Do Adaptogens Improve Gut Health?Published on Wednesday, February 01, 2023 by
A closer look at Curcumin, Ginseng, Lion’s Mane, Licorice & Ashwagandha
Adaptogens are a family of compounds, general plant extracts, that are thought to improve our stress response and in turn make the body more resilient to external stressors.
They’ve become increasingly popular products in recent years and that’s no huge surprise to me given the general public’s growing interest in the role that nutrition and supplementation can play in improving mental health.
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is perhaps the prime example of such a compound with numerous controlled studies demonstrating its potential to reduce circulating cortisol levels and lead to meaningful changes in perceived stress and anxiety levels.
I also appreciate there is a great deal of public interest surrounding adaptogenic compounds and their potential to confer benefits to other aspects of our health – particularly gut health.
Using that as the guiding mantra for today’s piece, let’s take a closer look at the potential gut health benefits of five popular adaptogens.
#1 Panax Ginseng
A commonly used plant root in both China and South Korea, ginseng exists in various forms all of which belong to the Panax genus.
Panax actually means “all-healing” in Greek, a nod to Ginseng's diverse historical use in the health realm.
That being said, the quality and quantity of human studies looking at ginseng use for gut health are limited.
In 2021 the European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition demonstrated via an in vitro study replicating the human gut microbiome that ginseng had the potential to increase both the presence of certain types of healthy bacteria and the production of beneficial SCFAs like butyrate.
From the human experimental perspective, A 2022 paper out of the Journal Of Ginseng Research found that the provision of 3 grams of red ginseng extract daily to middle-aged adults over a 6-month period statistically significantly improved the richness of the participants' gut microbiome suggesting a potential prebiotic effect of ginseng on the human digestive tract.
The nature of the evidence is very preliminary, and more work will be required before strong claims can be made about ginseng’s utility or gut health.
#2 Licorice Root
Scientifically referred to as Glycyrrhiza glabra, licorice root has a long history of use in traditional medicine for a variety of health concerns including those related to the gastrointestinal tract.
Licorice contains a wide array of beneficial phytochemical compounds, many of which fall into the flavonoid family and are considered to have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects.
When we consider human experimental studies on licorice use in digestive disorders, there are some intriguing findings to make note of.
- H. Pylori: Licorice supplementation in combination with standard antibiotic treatment was demonstrated to be more effective than antibiotic treatment alone for the eradication of H. Pylori, particularly in people with peptic ulcer disease.
- Functional Dyspepsia: Individuals living with functional dyspepsia who were provided a Licorice-containing product (150 mg daily) over a 30-day period reported statistically significant symptom improvement as compared to those provided a placebo.
Licorice root also contains the prebiotic compound FOS and may be considered to have prebiotic potential in the human GI tract, although human studies confirming this notion are lacking.
Ashwagandha has its roots in Ayurvedic medicine and is perhaps the most popular adaptogen on today’s list.
It is one that, before properly reviewing the literature, I knew admittedly little about.
Ashwagandha’s potential to reduce perceived stress and cortisol has been noted in multiple controlled trials while its potential to improve sleep outcomes has also been solidified in a recently published meta-analysis.
Now when we consider the positive role of sleep on the gut microbiome and the clear connection between stress and gut health – there is a strong case to be made for an indirect benefit of ashwagandha on the digestive tract, even if studies exploring this more closely don’t’ appear to exist at this moment in time.
Finally, and given that 70-80% of the human immune system is located in the GI tract, it is worth noting that a randomized controlled trial completed in 2021 found evidence that ashwagandha supplementation may enhance relevant immune system biomarkers.
We can say, at most, that ashwagandha supplementation has some demonstrated potential to improve aspects of our physiology that are related to or associated with good gut health.
#4 Lion’s Mane
Lion’s Mane is an edible mushroom referred to scientifically as Hericium erinaceus.
It is a supplement that has been on my radar for some time, having regularly observed it placed among top seller lists and generally associated with benefits around improved focus and cognition.
It has been suggested in mostly in vitro studies that Lion’s Mane may contribute positively to strengthening the intestinal barrier while also conferring benefits to the microbiome as well.
In 2021 Nutrients carried out a pilot human study to begin to assess the validity of these claims and noted that Lion’s Mane contributed positively to gut microbiome diversity and upregulated SCFA-producing bacteria over a seven-day period in a limited number of healthy subjects.
Again, in the case of Lion’s Mane, we have a compound that has demonstrated promise in preclinical studies but that will require more and better quality research before strong claims about its gut health benefits can be made.
Curcumin, the bioactive compound found in Turmeric, is also considered an adaptogen in some circles and our regular readers will recall it has been studied in a limited capacity for use in anxiety relief.
Given its potent anti-inflammatory capacity and the role that inflammation plays in compromising both gut and mental health, this is perhaps unsurprising.
In fact, you need not look further than my recent piece on curcumin for IBD as evidence that this compound has some serious potential to contribute positively to human gut health.
This doesn’t mean it’s a gut health panacea though, with a 2018 meta-analysis out of the Journal Of Clinical Medicine finding no statistically significant effect on IBS symptoms.
There is, however, limited randomized controlled data out there suggesting curcumin may generally reduce self-reported digestive complaints as well as positively influence the diversity of the gut microbiome.
A General Word Of Caution
While the adaptogenic compounds discussed in today’s post are generally considered safe with a good history of generally problem-free use, it doesn’t mean they are not without potential side effects or contraindications.
Always strive to make informed decisions, including with the help of your healthcare providers, when determining whether or not a supplement is beneficial, suitable or even necessary for the betterment of your health.
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Andy De SantisMPH, RD