Adaptogens for Athletes

[This article on adaptogens is a guest post by Dr. Drew Jamieson ND.]

Stress-fighting adaptogenic herbs are back in the spotlight. Praised in Ayurveda, a medical system based on principles of natural healing that originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. Adaptogenic plants are proving invaluable in battling the modern problem of chronic stress. A new arena where adaptogens are also gaining attention is with sports. They have huge potential when it comes to dealing with the considerable physical and mental issues that athletes face on top of day-to-day stressors likes jobs and relationships.

The remarkable resilience of these ancient herbs which grow in the some of the harshest climates in the world is passed on to those who incorporate them into their dietary regime. Strength, endurance, oxygen utilization, mood elevation - these are some of the key benefits that adaptogens offer to athletes.

Stress - the answer and problem

Stress is an inevitable and necessary part of life. But, chronic stress where the body is constantly in flight or fight mode is not healthy. Nor is it natural. The unrelenting demands of modern life - noisy cities, pervasive social media, demanding jobs, unhealthy diets, debilitating illnesses with scant time for rest and relaxation take a heavy toll on our neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. Chronic stress can cause or worsen the symptoms of just about any health condition. Whether it be heart disease, obesity, diabetes depression, impotence - just to name a few. Waiting rooms around the world are crowded with people trying to deal with debilitating health issues that can be traced back to mishandled stress.

There are many ways to deal with this stress. Some are more effective than others. Popular remedies such as caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants provide short-term relief but are counter-productive in the long term, creating their own health problems such as irritability, anxiety, and insomnia. Medications such as sedatives, come with even more serious side effects such as addiction and other dangerous behavioral and health problems.

If allowed, the body has natural and effective ways of dealing with stress. Exercise, diet, sleep, and meditation are excellent habits that clear the path for the athlete's innate defenses to deal with things like unrealistic job expectations, rush hour traffic and problems with their bench press. What makes adaptogenic herbs so appealing and effective is that, like a good night’s sleep, they elevate the body’s constitutional resistance to adrenal fatigue.

A more than Russian history

The term adaptogen was coined by the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Health in 1947. It defines a class of herbs and mushrooms that support the body’s natural resistance to ‘adverse influences’. According to this definition, an adaptogen must not only be shown to have a positive impact on the body’s stress response, but it also can not have any damaging side effects.

There are some instances where certain adaptogens might not be suitable for individuals with specific health issues, such as auto-immune disorders, those who are pregnant or those who are taking certain medications. More research about the toxicity of adaptogens is required, but so far these plants have proven remarkably safe. Negative reactions have been mild and short-lived. It is a good idea though to consult with a health-professional knowledgeable about herbal medications to see what adaptogens would be most beneficial for your particular requirements.

More than a win in the gym

Adaptogens not only enhance athletic performance, they contribute to long-term health. It’s a win, win combination. This is in contrast to popular exercise supplements which often have detrimental side effects such as shakiness, irritability and sleep disruption. Unlike stimulants where the body becomes immune to the effects and demands increasingly stronger doses, the benefits provided by adaptogens increase with usage. The longer you use them the more benefit you get from their stress modulating qualities. They’re also excellent sources of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents which aid in preventing cellular damage.

One of the most amazing characteristics of these herbs is that they adjust themselves to the specific needs of the individual. They don’t have one specific action. They respond to what the body needs. For example, if cortisol levels are low, they help raise them to a normal level, and vice versa. They are often described as a natural thermometer increasing or decreasing stress response according to the body’s need.

There are dozens of adaptogens, but in my experience, there are some that are particularly well suited for training purposes.

What Herbs should I be using for Training
Ashwagandha - A wonder adaptogen

Ashwagandha, one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda, offers an impressive array of benefits such as boosting adrenal function and brain health, improving moods and increasing stamina and endurance. It also helps with cortisol levels. Cortisol is known as a stress hormone because it is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress. In some cases, cortisol levels can become chronically elevated, which leads to high blood sugar levels and increased fat storage in the abdomen. In one study, those who took ashwagandha had significantly greater gains in muscle strength and size than the placebo group. It also more than doubled the reduction in body fat percentage compared to the placebo group.

It may also have powerful effects in other key areas, especially for males. In one study involving 75 infertile men, Ashwagandha increased sperm count and motility. It also caused a significant testosterone increase.

Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola Flower

Rhodiola rosea's impact on athletic performance and recovery have been studied extensively. This plant has anti-fatigue, anti-stress, anti-hypoxic (protection against the effects of oxygen deprivation), antioxidant, immune enhancing and sexual stimulating properties. It increases the production of creatine phosphate and ATP (high-energy molecules) at a cellular level. It also increases the rate at which oxygen is utilized in the muscles. It is also an antioxidant and helps lower elevated cortisol levels. These factors contribute to a number of practical benefits, enhancing muscle energy and stamina during periods of peak performance. It has been shown to positively influence rate of perceived exertion. This is significant because it motivates the athlete to work harder and longer.

Panax ginseng another wonder adaptogen

Ginseng, long prized as an energy enhancer and sexual stimulant, has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine and is one of today’s most extensively studied adaptogenic herbs. The primary active ingredients in these roots are ginsenosides that provide a wide range of benefits. Ginseng may increase strength because it enhances creatine production. Canadian researchers reported that rats receiving ginseng for just four days increased their exercise time to exhaustion because ginseng caused the body to spare glucose and burn more fat for fuel. This not only explains why ginseng increases muscle endurance but also why it can aid fat loss.

Korean researchers found that rats given ginseng before exercise showed increased time to exhaustion for treadmill running because of lower serotonin production from tryptophan in the brain. Serotonin signals fatigue, which reduces muscle strength and endurance. By inhibiting serotonin production, you can train stronger for longer.

More than a strong body

Ginseng has been found to boost alertness and cognitive function and significantly improve mood. One way that ginseng may improve mood, in men at least, is by boosting sexual performance. This may be because it increases the release of luteinzing hormone from the pituitary gland in the brain, which encourages testosterone production.

Studies show Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) increases tolerance to a broad range of stress factors, including heat, noise, and increased exercise. When taken regularly, it increases work output, endurance, athletic performance, and mental alertness. The plant also shows remarkable protective benefits under conditions of serious oxygen deprivation. Eleuthero may also act as a sleep aid. In clinical experiments, extracts of the plant have been proven to shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, while increasing the depth and duration of sleep. This may be due to the plant’s ability to reduce stress hormones in the blood.


Cordyceps sinensis is an entomopathogenic fungus (a fungus that grows on insects) that is thought to increase the body’s production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is essential for delivering energy to the muscles. The fungi have been found to potentially boost energy and oxygen use during exercise.

Other adaptogens that are proving popular with athletes is Schisandra chinensis and Astragulus.

Schisandra Chinensis Berry - Adaptogens
Schisandra Berry

The Schisandra berry is notable for its unique taste, described as sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent. This makes it a healthy and popular flavouring for juices and drinks. The plant is significant not just because of its berry’s taste though. The seeds of the Schisandra berry contain health-boosting lignin which helps improve liver function by stimulating enzymes and promoting cell growth. Taking schisandra fruit extract by mouth, alone or in combination with rhodiola and Siberian ginseng, seems to improve concentration, attention, and speed of thinking. The plant also improves coordination and endurance.

Astragalus Root - Adaptogen
Astragalus Root

The antioxidant effects of astragalus inhibit free radical production which damages cells and is linked to health issues associated with aging. Compounds in the plant include saponins (a glycoside found in oats, spinach, and other plants) and polysaccharides which may play roles in the plant’s immunity boosting properties. The benefits of astragalus include improved exercise performance and anti-fatigue effects. There is some evidence that astragalus, like rhodiola, can help relieve muscle and joint pain.

How to take adaptogens and when?

Adaptogens come in many different forms - drinks, pills, tinctures that can be mixed with water or alcohol or powders which you can toss into your smoothie or tea. For best results, they should be taken consistently. The reaction can be felt within an hour of being taken, especially rhodiola and ginseng. It is not the same kind of adrenalin jolt that one gets with caffeine, but rather a spike of balanced energy without jitters and shakes.

In my experience twice daily doses are most effective - on waking, then early afternoon or pre-workout. The dose can be increased during times of intense physical output or illness such as cold or flu.

Typically adaptogens are most effective in combination. You want to look at the individual’s needs and see what plant will benefit them the most. A formula usually includes two to four different plants.

Adaptogens are relatively new to the world of North American sports. They have been extensively researched in Russia not only for athletes but for astronauts as well. It is clear that these plants will claim even more spotlight space in the upcoming year as athletes and trainers take advantage of their many and varied benefits.