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I’ve been seeing a lot of list-style articles and misinformation floating around the inter-web about adaptogens lately and so I wanted to set the record straight with some information about what adaptogens are and why you should use them.
Adaptogens refer to a class of herbs that help the body’s non-specific adaptive response, that is, they help us adapt to all kinds of stress – mental, chemical, physical, emotional and biological – and increase our window of tolerance.
Although they have been used for thousands of years in China and India, they were first “officially” studied by Dr. Nikolai Lazarev in Russia during the Cold War. Lazarev was tasked with creating ‘super soldiers’ and focused his energy on studying Eleuthero (aka: Siberian Ginseng). What Lazarev discovered was that adaptogens such as Eleuthero modulate the body’s stress response so that it doesn’t over-or-underreact (in other words, taking adaptogens helps prevent traffic-induced panic attacks while also giving you the boost needed to bag all the Colorado 14ers in one summer).
Adaptogens are important for pretty much everyone given the high-stress nature of our world, but they can be especially important for athletes – especially if you’re training for an event, planning a big trip, or recovering in between peak season.
Here are a few of the my favorite adaptogens for athletic performance. As always, it is best to talk to an experienced herbalist or practitioner before starting any herbal regime.
Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng): Eleuthero is one of the most effective herbs for burn-out. Studies have shown eleuthero to be effective in increasing endurance, muscle strength and memory. Eleuthero is also anti-fatigue, has mild anti-depressant effects, and supports healthy blood sugar. For athletes, this herb helps promote metabolism of lactic and pyruvic acids, i.e.: the chemicals that cause sore muscles after a hard workout. It also alters the metabolism for sparing glycogen, especially in male athletes.
Targets: respiratory & cardiovascular systems.
Sports: all of them. Use eleuthero to help reduce the amount of time you need for recovery from exercise
Other Uses: upper respiratory infections, altitude adjustment, recovery after illness
Actions: demulcent, slightly bitter, neutral
Cordyceps: Cordyceps is a parasitic caterpillar fungus that is found mainly in China, Nepal and Tibet. Cordyceps help with modulating nitric oxide and inflammation, adrenal depletion and resistance to stress. Cordyceps have been widely studied and proven to increase energy levels, stamina and endurance. It also improves libido and relieves fatigue. Cordyceps contain beta glucans, which support immune function. Additionally, it enhances kidney function, improves mitochondrial ATP production and assists red blood cells ability to hold onto O2.
Targets: the lungs, adrenals/kidneys and reproductive organs
Sports: mountain biking, marathon running, backcountry skiing, hiking
Other Uses: high altitude training and acclimation, endurance training
Actions: sweet, warm, moist, mild sedative
Rhodiola: Rhodiola was used in ancient Greece and by the Vikings for strength and endurance. Its main function is in increasing mental endurance. It prevents mental fatigue and enhances learning. It also helps reduce catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine) during the alarm phase of stress and after exercise, which helps your recovery and can prevent against problems such as adrenal fatigue. Rhodiola is a good brain-oriented adaptogen because it also raises the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Targets: mental function
Sports: sprinting, cycling, seasonal team sports, chess tournaments
Other Uses: getting you through a period of extreme stress
Actions: Aggravating stimulant, astringent, aromatic, slightly bitter, cool, sweet
**Do not take this herb long term, it’s very drying and can be overstimulating**
Johnson, Kristina. “Before Steroids, Russians Secretly Studied Herbs.” National Geographic. National Geographic, 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. <http://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/08/long-before-doping-scandals–russians-were-studying-performance-/>.
Winston, D., & Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester, Vt: Healing Arts Press.
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