The supermarket spices that can cure modern stresses
Thanks to the clean-eating brigade, many are dismissive of health supplements. But 'adaptogens' may have real staying power, writes Eleanor Steafel
Stress is an unavoidable symptom of modern life. We all suffer from it - many of us are even being signed off sick from work because of it - and we probably all talk about it far too much. But what is the best way to manage it?
The theories are infinite, ranging from practising regular meditation, to taking a bracing outdoor swim every morning, to cutting out food groups and enrolling in a course of CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). But rather than prescribe drugs or major lifestyle changes for patients suffering from burn-out, many experts are now turning to ancient natural resources to treat stress and anxiety, including a newly re-discovered group of wonder herbs called adaptogens.
A kind of "bespoke herb for the body" - as one nutritionist I spoke to describes them - adaptogens are the stress-beating plant extracts which were always used in ancient Chinese and ayurvedic medicine, and are now being hailed as the new natural cure for the symptoms of modern living. Found mainly in the roots of certain plants (turmeric is one of the more mainstream roots recognised as being adaptogenic), they get their name for their 'adaptable' nature.
The herbs work by naturally regulating the body's release of the stress hormone cortisol, bringing it up or down depending on whether the adrenal gland is overproducing it or underproducing it. This means they can help balance the body's response to stress and in doing so allow you to sleep better, become more energised in the mornings and regulate your mood.
Nutritional therapist Jodie Brandman explains: "Adaptogens help your body adapt to difficult periods of your life and environmental stresses - they bring your body back into balance. They affect the adrenal pathways - the stress response pathways - but they will adapt to whatever you are struggling with, so if your energy is really up and you're struggling to sleep and are really anxious, they can help ground you and bring you back down. If you're low in spirits and have poor energy, they can bring you up."
Thanks to the clean-eating brigade, many are understandably dismissive of health foods and supplements, suspecting the latest crazes to be a product of flash branding and savvy marketing rather than solid science. However, some experts feel adaptogens (in spite of their suspiciously faddy-sounding name) may have real staying power.
Pharmaceuticals science journal has reported that a number of clinical trials have demonstrated that adaptogens can exert a novel anti-fatigue effect - increasing mental attention, endurance and work capacity against a background of stress. The journal also notes that recent pharmacological studies of a number of adaptogens have provided a rationale for these effects at a molecular level.
Many adaptogens can be found in their plant form and are readily available in supermarkets and greengrocers, and taking them does not require you to also adhere to a strict diet or exercise regime. More obscure sources can be found in the form of supplements in most health food stores.
"They've been used for thousands of years and are all 100pc natural, and because they're biodegradable, they go straight into your system and make you feel a lot better really quickly," says Naomi Buff, the founder of the London-based Naomi's Kitchen, which sells adaptogen superfood blends that you can add to teas and smoothies.
"The way we are living today, everybody is highly stressed all the time. We could probably all benefit from taking adaptogens, even if we don't think of ourselves as struggling," she adds, having discovered the benefits of adaptogens herself after suffering terribly from adrenal fatigue. "I could barely get out of bed to look after my two children. I saw nutritionists and specialists who prescribed lots of supplements. But because I was so run down and depleted, my digestive system wasn't working well either, so I was taking the supplements and they weren't working.
"I began reading about adaptogens and how they could give you a natural energy boost and help ease anxiety. I started taking them, stirring powder into tea in the evenings before bed to help me sleep, and taking another as a tincture in the morning to wake me up. Slowly I began to build up my energy levels again."
Official guidelines suggest that while products are often bought by consumers who believe they will experience both physical benefits and a positive effect on cognitive performance and well-being, some adaptogens may not be suitable for people with certain conditions, so it is always best to consult your GP first.
A recent systematic review by the Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit organisation, has assessed the effects of an adaptogen like ginseng supplements and while it concluded that although it "appears to have some beneficial effects on cognition, behaviour and quality of life," it also reported "more rigorously designed studies are needed for conclusive proof of effectiveness".
However, adaptogen-rich blended powders are becoming more widely available. Ginseng and turmeric are easy enough to find and can be infused in hot water or blended into smoothies easily. Less simple to track down are ashwaganda (a popular herb in ayurvedic medicine thought to have a soothing effect), maca (a root similar to ginger which increases energy, strength and libido), or cordyceps (an energy-boosting mushroom traditionally grown in China on the bodies of caterpillars - though it's now cultured in a lab).
Here are six ways to get adaptogens into your diet...
Turmeric is already being used to treat inflammatory conditions because of the anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin - the yellow pigment present in turmeric. The tiny root is also considered to be adaptogenic because it can help the body to maintain the appropriate level of cortisol. Take it in its raw form if possible, infused in hot water or blended in a smoothie.
Holland and Barrett does a supplement which combines Korean ginseng with Ginkgo Biloba - another adaptogenic herb which promises to help with declining memory and circulatory problems. You can also easily buy ginseng tea.
Goji berries have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years and are said to help elevate your energy and stamina. Add them to juices or smoothies, or eat them raw with nuts and seeds as you would any other dried fruit.
Liquorice root is best, Naomi says, to take as a tincture. "Put a couple of drops on your tongue in the morning. If you wake up in the morning and you feel as if you've been hit by a bus, liquorice root provides an instant energy boost. You shouldn't take it, however, if you have high blood pressure, though people with fatigue tend to have low blood pressure." Holland and Barrett do dried liquorice root which you can steep in hot water to make a potent tea.
Adaptogen-rich juices and nut milks
You can also glug your adaptogens in the form of a cold-pressed juice or the ever-trendy "mylk" (made from almonds, oats, hazelnuts - anything you wouldn't naturally milk, essentially). Try making a ginseng shot with maca, which promises to give you an energy and immune boost.
You might imagine that getting hold of this Peruvian superfood would be tricky, but health food shops sell it in powdered form. They suggest adding a teaspoon of it into milkshakes or smoothies daily to boost your energy.