Adaptogens are powerful herbs, spices and medicinal mushrooms that help provide calm and relaxation from mental and physical stress.
They also help your body respond to high cortisol levels during stressful situations and act as energy regulators. As we close out National Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to share this important Q&A on the best adaptogens for cognitive function. Oftentimes when you’re under a lot of pressure, you lose focus and can’t concentrate on the task at hand. But adaptogens work to help heighten your brainpower and productivity.
Since the research on adaptogens is still emerging, I emphasize that they aren’t a necessary part of following a healthy, balanced diet. By eating plenty of antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory foods, you’re already boosting your brain health.
But if you’d like to use adaptogens, pay attention to how your body feels after eating them. Talk to your dietitian and doctor to make sure the adaptogens you’re taking don’t interact with any medications you’re on. Here’s what science says about the top adaptogens for alleviating stress and enhancing your brain and mood.
Ashwagandha is a powerful Indian herb that helps stabilize cortisol levels and fights the side effects of stress. The literal meaning of ashwagandha is “smell of horse.” This refers to the earthy smell of the herbs and the belief that it can provide the strength of a horse. In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha helps improve your body’s response to stress by helping it adapt to the changes and decreasing damage from high cortisol levels. Often referred to as a “royal herb” and Indian ginseng, ashwagandha has high concentrations of withanolides, which have also been shown to fight inflammation and slow the growth of tumors.
According to a study in PLOS One, ashwagandha leaf extracts may be used as a neuroprotective supplement for brain health. Another study also found that full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract can help reduce cortisol levels and help improve your resistance towards stress. Research also suggests that ashwagandha may serve as a potential treatment for neurodegenerative disorders, although the study was done on rats.
Rhodiola, also known as Arctic or Golden root, is one of the best adaptogens for cognitive function. I spoke about the benefits of Rhodiola in a previous post on nootropics. Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb that grows in Europe and Asia and helps treat anxiety and fatigue. But many people use it as a nootropic to increase energy and improve memory. A study on 80 participants who used Rhodiola for 14 days found that it helped them reduce stress, anger, confusion, and depression. Another study of 101 people who consumed 200 mg of Rhodiola twice a day for four weeks found that it helped them relieve stress symptoms and gave them an overall therapeutic effect. Two active compounds in Rhodiola called rosavin and salidroside haven been shown to help with depression symptoms, but more research is needed to confirm their overall effect.
3. Cordyceps Mushrooms
If you’re familiar with reishi, chaga and lion’s mane mushrooms, then chances are you’ve heard about cordyceps. Cordyceps mushrooms are a unique type of fungus that lives inside certain caterpillars but end up taking over their host. Chinese medicine has used cordyceps for centuries for fighting free radicals and preventing oxidation. But now new research on cordyceps shows that it has some stress-fighting and energy-boosting benefits, too. By protecting the body from stress, cordyceps can help strengthen the immune system and build the body’s defense against disease. In fact, one study shows that cordyceps sinensis can potentially be used as an anticancer and antimetastatic agent for the treatment of cancer.
And while this study was done on rats, research suggests that cordyceps may help with protecting the liver and heart from oxidative stress. Since studies on cordyceps are small and new, pay special attention to how you feel after taking them. Stop consuming them if you experience negative side effects. As always, be sure to consult your doctor before introducing any new supplements into your routine.
4. Holy Basil
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, dates back 3,000 years go for its anxiety-relieving properties. A native to Southeast Asia, holy basil has been used in ancient Ayurvedic medicine for treating a variety of health conditions, including bronchitis, nausea, and stomach ulcers, but it can also be used as an adaptogen. Research suggests that tulsi can counter metabolic stress through stabilizing blood sugar, blood pressure and lipid levels. According to a study in the Journal of Ayurveda Integrative Medicine, holy basil has also been shown to have positive effects on memory and cognitive function through its anti-depressant properties. And because holy basil has antimicrobial benefits, it’s starting to pop up in toothpaste and mouthwash
Turmeric is the secret to curry powder’s bright yellow hue, but this super spice is capable of much more than infusing your dishes with flavor and color. Many of turmeric’s health benefits derive from curcumin, the potent compound in the yellow spice. Ancient Ayurvedic medicine uses turmeric to help fight off inflammation and relieve pain. But what makes turmeric a great adaptogen is that it can help boost cognitive function and memory, too.
A study from The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry split 40 participants ages 51-84 into two groups. One group took 90 mg of curcumin twice daily for 18 months while the other grouped had a placebo. The results showed that those taking curcumin improved their memory tests, and the placebo group didn’t experience any changes. Research suggests that turmeric can be used as a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s disease because of curcumin’s potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Let’s Hear It
Do you take any adaptogens for stress relief? How do they help you alleviate stress and anxiety? Do you experience a cognitive or mood boost from taking these adaptogens? How do you incorporate adaptogens into your routine? Share them with the NS community in the comments below!