Q: I would like to find an all-round natural supplement. A friend mentioned she takes an adaptogen: what are they, and how do I choose one for my over-busy lifestyle?
A: I’ve always liked the concept that adaptogens – natural substances that improve your body’s ability to adapt to stress, both physical and mental – go where they are needed at the time, acting on multiple parts of the body to strengthen weakness and bring balance.
According to medical herbalist Katie Pande: ‘Adaptogenic herbs are said to have a normalising effect on the body and mind, reducing the negative changes that can happen in your body in response to stress.’
As senior herbal advisor to Pukka Herbs, which specialises in Ayurvedic medicinal plants (Ayurveda is the traditional medical system of India), Katie recommends ashwagandha, derived from the root of the plant (Pukka Herbs Wholistic Ashwagandha, £29.95 for 60 capsules, victoriahealth.com), increasingly known in the West for its calming effect. ‘Ashwagandha supports energy without making us feel more wired,’ she says.
There is evidence to support the claims. For instance, in a small study of 64 adults suffering chronic stress, half took ashwagandha for 60 days, the other half a placebo. The first group reported much lower scores of perceived stress, anxiety and depression. When their level of cortisol (a stress hormone) was measured, it fell by 28 per cent in the group taking ashwagandha, compared to eight per cent in the placebo group.
Another option for overall stress protection is holy basil, which may also help with low mood and possibly memory. Shatavari also has general adaptogenic properties and is particularly suited for women who need to balance reproductive hormones, from puberty to menopause (Pukka Herbs Wholistic Holy Basil and Organic Shatavari, each £15.95 for 30 capsules, victoriahealth.com).
My adaptogen of choice for the past decade or so has been Siberian ginseng, which was used by Chinese emperors to ensure long life, according to Sebastian Pole, the co-founder of Pukka Herbs and a leading expert on medicinal herbs. I really notice the difference in my energy levels if I run out (I take HealthAid Sibergin, £15.49 for 30 capsules, victoriahealth.com).
However, Siberian ginseng tends to have a stimulating effect, rather than being directly calming, so if you are stressed and/or anxious in addition to being overly busy, you might want to opt for ashwagandha. Sebastian says you can combine products such as ashwagandha and shatavari or Siberian ginseng.
Book of the week: Beat Your Bloat
Maeve Madden lived in hormonal chaos from her early teens with irregular periods culminating in ten days of agonising pain. In 2010, aged 24, she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. Her litany of symptoms included adult acne, weight problems, bloating, fibroid growth and lack of energy plus irritable bowel syndrome.
A professional dancer turned model, she decided to tackle her multiple health problems by becoming a personal trainer and transforming her life, body and mind. Maeve’s book is an engaging personal story with excellent tips for managing common health problems, simple and delicious-sounding recipes, plus easy-to-follow fitness routines, including yoga.
Beat Your Bloat: Recipes & Exercises to Promote Digestive Health is published by Kyle Books, price £14.99. To order a copy for £11.24 (a 25 per cent discount) until 17 June, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; free P&P on orders over £15. Always consult your doctor if you have a medical problem.
Know your bunions
Finding pretty shoes that are comfortable is a problem for women who have bunions, but my colleague Catherine has made two discoveries. ‘M&S does shoes in wide and extra-wide fittings [from £19.50, marksandspencer.com], which don’t rub my feet. Sole Bliss makes attractive shoes and boots with cushioning that supports bunions, which are more expensive but worth it [from £149, solebliss.com]. Round toes are the most comfortable, but I can wear pointy-toed styles with a medium heel if they are made from soft fabric or suede and in a size bigger. My tip is to walk everywhere in trainers and wear my pretty shoes in the office or at parties.’
Feature by Sarah Stacey