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Despite their recent trending status in the wellness world, adaptogens have been used therapeutically for centuries—or in some cases, even millennia.
These impressive herbs and plants regulate the body’s stress response, which translates to better health in several ways—including promoting a healthy body weight.
Let’s take a closer look at what adaptogens are, how they work in the body, and the top nine adaptogens for weight loss.
Adaptogens are plants, herbs, or roots that help the body resist stressors and maintain overall balance in the central nervous system.
Uniquely, adaptogens can reduce stress and anxiety while also promoting increased energy.
Adaptogens primarily act on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex system of glands, receptors, and hormones that help modulate the stress response.
In addition to mitigating stress, some adaptogens benefit weight loss, promote mental and physical energy, and support metabolism.
When we encounter a stressful situation—whether physical or emotional—our bodies go through a physiological stress response called the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).
There are three stages of GAS: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
The alarm stage is our fight-or-flight response—heart rate increases, and the adrenal glands are called into action to quickly release adrenaline and cortisol.
The second stage, resistance, is just what it sounds like—you become more resistant to the stressor, but it can still cause high cortisol, irritability, and poor concentration
Lastly, exhaustion—also known as burnout—occurs if you do not resolve the stress that initially triggered the GAS response.
In response to stress, adaptogens work to make it easier for your body to cope with the “resistance” phase and prevent it from reaching “exhaustion.”
This resistance, or adaptation, is designed to help get you through stressful situations and back to homeostasis, which relieves the adrenal glands and reduces cortisol levels.
One of the leading reasons why some adaptogenic herbs can help with weight loss is because they lower cortisol levels.
Cortisol is our primary stress hormone, but it also is vital for regulating blood sugar, inflammation, and immune system functioning.
Under stressful conditions, cortisol and adrenaline are pumped out from the adrenal glands, which triggers symptoms you may have experienced before an important public speaking event—increased heart rate, sweat output, and energy levels.
While cortisol certainly is important, we need it in a Goldilocks-style amount—not too much, not too little.
Without any cortisol, your body will develop adrenal insufficiency, eventually leading to a fatal condition called adrenal crisis.
But, we don’t want too much cortisol either.
When cortisol levels are chronically elevated—like if you’re constantly stressed out—undesirable symptoms can occur, including weight gain, increased appetite, trouble concentrating, mood changes, irritability, and fatigue.
Research has indicated that high cortisol levels are associated with increased body weight or belly fat, which may be due to increased appetite.
Therefore, lowering cortisol levels to the perfect Goldilocks amount is a beneficial way to support a healthier body weight.
Adaptogenic herbs support weight loss by lowering cortisol levels, reducing inflammation, providing antioxidant activity, or supporting metabolic activity.
These adaptogens include:
Schisandra chinensis, also known as five-flavor-fruit, is a berry that is most often consumed in supplemental form as a powder, pill, or extract.
Schisandra is known for its ability to ameliorate stress, improve metabolic functioning, and increase endurance and muscle strength.
It also prevents lipid accumulation and stimulates insulin secretion to reduce blood sugar, indicating its potential as an anti-obesity herb.
One of the leading bioactive compounds in Schisandra berry is gomisin N, a plant lignan compound that has exerted anti-cancer effects.
In a study of obese mice, gomisin N supplementation led to significant reductions in body weight, fat tissue mass, and serum levels of glucose, triglycerides, and cholesterol.
This research suggests that this compound found in Schisandra may work therapeutically to prevent obesity and the dysregulated lipid markers that typically accompany it.
The ginseng plant—which also goes by Asian ginseng, Chinese ginseng, Korean ginseng, or Panax ginseng—contains bioactive compounds called ginsenosides that provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity.
These qualities are associated with improved metabolic markers—like blood cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, and insulin—which are beneficial for losing weight.
Ginseng may also help to control appetite and prevent overeating by modulating chronic inflammation, improving leptin resistance, and reducing the secretion of neuropeptide Y—a compound that stimulates appetite.
Several studies report that ginseng reduces adipocyte (fat cell) size and fat storage in obese mice, although human research has been inconsistent.
As increased adipocyte size is directly related to excess body fat, the ability to reduce the size of these cells would be beneficial for weight loss.
Although most often recognized as the spice that turns your curry dishes yellow, turmeric is also an adaptogenic root with myriad health benefits.
The active component in turmeric is called curcumin, which belongs to a larger family known as curcuminoids.
Tumeric may support weight loss by reducing adipocyte growth, suppressing inflammation, and enhancing insulin sensitivity.
In a 30-day study, people who previously reported being unable to lose weight had significant reductions in body weight and body mass index (BMI) after supplementing with 800mg of curcumin twice daily.
Maca is a Peruvian root known for its stimulatory effects—although most often touted for its libido-boosting abilities, this stimulation can also help with metabolism and weight.
Animal studies have shown that maca supplementation induces weight loss, with experiments that tested lower and higher maca doses producing an average weight loss of 8.6% and 14.3%, respectively.
Maca may also indirectly influence body weight by promoting higher energy levels and better sleep, which typically translates to greater physical activity and motivation to exercise.
Cordyceps is a type of parasitic fungi that grows on the larvae of insects.
While this doesn’t sound too appealing, cordyceps mushrooms have been consumed in herbal ceremonies and rituals for over 4,000 years in Tibet.
Now, cordyceps is available as a synthetically grown powder, extract, or encapsulated supplement and may benefit people trying to lose weight.
The cordyceps fungus can increase the production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—our body’s primary source of energy.
This will increase ATP availability in the muscles, improving how your body uses oxygen during activity.
Cordyceps may also promote a healthier weight by regulating blood sugar levels, as it mimics the action of insulin—the primary hormone that shuttles glucose from the bloodstream into cells.
Rhodiola rosea is a plant whose use originated in treating altitude sickness.
Now, research has uncovered that salidroside—the active compound in Rhodiola—activates the sirtuin-1 (SIRT1) pathway, an anti-aging protein that supports cellular and metabolic health.
In studies with obese mice, Rhodiola prevented muscle atrophy and dysfunction while improving mitochondrial function and SIRT1 activity.
Animal research has also shown that combining Rhodiola with the bitter orange plant led to a 30% reduction in visceral fat—the harmful, “hidden” fat that surrounds organs and markedly increases the risk of disease and mortality.
Overall, these studies point to the benefits of using Rhodiola for weight loss.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)—also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng (not to be confused with Asian ginseng)—is a plant in the nightshade family that’s been used therapeutically for thousands of years in Ayurvedic healing practices in India.
Many people use ashwagandha for weight loss due to its potent activity in reducing stress and cortisol levels.
A study of chronically stressed adults backed up these claims.
In these 52 stressed-out and overweight adults, those who supplemented with 600mg of ashwagandha daily for eight weeks had significantly reduced body weight, BMI, and serum cortisol levels.
The ashwagandha group also experienced improved markers of well-being and happiness with reductions in food cravings and reactive eating.
Holy basil is an adaptogenic herb native to India, sometimes referred to as tulsi or the “Elixir of Life” in Ayurvedic medicine.
This herb provides anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity that reduces cellular and psychological stress.
Because holy basil targets metabolic stress, it may also support weight loss and healthier cholesterol and lipid levels.
Licorice root has historically been used as a sweetener and ingredient for black licorice candy.
We also know that licorice root may help support weight loss—just not in Twizzler or Red Vine form.
The active component in licorice root is glycyrrhetinic acid, which has been studied for its role in promoting weight loss.
A study with obese mice found that a combination of licorice root and Panax ginseng significantly reduced body weight and adipose tissue levels.
Interestingly, one study also showed that applying glycyrrhetinic acid as a topical cream reduced the thickness of subcutaneous thigh fat after one month of daily application.
The most well-studied adaptogen for stress management is ashwagandha.
However, all adaptogens are known to balance stress and modulate cortisol levels.
Yes, research on ashwagandha has reported benefits for weight loss, with a primary mediator being its ability to lower stress levels.
The adaptogenic herbs with the most research on weight loss include:
– Licorice Root
Each adaptogen may support health in different ways, making it challenging to measure their efficacy against each other.
However, the three most well-known and well-studied adaptogens for overall health are ginseng, turmeric, and ashwagandha.
One is not necessarily better than the other, as both have plenty of health benefits.
However, they can be used for different things—if your primary concern is sleep or stress, the potent effectiveness of ashwagandha is your best bet.
Conversely, Rhodiola can help with energy, stamina, and cellular metabolic health, and many people use both ashwagandha and Rhodiola for weight loss.
Most adaptogens are available in pills, teas, tinctures, tonics, or powders, and the dosage or serving size will vary by adaptogen.
Adverse effects tend to be minimal if you use the product as instructed.
However, the most common side effects are related to the gastrointestinal system, including nausea or diarrhea—especially if taken in excessive doses.
Adaptogens are typically not recommended for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
You’ll also need to consult your doctor first if you take medications that thin the blood, lower blood pressure, or reduce blood sugar, as some of these adaptogenic herbs can further reduce those markers in an excessive way.
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Verpeut JL, Walters AL, Bello NT. Citrus aurantium and Rhodiola rosea in combination reduce visceral white adipose tissue and increase hypothalamic norepinephrine in a rat model of diet-induced obesity. Nutr Res. 2013;33(6):503-512. doi:10.1016/j.nutres.2013.04.001
You B, Dun Y, Fu S, et al. The Treatment of Rhodiola Mimics Exercise to Resist High-Fat Diet-Induced Muscle Dysfunction via Sirtuin1-Dependent Mechanisms. Front Pharmacol. 2021;12:646489. Published 2021 Apr 15. doi:10.3389/fphar.2021.646489
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Unfortunately, most lye-cured olives have been sapped of a sizable portion of their nutrients by the time they get anywhere near your table, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still reap the health benefits of this ancient fruit.
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