In the name of clinical science, MAXIM’s resident Clinical Nutritionist BROOKE BENSON CAMPBELL (BHSc Nut Med) delves into the world of plant-based adaptogens and discovers why everyone from professional athletes to Hollywood celebrities is jumping on the A-train to health and wellbeing…
The 1960s – the age of tie-dye, social protest, flower-child environmental concern and feminist tension. As The Beatles searched India for the path to meditative transcendence, Ayurvedic medicine and vegetarianism, those left at home grappled with the ’60s concern of “meaning over money”, while attempting to form an answer to Time magazine’s question of the decade: “Is God Dead?”. The Age of Aquarius ushered an interest in explorative wellness that centred on magic mushrooms and herbal hedonism.
Fast forward to 2019. Once again, tie-dye has hit the catwalks, social protest flows through our streets, climate change has become one of Australia’s most divisive subjects and we continue to wrestle with the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. Google easily allows us to explore Ayurvedic theory and the benefits of yoga, while we eat our Hungry Jacks Vegan Cheeseburger and flip through the Twitter commentary of Time’s “The Mindful Revolution: The Science of finding focus in our stressed-out multi-tasking culture”. Wellness today is a key part of our cultural psyche, and once again, mushrooms and herbs are at the forefront of the Self-care Revolution.
The term “adaptogen” is another breakout of ’60s culture, coined by research scientist Dr. I.I.Brekhman in 1961 to describe a natural substance with the following properties:
- Adaptogens are non-toxic in normal therapeutic doses
- Adaptogens produce a non-specific state of resistance in the body to physical, emotional and/or environmental stress. Read: they reduce the negative effects of stress (things like abdominal weight gain, tension headaches and frequent illness).
- They have a normalising effect on the body, helping to restore normal physiological function that is altered by stress Eg. If the immune system is depressed, adaptogens enhance the immune response; If cortisol is high, adaptogens will lower it to normal levels.
Modern adaptogens include medicinal mushrooms and herbal supplements, and these days are incorporated into smoothies, coffee blends and tinctures, blended into cocktails (don’t laugh – it’s a thing), and added to chocolate and protein bars for instant relief. Regardless of delivery mechanism, research has shown that adaptogens work through two bodily systems: the HPA axis (hypothalamic/ pituitary/ adrenal axis), which controls endocrine function, the nervous system and some immune function, and the SAS, or sympatho-adrenal system, which is our fight or flight response.
However, it is important to note that although all adaptogens must meet the above conditions and work via the same systems in the body, they all have unique properties and specific uses: some help cells to eliminate toxic chemicals, boost energy levels and utilise oxygen more efficiently, while others support testosterone production, boost sperm count and increase muscle mass. For this reason, Bulletproof Guru Dave Asprey believes that adaptogens could play a role in athletic performance in both short and long workouts: in short workouts, they can quickly reduce the amount of cortisol being produced to hasten recovery, and in endurance training they can keep cortisol levels steady to ensure energy remains consistent throughout.
Wellness in today’s world is about finding new natural superfoods with incredible health benefits that pack a nutritional punch as efficiently as possible, and as shown in the Google search trends of 2019, millennials (and modern science) are catching up with what herbalists and traditional healers have known for millennia: mushrooms and herbs are potent adaptogens that contain heavy-hitting medicinal properties. Mushrooms have been used in ancient Chinese medicine for centuries, and around 40% of modern pharmaceuticals utilise fungi as key chemical components (penicillin, anyone?). Interestingly, humans share around 30% of their DNA with fungi and, in terms of health, this crossover allows our bodies to use the bioactive compounds in mushrooms much more successfully than we do other supplements. In short, nothing works as well to help rebuild and strengthen an empty tank that’s running low on energy.
Similarly, Ayurvedic herbs like Ashwagandha, Triphala and Brahmi work to balance stress levels to support immune function, memory and cognition and fight against anxiety and depression. With origins dating back over 5,000 years, these Indian herbs are also well absorbed in powder or capsule form and make holistic healthcare as simple as a daily dose. Interestingly, in both Chinese and Indian cultures soldiers have employed adaptogens to handle the physical and emotional stress of combat, boost energy levels and promote recovery post-battle. So, as you throw yourself full-steam-ahead into the conflict that is modern life, could an adaptogen be the secret to your skirmish success?
Here is a guide to the most promising adaptogens on the market – they are all clinically trialled, scientifically certified, centuries old and may just be the boost you need to get through to 2020:
When you want to chill out and relax, Reishi is the mushroom to turn to. It can help soothe and calm the nervous system and provide a deeper sleep, and it also functions as a natural anti-histamine, so it perfect for those with allergies. This magic mushroom works to lower blood sugar levels by down-regulating alpha-glucosidase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down starches into sugars, and so is fantastic for those wanting to build a summer six-pack. And, if that’s not enough, Reishi also aids the immune system to fight viral and bacterial illness thanks to a high content of beta-glucans (complex carbohydrates that stimulate the immune system and help suppress tumour growth). Buyer beware, though, Reishi has a strong, bitter taste so mix the powder form with cacao and coconut milk to improve the taste and add it to your nighttime routine.
Also called “caterpillar fungus”, Cordyceps is a parasitic fungi that takes over the body of the caterpillar, eventually mummifying and growing our of the head of the host as it fruits (fascinating, but truly freaky, the YouTube video of this occurrence is enough to make your toes curl). Disgusting development aside, cordyceps is a powerful energy tonic that helps build physical power, increases oxygen utilisation and endurance levels and reduces fatigue. It’s also nicknamed “Cordysex” for its blood flow and stimulating properties, so expect a libido boost with this one – this adaptogen is all about stamina, in and out of the bedroom. This is also the ultimate anti-aging mushroom. It decreases the pro-inflammatory monoamine oxidase and lipid peroxidation activity that causes us to age. Benjamin Button with a side of Hugh Hefner in a jam-packed ’shroom.
Known as the King of Mushrooms, Chaga is a nutritional powerhouse, high in antioxidants to protect the skin against damaging free radicals and premature aging, and B vitamins for energy. It is also packed with betalin and betalinic acid, a potent antiviral and is highly anti-inflammatory. Chaga has an earthy and smooth taste similar to coffee, which makes it a great alternative to the mid-morning caffeine hit. This one is your civil, well-presented office fungi, and is perfect for travel.
This is the most unique of the medicinal mushrooms, and a potent nootropic (a natural “smart drug”) and brain activator. Recent studies have found it to have antioxidant effects, to increase concentration and memory recall, and to stimulate Nerve Growth factor (a lack of which can contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia). While Lion’s Mane is also a culinary mushroom, even in its powdered drink form it tastes sweet and savory, almost like mushroom soup.
The ultimate stress-buster, Ashwagandha helps to support the HPA axis and nurture the adrenals. Taken daily, Ashwagandha has been shown in clinical studies to reduce anxiety by 44% making it a great alternative to addictive benzodiazepine medications. Results, published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, showed that those taking ashwagandha didn’t just feel less stressed, but in addition expressed significant reduction in depression, social dysfunction, physical symptoms and insomnia. Best of all, Ashwagandha can be taken alongside SSRI antidepressant medications to support anxiety levels.
Moreover, this herb can manage weight and food cravings in chronically stressed people. One 6g capsule a day is all it takes to reap the rewards of Ashwagandha, and as it works to lower cortisol levels in the body, it will also rebalance the circadian rhythm, enhancing sleep quality and quantity. Interestingly, studies show Ashwagandha supplementation also enhances sperm count and motility, so is a natural way to boost male fertility. Other studies also show that the small dose of 600mg per day for eight weeks led to a 1.5-1.7 times larger increase in muscle strength and 1.6-2.3 times higher increase in muscle size when compared to a placebo, making Ashwagandha an essential addition to a workout regime.
The ultimate brain tonic, this herb contains active ingredients called bacosides that work together to deliver brain-boosting and adaptogenic benefits. Brahmi is an enabler of Synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses between neurons) which is essential to skill set development, and supports serotonin levels to reduce anxiety and boost levels of concentration. An extensive Australian study into the effects of Brahmi supplementation found that it consistently improves higher order cognitive processes such as improved speed of visual information processing, learning rates and memory consolidation.
Interestingly, Brahmi is one of the few nootropics demonstrated to improve the memories and learning capacity of healthy people, as most are trialled in aging or stroke-affected populations, so this is one for every office worker or student, regardless of age and lifestyle. Word of warning here – several animal studies show that Brahmi diminishes sperm potency, so this may not be the herb for you if baby-making is on the horizon.
Brooke Benson Campbell (BHSc) is a Clinical Nutritionist and Naturopath, speaker, writer and presenter with a passion for all things health, beauty and wellbeing. A self-proclaimed human test subject, she is constantly trialling the newest products, seeking the latest discoveries and reading the current clinical studies, in order to share her findings with the public through private practice, social media and industry education. Follow Brooke at her Instagram @the.b.b.c
For the full article grab the December 2019 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.