In Episode 143 of Keto Talk, Jimmy and Dr. Will Cole do a deep dive on the subject of Adaptogens–plant medicines, but not just any old plant medicines– and shine some light on what this means for your health.
"I like to think of adaptogens like Captain Planet. When all the forces combined, they saved the day. Adaptogens are a whole kingdom of substances that all work together, but they all have their own strong suits as well." – Dr. Will Cole
"Most people can find benefit from these adaptogens in their life right now." – Jimmy Moore
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a broad family of herbs and plant medicines that have been used for thousands of years throughout the world. To be labeled an adaptogen, a plant medicine must fulfill at least three specific criteria:
How adaptogens work
Stress and hormone pathways are connected – your body’s stress system, the sympathetic nervous system, controls hundreds of pathways that are responsible for inflammation, and when inflammation gets out of control, this can lead to hormonal problems like adrenal fatigue, low sex drive, and thyroid dysfunction.
Adaptogens help to regulate the sympathetic nervous system so everything downstream works better. And because chronic inflammation is linked to many of the common health problems we see today, the medical literature has found adaptogens to have even more cool and far-reaching health benefits like:
They all mediate stress, fight inflammation, and bring balance to your hormonal system but each adaptogen also has its own special set of skills.
Here are the 12 most popular adaptogens and what you should know about each:
1. Ginseng: The pick-me-up
Ginseng varieties, including Asian White, Asian Red, and American White, are great for those seeking an extra boost of energy without the jitters that can come from caffeine. Personally, I especially like to use it to combat jet lag.
2. Pearl: The beauty secret
Crushed-up pearl powder is a great source of amino acids and will nourish skin, hair, and nails.
3. Rhodiola: The stress calmer
Rhodiola rosea is good for people struggling with adrenal fatigue and fibromyalgia, but it can have a stimulating effect on the extra-sensitive, so take it before noon or it could keep you up at night.
4. Schisandra: The adrenal supporter
Another super adrenal supporter, this berry is one I used on a regular basis during my journey recovering from adrenal fatigue.
5. Shilajit: The sex hormone igniter
People with low libido or sex hormone imbalance can benefit from shilajit. This Ayurvedic herb’s name translates as “conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness.” Sounds good to me.
6. Ashwagandha: The thyroid + mood master
A superstar adaptogen, this popular herb is a great tool in supporting optimal thyroid function. If you tend to get mood swings, ashwagandha may also be all the remedy you need. Just watch out – ashwagandha is a nightshade, which may aggravate symptoms (such as joint pain) in some people with autoimmune conditions.
7. Maca: The energizer
Maca both boosts energy and calms anxiety. It’s also a rich source of vitamin C, making it an immunity enhancer. There are three types of maca powders: Red, yellow, and black. Red maca is the sweetest and mildest tasting. Yellow maca is the least sweet, and black maca is somewhere in between the two.
8. Holy Basil (Tulsi): The memory booster
I recommend holy basil to my patients who complain of brain fog because it gently increases cognitive function. As a bonus, it’s also great for bloating and gas.
9. Ho Shou Wu: The libido pumper-upper
Another great tool for people with a low sex drive, this herb has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine.
10. Mucuna pruriens: Nature’s chill pill
This adaptogenic bean extract is jam-packed with L-DOPA, the precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. I take this daily as it helps with focus and calms me down during my busy day.
11. Eleuthero: The battery pack
If you are dragging through the day, this herb is another great one for optimizing energy levels. Extra stressful week? Eleuthero is your go-to.
12. Adaptogenic mushrooms
Within the adaptogenic kingdom, there is an extra-special group of medicinal mushrooms that offer some of the same hormone-balancing benefits as the adaptogens above and some extra immune-boosting qualities too. These include:
What are adaptogens anyway?
Adaptogens encompass a wide variety of different natural medicines from all corners of the globe that have a few things in common: They are generally safe and they have a balancing effect on something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-endocrine axis. This is the delicate dance between your brain and hormone system, and include your brain-adrenal (HPA) axis, brain-thyroid (HPT), and brain-gonadal axis (HPG). You need all these communication systems working in perfect harmony for a healthy mood, metabolism, energy, immune system, and sex drive. When your HP axis is unbalanced it leads to hormone problems like adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems, and libido issues. And nobody wants that.
Like the colors of a rainbow or the superhero kids on Captain Planet, the inhabitants of the adaptogenic kingdom sometimes work brilliantly by themselves and sometimes cooperate synergistically with other complementary adaptogens. Usually available in powdered form, you can mix these into your morning coffee, make a caffeine-free tonic, or blend them into your daily smoothie.
The next question is: Which ones do you need? Find your current health issue and I’ll give you a list, but always remember to pay attention to how your body responds to anything new.
Poor complexion, Brittle nails, or Unhealthy hair:
Pearl: This adaptogen of the sea is a great source of amino acids to help nourish hair, skin, and nails.
Chaga: This superfood mushroom is loaded with antioxidants that help fight free radicals to keep skin youthful.
Cordyceps: This is the ultimate anti-aging adaptogen. Not only does this mushroom increase antioxidants, but it decreases the pro-inflammatory monoamine oxidase and lipid peroxidation activity that causes us to age.
Rhaponicum: Full of antioxidants, this root helps to promote cell health, keeping you young and vibrant.
Jiaogulan: Consuming this adaptogen can actually help your body increase its production of superoxidase dismutase. This particular antioxidant protects your body’s cells from premature destruction and aging.
Rhodiola: This herb can help reduce stress and is great for people with adrenal fatigue. However, if you are extra sensitive, be careful because it could potentially keep you up at night.
Mucuna pruriens: This bean extract is packed with L-DOPA, which is the precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. I call this nature’s chill pill.
Ashwagandha: Since it has the ability to regulate cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, this is a powerful calming tool to have on hand.
Licorice root: Bring stress down with this cortisol-controlling Zen master.
Schisandra: This berry supports your adrenals and can help fight adrenal fatigue.
Cordyceps: For those struggling with adrenal fatigue, this is a great hormone balancer to help increase energy and stamina.
Ashwagandha: The ultimate cortisol balancer, this helps to support your brain-adrenal (HPA) axis. This herb is also powerful when it comes to thyroid support. Since adaptogens are balancing in nature, ashwagandha in particular is great at boosting sluggish thyroid hormones.
Licorice root: Just like ashwagandha, it helps to heal adrenal fatigue by balancing cortisol levels.
Ginseng: Asian white, American white, Asian red, and Siberian (Eleuthero) all boost energy without the caffeine jitters.
Maca: This herb is available in three different varieties: red, yellow, and black. Red is the sweetest but most mild tasting. Yellow is the least sweet, and black is right in the middle. They are all great energy boosters.
Low Sex Drive:
Shilajit: This herb is used in ayurvedic medicine and translates to “conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness.” Shilajit helps to lift up low libido and balance sex hormones.
He shou wu: If sex were an herb, it would be he shou wu. Used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine, this herb helps increase sex drive in those with low libodos. Mix with shilajit for a sexual health tonic.
Holy basil (Tulsi): Start incorporating this into your wellness routine if you struggle with brain fog as it works to increase cognitive function.
Lion’s mane: The nerve growth factors (NGFs) found in this mushroom can help regenerate and protect brain tissue.
Rhaponticum: Some studies have shown that this root can stimulate brain activity.
Maca: Packed with vitamin C, this is a perfect immune booster.
Chaga: Studies have shown this mushroom to have powerful antiviral effects as well as immune-balancing properties.
Turkey tail: When consumed daily, it has been shown to improve immune function.
Ashwagandha: This is traditionally used in ayurvedic medicine to help boost the immune system after being sick.
Astragalus: Having strong immune-boosting abilities, this herb has been used to help restore immune function for people with weakened immune systems from cancer treatments or chronic illnesses. In addition, it has powerful antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Anxiety and Depression:
Lion’s mane: Studies have shown that the consumption of lion’s mane can reduce depression and anxiety.
Ashwagandha: Taking ashwagandha has been shown to reduce anxiety by up to 44 percent!
Blood Sugar Balance:
Reishi: This magic mushroom helps to lower blood sugar levels by down-regulating-alpha-glucosidase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down starches into sugars.
Holy basil (Tulsi): This little guy works hard to reduce bloating and gas, for those struggling with gut issues.
Turkey tail: I often give this adaptogenic mushroom to my patients who are battling gut overgrowths like SIBO or candida.
Licorice root: This has been used for years as a common remedy to help heal leaky gut syndrome since it is both soothing and anti-inflammatory.
Shiitake: Japanese studies have shown that this mushroom has the power to actually decrease tumor growth.
Himematsutake: Also known as God’s mushroom, the protein blazein that is found in Himematsutake actually has the ability to kill some cancer cells. Studies have shown that cancer cells died after just a few days of treatment!
Where the heck do I buy these?
You can find many high-quality, organic adaptogens online and at health foods stores. Some of my favorite brains are Moon Juice, Sun Potion, Four Sigmatic, and Real Mushrooms.