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The Power & Science Of Adaptogens From A Functional Medicine Expert

How an Elimination Diet Can Optimize Your Health and Heal Your Gut Dr. Will Cole 2

If you take a look into the wellness world, you might think that every health-conscious person on the planet is adding different blends of adaptogens to every meal and snack. While adaptogens are some of my top go-to tools to use in my daily health routine and for many of my patients, nobody needs to be taking handfuls. In fact, using the wrong adaptogens for your individual needs and biological makeup can be, at best, expensive, and, at worst, harmful for your body. Instead, target your adaptogens for the areas in your health that really need a boost.

Adaptogens are plant medicines - but not just any old plant medicines.

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 (1) at least three specific criteria:

  • They are generally safe (for just about everyone).
  • They help you handle stress.
  • They work to balance your hormones.

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FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE CONSULTATIONS FOR PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD

How adaptogens work

Adaptogens 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. Your HP axis also controls hundreds (2) of pathways that are responsible for inflammation. 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:

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.

The Best Adaptogen For Each Health Problem

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. Ever wonder what gives pearls their strikingly beautiful luminescence? You can thank conchiolin for that. This protein is what promotes healthy collagen production which gives your skin that glowing appearance. In fact, it has similar effects to keratin – a protein found in your skin and hair – to improve cell metabolism, increase circulation, and repair damaged cells.

Pearl and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Pearl has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as far back as 320 A.D. The only female empress in Chinese history, Wu Zetian, used pearl for its beauty benefits. In traditional Chinese culture, skin health was revered and pearl was the top natural medicine to achieve a glowing and youthful appearance.

And they didn’t stop there. Chinese medicine also saw the adaptogenic abilities of pearl and used it as a mind (shen) stabilizer to calm mood and disposition. For example, if someone is dealing with stress or anxiety, pearl is the go-to tool in TCM shen tonics.

Pearl and Ayurveda

In traditional Indian medicine, or Ayurveda, pearl powder is also held in high regard for its adaptogenic and anti-aging benefits. Known as Mukta Pishti, pearl powder is used to soothe inflammation, lower heat in the body and cool the digestive system. It is also used in ayurvedic love potions as an aphrodisiac.

Modern Science and Pearl Benefits

There is an increasing amount of modern science (12) to support the validity of the ancient wisdom about pearl. Pearl powder has at least 30 trace minerals, along with calcium, iron, copper, magnesium, silica, and selenium.

Chaga: Research is proving this superfood mushroom's ability to help heal (13) various ailments, but one of it’s star qualities is its phenolic content, which makes chaga a free radical fighter. This helps to reduce cell oxidation and for more glowing skin. (14)

Cordyceps: This is the ultimate anti-aging adaptogen. Not only does this mushroom increase antioxidants, but it decreases (15) 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 (16) from premature destruction and aging.

Inflammation: 

Oyster: Load up on oyster mushrooms if you are struggling with systemic inflammation. They have been found to soothe inflammation and aid in healing (17) inflammation-related health problems such as cancer and heart disease.

Stress:

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.

Hormone Balance:

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 (18) by balancing cortisol levels.

Fatigue:

Ginseng: 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.

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.

Cordyceps: Cordyceps can also rebalance hormones and restore energy in those struggling with adrenal fatigue. (19)

Shiitake: This superstar mushroom provides next-level support for healthy adrenal function. (20)

Eleuthero: 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.

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.

Brain Fog:

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 absolute best mushroom for brain support, Lion’s mane has potent neuroprotective properties, so it’s the perfect choice for clearing brain fog and enhancing cognitive function. The power comes from the nerve growth factors found in Lion’s mane, which protect and regenerate brain tissue. One study found that those who took a lion’s mane supplement for 16 weeks (21) showed significantly higher cognitive function compared to those who didn’t.

Rhaponticum: Some studies (22) have shown that this root can stimulate brain activity.

Shiitake: Popular in Chinese cuisine, this mushroom is packed with B vitamins and works to support optimal brain health. (23)

Immunity:

Maca: Packed with vitamin C, this is a perfect immune booster.

Chaga: Studies have shown (24) 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. (25)

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.

Shiitake: This mushroom also has powerful antimicrobial properties. (26)

Anxiety and Depression:

Lion’s mane: Studies have shown (27) 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! (28)

Blood Sugar Balance:

Reishi: Multiple studies (29) have proved reishi’s ability to lower blood sugar in those diagnosed with diabetes by working upstream to down-regulate alpha-glucosidase, the enzyme responsible for turning starch into sugar in the body. Reishi can also help improve symptoms associated with diabetes, such as kidney problems (30) and poor wound healing. (31)

Maitake: Maitake can also improve glucose tolerance and blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. (32)

Digestive Issues:

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.

Cancer:

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 (33) that cancer cells died after just a few days of treatment!

Chaga: Chaga can even take down cancer cells – lung, (34) brain, (35) and liver (36) cancer cells have all been found to decrease with intake of this mushroom.

Maitake: Multiple studies have shown (37) that maitake can slow the growth of cancer cells (38) and suppress tumor growth through its immune-boosting abilities.

Turkey Tail: One of the most well-researched of medicinal mushrooms, turkey tail is my go-to choice for patients dealing with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and candida yeast overgrowth. It’s also another cancer fighter and immune system booster – one study showed that the polysaccharide known as PSP in turkey tail greatly improved immune health in 97 percent of cancer patients. (24)

Safety concerns

Since some mushrooms really are poisonous, some may be wary of trying mushrooms they haven’t heard of before, but the beauty of adaptogens is that they are generally safe for everyone. Since every person’s health case is different, what works for one person may not be the most relevant for another, but every mushroom mentioned in this article is safe for all. Specific dosages can vary, but I generally recommend that my patients have some type of adaptogenic mushroom at least three times a week. Start with a lower amount and give your body time to adjust before gradually increasing your dosage or frequency.

How do I eat them?

1. Add them to your favorite recipes

Adaptogens can be found in powdered form making it easy to add to your favorite soup recipes. Add them to baked goods or toss alongside other seasonings when roasting veggies.

2. Make adaptogenic elixirs and tonics.

The powders are easily dissolvable in smoothies and can be combined to make powerful healing teas.

3. Eat them whole.

Adaptogenic mushrooms can be eaten whole. I like to sauté them with onions and garlic and serve alongside a piece of grass-fed steak.

When buying whole mushrooms, it is essential to look for organically grown varieties. Because mushrooms are extremely porous, they easily absorb pesticides and other chemicals. Depending on the stores in your area, it may be more difficult to find organic versions of adaptogenic mushrooms, since they are such a specialty item. If you can’t find some of these mushrooms, you can buy them in dried form online or, to save on cost, buy an organic kit online and grow your own! Not only will you be getting nutritious food medicines, but you’ll have a fun new hobby!

If you’re not a fan of the taste or texture of mushrooms, you can also get these in powdered form, extracts, or in supplement form. Just like the whole food versions, make sure these are organic. Some of my favorite brands include OM and Four Sigmatic. When you are in a hurry, powders are a great way to get in your 3x/weekly servings of adaptogenic mushrooms. Add them to any beverage, smoothies, soups, or sprinkled on top of your favorite meals. I think they make a tasty addition to coffee, and can elevate your latte to adaptogenic status!

Where 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 JuiceSun PotionFour Sigmatic, and Real Mushrooms.

The Perfect Adaptogen To Take Each Season

With each season, your health can require different support to go along with the sometimes dramatic temperature and weather change your body has to deal with. If you are wanting to target your adaptogens with the seasons, look no further.

Spring

Spring is earth’s revival; everything turns green again and plants begin to bloom. It is also the season when allergy sufferers need to load up on their allergy remedies.

Thankfully, there are many natural remedies available so you can avoid the pharmacy. Many studies have shown (37) that red ginseng is a powerful anti-allergenic. One study (38) proved red ginseng’s ability to lower allergy-induced nasal inflammation as well as symptoms like runny nose, sneezing, and itching.

Summer

Long days and warm weather have us spending more time outside. This added sun exposure is great for boosting vitamin D levels, which is essential for our body to thrive. However, it can increase free radical damage which can lead (39) to wrinkles.

Keep your skin youthful by looking under the sea. My favorite oceanic adaptogen, pearl – yes, the same pearls that are used for jewelry – can be crushed up into an extremely nutrient-dense powder. It is loaded with amino acids as well as antioxidants which work to reverse (40) free radical damage and repair damaged cells.

Fall

Cold and flu season starts its attack as soon as the temperatures begin to drop. During this time you’ll want to bring in extra immune support. Astragalus is an antibacterial and antiviral root adaptogen that can boost (41) immune-regulating T-cells. Keep this with you to ward off any sniffles that start to creep up.

Winter

The start of this season can be a time for increased coziness and relaxation. But days on end being stuck inside can quickly become depressing. In fact, between 20 and 35 percent (42) of people struggle with mild to severe forms of seasonal affective disorder, commonly referred to as SAD.

Other than the lucky few who live in a sunny climate year-round, the winter blues is something that everyone likely deals with at some point. Mucuna pruriens is a powerful mood-booster due to its high levels of L-DOPA, which is a precursor to dopamine. Elevate your mood by include this into your morning coffee, tea, or smoothie.

My Favorite Adaptogenic Recipes

Age-Reversing Mushroom Latte

Ingredients

  • 1 cup organic hot coffee
  • ½ teaspoon each powdered chaga and cordyceps
  • 2 tablespoons raw cacao powder
  • 1 tablespoon raw organic honey or other desired sweetener; add more or less to taste
  • Desired amount of almond or coconut milk

Method

  1. Add hot coffee into a large coffee mug.
  2. Add in mushroom powder, cacao powder, and desired sweetener to coffee and stir to combine.
  3. Pour in milk and froth with a milk frother.
  4. Sip and savor!

Refreshing Adrenal-Balancing Iced Tea

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon ashwagandha powder
  • 1 teaspoon rhodiola powder
  • 1 teaspoon holy basil powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preparation

  1. Pour 1 to 2 cups of hot water over herbs. Let steep for 15 minutes and then pour over ice.

Sex Hormone Boosting Elixir

Ingredients

  • 2 cups full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon cacao powder
  • 1 teaspoon shilajit powder
  • 1 teaspoon Ho Shou Wu
  • 1 teaspoon mucuna pruriens powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon raw honey

Preparation

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until fully combined.
  2. Pour into saucepan and heat for 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat until warm.

Anti-Inflammatory Mushroom Elixir

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups plain full-fat organic coconut milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of organic powdered chaga, reishi, lion’s main, turkey tail, cordyceps, shiitake, and himematsutake
  • 1 teaspoon chia seeds
  • 1 tablespoon raw organic honey
  • 2 pitted medjool dates (more if you want it sweeter!)
  • 2 tablespoons raw cacao powder
  • 1 teaspoon maca powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • Himalayan sea salt to taste

Preparation

  1. Blend all ingredients in a blender. Serve cold, or, if it’s chilly where you are, warm it up.

Thyroid-Boosting Smoothie

Ingredients

  • 1 cup full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 scoop collagen protein
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin coconut oil
  • 1 cup mixed greens
  • 2 Brazil nuts
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 stick celery
  • 2 tablespoons dulse flakes
  • 1 tablespoon maca powder
  • 1 cup organic frozen berries

Preparation

  1. Blend all ingredients in a blender.

My Personal Experience With goop-Inspired Adaptogens

At the forefront of this adaptogenic awakening is Gwyneth Paltrow, who, in all of her GOOP goodness, has spread the word about adaptogens to the masses. As both a functional medicine doctor and someone who has struggled with adrenal fatigue in the past, I’ve personally experienced and witnessed the clinical benefits of adaptogens over the years, but in an effort to really put them to the test, I decided to go full-on health nerd and practice a strict 30-day Gwyneth-inspired adaptogenic diet. Since some adaptogens are calming (such as cordyceps, schisandra, and reishi) and some are stimulating (like maca and rhodiola), it was fun to experiment with creating my own blends depending on what my body needed on any particular day. Here’s what happened, and how you could try this too. Please note that while most adaptogens are generally safe for everyone, it is important to take precautions if you are pregnant or breast feeding. Certain varieties like ashwagandha, shilajit, and mucuna pruriens are not safe for these people. Ashwagandha is also a nightshade (43) so it can trigger inflammation for those with autoimmune conditions.

My typical adaptogenic day

I vowed to include adaptogens at every meal, and learned early on that my favorite way to include them was in smoothies, elixirs, and tonics. I also filled up my plate with as many superfoods as I could, “consciously coupling” nutrient-dense food with adaptogens for even more potent detoxification effects. Here is what I ate in a typical day:

Breakfast: Brain-Boosting Smoothie

This smoothie, my own adaptation of one of Gwyneth’s brain-boosting recipes, contains a variety of adaptogens aimed at maximizing brain health. I’m a huge fan of maca in the morning to increase my mental strength, and GP makes sure to include that in her drink as well. To help prevent brain fog, I added a little holy basil.

She’s noted that she includes lion’s mane in her smoothies, which is a workhorse when it comes to brain health. It contains nerve growth factors that regenerate and protect brain tissue. In fact, studies have shown a decrease in depression (26) and memory loss with the use of this mushroom. By the way, did you know that our genetic makeup is very similar to mushrooms? Ever wonder why it is so much more difficult to get rid of a fungal infection than a bacterial one? Try this boost for your own brain health and lay the foundation for the day ahead.

Ingredients

  • 1 whole avocado
  • 1 cup greens of choice
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 1 to 2 handfuls blueberries
  • 1 teaspoon maca
  • 1 teaspoon lion’s mane
  • 1 teaspoon holy basil
  • Raw honey to sweeten (optional)

Method

Combine ingredients in blender, blend, and enjoy!

Lunch: Re-energizing Latte with Nori Wraps

Since GP likes to sip an adaptogenic latte to give herself a boost in the afternon, I thought this one would be the perfect accompaniment to my lunch. In my version I also included the adaptogenic bean mucuna pruriens, which helps to elevate my mood, brain function, and creativity for the second half of my day, as well as shilajit to give my immune system the kick it needs to feel more energized. Additionally, the thyroid-balancing effects of ashwagandha are that much more amplified when alongside a lunch of homemade sushi. Sea vegetables contain iodine, which is essential for happy thyroid hormones. Since your whole body needs thyroid hormones to function, I take any support I can get.

Where I normally would start to feel a little sluggish at lunch after a long morning of patients, I noticed a quicker bounce-back rate after enjoying this latte. After about a week of keeping this as a lunchtime ritual, I didn’t even notice my midday slump creeping in anymore. One more point for adapotgens!

Dinner: Hormone-Balancing Chocolate

After a dinner of wild-caught salmon, I indulged in a little chocolaty goodness for dessert. I made a chocolate bark similar to the adaptogen-packed ones Gwyneth eats, filled with ingredients aimed to amp up sex hormones, because why shouldn’t you have a little after-dinner fun with that special person? I included Ho shou wu since it has been traditionally used for years in Chinese medicine as a sex-hormone enhancer. In addition, adding the adaptogenic berry schisandra helps to balance out brain-adrenal communication to calm stress hormones, which can contribute to low sex drive.

30-Days Later: My results

After 30 full days of consistently incorporating these adaptogens, I experienced what I consider to be significantly enhanced energy, mood, and feelings of deep wellness. I also came out of this experiment with some personal favorites. Here’s what I plan to continue to use going forward:

  • Cordyceps: This mushroom helps to boost and maintain energy levels by activating energy production in the body’s cells.
  • Ginseng: Whether you choose Asian white, Asian red, or American white, ginseng is a great pick-me-up and it’s the first thing I turn to when I need an energy boost. I can sometimes be sensitive to caffeine, so this gave me the boost without the jitters.
  • Reishi: I took this mushroom when I wanted to relax as it helps to promote better sleep by calming the body and mind.
  • Astragalus: This root-derived adaptogen is the perfect support for overall health. It helps to enhance the immune system and boost metabolism and aids in whole-body function.

If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our consultation process. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.

Photo: Stocksy

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BY DR. WILL COLE

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Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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