What Is an Adaptogen, and Can It Help Your Performance?
You my have noticed adaptogens—such as ashwaghanda, reishi mushrooms, or turmeric—popping up in coffee shops or smoothie bars as an add-on to your favourite drinks. But what the heck even is an adaptogen, and is it worth spending the few extra bucks to include these supplements in your daily routine?
Some research suggests that certain adaptogens may improve tolerance to high endurance exercise, while others could potentially manage post-exercise stress and inflammation. That said, should you jump on the adaptogen bandwagon, or is this another wellness trend that will eventually fall by the wayside?
To figure out whether or not you should invest in this new trend, we consulted with two experts: Ginger Hultin M.S., R.D.N., owner of ChampagneNutrition and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook, and Vicki Shanta Retelny, R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist.
What Is an Adaptogen?
Adaptogens are sometimes referred to as “super herbs” that adapt to your body’s needs and help fight against stress. For example, adaptogens may give you energy if you’re tired or calm you down if you’re restless. The proposed benefits are truly marvellous if they work, but also incredibly difficult to study since every person’s stressors vary greatly.
Types of adaptogens go beyond herbs (like holy basil and ginseng) to include other plants and mushrooms, such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, ginseng, astragalus, cordyceps, and schisandra. Each one has a slightly different health claim, but they all propose to ease stress. You’ll also find these adaptogens in different forms, such as powders, teas, tinctures combined with water, and pills. One of the most popular uses for adaptogens has become a coffee add-on. As a matter of fact, you can now buy powdered mushrooms mixed with coffee to make at home. Mushroom coffee claims to increase focus and productivity, but it’s mostly beneficial to those sensitive to caffeine, as it has half the amount found in a black cup of coffee.
Although the list of proposed benefits is long, there are downsides to adaptogens, like the fact that they aren’t regulated by the FDA and most of the scientific research is on human cells or animals.
Are Adaptogens Beneficial for Runners?
Retelny says that adaptogens may be beneficial for a runner’s energy, stamina, and strength—and there’s some research to support this. Although the human trials on adaptogens are lacking, there are a few small studies that show they may be promising for runners. In one small intervention study, 14 trained male athletes supplemented with the herb Rhodiola rosea for four weeks and underwent a cardio-pulmonary exhaustion test and gave blood samples to evaluate their antioxidant status and other biochemical markers. The researchers found that Rhodiola rosea intake reduced plasma free fatty acids and blood lactate levels, leading the researchers to conclude that Rhodiola rosea may reduce muscle damage after a tough exercise session.
Another small study with 18 endurance athletes observed the effects of a one-time oral dose of 3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight of Rhodiola rosea versus a placebo on performance, perceived exertion, mood, and cognitive function. The results showed that Rhodiola rosea ingestion significantly decreased heart rate during the warmup, and it increased the speed of the six-mile time trial on a bike. Athletes also claimed a lower rate of perceived exertion after consuming the Rhodiola rosea.
Although these studies are promising, it’s important to note the very small sample sizes and the lack of evidence on other types of adaptogens. Yet, Hultin notes that running— especially long distances—can cause stress on the body and adaptogens may be part of a self-care plan. That said, adaptogens alone won’t make you feel 100-percent different or better. Eating a well-balanced diet, taking time to recover from workouts, getting plenty of sleep, and reducing emotional stress are arguably even more important for self-care.
Should You Add Adaptogens to Your Diet?
Like almost any trend in the wellness world, adaptogens are not a cure-all or a silver bullet. You can’t undo a bad diet or override the effects of excessive stress by adding mushrooms or herbs to your coffee or water. Not to mention that eating plain old plants is a cheaper and easier way to get good-for-you vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
“Including more mushrooms or drinking herbal teas could be a supportive habit for runners because they may contribute to an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle,” adds Hultin.
Adaptogens may help mitigate the wear and tear that comes from running, but there’s no concrete evidence to suggest they are any more beneficial than a good diet and plenty of rest. And, keep in mind that adaptogens are supplements that aren’t regulated by the FDA, so seek out reputable brands that have undergone third-party testing to ensure you’re getting what you pay for.
“As with all supplements, be sure adaptogens are verified by a credible source,” adds Retelny.
If you decide you want to give adaptogens a try, Hultin recommends consulting a medical provider who specialises in herbs to ensure they won’t interact with any of your current medications.
Just keep in mind that the research on adaptogens is limited. If you want to get faster or recover from workouts quicker, your best bet is good old reliable nutrition, training, and sleep.