Hands up if you feel stressed, exhausted and lacking in energy. Chances are that’s most of us: stress is the modern epidemic making us feel lacklustre, lowering our libidos — and making us fat.
One alarming recent survey revealed that stressed women office workers ate their way through 2,240 extra calories a week in snacks.
The latest solution to stress? Adaptogens — an unwieldy name for a group of plants that are so-called because they help the body adapt to stress and give it an energy boost.
There are around 20 plants that qualify as adaptogens, a term coined in 1947 by a Russian pharmacologist who was investigating the stress-busting and energy-enhancing herbs that traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic doctors had been using for centuries.
Adaptogens have joined the list of natural ingredients able to relieve stress and boost energy. FEMAIL revealed the best sources of the plants (file image)
They were once the preserve of hardcore medical herbalists, but are now big news on the wellness scene and becoming more mainstream by the day.
Adaptogens such as rhodiola, maca and ashwagandha are popping up as key ingredients in everything from skincare to teabags, smoothie powders and supplements.
As you might expect, they’ve been popular in Los Angeles for a while: actress and wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly buys hers from trendy Moon Juice, where they make kooky-sounding adaptogenic ‘dusts’ to add to your morning smoothie.
Some cafes in London now offer adaptogenic lattes, or you can sip adaptogenic tonics with names such as Perseverance (containing ashwagandha) or Patience (containing schisandra) at the newly launched, yummy mummy-friendly Yeotown Kitchen café in London’s Marylebone.
Celebrity fitness trainer Rhian Stephenson offers adaptogenic smoothies containing maca at her hip fitness studio chain Psycle London, which counts Victoria Beckham and Liv Tyler among its clients. ‘There’s a real buzz around adaptogens, but they’re not hippy dippy ingredients,’ says Rhian, who’s also a nutritionist and naturopathic doctor.
‘They are quite heavily researched, with studies showing how and why they work to reduce stress hormones in your body.’
According to GP and nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer, they work by helping the body modify its stress response.
She says: ‘When you’re under stress your adrenal glands are pumping out the hormone cortisol, which makes your heart race, constricts blood vessels and generally prepares your body to fight or flee the threat — which might once have been a sabre-toothed tiger, but now is more likely to be chronic stress sitting at your computer.
Jujube (pictured) also called Chinese dates can be snacked on throughout the day to reduce stress or blended into a smoothie (file image)
‘When the threat was a tiger, the exercise involved in fleeing or fighting would reset your body back to normal, but with modern stress you don’t burn off or use up the chemicals it produces.
‘That’s where adaptogens come in — they have a balancing effect and seem to help reset that stress response.’
Each adaptogen has a slightly different effect in addition to relieving stress, she says.
Rhodiola gives you more energy as it helps the cells use oxygen more efficiently — a study of doctors on night duty found it improved their ability to stay alert and think straight.
Maca root and reishi mushroom lower blood pressure; in fact, in some studies reishi has been shown to have a greater effect than medication.
‘A lot of these adaptogens can sound quite kooky and strange until you look at the evidence — and there’s excellent evidence for many of them, although most doctors don’t know about it,’ says Dr Brewer.
To qualify as an adaptogen the plant has to be non-toxic, so they are generally safe to take, although some shouldn’t be used in pregnancy. ‘But if you are taking other medication you should always check with your doctor or pharmacist first,’ adds Dr Brewer.
Maca (pictured) can also be added to a smoothie to boost energy and sex life (file image)
Nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton uses adaptogens in 60 per cent of her award-winning Wild Nutrition vitamin and mineral supplements. Her favourite is the Indian herb, ashwagandha.
‘Research has shown it can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol by an average of 27.9 per cent, and causes a lowering of depression and anxiety scores of more than 70 per cent over eight weeks,’ she says.
‘It would be difficult to find any other nutrient to have that dramatic an effect.’
Read on to find out what else you should try . . .
SMOOTHIE TO BOOST YOUR SEX LIFE
WHAT IS IT: Naomi’s Kitchen I Am Energised adaptogenic powder, (£30 for 300g, contains 30 servings, naomis.kitchen and Selfridges). Among other things it contains six adaptogens: ashwagandha, rhodiola, panax ginseng, maca, muira puama, and suma root.
HOW DO YOU TAKE IT: Add one heaped tablespoon to juices, smoothies or simply water and shake vigorously. Consume up to two doses a day.
WHAT DOES IT PROMISE: To strengthen the adrenal glands and immune system, and provide an energy boost. The highest concentrations of adaptogens are ashwagandha with 1.2g per serving and maca with 0.8g.
Holy Basil (pictured) can be consumed as a tea for treating anxiety (file image)
DR BREWER SAYS: ‘This includes key adaptogens plus antioxidant sources such as cacao and matcha. This is one I would want to try myself. It includes muira puama, which my own published research suggests may improve libido.’
SPRAY TO SOOTHE YOUR SKIN
WHAT IS IT: Sjal Mineral Kalla Energy Tonic (£47 for 150ml, spacenk.com). Contains rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, maral root.
HOW DO YOU TAKE IT: Spray on to the face after cleansing in the morning and evening, or use as a mist any time.
WHAT DOES IT PROMISE: To combat skin stress caused by the weather and to energise the skin; it also claims to work at a deeper cellular level to boost the skin’s metabolism.
DR BREWER SAYS: ‘While there is some evidence that rhodiola extracts can penetrate through the skin, I doubt you would absorb much from a quick watery spritz. It’s expensive, too. I’d prefer to invest my money in an oral supplement.’
SNACK AWAY YOUR STRESS
WHAT IS IT: Dried jujube (£1.99 for 40g, abakusfoods.com). Jujube are chewy red fruits, also called Chinese dates, which have been used for thousands of years to reduce anxiety and insomnia.
HOW DO YOU TAKE IT: Eat as a snack or add to breakfast porridge or smoothies.
Holy basil (pictured) also promises to improve the symptoms of stress on the bowels (IBS) (file image)
WHAT DOES IT PROMISE: To lift mood, calm the mind, improve sleep and boost immunity.
DR BREWER SAYS: ‘Jujube are energising, taste great and are a good source of antioxidant polyphenols and soluble fibre. Clinical trials suggest jujube may improve cholesterol levels, sleep and reduce constipation.
‘As a snack, they’re better than a bag of crisps, but you would have to eat them every day for a sustained benefit.’
TREAT ANXIETY WITH TEA
WHAT IS IT: Three Tulsi tea by Pukka (£2.49 for 20 sachets, Ocado, pukkaherbs.com). Each teabag contains 1.8g of tulsi (holy basil), 0.8g of purple tulsi, 0.8g of green tulsi and 0.2g of lemon tulsi leaf.
HOW DO YOU TAKE IT: Mix with boiling water and steep for up to 15 minutes.
WHAT DOES IT PROMISE: Purple tulsi enhances mental clarity in times of stress and green tulsi helps stress-related irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Rhodiola Roses (pictured) can help to treat burn out and relieve fatigue (file image)
DR BREWER SAYS: ‘Holy basil, or tulsi, is a powerful medicinal herb used to improve glucose control, lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety.
‘Clinical trials show it can boost the percentage and activity of cells which fight infection. Tulsi is traditionally taken as an infusion, or tea, and this blend is a cost effective way to try it.’
PEP UP WITH A HERBAL PILL
WHAT IS IT: Vitano Rhodiola tablets, Schwabe Pharma (£9.90 for 30, schwabepharma.co.uk). Each tablet contains 200mg of rhodiola rosea extract.
HOW DO YOU TAKE IT: Take one tablet twice a day, 30 minutes before food.
WHAT DOES IT PROMISE: To relieve symptoms of stress, fatigue and mild anxiety.
DR BREWER’S VIEW: ‘Rhodiola is one of the most effective adaptogens for relieving stress and anxiety, and is also energising. I take it myself to prevent burnout during busy times.
‘I like the fact that this herbal medicine is regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to ensure pharmaceutical quality.’
THE TOP ADAPTOGENS TO TRY
An evergreen perennial, rhodiola grows in the colder, mountainous regions of Europe, Asia, and at high altitudes in the Arctic.
Traditionally it has been used as a herbal cure for anxiety, fatigue, anaemia, impotence, infections, headache, and depression related to stress. People have also used it to increase physical endurance, work performance, longevity, and improve their resistance to altitude sickness.
More properly known as withania somnifera, ashwagandha is also referred to as Indian ginseng. Ashwagandha is part of the nightshade family and has long been used in ayurvedic medicine to combat stress, fatigue, lack of energy and to treat problems with concentration.
Part of the buckthorn family, jujube is a small, deciduous tree or shrub with thorny branches that usually reaches a height of between five and 12 metres. It has been widely cultivated around the world but is thought to be native to Asia. Used in various ways in different cuisines, the tree’s fruit may be candied and eaten as a snack, pickled, smoked, or made into tea and even into wine.
An aromatic perennial plant native to the Indian subcontinent, tulsi is grown for religious and medical purposes — it is known as Thai holy basil and revered as the elixir of life within Hinduism.
Many cuisines cook with it, and in some parts of the world it is also used as an insect repellent.
Technically known as lepidium meyenii, maca is a herbaceous biennial native to the high Andes of Peru. It’s the root which is used in cooking — both as a vegetable (it is similar to radishes and turnips) and it can also be dried and used to create a maca flour. It has been used both to improve semen quality and to remedy symptoms of menopause.