Adaptogens are all the rage these days. You’ve probably read about these ancient herbs, like ashwagandha and reishi mushroom, and how they can benefit our overworked adrenal glands. The adrenals regulate the fight-or-flight response by producing hormones (like cortisol) and responding to (and being influenced by) other hormones in the body (like insulin).
Optimal adrenal health is essential for optimal hormonal health. And research does show that adaptogens have a protective effect when it comes to calming the stress response and promoting adrenal health (and, hence, promoting hormonal health). But there are some important things to consider before you dive headlong into using adaptogens as a panacea for all your stress.
Let’s take a closer look at how these herbs work, what you need to consider before taking them, and what you need to know about a few of the most popular adaptogens.
How Adaptogens Work With Your Endocrine System
The magic of adaptogens is that they don’t just do one thing. They can sense what your body needs when faced with a stressor and help balance your stress response. (They’re like the ‘smart’ devices of the plant world, able to read and interpret your needs and help meet them.) That means, generally speaking, that adaptogens help lower your body’s need to produce cortisol in response to stress.
In other words, adaptogens are an outside source of stress support that don’t cause any strain on your body. That’s what makes them different from cortisol, which is produced to help us deal with stress but which (when produced in abundance) ages your endocrine and immune systems and negatively affects brain, sex drive, menstrual and reproductive health, and skin elasticity.
When you take adaptogens, your endocrine system is freed from having to make cortisol and can instead produce more progesterone, estrogen, testosterone and human growth hormone. Cortisol can simply protect you from stress rather than harm you. Your whole endocrine system will work better, you’ll have healthy periods, fertility, and sex drive and won’t age prematurely internally or on the skin.
Two Cautions When it Comes to Adaptogens
One: some adaptogens are phytoestrogenic and some increase testosterone production, so if you are struggling with fibroids, endometriosis, cysts, pcos, you can certainly use them in short courses, but you may want to experiment with one at a time to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions and take breaks as you feel you are in a less stressful period of time.
Two: Adaptogens are a great tool in your stress-fighting arsenal, but they may not be the best first step if you’ve been stressed for a long time and your inner reserves are really depleted. When your tank is running on empty, your first best step is to make space in your life for self-care that promotes deep healing: eating the right diet for your body,getting 8 or more hours of high-quality, consecutive sleep every night; finding places in life to build better boundaries and practice saying “no” to things that don’t serve you; and tracking your natural, 28-day cycle and learning how to care for your hormones in each distinct phase of your cycle.
Adaptogens can be wonderful—they can be a great addition to your hormonal biohacking strategy—but they’re not a substitute for deeper healing and hormone balancing, which is all about self-care and cyclical nutrition and exercise.
The Lowdown on 4 Common Adaptogens
If you’re thinking of trying an adaptogen, you’re probably considering one of these popular herbs. Here’s the skinny on how these four herbs influence your hormones.
Maca powder. You may have heard that maca can solve all your period problems, but rarely is one herb or food (even when it is dubbed a superfood, as maca often is) a miracle cure for your hormonal woes. But maca root can help your body adapt to stressful life situations that might otherwise deplete your body’s hormone production and cause symptoms.
I recommend maca powder as part of a wider hormonally-supportive diet in three situations (1) after coming off the birth control pill, (2) if you’re age 35 or over and experiencing symptoms of perimenopause and/or you are post-menopause, and (3) after you’ve had a baby and you’re done breastfeeding. In these three situations you might be experiencing several hormone-based issues that maca can help with, including:
- Low energy levels
- Low sex drive
- Brain fog and poor focus or concentration
- Mood swings and depression
- PMS symptoms
Ashwagandha. This well-researched herb has been shown to reduce oxidative stress (also known as the internal process that contributes to cell damage and accelerated aging) and support a healthy stress response. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, ashwagandha was shown to improve stress resistance and participants’ self-assessed quality of life. When it comes to hormones, ashwagandha has been shown to safely improve sexual function and low libido for some women (perhaps because it supports healthy testosterone production). Other studies suggest that this herb can dramatically slow down cell division in estrogen-receptor positive breast cancers. I recommend ashwagandha if you struggle with anxiety and/or if you’re wrestling with low libido.
Holy Basil. This herb supports a healthy adrenal response as well as helping stabilize blood sugar, which is essential for healthy hormone balance. In fact, I consider blood sugar balance one of the first and most important steps in solving period problems and easing symptoms like acne, PMS, fibroids, bloating, and hormone-related migraines. Research also suggests that holy basil can help protect the liver and support liver function. The liver detoxes excess hormones from the body and helps prevent estrogen dominance. For healthy hormones, you need a healthy liver. I recommend holy basil if stress and anxiety are an issue and you also wrestle with imbalanced blood sugar. If you have a history of taking over-the-counter or prescription medications, you may consider taking holy basil for liver and detox support.
Reishi mushroom. Reishi is a powerful adaptogen that is also chock full of antioxidants. These mushrooms have been lauded for their anti-tumor, anti-androgenic, anti-aging, and immune-boosting effects. I don’t believe in superfoods as such — no one food or single intervention can be a miracle cure on its own — but if any plant comes close to deserving the title of a super food, I’d nominate reishi mushrooms. The antioxidant and chemopreventive benefits of reishi are well-studied, and when it comes to hormones studies show that reishi (and other cordyceps mushrooms) may help ease symptoms of PCOS, hirsutism, and acne by exerting an anti-androgenic effect in the body. I recommend reishi mushrooms if you’re struggling with acne, unwanted hair growth, or symptoms related to PCOS.
Taking adaptogenic herbs is a generally safe practice that can ease symptoms and improve quality of life. But herbs should only be part of your stress-reduction and hormone-balancing strategy after you’ve addressed some of the bigger lifestyle factors that drive hormone issues, like sleep deprivation, exposure to chronic stressors, exposure to toxins, and being out of touch with your natural hormone cycle. If your tank is running on empty, and has been for a while, start with the big stuff. When you’ve made progress in those areas, it might be time to consider an adaptogen.
Remember: Once you have the right information about how your body really works, you can start making health choices that work for you.
Love and Ovaries,
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