Debates about training or nutrition topics aren’t new in the online fitness world.
Low carb or paleo, what burns more fat?
Should you use high reps or heavy weight for the best possible muscle growth?
As online debates go, they can get lengthy.
Once such topic is the existence of adrenal fatigue. We can debate if it even exists or if it’s a part of the larger condition of hypothalamus axis dysregulation.
Unfortunately, if we turn a blind eye on all things adrenal fatigue, we’ll overlook a class of supplements that have far reaching benefits.
Adaptogens are a group of nutrients, some mushrooms and others herbs, that may not only impact cortisol, stress, and anxiety, but have potential performance and physique enhancing properties well beyond the typical adrenal fatigue recommendations.
The frequent Muscle & Strength reader likely has a strong grasp of smart supplementation for their goals including the use of creatine, whey protein, and natural BCAAs, but what if I told you that you were missing out on additional benefits?
Here’s some of my favorite adaptogens for enhancing my performance and physique.
I remember when I first started researching supplements back in the late 1990’s, every few months a bodybuilding magazine would run a feature on a “secret Russian performance booster” which always turned out to be Rhodiola Rosea.
The articles would point out how this herb, grown exclusively in high altitudes in the arctic areas of Asia and Eastern Europe, was the generations-old Viking strength secret or how Russian Olympic athletes used it for sporting excellence.
Luckily, Rhodiola has more sound research studies backing up its effectiveness today, one being potential fat loss. Hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) increases the release of fatty acids from body fat so that the fat cells can be burned as fuel. One of the active compounds in Rhodiola is rosavin which can stimulate HSL activity.
A study performed at Georgian State Hospital found that, when combined with diet and exercise, subjects taking Rhodiola lost an average of 19 pounds whereas subjects who used a placebo lost only 8 pounds.1
Okay, that’s cool but what about if you don’t have 19 pounds to lose? A 2004 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that rhodiola improved endurance by increasing red blood cell count, which allows the hard training athlete to delay fatigue during the workout and recover faster post workout2.
Rhodiola also decreases muscle damage in training populations.3 In addition, Rhodiola acts as a cognitive enhancer by enhancing the sensitivity of your brain neurons to serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters involved in focus and concentration4. Any good adrenal fatigue supplement should include rhodiola due to all of its benefits.
Recommended dosage: 200-300 mg’s twice per day
The next adaptogen and one of the more popular adrenal fatigue supplements with multiple benefits, you should know about is ashwaganha.
I’m sure Ayurvedic cultures didn’t expect their medical herb to help stabilize your blood sugar levels, increase your total testosterone, and allow you to train harder for longer, but that’s what ashwagandha can do.
Over 12 weeks, researchers gave a group of 50 healthy, active adults ashwagandha twice per day and found a 13.6 percent increase in maximum oxygen consumption. Researchers speculated that this was due to ashwagandha's ability to increase red blood cell count, similar to rhodiola5.
Ashwagandha has some exciting promise for individuals with blood sugar intolerance or who want to lose body fat. One study found that subjects who took ashwagandha for 4 weeks reduced their fasting blood sugar levels by 13.5 mg/dl on average6.
Additional studies have shown that ashwagandha can reduce blood sugar levels in both healthy and diabetic individuals. Ashwagandha may also increase insulin secretion in muscle cells, which in theory, should allow for more glucose and amino acid storage in muscle tissue7.
Muscle growth, that’s the name of the game right? Researchers looked at ashwagandhas ability to increase muscle growth and found that the sweet spot for muscle growth and fat loss over 30 days seems to be between 750-1250 mg’s7. A second study concludes that ashwagandha can increase muscle strength in addition to size.8
How about body composition changes? One study found a small increase in testosterone in weight training men9. I’m not convinced that a 15% increase in testosterone is going to give you a reason to take a before and after picture but when you factor in the other benefits I previously laid out for ashwagandha use, why not get a little bump in your testosterone?
Recommend Dosage: 1 gram per day
3. Holy Basil
This sacred plant in both Hindu and Christian religions, holy basil, otherwise known as Tulsi, has multiple decades of research on its benefits for reducing fasting blood glucose, total cholesterol and improving your overall lipid profile10,11.
While not as appealing as ashwagandha or rhodiola, holy basil may result in greater gains due to its ability to increase gut health.
Training is a stressor, as are the variety of situations you likely find yourself in daily. All of this stress decreases digestive acids that impair nutrient breakdown and absorption.
Holy Basil has been shown to increase mucus cell health and mucus secretion12. A happy gut is vital for longer term results.
Recommended Dosage: 200-300 mg’s per day
One of the better studies on adaptogens, Panax or Chinese ginseng shows increases in muscular strength and endurance. Male and female subjects were given 1 gram of panax ginseng for six weeks and found an increase in both upper and lower body strength13.
A second study out of California State Polytechnic University found that after 30 days, subjects taking ginseng increased their training time to exhaustion by up to seven minutes14. That means they could train harder for seven more minutes.
Post workout recovery is a big deal and ginseng appears to decrease exercise induced oxidative damage while protecting the muscles from mechanical damage. Better post workout recovery increases muscle growth over the long term.15
Recommended Dosage: 1 grams per day
Even if you completely disagree with the idea of adrenal fatigue, these four adaptogenic herbs have multiple benefits that can make you bigger, stronger, leaner and healthier.
I would suggest starting with one or two of the above herbs and begin to tinker with them as you go.
You don’t want to start using four new supplements at the same time. Take it slow.
- Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review
- Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance.
- Effects of chronic Rhodiola Rosea supplementation on sport performance and antioxidant capacity in trained male: preliminary results.
- Rhodiola rosea therapy for major depressive disorder: a study protocol for a randomized, double-blind, placebo- controlled trial
- Efficacy of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera [L.] Dunal) in improving cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy athletic adults
- Effects of Withania somnifera in patients of schizophrenia: A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled pilot trial study
- Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers.
- Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial.
- Withania somnifera improves semen quality by regulating reproductive hormone levels and oxidative stress in seminal plasma of infertile males.
- Hypoglycaemic, hypolipidemic and antioxidant properties of tulsi (Ocimum sanctum linn) on streptozotocin induced diabetes in rats
- Effect of Tulasi (Ocimum sanctum) leaf powder supplementation on blood sugar levels, serum lipids and tissues lipids in diabetic rats
- Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons
- Efficacy of Ginseng Supplements on Fatigue and Physical Performance: a Meta-analysis
- Actoprotective effect of ginseng: improving mental and physical performance
- Selected herbals and human exercise performance.