What are Nature's Best Adaptogenic Teas and Supplements?

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In the 1970’s, the Russians launched a top-secret program in the wilds of Siberia to identify nature’s best adaptogens.

To get a sense of the powerful health benefits that can be potentially derived from adaptogenic teas and the herbs they’re made from, it’s helpful to begin with a top-secret Soviet Union research program conducted In the 1970’s out in the wilds of frigid Siberia. They assigned some of their top scientists to the project, who were banned from discussing or writing about the project’s discoveries for the rest of their lives. No, it wasn’t a nuclear program, or new weapons system, or mind-control, or anything like that. Instead, what the Russians were so secretive about was their research into identifying the best adaptogens and adaptogenic teas. They were seeking a competitive edge, for their soldiers on the battlefield, for their cosmonauts out in space, and especially, for their Olympic athletes.

The details of the program have now been chronicled in a book written by Patricia Gerbarg, a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College entitled, The Rhodiola Revolution. Gerbarg worked closely in her research for the book with the now-deceased Zakir Ramazanov, a Russian scientist who had worked on the Siberian project. After the Iron Curtain fell, Ramazanov fled Russia to the United States, taking a trove of confidential project files with him. 

Russia first began to experiment with various adaptogens back in the late 1940’s. In fact, the term “adaptogen” was originally coined by Russian researcher, Nikolai Lazarev. Even though the term is fairly new, the use of adaptogens in traditional Asian medicine dates back thousands of years. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), adaptogens fall into a class of herbal medicines known as Kidney Yang tonics. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, adaptogens fall into a category known as “Rasayanas.” The Rasayana category is a fairly broad one and includes all herbal medicines that are believed to enhance longevity. 

Initially, Asian ginseng looked like their best choice for the Russian researchers, but their Chinese communist allies wanted too much money for the six year-old roots (or older), so they then began investigating “Siberian ginseng” (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which isn’t actually in the Ginseng genus, but it was a catchy name for the Siberian-based Soviet scientists. Eventually they discovered Rhodiola rosea, a readily-abundant, perennial flowering plant native to Northern Siberia. With Rhodiola, they hit the jackpot.

Still, beyond the ginseng group and rhodiola, there are a variety of adaptogens that can provide benefits. Let’s take a closer look.  

    Adaptogenic teas help us fight fatigue and the day-to-day stresses of life.

    Physiological and Psychological Actions Associated with Adaptogens

    Adaptogens have been generally recognized through research to promote health and wellbeing, some of which are noted in a review in the journal Pharmaceuticals

    1. Anti-stress effects - The stress-protective action of adaptogens has been demonstrated in studies involving simple organisms, in mice, and on individual cells.
    2. Stimulant effects - The stimulant effects of adaptogens are well-established. It is worthy of note that the mechanism of stimulation is different than that of a prescription stimulant, which may cause dependency or withdrawal symptoms. . 
    3. Cognitive effects - Adaptogens have been shown to increase short-term memory, increase speed and reliability of understanding information, and to enhance the ability to reproduce information accurately. 
    4. Anti-fatigue effects – Adaptogens are perhaps best known as agents for preventing and fighting fatigue.
    5. Mood-boosting effects - Adaptogens may improve mood and bring on the calm without undesirable side effects like sedation or weight gain.  
    6. Longevity – Rhodiola has been demonstrated to stimulate the production of SIRT1, a protein associated with metabolism.

    Now that you have an appreciation of how useful adaptogens can be to your health and wellbeing, let’s explore the benefits of individual adaptogens. 

    Nature’s Best Adaptogens

    While each selection has its own unique qualities, all adaptogens share the common properties of helping to combat stress and fatigue. But first, let’s take a broader look at nature’s best adaptogens and the primary ways in which they can be helpful for achieving improved wellness. 

    ASHWAGANDHA

    Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a mainstay of Ayurveda, India’s time-honored medical system. It does have a somewhat bitter taste, so Indians often drink Ashwagandha tea with ghee, honey, and milk. There are also many recipes available that incorporate it mixed with other foods to help mask the taste. 

    Ashwagandha is one of the most scientifically studied botanicals, with over 1,100 references to it cited in the PubMed database. Among its many health benefits, Ashwagandha has been shown to: 

    • Reduce the stress hormone, cortisol.
    • Help prevent stress-induced ulcers in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
    • Have anti-inflammatory properties.
    • Have numerous cognitive enhancing abilities, including increased alertness, memory, and concentration. 
    • Thought to have neuroregenerative properties.. 
    • Has anti-inflammatory properties.
    • Improve mitochondrial activity. 

    CURCUMIN

    Curcumin is the active phytochemical in turmeric, an ingredient often found in curry. Drinking curcumin as an adaptogenic tea is uncommon, because it’s packed with bright orange-colored flavonoids. If you try to use it in its powdered form, everything that comes into contact with the curcumin powder will be stained orange. This would, of course, include your lips, mouth, hands, and clothing. For that reason, it’s advisable that curcumin be consumed in a capsule or tablet form.

    Curcumin is perhaps the most studied herbs. It is a somewhat atypical adaptogen because its primary action is not associated with fatigue. It does, however, have anti-stress qualities due to it being an inhibitor of the stress hormone cortisol. 

    Typical of botanical adaptogens, it has a wide array of benefits associated with it, including: 

    • Antioxidant properties.
    • Anti-inflammatory properties.
    • It’s an immune regulator.
    • It may have liver protective qualities.
    • It has neuroprotective qualities.
    • It supports cardiovascular health.

     

    Rhodiola grows wild in the Siberian tundra.

    RHODIOLA ROSEA

    Rhodiola is considered by many to be nature’s most beneficial adaptogen, a virtual archetype of what an adaptogen is. Rhodiola has a slightly sweet and slightly bitter taste and can be consumed as an adaptogenic tea. You may want to add a sweetener, like honey, and perhaps another strong herb to help mask the bitterness, like peppermint or ginger. Rhodiola may:

    • Protect the nervous system
    • Protect the liver
    • Protect the cardiovascular system
    • Protect against radiation exposure
    • Help shore up antioxidants
    • Promote a positive inflammatory response
    • Protect against allergies
    • Stimulate the immune system
    • Foster a sense of calm
    • Enhance cognitive performance 

    ELEUTHEROCOCCUS 

    Commonly known as Siberian ginseng and “eleuthero,” eleutherococcus is one of the herbs that the Russians studied closely and utilized for its adaptogenic properties. It has a pungent, bitter taste, and if used as an adaptogenic tea, its flavor must be masked with other strong herbs, such as ginger or peppermint, or perhaps both. 

    Eleuthero has the following adaptogenic qualities:   

    • Aids against physical and mental fatigue
    • Enhances physical performance
    • Stimulates the central nervous system
    • Enhances cognitive performance, including learning and memory
    • Supports the liver
    • Supports the GI and cardiovascular systems
    • Is an antioxidant
    • Helps normalize blood glucose levels
    • Is an anti-inflammatory
    • Protects against allergies
    • Supports immune response
    • Has calming properties 

    SCHISANDRA CHINENSIS

    Schisandra is a woody vine, indigenous to Northern China and Eastern Russia. It produces berries that are used in Chinese medicine for their adaptogenic properties. Its berries are said to have five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and sour. Schisandra can be consumed as an adaptogenic tea, but again, it will be an acquired taste. You may find the need to mask the flavor with honey and other, strong herbs. 

    Schisandra is an important component of TCM. Schisandra has the following properties: 

    • Normalizing blood glucose
    • Supporting heart health
    • Immune system activation
    • Soothing GI distress 
    • Easing night sweats
    • Boosting mood and mitigating irritability
    • Supporting a healthy memory

    Ginseng root is only harvested every six years and makes an excellent adaptogenic tea.

    PANAX GINSENG and PANAX QUINQUEFOLIUS

    Panax Ginseng is a well-known, time-honored adaptogen, a key component in TCM. Panax Quinquefolius is its North American cousin, and is comparable in its adaptogenic properties. Ginseng roots are expensive because they must remain in the ground for a minimum of six years in order for them to mature and for their key phytochemical components to develop.

    Ginseng has a mostly agreeable taste and is well-suited to be consumed as an adaptogenic tea.

    The health benefits of Ginseng have been investigated extensively over recent decades and it is one of the most commonly used medicinal herbs throughout the world. It has been shown to have the following qualities: 

    • Protects the cardiovascular system
    • Supports immune response
    • Has antimicrobial properties
    • Enhances cognitive performance, especially short-term memory.
    • Protects against the formation of ulcers.
    • May be useful against obesity by lowering fat absorption.
    • Helps regulate blood glucose levels.

    Capsule, Powders, and Teas: How to Consume Adaptogens

    How we go about consuming adaptogens is an important decision, which is based largely on taste — literally. Traditionally, herbal medicines were nearly always prepared as a tea, or decoction. The tea was steeped for some time, often for days, and then the patient would drink it. This is an ideal way to consume an adaptogen, or any other herb because during brewing, the active components leach into the water, making the natural solution highly potent. 

    The only drawback to consuming adaptogenic teas, compared to taking herbs by capsule or tablet, is taste. Some herbs are quite bitter and are disagreeable to the palate. Some are a bit unpleasant, but tolerable, while others have a relatively benign taste. Let’s review some of nature’s best adaptogens, and what they can do for us. We’ll also reflect on their compatibility relative to consuming them as an adaptogenic tea.

    My Personal Favorite Adaptogenic Teas

    If I had to pick one adaptogen to use in my dietary supplementation program, it would have to be Rhodiola. Rhodiola has a real kick to it, stimulant-wise, and really helps me focus. Ashwagandha would be my second choice. Ashwagandha does lift my energy, but it is a soothing, calming type of energy. I’d say, rhodiola for the work week and ashwagandha for the weekends — the best of both worlds.


    Show references

    1. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010 Jan 19; 3(1): 188–224. Published. doi:10.3390/ph3010188
    2. Singh N, Bhalla M, de Jager P, Gilca M. An overview on ashwagandha: Rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine. 2011; 8(5 Suppl): 208–213. doi:10.4314/ajtcam.v8i5S.9
    3. Szczepanowicz K, Jantas D, Piotrowski M, et al. Encapsulation of curcumin in polyelectrolyte nanocapsules and their neuroprotective activity. Nanotechnology. 2016;27(35):355101. doi 10.1088/0957-4484/27/35/355101
    4. Xu H, Yu X, Qu S, Chen Y, Wang Z, Sui D. In vive and in vitro cardioprotective effects of panax quinquefolium 20(S)-protopanaxadiol saponins (PQDS), isolated from panax quinquefolium. Pharmazie. 2013;68(4):287–292.
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