Meet Hilary Wardle! Hil is a holistic nutritionist stationed up in the arctic tundra of Northern Ontario, you can find her on insta at @thegreenhil and get all googly-eyed at her yummy looking bowls, not to mention her sweet growing baby belly!
I had the pleasure of working with Hil in Toronto when we were both bakers, so I know first hand that she's a real one. Sweet, kind, funny, AND knows what's up when it comes to adaptogens. I often get asked what they are, which ones are "the best", or which ones do what, and there's no better person I could think to really explain it in detail than Hilary! So without further ado...
What is an adaptogen?
Adaptogens are specific herbs, plants and fungi that support the body’s adrenal system - the system responsible for managing the body’s hormonal response to stress. Sure, they are super trendy right now, but they’ve been used for thousands of years by different cultures around the world to promote healing.
These substances are known as adaptogens due to their ability to adapt their function to your body’s specific needs. They’re used where needed and self-adjust accordingly. Kind of like a thermostat for your bod, keeping you at a cool-level temp. They can help calm you down or boost your energy without overstimulating or causing a crash. Over time they can enhance the body’s ability to cope with anxiety, stress, insomnia and hormonal imbalances. There are a wide variety of adaptogens and all have their own special properties, indications and benefits.
Why are mushrooms so powerful?
There are an estimated 1.5 million different species of fungi including variations that are edible, poisonous, psychedelic and medicinal - making the world of mushrooms particularly mysterious and magical.
In Ancient Egypt mushrooms were thought to be so special that they were reserved for royalty and in Traditional Chinese Medicine mushrooms have been used to promote wellness for thousands of years. Common medications from penicillin to anti-cholesterol statins contain (either directly or indirectly) fungi and make up 40% of the pharmaceuticals currently on the market.
Functional mushrooms are particularly powerful adaptogens with their own nutritional benefits and health promoting properties. They’re loaded with essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, iron, potassium, selenium and vitamin D. They also contain polyphenols, polysaccharides, beta-glucans and antioxidant properties that have been shown to support the immune system.
Chaga, also known as The King Healer, contains high levels of B vitamins, flavonoids, enzymes, minerals, phenols and antioxidants making it one of the most nutrient dense and bioactive foods on the planet. It floods the body with over 215 phytonutrients, superoxide dismutase and beta-glucans that nourish the body, stimulate the immune system and fight inflammation.
What is a great way to boost your digestion?
Adaptogens are great way to boost your immune system and improve your overall health. By helping your body cope with stress, a lot of adaptogens can indirectly aid digestion but there are a few that can help more specifically:
Triphala is an Ayruvedic herbal formula consisting of three powerful fruits: amalaki, bibhitaki and haritaki and is great for a variety of digestion issues. It aids in detoxification, is a good source of vitamin C, improves digestion, stimulates the immune system, relieves gas and constipation and is used overall as a gentle internal cleansing tonic.
Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, is another adaptogen that can reduce bloating and gas and aid those struggling with a variety of gut issues.
An adaptogenic mushroom called Turkey Tail has been shown to help those with candida or gut overgrowth, and Licorice root, known for its sweet flavour, is both soothing and anti-inflammatory and is often used to help treat leaky gut syndrome.
What’s a natural way to reduce stress or anxiety?
I love a variety of adaptogens for their ability to calm the body down and reduce stress, but I’ll try to list just a few!
Ashwagandha is probably one of the more well-known adaptogens these days - and for good reason! It’s great for soothing the nervous system and boosting immunity. Used to relieve stress and overtime it promotes a general sense of well-being. It’s also a rich source of iron, making it a very supportive adaptogen for women during their cycle and can also help balance hormones.
Reishi, The Queen Healer mushroom, is the ultimate balancing adaptogen. Known for it’s ability to help the body heal, it improves our overall ability to resist stress and promotes calmness. Reishi soothes the nervous system and supports the cardiovascular system.
A lesser known adaptogen, Mucuna Pruriens, can also help reduce stress and anxiety by promoting an overall sense of well-being. It contains an amino acid called L-dopa, a dopamine precursor, which regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. High amounts of dopamine can help boost your mood, relieve stress and improve the quality of your sleep.
I love using any of these adaptogens in a warm tonic to help calm and soothe me. A hot beverage is an easy way to naturally calm the body down, since you have to sip the drink, you are forced to slow down. Carving out a 10-15min time in your day to make, sit and sip your tonic can become an incredibly powerful de-stressing ritual.
Do you have a favourite adaptogen or herbal supplement?
I honestly can’t pick a favourite - I just find their ability to promote healing so fascinating! Cordyceps is an interesting mushroom that was traditionally used to aid in fertility but is more commonly used today to increase physical performance due to its ability to increase energy levels. It’s shown to improve cardiovascular health, combat aging, reduce fatigue and boost sex-drive. It makes for a great pick-me-up if you’re feeling sluggish or want a little extra energy for that workout.
Rhodiola is another adaptogen that is great for energy. It can improve the brain’s ability to absorb oxygen, leading to more mental clarity, creativity and stamina. It can balance blood sugar levels, protect your heart from stress related damage, boost your immune system and improve productivity. I read a study a while ago about doctors in the ER who took it regularly reported less fatigue and more mental clarity. It’s one that my partner takes regularly and has benefited from. It can be quiet powerful and is best taken in the morning so it doesn’t interfere with sleep.
I’m also really into He Shou Wu, and like to refer to it as the Rejuvenator. It’s been used for centuries as an anti-aging, blood building and beautifying food. It’s highly regarded in Chinese medicine for its ability to increase circulation, improve stamina and is a known aphrodisiac. It can help with insomnia, improve general feelings of weakness and nourishes the liver and kidneys.
What are the most potent adaptogens or herbal supplements?
Due to the very nature of how adaptogens work, I wouldn’t say that one is more powerful or potent than another. It all depends on what a body needs and no body is the same. What helps one person, may not have any effect on another, or it may work on a different system. I think what’s really important to note is that most adaptogens work gradually over time. You may not notice their benefits or a difference at first - it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t doing anything but most often healing doesn’t take place in an instant.
And more doesn’t mean better! I recommend starting with a very small quantity at first - like 1/4tsp once a day. You want to ease your taste buds and your bod into it. You can slowly increase the amount but a little goes a long way. A quality adaptogen is not cheap and usually takes a lot of work to forage/harvest/source, so don’t waste it!
Although adaptogens are generally safe to use, if you take a prescribed medication, have a particular health concern or are pregnant/breastfeeding, I would recommend consulting with your doctor/health care team before starting something new.