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Supplements among athletes are very commonly used to improve performance. Also, non-training people use various types of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to get better our well-being on a daily basis. Recently, adaptogens have been gaining popularity – these plants have always been with us, but we are only now starting to see their true potential.

What exactly are adaptogens?
What effect do they have on the body?
Are adaptogens for you?
What positive effects have these plants among sportsmen?

What are adaptogens?

 

Adaptogens are non-toxic plants characterized by a wide spectrum of effects on our minds and bodies. Their main property is the reduction of the effects of stress and the body’s adaptation to unfavorable external effects.

In order for a plant to be classified as an adaptogen, it must meet the following 3 criteria:

  • be non-toxic, must not cause negative side effects on physical or mental health, and must not be addictive.
  • provide a non-specific response to stress – the use of adaptogens allows the body to function efficiently in the face of stressors, without depriving it of vital energy reserves. Closely related to this is a holistic effect – strengthening the immunity of the entire organism, and not affecting one specific organ or system.
  • have a normalizing effect on the body – unlike stimulants or drugs, the action of adaptogens is based on restoring the body’s natural balance. This mechanism can be simply described as plants in their own way “feel” what is missing in the body (or what is in excess) and reduce these disproportions. In this way, they regulate the proper functioning of the entire “system” and restore the physiological balance (homeostasis).

Benefits of adaptogens

 

The name “adaptogen” comes from the Latin verb “adaptare”, which means “to adapt, adjust.” This term describes the most important property of these unusual plants, which is to enhance the adaptability of the organism under unfavorable conditions.

Adaptogens act on the body at the cellular level, increasing its resistance to stress, both mental and environmental (e.g. improper diet, free radicals, radiation, air pollution).

They also show great antioxidant potential. Antioxidants contained in adaptogens protect the body against oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals. As a result, they increase the body’s natural immunity and significantly inhibit the aging process.

Systematically used, they not only improve the overall condition and endurance of the body but also improve the regeneration of the body and allow you to recover much faster after an illness. All these effects are based on the guiding principle of adaptogens – restoring balance. It is she who allows you to stay healthy, fit, and feel good.

Mechanism of action of adaptogens

 

The explanation of the mechanism of action of adaptogens says that they work by stimulating the body’s non-specific stress responses through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (the so-called HPA axis). Various active ingredients found in adaptogens stimulate the immune system through the neuroendocrine system and, through many metabolic pathways, have a positive effect on our health and well-being.

Adaptogens affect the brain, nerves, endocrine glands (pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid glands, adrenal glands, thymus, pineal gland, pancreas, ovaries, and testes), and the immune system – they help regulate, normalize and strengthen their functions.

Benefits of adaptogens in sport

 

There is a lot of talk about the fact that sport can reduce stress levels, and now, suddenly, adaptogen supplementation is recommended among athletes to reduce it. What’s going on here? Well, the concept of stress is quite ambiguous.

In biology, it is simply a reaction to any stimulus that takes the body out of homeostasis. Anyone who trains regularly and not just occasionally gets on a bike is aware of the strain on the body of frequent high-intensity physical activity, such as cycling. From a biological point of view, it is a stress factor like any other and has consequences. Adaptogens help not only to overcome changes that occur in the body under stress but also facilitate the body’s adaptation to stress factors.

When sport is said to reduce stress, it’s all about mental stress. However, it comes at the expense of increased physical stress, and it is in this field that adaptogens such as maca or ginseng are to show their full potential. To put it simply: stress is a very broad concept, and the sport itself can also be a challenge for the body, so it is worth protecting yourself against the effects, even if you lead a healthy lifestyle.

In addition, supplementation of adaptogens by athletes, thanks to a wide spectrum of activity, may affect:

  • increasing physical strength;
  • increasing the body’s performance during exercise;
  • improving endurance;
  • increasing immunity.

Thanks to the research of Soviet scientists from 1943 looking for enhancement substances for their soldiers, workers, and athletes, adaptogens for the first time were separated from other plants, their beneficial effects on the body were defined and confirmed.

The benefits were so strong that adaptogens began to be used in the diet of astronauts during flights performed by NASA and the Russian ROSCOSMOS. Astronauts are not the only group of people exposed to severe stress and increased effort, for which the use of adaptogens has proved to be an invaluable help.

To increase physical performance, these herbs are also used by professional athletes and Olympians, among others. from Scandinavia, China, Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the United States. For the first time, adaptogens were used for this purpose at the Munich Olympics in 1972. At that time, Russian athletes who properly supplemented adaptogens during the preparations for the Olympics won as many as 99 medals, of which 50 golds. In the medal standings, they were unrivaled in the first place – the second place was taken by the United States with 33 gold medals. In preparation for the Olympic Games in Atlanta, as many as 150 Olympians from the United States officially used adaptogen mixtures. At that time, the USA beat all of them, winning 101 medals, 44 of which were gold. Russia then took second place with 26 gold medals.

The regular use of adaptogens will therefore have positive effects in sports, but I would certainly not treat it as a “magic pill”. Yes, many athletes believe that regeneration after exercise in their case occurs faster after supplementation with adaptogens. However, there is no question of shortening the regeneration of a marathon runner from one week to two days. Mountain cyclists after the 120-kilometer MTB marathon do not repeat it on the second day with a better time after matzo but return to their normal training regime a day or two faster.

Recommended adaptogens in sport

 

Basically, all adaptogens work in a similar way. However, there are plant variations that are more effective in specific cases. Here are the 5 most commonly used adaptogens in sports.

1. Benefits of Ashwagandha

 

If I had to pick one adaptogen that I could recommend to cyclists, it would definitely be Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). This plant is considered to be one of the most important in Ayurvedic medicine. Ashwagandha primarily regulates the hormonal balance, which in the context of stress is to manifest itself in a reduction in cortisol levels.

In one study, people suffering from chronic fatigue were given ashwagandha for 60 days. After this time, they had significantly lower cortisol levels compared to the placebo group. People taking the highest dose experienced an average of 30% reduction in cortisol [1].

Numerous studies have shown that ashwagandha reduces blood sugar levels and helps to maintain it at an appropriate level [1,2,3].

In one study, healthy participants supplemented ashwagandha for 30 days. The results showed a significant improvement in muscle activity, a reduction in LDL cholesterol, and an improvement in sleep quality [3].

Scientists report that ashwagandha supplementation may also have a positive effect on testosterone levels and reproductive health [4,5].

This adaptogen is also being studied in terms of regulating the metabolic rate by acting on thyroid hormones. It fully supports regeneration after exercise and in the long term reduces the sensitivity to oxidative stress, so it is an adaptogen especially valuable in the case of athletes from endurance disciplines.

In general, ashwagandha is safe, but in some cases, it should not be used:

  • by pregnant or lactating women
  • kids
  • people taking sleeping pills, sedatives, antiepileptics or some painkillers

People who use ashwagandha excessively may experience: abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting.

2. Benefits of Rhodiola Rosea

 

Rhodiola Rosea, sometimes also known as the arctic root, stimulates quite well in addition to its antioxidant properties. For this reason, it can successfully replace caffeine. It works weaker than it, but it does not cause such a sudden surge of energy, but it maintains its higher level for longer. It improves concentration and allows you to focus on working out your training well.

Thanks to adaptogenic properties, it helps fight chronic fatigue, it also has properties typical of adaptogens: it reduces stress, improves sleep quality, supports the fight against depression and anxiety.

The effects of Rhodiola Rosea on athletic performance and recovery have been extensively studied. The plant has anti-fatigue, anti-stress, hypoxic (protection against the effects of oxygen deficiency), antioxidant, immune-boosting, and sexually stimulating properties. Increases the production of creatine phosphate and ATP (high energy molecules) at the cellular level. It also increases the rate at which oxygen is used in the muscles. It is also an antioxidant and helps lower elevated cortisol levels. These factors contribute to a number of practical benefits, increasing muscle energy and endurance during periods of peak performance. It has been shown that it has a positive effect on the rate of perceived exertion. This is important because it motivates the athlete to work harder and longer.

One study of 60 people with stress-related fatigue looked at its effect on the quality of life and the symptoms of fatigue, depression, and attention. Participants received either 576 mg of Rhodiola Rosea or a placebo pill daily for one month. They found that Rhodiola had a positive effect on fatigue and attention levels compared to the placebo. An improvement in concentration and a decreased level of cortisol in response to stress were also observed [6].

In a similar study, 100 people with symptoms of chronic fatigue received 400 mg of Rhodiola daily for eight weeks. The subjects experienced significant improvements in symptoms of stress, fatigue, quality of life, mood, and concentration. This improvement was seen after just one week of treatment and continued to improve throughout the last week of the study. [7]

Side effects from taking Rhodiola Rosea are rather rare, but when they do occur, they are usually mild and include insomnia, irritability, chest tightness, and increased blood pressure.

3. Benefits of Schisandra

 

Schisandra has a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, digestive system, central nervous system, endocrine system, protects against stress, and has anti-inflammatory properties [8]. This plant, thanks to the active compounds from the lignan group, prevents damage to the liver and accelerates its regeneration processes.

Research shows that among the athletes who cement this plant, we can see such benefits as [9]:

  • delaying physical and mental fatigue,
  • improvement of endurance,
  • can help you regain fitness after overtraining,
  • may accelerate recovery after sports injuries,
  • reduces the damage caused by oxidative stress.

Schisandra will not be for everyone. When supplementing it, it is important not to exceed the recommended dose. Too high can cause stomach upset symptoms such as heartburn. For this reason, may not be suitable for people with conditions such as ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or hyperchlorhydria (high stomach acidity). Schisandra can also reduce appetite. It may not be suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Before starting to take it, you should discuss its use with your doctor. It can also cause allergic reactions in some people, such as itching or skin rash.

4. Benefits of Maca Root

 

Maca root is used in traditional South American medicine as a remedy for female ailments. Indeed – the high content of phytoestrogens suggests that it may be effective in this. Apart from that, as an adaptogen, it has a great potential to neutralize free radicals, which translates into less damage to cells accompanying training but also generally reduces fatigue.

Maca root is popular with athletes. It helps to increase performance, energy, strength, and training effectiveness.

One small study involving eight male cyclists found that after 14 days of supplementation with maca extract, they improved the time needed to cover a nearly 25-mile (40-kilometer) bike ride [10].

There is currently no scientific evidence of any benefit for gains in muscle mass or strength.

Maca is generally a safe supplement. Due to the content of goitrogen, I would only be careful about the amount of it in the case of people struggling with problems with the thyroid gland. Also, pregnant and lactating women should consult a doctor before using it.

5. Benefits of Ginseng

 

It is the most studied adaptogen. There are several species of ginseng, but here the differences between them are rather not well visible in the results of scientific research. In the short run, preparations with ginseng raise pressure quite significantly, and in the long run – significantly reduce fatigue. As an adaptogen, it makes you recover faster after demanding competitions, it is also easier to return to training after a break caused, for example, by an illness.

The main active ingredients in these roots are ginsenosides, which provide a wide range of benefits. Ginseng root can increase strength as it increases creatine production.

Korean researchers found that rats given ginseng before exercise showed a prolonged time to exhaustion when running on a treadmill due to the lower production of serotonin from tryptophan in the brain. Serotonin signals fatigue, which reduces muscle strength and endurance. By inhibiting the production of serotonin, you can train harder for longer [11].

Ginseng should not be consumed in the evening and when drinking a lot of coffee, because then it causes insomnia. In addition, be aware that excessive use of it will result in high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, diarrhea, or rash.

What is the best form of taking adaptogens?

 

Currently, we have the 3 most popular forms of adaptogens available on the market:

  • in powder
  • in capsules
  • in liquid form (drops)

The form we choose has a significant impact on the effect of supplementation. Scientific research clearly indicates that the liquid form is the best digestible and effective. An additional advantage will be the lack of artificial substances and preservatives in drops. The form of capsules will be by far the most convenient, and the powder will be perfect as an addition to healthy cocktails or meals. When deciding on a specific adaptogen and its form, it is worth paying attention to the company and the price – buy only from a proven source. Cheap preparations often contain a small percentage of the right ingredient.

Summary

 

Adaptogens, as natural plant aids, have been gaining popularity in recent years. It sees a special effect in reducing stress, depression, regulating sleep, or restoring the body to widely understood homeostasis. Numerous studies confirm the wide spectrum of action of adaptogens, but it is worth remembering that adaptogenic plants are not a magic cure for all ailments, but the foundation of health and holistic support for both the body and mind. There are many adaptogenic plants, it is worth choosing the one that suits you best. When choosing, carefully consider the choice of the manufacturer and the form of supplementation.

Resources:

  1. B. Auddy, J. Hazra A. Mitra A standardized Withania somnifera extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study JANA vol. 1, No. 1, 2008.
  2. B Andallu, B Radhika: Hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic effect of winter cherry (Withania somnifera, Dunal) root Clinical Trial Indian J Exp Biol. 2000 Jun;38(6):607-9.
  3. Ashwinikumar A Raut, Nirmala N Rege, Firoz M Tadvi Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2012 Jul;3(3):111-4. doi: 10.4103/0975-9476.100168.
  4. Ashish Gupta, Abbas Ali Mahdi, Kamla Kant Shukla, Efficacy of Withania somnifera on seminal plasma metabolites of infertile males: a proton NMR study at 800 MHz Clinical Trial  J Ethnopharmacol 2013 Aug 26;149(1):208-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2013.06.024
  5. Sachin Wankhede, Deepak LangadeKedar Joshi, Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial  Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Nov 25;12:43.
  6. Erik M Olsson, Bo von Schéele, Alexander G Panossian A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue Planta Med. 2009 Feb;75(2):105-12. doi: 10.1055/s-0028-1088346.
  7. Yevgeniya Lekomtseva, Irina Zhukova, Anna Wacker Rhodiola rosea in Subjects with Prolonged or Chronic Fatigue Symptoms: Results of an Open-Label Clinical Trial Complement Med Res. 2017;24(1):46-52. doi: 10.1159/000457918.Epub 2017 Feb 17.
  8. Winston D., RH (AHG), Maimes S. Herbs for Strehgth, Stamina and Stress Rrelief. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont. 2007.
  9. Cao S, Shang H., Wu W., Du J. , Putheti R. Evaluation of anti-athletic fatigue activity of Schizandra chinensis aqueous extracts in mice African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology Vol. 3(11), pp. 593-597, November 2009.
  10. Mark StoneAlvin Ibarra, Marc Roller, Andrea Zangara, Emma Stevenson A pilot investigation into the effect of maca supplementation on physical activity and sexual desire in sportsmen J Ethnopharmacol 2009 Dec 10;126(3):574-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2009.09.012.Epub 2009 Sep 23
  11. Lei Bao, Xiaxia Cai, Junbo Wang, Anti-Fatigue Effects of Small Molecule Oligopeptides Isolated from Panax ginseng C. A. Meyer in Mice Nutrients. 2016 Dec 13;8(12):807. doi: 10.3390/nu8120807.
Iwona - Dietician

Iwona - Dietician

Master's degree in dietetics with a passion for sport and travel. She lives in Poland and runs her own diet clinic daily. She works mostly online not only with athletes but also with people who require specialized diets. Privately, she runs a blog about traveling and dietetics.

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