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Ultimate Guide to Nootropics | Part 4 | Adaptogens

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Balance; it’s often the most overlooked aspect in our day-to-day lives. Humans seem to thrive on chaos.We constantly experience blissful behavioral highs and subsequent lows. In a certain sense, we have mastered the act of being imbalanced. However, the question we must ask ourselves is: how far can we push it before we crash? Most of us have come face to face with the limit at some point in our lives. It’s a moment where elevated stress becomes so unmanageable that our mental and physical capabilities take an abrupt hit; sometimes to the point that we become completely incapacitated. If this occurs at regular instances, we are forced to reach a state that we have come to know as a ‘burn-out’; where we are incredibly inefficient due to a lack of drive. So how do we perform at our maximum potential while staying healthy and preventing periods of ‘burn out’?

In 1947, the Russian pharmacologist N.V. Lazarev made a very interesting discovery while he was studying the arterial dilator dibazol. He observed that dibazol was non-specifically balancing biological processes within an organism, while they were being exposed to adverse influences such as stress. He called this effect SNIR, which stands for "a state of nonspecifically increased resistance" (Brekhman & Dardymov, 1969). N.V. Lazarev later named substances that produce SNIR “adaptogens.”

Although the term ‘adaptogen’ was coined fairly recently, adaptogens have actually been in use for thousands of years. This is due to their abundant presence in nature. In fact, the term ‘adaptogen’ was later adapted to describe a substance of natural origin, whereas synthetic substances such as dibazol, which produce SNIR, are called actoprotectors (Oliynyk & Oh, 2012). Adaptogens are an integral component of both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine; which is not surprising, since both of these medical systems emphasizes the importance of balance.

As you can see from the above infographic, even though a “true” adaptogen produces a non-specific balancing effect, the reality is that plant chemistry is too complex to produce a purely homogenous effect. However, this variability can be advantageous, since there is such large variation between what works well for an individual. For example, if you’re usually a very high energy person, and find it hard to calm your mind at times, you would probably react best to adaptogens on the calming side of the spectrum. However, if you are the kind of person that struggles to get your mind into gear and focused, then you’d likely benefit more from an adaptogen on the energizing side of the spectrum. On top of this, due to their balancing effect, adaptogens can combine fantastically with other compounds. For example, bacopa monnieri could smooth out the jittery feelings of caffeine for individuals whom are sensitive to its effects. However, an individual who is more accustomed to caffeine, panax ginseng could be used to bolster its stimulant effects.

Furthermore, adaptogens can even be combined with each other to produce a very well rounded effect profile. Looking at the effect matrix for cordyceps in the infographic above, we can see that it’s well suited for boosting vigour, and pretty good at mood, but it’s effects on memory are lackluster. On the other hand, bacopa monnieri is well suited for boosting mood and memory, but its effects on vigour are lackluster. Cordyceps is also a more stimulating compound, whereas bacopa is a more calming compound. As can be seen on the figure below, when the two are combined, a theoretical effect profile is created for the combination, which merges the best attributes of both herbs.

The fact that adaptogens can combine with each other to create a more rounded effect profile has been known for quite some time. In Ayurveda, adaptogenic herbs are often combined with each other to create formulations such as brahmi (bacopa monnieri and centella asiatica) and perment (bacopa monnieri, winter cherry, bluebellvine and asparagus racemosus) (Muralidhara & Bharath, 2011; Ramanathan et al., 2011)

In our simplified overview, we have two very basic categories of adaptogens: calming and energizing. Within those categories we can expect to see significant variations in effect profiles. When we combine multiple adaptogens, we can expect to see a more rounded effect profile, and when we combine adaptogens with other compounds, such as caffeine, we can balance its effects to our liking. However, at the end of the day we are trying to achieve a balanced biological state, so that we can push our limits in a sustainable manner. Getting to this point might take a little bit of tinkering. Like any other form of supplementation, individual responses to compounds are going to vary based on body and brain chemistry. So a bit of trial and error is necessary to find the ideal combination for you.

Before you dive headfirst into creating an adaptogen stack, we suggest taking some time to write down aspects of your life that you feel are limiting you from performing at your maximum potential in a sustainable manner. For an example, let’s look at an individual who is working a very cognitively demanding job, and has always been a high performer. However, recently they’ve been under an immense workload, and their work capacity has taken a significant hit. This individual reflects on why this could be the case and comes up with the following list:

  • Low energy levels are hindering extended periods of focus.
  • Memory is not up to par. This causes them to double check things constantly; which slows them down a lot.
  • They are currently experiencing an excessive amount of stress; due to the immense workload they are experiencing on their new project.
  • They have a hard time relaxing during their free time.   

Based off of this list a few things stand out. Energy levels are low. This could be caused by excessive work related stress; which could subsequently degrade memory. It seems that excessive work related stress could be causing both the memory issues and low energy levels. In this case it would be intuitive to veer towards the energizing side of the spectrum in order to stabilize stress levels, while putting a little more spring into their step. However, it might actually be better to lean more towards the calming side of the spectrum, since this individual notes that they also have a hard time relaxing. It could be the case that this individual is experiencing low energy levels as a compensatory mechanism for constantly being cognitively engaged without periods of relaxation. For this individual bacopa monnieri would probably be a great fit. It’s calming, stabilizes stress and restores memory deficits. Another option would be KSM-66 to help deal with the stress and to give a boost to stamina during the day. Or perhaps a combination of adaptogens would provide the most balanced effect.

At this point you might have an idea of what area in your life you’d like to see a little bit more balance in. Adaptogens could play a useful role in helping to maintain that balance; whether that be the energizing stamina of panax ginseng or rhodiola rosea, or the calming mood regulation of winter cherry or bacopa. Adaptogens are a natural way to help your body cope with stress, and to maintain the balance to help your body and brain thrive.

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References:

Brekhman, I. I., & Dardymov, I. V. (1969). New substances of plant origin which

increase nonspecific resistance. Annual Review of Pharmacology, 9(1), 419-430.

 Oliynyk, S., & Oh, S. (2012). The Pharmacology of Actoprotectors: Practical Application

for Improvement of Mental and Physical Performance. Biomolecules & Therapeutics, 20(5), 446–456.

 Ramanathan M, Balaji B, Justin A. (2011) Behavioural and neurochemical evaluation of

Perment an herbal formulation in chronic unpredictable mild stress induced depressive model. Indian J Exp Biol, 49(4), 269–75.

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