Could compounds found in certain plants help our bodies adapt to the effects of stress, without all the effort involved in, say, meditation or exercise?
That’s the idea behind so-called adaptogens, which include certain mushrooms, and herbs such as ashwaganda and rhodiola.
When I dug into this question, I learned a surprising bit of history. The concept of adaptogens was born in WWII, when the armed forces in various countries began studying ways of improving performance of pilots — for instance, by keeping them more alert.
German troops were reportedly dosed with amphetamines. The Soviet military, however, took a different tack, publishing studies on natural substances, including an herbal stimulant.
Not all adaptogens have stimulating properties. Others are purported have a calming effect, due to a drop in levels of stress hormones.
But how much evidence is there behind these supposedly stress-fighting remedies?
To find out, I spoke to a registered dietitian who advises some of her clients on the use of adaptogens, and a well-known author, radio host and professor with expertise at evaluating scientific evidence.
My heartfelt thanks to the two interviewees who so generously shared their time and expertise:
- Desiree Nielsen, a registered dietitian in Vancouver, and author of Eat More Plants: Over 100 Anti-Inflammatory Plant-Based Recipes for Vibrant Living (Penguin 2019).
- Dr. Joe Schwarcz, PhD — aka Dr. Joe — who is director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, and author of numerous popular science books, such as A Grain of Salt: The Science and Pseudoscience of What We Eat. He’s also host of a long-running Montreal radio program, The Dr. Joe Show.