What Women Should Know About Adaptogens

adaptogens Jun 23, 2023
Adaptogens with Dr Stacy Sims

How to use these powerful botanicals to feel and perform your best. 

From coffee to green powders to capsules, teas, and tinctures, adaptogens are ubiquitous in the wellness world right now, with promises of strengthening immunity, increasing mental focus, boosting energy, reducing stress, and more.

While I’m a big fan of adaptogens and they can indeed provide all those benefits, it’s important to know what you’re getting and why you’re using it. There are numerous types of adaptogens, each with its own unique mechanism of action. Some are stimulating while others are calming. Some act as hormone precursors. Others increase immune system activity. And they’re not all safe for everybody. Women, as they are more likely to have thyroid disease than men, need to be especially aware of potential contraindications when they start using adaptogens.

What Is an Adaptogen?

Adaptogens are a class of medicinal or therapeutic plants that increase your body’s resistance to stress. They do so by targeting your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a neuroendocrine system that controls your reaction to stress and regulates various body functions, such as digestion, mood, temperature control, and immunity.

Think about the stress hormone cortisol and how a cortisol rush makes you feel in a fight or flight situation. You have the sudden rush of heart rate, your respiratory rate increases, and you feel overwhelmed. Many of us live a large percentage of our time in that state because of the stresses of modern life. When you take adaptogens, they build up in your body over time and the molecules interact with your cells and the receptors on your cells to block some of your cortisol response, so you experience less stress. So, your body might still release as much cortisol, but you won’t react in such a strong manner to it. This can be beneficial for women at any time of life, but particularly as women enter perimenopause and into postmenopause, when the decline in our ovarian sex hormones can make cortisol even more challenging to keep in check

Each also has a unique mechanism of action that complements this global modulation of the stress response. For instance, some adaptogens like rhodiola rosea act as selective estrogen reuptake modulators (SERM), which helps the estrogen your body is producing work as it should, so if you’re a woman in perimenopause and your hormones are fluctuating, your receptors will be sensitive, but not overstimulated to your estrogen levels at any given time. That helps you have a more stabilized mood.

Depending upon the adaptogen, they may have either a stimulating or relaxing effect on your nervous system. They help significantly with fatigue, cognition, anxiety, and vasomotor symptoms (i.e., hot flashes and night sweats that perimenopausal and postmenopausal women can get as sex hormones fluctuate and decline).

Adaptogens have been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for centuries. Over the past decade or so they’ve received more attention from Western medical researchers, specifically the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds this research. I use them personally and have seen many of the women I work with use them with great success.

Helpful Adaptogens for Women

There are numerous adaptogens that can be helpful for women. The following is a sample of the adaptogens I find most beneficial. Choose one based on the outcome you’re looking for and take it for two weeks. After that time, if you feel you need additional help, try adding a second one that has similar effects. Generally speaking, less is more with adaptogens. As with any new therapy, check with your doctor if you have concerns about drug or other therapy interactions.

  • Ashwagandha (calming). Known in botany as Withania somnifera, ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen that turns down your fight or flight sympathetic drive and can help with anxiety and depression. The smallest effective dose is 250 milligrams per day. It affects your T3 and T4 thyroid hormones, so shouldn’t be used if you’re on thyroid medication. It is also high in iron, so if you have any issues with elevated iron, you should avoid using it. 
  • Schisandra (Stimulating). Also known as Magnolia berry, schisandra stimulates the central nervous system, enhances cognition, and can be a good substitute for caffeine when you want to avoid that “tired, but wired” feeling. It increases oxidation in the mitochondria, which enhances aerobic capacity. The smallest effective dose is 500 mg to 2 g of extract (or 1.5 to 6 g of crude schisandra) daily.

If you want to learn about more Adaptogens, and in more detail, you can purchase my Microlearning Course on Adaptogens.

There are also a number of adaptogenic mushrooms, such as reishi, chaga, cordyceps, and lion’s mane, which have also been used medicinally for thousands of years in many different cultures. Research shows that the polysaccharides (specially beta glucans) found in mushrooms may make them particularly good for strengthening immunity and that these mushrooms also can act as an adaptogens, helping the body be more stress resilient.

Buyer Beware

Adaptogens are supplements and, as you likely know, supplements are largely unregulated, so finding a quality product is very important. Just as an example, ConsumerLab.com recently did a supplement review on ashwagandha and found only 56% of the supplement products they reviewed contained the proper amount of active ingredients (GNC Herbal Plus and Nature’s Way are two common brands that did pass the test). ConsumerLab.com is a good resource for verifying brand name supplements.

Another problem with some popular supplements is that they’re all blended together, so it’s impossible to tell how any one individual adaptogen is working. Many of these blended products also don’t list the amounts. Dosage is important for any adaptogen (or supplement or medicine) to work, and it’s important that you know how much of each you’re taking.

When checking labels, make sure the product is organic and that it has a certification from a third-party like U.S. Pharmacopeia, the NSF, or as mentioned above, Consumer Labs to ensure you have a quality product.

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