Adaptogens have been causing a buzz in the wellness world for a long time (and they've been used far longer than they've been in the mainstream), but did you know they can make for a healthy alternative to your morning coffee? Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system to give you that burst of energy—and that jolt is something we can, of course, find addicting. But, too many cups of coffee and you're likely to feel wired and jittery (and suffer from withdrawal symptoms when you try to pare it back). That said, caffeine isn't all bad—it can boost your metabolism and help improve your focus and memory, but if you feel like your coffee habit is getting out of hand, or you want to feel alert in the mornings but not wired, then keep reading to find out how adaptogens can boost your energy.
I called on two experts: herbalist David Winston, who has 50 years of experience working with herbs, and Sasha Sabapathy, founder of Glow Bar London, a wellness hangout offering infrared saunas with a shop and café offering adaptogen-infused drinks, to reveal all you need to know about using adaptogens for energy.
What are Adaptogens?
Before you incorporate adaptogens into your morning hot "mylk," it's worth understanding a little bit more about them. Even though they are totally safe, they're not one size fits all. Winston tells us, "Adaptogens are not a replacement for adequate and good quality sleep, a good diet, regular exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices, which are the true foundation of health." According to Winston, adaptogens are not what most people think they are. In the early 1960s Professor Brekhman (who is considered the father of adaptogen research) came up with three parameters that define adaptogens:
- They are relatively safe when used in a normal therapeutic dosage.
- They create a non-specific state of resistance to a broad range of stressors, so we can adapt to that stress most effectively.
- They have a systemic amphoteric effect, which means they must regulate organs or systems in the body. So, if they are hyperactive or hypoactive, the adaptogen will help bring them back to normal.
This is still all true, but it's no longer the full story. In the 1990s, Dr. Panossian and Dr. Wagner further concluded that adaptogens must work via two master control systems in the body: the HPA-axis, which regulates the endocrine, nervous, immune, digestive, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems, and even affects blood sugar regulation. The second master control system is the sympathoadrenal system (SAS) which is our fight or flight mechanism that deals with acute stress. Adaptogens now have to meet the first three parameters and work through those two systems.
Further research has found adaptogens do other things as well. "Adaptogens prevent elevated cortisol levels and cortisol-induced mitochondrial dysfunction, they can also help with sleep issues, obesity, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia," adds Winston. He notes that there are only nine proven adaptogens that are well researched, five probable adaptogens, and a dozen possible adaptogens that aren't backed up by much research.
The Best Adaptogens for Energy
Eleuthero (also known as Siberian ginseng)
According to Winston, eleuthero a well-researched adaptogen. "It is useful for young people trying to take care of themselves, whether you have a new baby, you're studying for an exam, or are frequently pulling all-nighters," he says. "While it’s not stimulating for most people, it is good for younger people who need support when going through very stressful moments." The herb is sharp and woody, so you would need to bring to a simmer for a long time. It’s available as an extract powder in capsule form, fluid extract, and tincture.
"The name Shatavari translates approximately to 'she who has 100 husbands,' Winston says. It helps with female reproduction and is a nutritive tonic for people who are thin or have PMS issues. Again, it is not strongly stimulating but is nourishing for anyone feeling weak, deficient and tired," he tells us. It comes in a tincture, tea, and capsules.
"[Holy Basil] helps to modestly lower blood sugar levels, so if you're insulin resistant this can be useful. It also enhances digestion, is slightly stimulating, and acts as a nootropic (a cerebral stimulant), which enhances memory, focus, and concentration while also reducing anxiety and depression," Winston says. Sounds good, right? It makes a lovely tea, but is also available as a tincture and in capsules.
"Where stimulants like coffee make you feel wired, alert, and focused, this makes you feel calm, alert, and focused. If you take it before meditation, it enhances the results," explains Winston. In addition, it has a strong anti-inflammatory effect, protecting the liver from environmental, chemical, or viral toxins. Winston adds: "It also has anti-asthmatic activity, is an immune amphoteric, and helps with urinary frequency in older women. Every once in a while, some people can get stimulated by Schisandra, but this is uncommon," he adds. It's less likely to be consumed as a tea, because of its predominant sour and turpentine tastes, but can be taken as a tincture or capsule form.
According to Winston, "Ashwagandha is an immune amphoteric, so it helps with allergies, immune deficiency, or autoimmune diseases. It's also antispasmodic and an antinociceptive so it can help with fibromyalgia pain. "Ashwagandha is rich in iron, so it is ideal for women during reproductive and menstruating years. It also stimulates the thyroid, so it’s good for anyone with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis but not for hyperthyroid conditions such as Graves Disease. It’s an anxiolytic so it helps reduce anxiety and is ideal for anyone who is overexcited and has trouble sleeping. It's known for helping with male libido, studies found it to help libido in postmenopausal women as well," he notes. Take as a tea, powder, tincture, capsules or in a smoothie. Click here for our roundup of the best ashwagandha supplements.
One of Sabapathy's top picks, this is a sticky resin found in the Himalayas. "It is one of the most mineral-rich substances on earth. It helps with energy, as it increases iron in the body, and a lack of iron leads to fatigue. Iron deficiency is super common in most people." she notes. You can take a pea-size amount of this on an empty stomach or mix into your favorite hot mylk flavored with honey or cacao.
A Peruvian herb, maca is used for endurance and stamina. "More research needs to be done to determine why it helps with endurance and energy, but many athletes incorporate it into their routine," says Sabapathy. Maca is also a libido enhancer and helps to lift your mood." she tells us. It has a caramel, malt-like flavor. Add one teaspoon of maca powder into your tea, juice, or a smoothie.
You can find Shilajit and Maca together in Glow Bar London's Super Sexy Elixir that can be blended into any hot drink, smoothie, or shake.
A medicinal adaptogenic mushroom used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Cordyceps help to increase energy levels by replenishing our ATP levels. "ATPs are energy molecules that live in our cells," explains Sabapathy. "Cordyceps has a multitude of other benefits, but my favorite is that it helps with inflammation in the body, protecting you when everyone around you has the flu." You can blend the powder into any hot drink, juice, or smoothie.
This ones a Byrdie favorite. In fact, our senior editor, Hallie, wrote up how it has positively affected her life in a full-length review. That said, the gist is this: "Sun Potion Mucuna Pruriens Powder ($27), contains 15% L-dopa, a naturally occurring amino acid that transforms into dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that allows for more dynamic functioning of the brain, and higher levels of dopamine have been linked to enhanced brain function, elevated mood and energy levels, and a more balanced nervous system," Hallie says.
How to Use Adaptogens Daily
Sabapathy explains, "We have a lot of customers who come to our café looking for an alternative to coffee that still provides them a morning boost. I always recommend incorporating our Super Sexy blend or Cordyceps into a drink as a starting point, and then suggest a matcha latte as the base of their drink (matcha still has caffeine but is a slower release). Or, if they don't like matcha, I point them towards a raw cacao base, as raw cacao increases blood flow which in turn can be quite stimulating.
"When making a hot drink with adaptogens, you can use whichever plant mylk takes your fancy. It's so lucky that now, in 2019, you can get almond, hazelnut, coconut, oat, tiger nut, and even pea mylk. It's really exciting and super fun. "You only need one half of a teaspoon of adaptogens in your drink at one time, so I recommend incorporating other superfoods into your concoction. I personally love raw cacao as a base, but you can use turmeric, beetroot powder, matcha, or chai tea. I also love adding other flavoring elements like cinnamon, chili or vanilla. Just have fun with it."
Recipes: Two Adaptogen Coffee Alternatives to Try
- 1 ½ tsp. of matcha powder
- 1 tbps. coconut butter
- ½ tsp. Cordyceps
- 1 cup hot (not boiling) water
- Blend all ingredients in a blender on a high speed. Pour, sip, enjoy.
- 2 tsp. raw cacao
- ½ tsp. Shilajit
- ½ tsp. maca
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tbsp. coconut sugar or nectar
- 1 ½ cups of hot oat mylk
- Blend all ingredients in a blender on a high speed. Pour, sip, enjoy.
Want to find an herbalist to advise you on the right adaptogens for you? Winston recommends checking out the American Herbalists Guild. You can also pre-order his new book Adaptogens, out 17 September or shop the current edition available now.
Next up: these are the healthiest non-dairy ice cream options, ranked.