 study, people with chronic stress who took the herb in capsule form twice daily for two months saw a notable drop in anxiety scores, and had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And because cortisol blocks the production of skin-saving proteins – most notably collagen – ashwagandha encourages a firm, healthy complexion, too. Other studies have found that this wonder herb can improve sleep and muscle strength, making it the perfect solution for reducing stress, improving sleep and making your trips to the gym even more effective. TRY IT: Pukka Wholisitic Ashwagandha (£16.95 for 30 capsules; pukkaherbs.com).
HOLY BASIL – BEST FOR: MOOD
Grown in tropical regions, holy basil is a member of the mint family. It boasts similar calming adaptogenic benefits to ashwagandha, and is a particularly good choice for mood-balancing and memory support. In a recent Indian study, people treated with holy basil extract for six weeks saw a 39 per cent greater reduction in stress symptoms – such as low energy, memory problems and poor sleep – compared with a placebo group. This potent herb also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. TRY IT: Pukka Wholistic Holy Basil (£15.95 for 30 capsules; pukkaherbs.com).
RHODIOLA – BEST FOR: FOCUS
This fleshy root has the backing of the Scandinavians and Russians, as well as traditional Chinese medicine. It’s been used for centuries to reduce fatigue, boost mood and improve focus in prolonged stressful environments. It appears to work by reducing cortisol levels while increasing uptake of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. TRY IT: Vitano Rhodiola Tablets, £13.99 for 30 tablets; hollandandbarrett.com).