This class of herbs can boost our ability to handle stress, help build our immune system, and protect us against chronic illness.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy has been improving around the world — with the recent exception of the USA, which has sadly — but not surprisingly — fallen. The culprits include prescription drug overdoses and stress levels.
Western medicine neglects to look at one of the root causes of chronic illness: stress! The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that stress is the root cause for 75 percent of all doctors’ visits, for issues including sleep disturbances, fatigue, and accidents. In the UK alone, 180,000 people die every year from stress-related illnesses.
Not only does stress have its own harmful effects, but it spurs many people to find unhealthy ways to chill out, such as binge-watching, binge-eating, or celebrating the end of each day with Wine O’Clock. No one likes a sore neck from lying on the couch, a sugar crash, or a hangover. Besides, sugary foods and stress both contribute to insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes if unchecked. Alcohol depletes B vitamins, which affects our cognition, leaving us even more tired, and more stressed as we try to keep up with work and other commitments.
What’s worse, is the tonic we use to deal with stress in the moment: incessant cups of coffee. Wouldn’t it be better if we turned to nature’s secret means of managing stress?
Meet adaptogens: magical herbs that literally can make us more resilient to life’s intense push and curveballs. They can be taken as supplements — but those can be a pain to keep up with regularly. That’s why we love Rasa Koffee: it’s a delicious adaptogenic herbal brew — and the best coffee alternative that actually tastes like coffee. It’s a great natural boost for cognition and performance and provides a healthy combination of adaptogens all in one.
“I was so surprised at how much this product actually tastes like coffee, specifically dark roast,” says Katie J., a long-time Rasa Koffee drinker. “It’s delicious and totally satisfying. I’m in school, an internship, and work full time so I have a lot of stress in my life. I can honestly tell that this product has helped me to reduce my stress levels and cope a lot easier.”
What Makes An Adaptogen An Adaptogen?
Adaptogens are a category of medicinal herbs that increase our bodies’ resistance to physical, environmental, mental, and emotional stressors, helping us to restore and maintain healthy physiological functioning. When the ability to resist and bounce back from stress is overwhelmed, the body becomes desensitized to stress hormones, which affects our ability to respond to stressors, reduces performance and impairs production of other hormones. If unaddressed, disease can occur, often shortening a person’s lifespan. On the other hand, successful resistance or adaptation can keep a person safe from chronic disease and their ill effects. That’s why adaptogens are prized in the world of anti-aging and longevity.
“Adaptogen” is not a marketing term; it is a scientific one. In the 1960s, the Russian scientist, Israel Brekhman, coined the word while studying eleuthero, sometimes called Siberian ginseng, on athletes. He found that Soviet athletes taking eleuthero enjoyed better stamina and performance, improved oxygen intake, and faster recovery.
During his research, he came up with three properties required for a herb to win adaptogenic status:
- Adaptogens are safe in therapeutic doses
- They are effective against a wide range of stressors, e.g. infections, cold temperatures, and heavy workload
- They balance the body as a whole.
According to the Online Wiley Library, adaptogens:
- reduce stress-related damage, such as depression, fatigue, and lowered immunity
- are stimulants, improving physical and mental function
- don’t deplete energy resources or adaptability, nor have any side effects
- return the body to balance from unhealthy states, independent of their nature.
Many adaptogens, such as rhodiola, thrive in harsh environments. When we consume them, we take on their intelligence on how to combat stressors into our own bodies. In fact, a Norwegian study found that rhodiola produces higher levels of adaptogenic compounds at colder temperatures than in milder ones! Eleuthero (aka Siberian ginseng) was, naturally, named for its prevalence in Siberia, a region notorious for long, freezing winters and little rainfall. Millions of years of evolution have molded their phytochemical makeup into one that enables a faster, stronger resolution of the stress response before it becomes overwhelming.
There is a growing list of the adaptogens that are used by holistic healthcare practitioners today. Some common adaptogens are:
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium)
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Bacopa (Bacopa monniera)
- Cordyceps mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis)
- Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
- Eleuthero/Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
Around the world, clinical trials have been performed on adaptogens such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, Korean ginseng, and eleuthero. Improvements in energy, as well as physical and cognitive performance, have been observed. Naturopathic practitioners will often prescribe blends of adaptogens, due to their specific indications and wide range of uses. For example, someone who is overstressed with poor cognition and frequent infections may receive both Bacopa monniera for mental clarity and the mushroom Ganoderma lucidum (reishi) for strengthened immunity.
As Ben LeVine of Rasa Koffee explains, “Each plant has a very unique personality. Rhodiola, for example, is one of the more stimulating adaptogens and is great for burnout and performance, but if you are an anxious wreck and having trouble falling asleep, a more calming adaptogen like ashwagandha would be a better choice.”
Adaptogens And The Stress Response
Adaptogens are described as having polyvalent effects, meaning they act on multiple targets and pathways. This is vastly different from the “one drug, one action” properties of pharmaceuticals, and is known as “network pharmacology.” Many adaptogenic herbs work through the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and the Sympathoadrenal System (SAS). The HPA axis is responsible for the production of adrenal hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, while the SAS communicates to the brain that you’re in stress through use of neurotransmitters.
Cortisol and adrenaline are known as the stress hormones that the adrenals produce, but we also need cortisol for normal physiological functions. Cortisol helps us keep the 24-hour pattern known as the circadian rhythm, which helps us stay healthy,but only with the right amount of cortisol. Chronic stress triggers an unhealthy rise in cortisol. When researchers studied military cadets taking a five-day training course that involved heavy physical exercise and little food or sleep, they found a rise in cortisol and a decline in performance. Their circadian rhythms were “extinguished” and weren’t fully normalized even after five days of rest.
Poor stress management may put us at risk of the biggest killers: cardiovascular disease and cancer. Population studies have found that men reporting the highest levels of anger, stress, and worry can have double or triple the risk of cardiovascular disease or death. As for cancer risk, a severe bout of stress can reduce the activity of natural killer (NK) cells by roughly 50 percent. This is a serious issue because NK cells are vital in defending us against viruses and cancer cells. Chronic stress can also worsen the impact of a sudden emotionally stressful event on our immune system and reduces production of IgA antibodies, which are necessary for protecting the linings of our organs such as the lungs and intestines.
On top of all this, the adrenal glands are partly responsible for sex hormone synthesis. We need sex hormones because they help regulate functions such as tissue repair, metabolism, and mood modulation — including a healthy libido! A study of patients with chronically high levels of inflammation, which often accompanies high stress levels, found that there were lower levels of DHEA, which is a precursor the adrenal glands need to create sex hormones. The researchers are unsure as to exactly why it happened, though DHEA may be suppressed to fuel the cycle of inflammation, as healthy amounts modulate immunity.
The positive effects of adaptogens on the stress and sex hormones can have astounding effects on our ability to build muscle and physical strength. In a controlled trial, 57 young men were given either two 300 mg doses of ashwagandha extract every day or a placebo for eight weeks, to see if it had any effect on strength. After the eight weeks, men taking ashwagandha were able to bench-press 101 pounds, as opposed to 57 pounds in the placebo group. They enjoyed greater increases in muscle size, less muscle damage, and a four-fold increase in testosterone levels.
Making Nice With Mitochondria
Some adaptogens may also work by strengthening the mitochondria. These are the powerhouses of the cell, and their health is critical for longevity, vitality, and disease prevention. In a clinical trial involving 62 men, those taking Korean ginseng exhibited a significant rise in testosterone and drop in cortisol, as well as greatly improved mitochondrial function. This was measured through the number of mitochondrial DNA copies, which were over five times higher in the ginseng group compared to placebo.
Another study tested the effects of Rhodiola versus a combination of Rhodiola, eleuthero, and Schisandra and a placebo on mitochondrial health and fatigue. After one week, volunteers taking Rhodiola experienced significantly lower fatigue and better mitochondrial health, but not those taking the adaptogen combination. This may have been due to a lower than required dose of Rhodiola and the other herbs. Mitochondrial health was measured in this study by levels of light particles known as photons. When these are detected in or on the body in higher amounts, it indicates poorer mitochondrial health due to a leak out. Better-functioning mitochondria have far fewer leaks, and so retain their photons.
Naturopathy’s View On Adaptogens
As a naturopath, I have had both professional and personal experience with adaptogens. When I prescribe them to clients with chronic illnesses or poor energy, we are both elated when there are noticeable improvements. For example, adaptogens helped one of my clients find and maintain employment after fatigue and anxiety left her unable to hold a job, and another get her libido back! I like to take reishi powder in tea or coffee, which not only helps me to stay bright and energetic throughout the day but has also helped me to avoid catching colds from air travel. Who wants their holiday or business trip affected by infections? When I have been too run down to avoid colds altogether, reishi keeps them milder (in my case, colds are already very short and disappear in two or three days).
This GIF is a perfect depiction of me before vs. after starting to take reishi powder. This is why adaptogens are the best coffee alternative! (Source: k.yoshihara).
Another local naturopath in my part of Australia, Jason Rainforest, describes his prescribing process with adaptogens.
In a nutshell, from my point of view, adaptogens are indicated where there is any sort of prolonged stress or if there’s strong acute stress. The best type of adaptogen obviously depends on the individual, as they all have slightly different properties. The first distinction I’ll make is between sedating and stimulating adaptogens, then I’ll get more specific depending on what else the person is presented with. For example, acute physical stress indicates rhodiola and stress after immune activation can call for astragalus and eleuthero. Stressed and depleted patients may get Panax ginseng or stress with anxiety and insomnia, etc. indicates ashwagandha.
Ben LeVine of Rasa Koffee was initially inspired to work with adaptogens following his own personal experience:
I was in a goat co-op, and once a week I’d milk and herd the goats, clean the stalls, and get way too stressed. After taking schisandra and rhodiola for a couple of weeks, I was amazed when I showed up, got the work done, and actually enjoyed it. I’ve heard a version of this story from so many people that start an adaptogen regime: an experience of peace in the face of a long-standing stress trigger.
I wondered if adaptogens seemed to benefit everyone in his experience too. It turns out they have.
Almost everyone in our modern world can benefit from the prophylactic use of adaptogens. Lower doses over longer periods of time help protect us against the insidious effects of chronic stress. Adaptogens can also be some of our strongest allies during high-stress periods, whether it’s med school, starting a new job, or [becoming] an Ironman.
His powerful experience with the adaptogens inspired him to help bring adaptogens to the laymen with Rasa Koffee — the best coffee alternative out there (that tastes like coffee!).
Up Your Game: Enjoy The Best Coffee Alternative That Tastes Like Coffee
If you want to up your game and spend your weekends having fun instead of recovering from work and people, a general tonic such as Rasa Koffee could be a great place to start. Rasa koffee contains organic burdock, dandelion and roasted chicory root, chaga and reishi mushroom, ashwagandha, eleuthero, shatavari, he shou wu, codonopsis, rhodiola, and ceylon cinnamon. The herbalist behind Rasa Koffee’s adaptogen blend created a coffee substitute that combines stimulating and relaxing adaptogens for a balanced effect that the Rasa team calls “calm energy.”
Blends such as Rasa Koffee’s delicious coffee alternative that tastes like coffee can be easy, healthy treats that get you all the adaptogens you need in one go. Rasa enthusiasts have described it’s taste as “robust, slightly bitter with hints of sweet, roasty, and earthy flavors.”
“I love coffee but my body reacts poorly to caffeine, so I was on the hunt for a replacement beverage. Rasa Koffee is just the ticket,” says Mary D, a longtime Rasa Koffee aficionado.
It’s rich, earthy and aromatic, making for the perfect alternative. Plus it’s chock full of adaptogens that will actually heal my adrenals instead of tweaking them out! I love making a big batch into cold brew, blending with coconut milk into a frothy latte, or just sipping plain. Delicious and nutritious!
I am so thrilled to find a healthy, caffeine-free coffee alternative that I can safely enjoy while breastfeeding. When made in a french press with a little splash of coconut creamer, you’d never know this wasn’t traditional coffee! And the health benefits of the natural herbs are a bonus. I haven’t felt nearly as fatigued or drained since I have been starting my mornings with a cup of Rasa!
Adaptogens are an amazing, versatile class of herbs that benefit our stress response, hormonal health, immunity and energy production. They are suitable for people from all walks of life, from students to military personnel to mothers. A balanced blend like Rasa Koffee can be a great way to start for anyone new to adaptogens. However, if you have a chronic illness, are an athlete or just want to know you’re getting it right, you may be looking for a more targeted approach. In this case, it is best to consult a holistic healthcare professional for individual support.
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