Updated: Apr 19
The term was first used to describe extracts that enhance the human body. (1) Nowadays, adaptogens refer to a range of both natural and synthetic supplements that can assist the body to both physical and mental stress. In other words, they may help you cope when things get tough.
How do they do this you may ask?
When we are exposed to a certain stressor, whether physical or emotional, our bodies will go through something called general adaption syndrome (GAS). This process is divided into 3 stages:
Adaptogens have the ability to help us stay in the resistance phase for a longer period of time by energising us and prevent us from becoming exhausted.
However, they are not a substitute for looking after yourself through a healthy diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep.
How much should you take?
You can use adaptogens for a few days or weeks to get through a busy time at work. Follow the dosing directions that come with the product. Adaptogens are generally safe, but everyone reacts differently, so start carefully and take note of your body's response to the supplement. They contain biologically active compounds that can benefit the body, but as with any drug or supplement, adaptogens do have side effects so its best to check with a doctor before using them as they may not be safe for everyone.
It’s also essential to check with a doctor before using supplements if you are pregnant or may become pregnant or if you are breastfeeding. Some supplements, including adaptogens, may harm a developing fetus or infant.
Which ones should you take? For the sake of hormonal balance, the two I will be talking about today are Ashwagandha and Reishi mushrooms.
Scientific research confirms that this herb has many health benefits, including reducing stress, boosting energy, enhancing sexual function, and lowering blood sugar. It is known to enhance the body's resilience to stress by decreasing cortisol levels. The herb has also been shown to reduce inflammatory markers and improve insulin sensitivity. (2)
Ashwagandha may however, increase testosterone levels and is therefore contraindicated in PCOS. (3)
Studies have shown that reishi can affect white blood cells, which are critical parts of your immune system. Reishi may be used to help ease symptoms of PCOS. This is because they are anti-androgenic, which means they have the ability to reduce the levels of male hormones. It has been found that extract from Reishi mushrooms exhibit estrogen-like activity by binding to human estrogen-receptors. (4). One research study explored anti-androgenic effects of 20 different types of mushrooms, and Reishi had the strongest effect on testosterone by preventing the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (a more potent androgen). (5)
As PCOS is a condition with elevated androgens, supplementing with Reishi mushrooms may help alleviate your symptoms. I do not recommend Ashwagandha if you have high androgen levels.
1. Liao, L. Y., He, Y. F., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, Y. M., Yi, F., & Xiao, P. G. (2018). A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chinese medicine, 13, 1-12.
2. Noshahr, Z. S., Shahraki, M. R., Ahmadvand, H., Nourabadi, D., & Nakhaei, A. (2015). Protective effects of Withania somnifera root on inflammatory markers and insulin resistance in fructose-fed rats. Reports of biochemistry & molecular biology, 3(2), 62.
3. Dongre, S., Langade, D., & Bhattacharyya, S. (2015). Efficacy and safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root extract in improving sexual function in women: a pilot study. BioMed research international, 2015.
4. Shimizu, K., Miyamoto, I., Liu, J., Konishi, F., Kumamoto, S., & Kondo, R. (2009). Estrogen-like activity of ethanol extract of Ganoderma lucidum. Journal of wood science, 55(1), 53-59.
5. Grant, P., & Ramasamy, S. (2012). An update on plant derived anti-androgens. International journal of endocrinology and metabolism, 10(2), 497.