Trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep? Low-level headaches and unexplained body pains? Low energy? Flagging libido? Is it getting harder to get off the couch and into the gym? Do you have a suspicion that stress is taking a toll on your health and productivity? You might want to consider adaptogens.
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are nontoxic plants or herbs, as well as some mushrooms, that support the body’s innate ability to deal with stress - whether physical, chemical or biological. They must cause minimal, if any, side effects and have zero- to low-toxicity. They have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions and modern science is rediscovering the remarkable role they can play in restoring adrenal health. Adaptogens play a huge role in Nova3 Lab’s supplements targeting such things performance, sleep, and recovery.
Is stress the problem?
Stress gets a lot of bad press. But it’s actually a good thing. It gave our prehistoric ancestors that extra burst of speed when they were being chased by saber-toothed tigers. Today, it gives us that extra burst of speed when we cross the intersection against the light. It also lets us ramp up our efforts when a work deadline looms or helps us concentrate when navigating rush-hour traffic.
It’s not stress, but chronic, unrelenting stress, that we should be worrying about.
Chronic stress can become a real problem for athletes. After all, they have the same day-to-day stressors as everybody else. They have bills to pay, demanding bosses and rush-hour traffic to navigate. On top of all that they are purposely imposing extra physical and mental strain on their bodies in an effort to lift more, jump higher or run faster.
About 20 years ago I began noticing familiar problems holding back performance-based athletes. The classic symptoms of overtraining. They were sore, suffering from insomnia, poor performance, reduced immunity and a lack of enthusiasm for training. It inspired me to start researching ways that athletes could train hard and consistently without over-stressing their bodies. How could they quickly recover from that extreme training session so they could attack the next one?
One of the things I realized very early on is that it wasn’t only the quality of the training session that was important for athletes, but just as critically, their ability to recover from those sessions. How efficiently the body recovers determines, to a great extent, how the athlete progresses.
Fight or Feast?
The body exists in two states, sympathetic and parasympathetic. In the sympathetic, you are in the fight or flight mode. A bear attacks. Adrenalin kicks in. You freak out, jump through the window and run away. That’s your fight or flight response. Later on, when you’re safe you laugh over a drink with friends about your close call. That’s when you’re in your parasympathetic mode, also known as rest and digest or feed and breed.
You need that sympathetic fight or flight response or else you’re going to very quickly become a light snack for a hungry carnivore or a squashed pedestrian, but you also need that parasympathetic resting time. That’s when you’re going to recover the most from the fight or flight’s adrenaline surge. The stress response is designed to be activated for short bursts, followed by longer periods of energy-replenishing rest and recovery. It is vital that we keep our stress responses under control. Waiting rooms in doctor’s offices around the country are filled with people who are having trouble doing this.
This is where stress-moderating adaptogens are so helpful.
Adaptogens to the rescue
Many of the unique qualities found in these plants are particularly well-suited for hard-training athletes. For example, they can help with low dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) levels. DHEA is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, a precursor to the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. Levels tend to decline dramatically with age. They also help with low testosterone and low cortisol levels. They help with strength, endurance, energy, focus, and attitude. This not only improves the training session but also aids in the all-important recovery.
There are dozens of adaptogenic plants growing in some of the planet’s most hostile environments and each has their own unique stress-fighting characteristics. These plants have a miraculous ability to adapt to individual requirements, regulating the adrenal system up or down depending on the need.
One of the more potent and researched of these adaptogens is Rhodiola rosea. Russia uses this plant extensively with its athletes in its Olympic program and with its cosmonauts in its space program. It has been prized for centuries though. Supposedly Vikings gulped it from horn cups for strength and endurance before a raid. Over 140 different compounds have been isolated in Rhodiola roots, including phenols, roasvin, rosin, rosarin, terpenoids, flavonoids, anthraquinones and flavonoids.
Rhodiola has been used, among other things, to increase muscle strength, increase endurance, reduce blood lactate levels, boost anti-viral immunity and provide antioxidant support, but the mental boost it can provide are equally important for a hard-training athlete.
Overtrained and Under-recovered
A key symptom of overtraining is a depressed mood. Epidemiological studies have shown Rhodiola can increase the sensitivity of brain cells to two key neurotransmitters - dopamine and serotonin – which are both mood enhancers. They are also essential for cognitive function and memory. Rhodiola has also been shown to significantly help with anxiety which is a common problem for busy athletes balancing training sessions, jobs, and a social life. Studies have found it can also combat mental and physical fatigue by influencing the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Essentially RPE is just how hard athletes feel they are working. Reducing RPE will likely result in a better performance. If I can alter how hard I think I am training, I can increase both effort and duration.
Another important and well-studied adaptogen is Eleutherococcus senticosus, commonly known as Siberian Ginseng or in Chinese medicine Ci Wu Ju. Eleuthero has been shown to boost energy levels and contains compounds that can help delay exhaustion and moderate its side effects. It helps to increase the ability of muscles to do work, especially during periods of intense physical activity. By increasing circulation, eleuthero may increase blood flow to the brain, improving mental functions such as memory and concentration. This is a versatile plant and is being studied to help with a wide variety of health conditions including type 2 diabetes, nerve damage, lymphatic function, reducing osteoporosis and preventing ulcers just to name a few.
You snooze, you win
Another critical way that adaptogens can help athletes is with sleep. The importance of sleep should not be underestimated. It affects so much of what we do in our waking hours. Sleep can’t be hacked. There is no cheat that will let us work around the body’s need for rest.
Stress disrupts the regular circadian secretion of cortisol and can be a major cause of insomnia and other sleep problems. If you are stressed and in that fight or flight mode running from bears while you drool into the pillow, you will have trouble getting to sleep and the sleep that you do get will be fractured. You will not get that deep system-restoring sleep that the body demands
Unlike other stimulants such as caffeine which can keep athletes awake, adaptogens ability to regulate the production of cortisol helps reduce stress. A relaxed, less stressful body allows for better and more rejuvenating sleep. Ginseng, Ashwagandha, and eleuthero are three adaptogens that are known to help improve sleep.
Timing, timing, timing
Other things that must be taken into account when taking supplements is timing, dosing, and combinations. You can have too small a dose which will prove ineffective. Some people respond better to larger doses. The law of diminishing returns does apply though. Bigger doses don’t necessarily translate into better results.
There are dozens of adaptogens and each has unique properties that can help with stress and athletic performance. For this reason, supplements often contain more than one adaptogen. Different adaptogens provide different benefits. For example, the Nova3 supplement Max Adrenal is a pill capsule taken in the morning to provide natural energy, enhanced focus and stress management. On the other hand, Max Sleep, taken at night, helps you get to sleep quickly and stay asleep. Max Perform is a powder mixed with water and taken immediately before a work out that helps, amongst other things, to boost energy, muscle recovery and reduce after-training soreness. When choosing a supplement it is important to know what your goals are and what your body needs.
Adaptogens can be taken in different ways. Some, like holy basil, can be eaten as part of a meal. Ginseng or Rhodiola, are consumed as supplements. Others are made into vitamin-like tablets, put into healthy energy drinks or brewed into teas.
Safe at any speed
The great thing about adaptogenic plants is their safety. There are instances where some adaptogens are not recommended. For example, someone who is pregnant has to be careful as well as those with an auto-immune disorder. But the toxicity level of these plants is almost nonexistent and a bad reaction would be minor and quickly subsist upon discontinuing the supplement. Although more research needs to be conducted in this area, these plants have a very strong track record when it comes to safety.
The level of dosing is an inexact science as of yet though and varies from individual to individual. It has become obvious to me over the years that regular consumption of adaptogens provides more resistance to chronic stressors. However, I recommend taking a break from supplementation occasionally, not because of safety concerns, but just as a means of gauging the effect they are having on the body.
No such thing as a quick fix
I discourage people from viewing adaptogens as a quick-fix for stress-related problems. These plants have amazing benefits and can add to almost any training program, but there are no quick fixes when it comes to health and you should always be skeptical of any supplement or diet that promises immediate solutions to complex problems. Adaptogens are an excellent way to help you deal with stress, but if you have serious health issues, it is important that you examine other areas in your life- physical and emotional - that might be the underlying cause.
Mike Kesthely is CEO and founder of Nova 3 Labs, a leading supplement and nutrition company and he LOVES adaptogens. He is a trained nutritionist, certified coach, and CrossFit trainer. He is also a firefighter and paramedic which has given him a deep appreciation for the importance of quality sleep. His athletic experience includes lacrosse, martial arts, rock climbing, mountain biking and CrossFit.