Lately, adaptogens are on everyone's radar, and athletes have started adding them to their diet to improve mental strength, increase VO2 max, raise energy levels, manage stress, improve sleep, and enjoy several other benefits provided by these amazing plants.
But since adaptogens are a relatively new type of dietary supplement in the Western world, there are several myths and misunderstandings surrounding their use.
What's the ideal intake amount? What studies to believe, considering they often contradict each other? And not to mention the division between the experiments of the Eastern block during the Cold War and the amounts allowed for sale in the European Union.
In this blog, you will find answers to the questions regarding adaptogens and the safety of their use.
If you want to learn more about the use of adaptogens, check out our guide!
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are plants that grow in very harsh conditions, such as cold, wind, shade, high altitude, etc. These areas are low in nutrients and adaptogens are facing constant stress that forces them to adapt to survive. Consequently, they have developed strong defense mechanisms that turn out to be beneficial for your health and well-being.
The best-selling and most popular adaptogen worldwide is undoubtedly ashwagandha, which has several crucial benefits for athletes. Ashwagandha is the only adaptogen that has become a household name and is widely used by the general public. Thanks to its widespread use, interest started growing in the other adaptogens as well.
If you want to discover other extremely useful adaptogens, check out the top 5 adaptogens we recommend to our athletes!
Proper use of adaptogens
Adaptogens are great for athletes because they excel when you function at the peak of your capabilities. In fact, certain adaptogens, such as Siberian ginseng, may even increase cortisol levels when used during low-intensity exercise or without any exercise, which is why you need to choose your adaptogens carefully.
Another thing to note is that adaptogens must be consumed regularly for a longer period of time to allow them to develop their full effect. If you want to learn more about the correct use of adaptogens, check out our adaptogen use guide!
We definitely recommend you try adaptogens when:
- You want to manage stress levels
- You perform hard training sessions
- You are facing stressful challenges
- You want to enjoy their specific benefits
A cultivated adaptogen produces its effect only when cultivated in the same way as it grows in nature. A ginseng root, for example, requires 5 years to develop the adequate amount of ginsenosides. It's easy to grow an adaptogen in an artificial environment, but such a plant will lack the proper active ingredients.
Nevertheless, it is believed that cultivated adaptogens are better than the ones found in nature. That's because when cultivated correctly, we can make sure they contain the right amount of active ingredients, something impossible in nature.
But there's a caveat. A cultivated adaptogen will be better than it's natural counterpart only if the manufacturer took proper steps during its cultivation. They need to pay regard to the time necessary to cultivate the plant and its active ingredients. Furthermore, they must provide similar harsh conditions, or even harsher ones, than the ones experienced in nature.
Here's the thing. An adaptogen is not a rose or a tulip. It does not need love, praise, and attention. What it needs is harsh conditions that allow the plant to push itself to the limit. Quite similar to an endurance athlete, don't you think?
Problems with adaptogen studies
There are several issues regarding adaptogen studies, both in terms of their appropriateness and their availability. In fact, there was no serious study performed in the Western world up until the 21st century, and all serious studies are less than 10 years old.
Many people who advocate for certain intake amounts of a specific adaptogen or make claims regarding its effect base their claims on Russian or Soviet studies, but these studies raise several concerns.
- They were never peer reviewed.
- It's hard to tell whether the studies found online are real or just a fabrication (Soviet scientists didn't write in English, and no international publications are available).
- Since these studies were performed on astronauts, top-level athletes, and soldiers, there were most likely other substances and conditions involved.
- The amounts used were focused on quick results and did not consider long-term consequences of excessive use.
- The amounts would not make any EU agency happy.
Dr. Nicolai Lazarev, who coined the term adaptogen, tested the adaptogens on astronauts. Astronauts must have elite genetics and excellent physical preparation, which is hard to compare to an average athlete, let alone to a regular person.
Dr. Israel Brekhman, who is considered the father of adaptogens, tested the adaptogens on soldiers. The interesting fact about his observations is that the advocacy of high intakes of Siberian ginseng occurred at a time of bad relations between the Soviet Union and China, which made it impossible to get Chinese ginseng anymore. Furthermore, there is no available information on what these soldiers were actually administered.
Dr. Anatolij Antosheckin tested the adaptogens on Olympic athletes as a substitute for the exposed Soviet doping program. A neutral observes can't shake the feeling that absurd amounts of adaptogens were a way to find excuses for the Eastern block's doping program.
On the other hand, there are several studies coming from India. These studies mostly focus on ashwagandha, which has great cultural significance in India due to Ayurveda, a 3000-year-old natural medicine system, due to tradition, and due to the fact India is the main exporter of ashwagandha.
The problem with Indian studies is that these studies were performed by the manufacturers themselves, who are also the largest ashwagandha sellers in the world.
Observing university studies related to ashwagandha, you can see that the names of the researchers overlap with the names in the home studies of the manufacturers, who are often also donors of the universities that performed these studies.
This leads to the conclusion that this is a potential reason why there are so many deviations in the recommended intake amounts between Western and Indian studies.
Lack of information regarding adaptogens
Studies often declare that 1 g of ashwagandha was administered to an xy number of athletes for an xy number of days, and then xy happened. But almost never can you see whether this gram of ashwagandha was extracted from the root or from the leaf and what percentage of active ingredients this gram contained.
But the thing is, this is a crucial piece of information, as it greatly impacts the effect of ashwagandha.
In regards to the use of ashwagandha leaves, the Indian Ministry of Ayush issued a statement:
“No substantial evidence and literature is available to endorse the efficacy of crude drug/extract of Withania somnifera leaves. Considering this, it would not be appropriate to consider the Withania somnifera leaves as ASU (Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani) medicine at this stage. Extensive studies are required to establish the safety and efficacy of leaves of Withania somnifera for different indications. Till then, the usage of leaves may not be considered for therapeutic purpose in ASU systems.”
Ashwagandha leaves are much cheaper than root. In fact, up to 100 times cheaper. By using leaves in their ashwagandha-based formulas and reducing the much more expensive root extract, dietary supplement manufacturers can drastically increase their profits.
Furthermore, using leaves reduces the profit of hard-working farmers and robs ashwagandha fields of the much-needed compost for the next growing seasons. Even though the aerial parts of ashwagandha are not recommended for consumption, they play an essential role in the durability and the natural cycle of ashwagandha. Farmers leave the leaves to dry on the fields and harvest the seeds for the next growing season. Dry leaves (as well stems) are used as compost for the next ashwagandha harvest and help renew the organic content of the soil. In other words, the root is for health, and the leaves are for compost.
Ashwagandha 4Endurance Pro contains only the root of the plant, standardized at 7% of active ingredients (the industry standard is 2.5 to 5%), i.e. withanolides that are responsible for most active ingredients of ashwagandha.
Single adaptogen or a mix?
Adaptogens need time to load up in your system and develop their full effect. The only exception is cordyceps, which develops its full effect within 48 hours. The loading time depends on the adaptogen, but roughly we can say that adaptogens need 7 to 10 days.
Studies regarding synergies between adaptogens and their mixed use are very scarce, mostly due to the fact that different adaptogens come from different parts of the world, which didn't interact much among each other. Furthermore, these studies are relatively new. Nevertheless, studies seem to show that using several adaptogens at the same time requires smaller quantities than a single adaptogen.
If, for example, you use three types of adaptogens that boost your energy levels and your focus, all ingredients will develop their effect at the same time and much sooner than if you were taking only a single adaptogen, and you will require smaller doses.
Sometimes less is more!
An interesting example is a comprehensive study on ginseng, found under the name of ActiGin in our natural VO2 max booster Absolute. ActiGin is a high-quality adaptogen, its effect is confirmed by research, and it contains the sufficient amount of active ingredients. In a dose of 2x 5 mg, ActiGin made a significant difference in muscle recovery after exercise in terms of reducing muscle damage and reducing lipid peroxidation, both a consequence of exercise-related stress.
Similar or worse results were obtained by studies that included 500 mg of ginseng or more, which leads us to believe that they were using a ginseng of lower quality or with a lower quantity of active ingredients, i.e. ginsenosides.
There are many beliefs surrounding adaptogens and their use, and the market is flooded with choice. But as a consumer, you are often left to your own judgement, as many claims related to adaptogens are misleading and contradictory.
That's why we offer you only the most carefully-selected adaptogens from reliable producers, in functional doses, and from the best parts of the plant. This way you can enjoy the full effect of these fierce plants that thrive on tribulation, just like you.
If you want to learn more about the use of adaptogens, check out our guide!