TELL ME EVERYTHING: Adaptogens

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Hi, I'm Jess, nutritionist and founder of WELLTRIBE, a platform where science meets self-care. Through this newsletter, I'll provide you with approachable, evidence-based nutrition and wellness information to level-up your sleep, sex and skin.

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If you’ve been wondering why you’re suddenly seeing mushroom coffee and turmeric-infused everything popping up, here’s the deal: these buzzy ingredients known as adaptogens are part of a highly select group of plants and fungi which increase the body’s resistance to physical, chemical or biological stressors. 

But can you actually eat, drink and moisturize your way to less stress? Turns out, yep—as long as you’re consistent.

Adaptogens act as nonspecific bioregulators, which means they work generally to scale body systems up or down as needed to help you adapt to the stress you’re experiencing. Pretty radical stuff. And to boot, adaptogens are generally considered safe, non-toxic and non-habit forming, which means you can take them daily. 

These herbs have a long and storied history that’s heavily entrenched in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda worlds, though there’s also a decent amount of modern clinical research on this class of herbs. We now know that these stress superheroes primarily act on the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (or HPA axis, which is your body’s main stress regulator) and have been shown to fight everything from fatigue and anxiety to diabetes and hypertension to increasing immune strength and boosting physical and mental performance. Adding adaptogens into your daily diet as a food source is a great way to incorporate them—but consistent and proper dosing is key. Low and slow is the name of the game, as you’ll want to gently ramp up your body’s own systems to fight off stress—not overload them. Stirring a heap of powdered reishi mushroom into your latte *once* isn’t going to guarantee you stellar results, but do a small amount daily, and you’ll start to notice some skin- and brain-boosting benefits.

There are a number of different herbs/mushrooms that proudly bear the adaptogen title, and although they all work similarly, they have very different energetic properties: certain herbs can be stimulating while others are calming, some can be drying while others are moistening and some can be cooling while others are warming. Note: Here’s where working with a professional herbalist can really help (ahem): a pro can help you uncover the root cause of your stress (is it trouble sleeping? constant worry? an old injury?), then look at your personal underlying energetics, check any possible medication interactions and ultimately match you with an adaptogenic herb in a dosage that can effectively help assuage your symptoms (like Tinder, but for plants and people™). If you’ve tried adaptogens before and they haven’t worked, it could be simply because you weren’t using the right one—or didn’t use it for long enough. 

And now, a glimpse at how these power plants can help with the big three:

 

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ASHWAGANDHA — THE ANXIETY ANTIDOTE 

The low-down: If you suffer from any form of insomnia, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is the answer. It has profound effects on reducing anxiety and stress-induced sleep issues, and acts directly on the nervous system to set the stage for deep, restful sleep without any resulting a.m. grogginess. A member of the nightshade family, ashwagandha is also known as Indian ginseng—it’s revered in Ayurveda for its whole-body rejuvenation properties. 

The science: One study found that ashwagandha’s anxiety- and depression-reducing capabilities are comparable to the prescription drug, lorazepam.  In clinical trials, ashwagandha has been found to balance cortisol levels, which helps reset your sleep/wake cycle and can improve insomnia.

The details:  Ashwagandha works well in a moderate daily dosage and is best absorbed with a fat source. 500-1000mg taken once or twice per day works well for most. Avoid if you have an autoimmune condition or are taking any sedatives. To find your perfect dosage, work with me

Make it: Whisk 1 teaspoon of the powdered root into some golden milk before bed or roll it into these chocolate energy balls

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SHATAVARI — THE LIBIDO LIFTER

The low-down: Many herbalists cherish shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) for increasing female sex drive — which is why it’s one of the primary ingredients in libido-boosting powders. Shatavari is a potent hormone regulator that has been found to contain steroid precursors which support estrogen and progesterone production throughout all stages of womanhood—from puberty to pregnancy and breastfeeding to menopause. It’ll help balance out your period, can be used to promote fertility, is helpful for increasing breastmilk during lactation and can ease the transition into menopause, too. Rooted in Ayurveda, shatavari is considered the ultimate female tonic and is known as “The Queen of Herbs,” or, somewhat shockingly: “She Who Possesses a Hundred Husbands.”

The science: A 2005 animal study found that it increases blood supply to female genitals and thereby boosts sexual physiological function. Shatavari is a major source of phytoestrogens (plant compounds which mimic natural estrogen), which is the secret to most of its female-centric actions. 

The details: This adaptogen actually works best in very short periods of time—rather than taking it as a long-term supplement, the tincture should be taken for two weeks to a month until things balance out, then ceased. Most do well on a dosage of 2-4 mL of tincture in water, 2-3x per day. Do not take shatavari if you have a history of estrogen-related cancer. To find out if shatavari is right for you, contact me

Make it: Bookmark this recipe for super soothing, adaptogenic roasted cauliflower soup. Or, whip up a natural Ayurvedic balm using shatavari and ghee (clarified butter) and apply to your lady bits to help with dryness (but externally only, pls).

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REISHI — THE RADICAL DETOXER

The low-down: Cortisol-balancing, immune boosting and liver supportive, reishi(Ganoderma lucidum) is a crazy-looking adaptogenic medicinal mushroom that helps the body detox. This ultimately translates to clear, soothed skin (bye forever, stress breakouts, redness and dryness), plus a slew of other benefits, like general nervous system support, adrenal boosting, allergy-fighting and hormone balancing. In TCM, reishi is considered “the mushroom of immortality,” (great name) thanks to its stress-combatting and inflammation-quelling properties.

The science: It’s also a power player in the anti-aging field, c/o its ability to fight free radicals and even suppress tumors in mice. There’s a reason you’ve seen it popping up all over the skincare space (like the fungus it is!): extracts have been found to increase superoxide dismutase, an enzyme that eliminates damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS for short = they basically mean bad news for your face). 

The details: Reishi can be used in both acute and chronic conditions to support immune health. Standard dosage is 3-6g dried mushroom in capsules or 2-4 mL of tincture in water 2-3x per day. Use the lower end of the spectrum for long-term immune protection, and the higher end for short-term support. Avoid if you’re on blood thinners or taking blood pressure medication. To find your proper dosage, work with me

Make it: Skip the PSL and make this super-satisfying and skin-boosting reishi hot chocolate instead. 

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