What is an adaptogen?

The 5 Best Adaptogens to Combat Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

September 23rd, 2019

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Chronic stress is public enemy number one. While some stress is necessary to keep your immune system sharp and help you stay alive in dangerous situations, prolonged, relentless stress can contribute to leaky gut, adrenal burnout, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, and a plethora of autoimmune conditions. Unfortunately, our lives are fraught with ongoing stress from long hours at work, traffic, financial worries, and health issues. While we may not be able to avoid stress entirely, the key to minimizing its impact on your health is to learn how to manage and relieve your stress naturally. That’s why more and more people are turning to adaptogens for stress relief and adrenal balance. More than just a trendy buzzword, adaptogens might be the ancient answer to our modern day woes.

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogenic herbs or “adaptogens” are a class of herbs that have been used for centuries to help the body “adapt” to stress. That’s right, despite their recent upsurge in popularity, adaptogens such as ashwagandha, ginseng, and rhodiola have a long history of use in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.

The term “adaptogen” was first coined by Russian scientist Israel Brekhman in 1947, who outlined the following criteria of how to classify herbs as adaptogens:

  1. Increase the body’s ability to cope with internal and external stresses.
  2. Exhibit stimulating effects after both single-time use and prolonged use, leading to increased working capacity and mental performance under stressful and fatigue-inducing conditions.
  3. Normalize the functions of the body.
  4. Are entirely safe and have no negative side effects.1

Adaptogens have been touted for their ability to boost strength and vitality, combat fatigue, and treat everything from asthma to infertility. Although adaptogens may not necessarily be the cure-all many claim them to be, there are several well-studied adaptogenic herbs that are proven to have a balancing effect on bodily processes and help decrease the damage caused by stress. And, as we know that stress is at the root of many chronic illnesses, these seemingly “magical” claims might not be so far off!

Adaptogens, Chronic Stress, and the HPA Axis

So how do adaptogens work exactly? To understand this, let’s take a look at something called the “HPA axis”.

Your hypothalamus is the part of your brain that recognizes stress. When you are stressed, your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland, and they both in turn signal your adrenals to produce and release stress hormones. This is known as your HPA (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis.

Chronic stress keeps your HPA axis constantly engaged. Not only is this bad news for your overall health–affecting your mood, sleep, libido, immune system, blood sugar, appetite, thyroid, and much more–it’s also terribly taxing to your adrenal glands and micronutrient reserves. Your adrenal glands have to work incredibly hard to keep up with the demand of being constantly engaged, which can fatigue them and lead to adrenal dysfunction and burnout.

Adaptogenic herbs support a more balanced response to ongoing stress, regulating stress hormone and cortisol production in order to prevent adrenal fatigue and HPA axis dysfunction. Adaptogens also help modulate cellular sensitivity to stress hormones, thereby encouraging a healthier response to stress overall.

The Best Adaptogens for Stress Relief and Adrenal Balance

1. Ashwagandha

If you’re even partially in tune with the world of health and wellness, you’ve likely heard of the powerful adaptogen ashwagandha. Meaning “horse smell” in Sanskrit, ashwagandha has a very strong taste, so many people prefer taking it as an extract or in supplement form.

Ashwagandha has been shown to calm the mind, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and enhance the activity of immune cells known as natural killer cells that help you fight off infections and cancer.2 Ashwagandha is the only adaptogen proven to enhance thyroid function, increasing serum concentrations of both T3 and T4.3 Its anti-inflammatory effects may also help relieve pain associated with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.4

Ashwagandha helps the body cope with stress by boosting adrenal function. It is widely used to balance stress hormones, relieve anxiety, and increase energy in those suffering from adrenal fatigue.

2. Maca

Maca root is unique in that it is both an adaptogen and a superfood. Grown in the Andes Mountains, maca is a root vegetable rich in protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, and amino acids such as glycine and arginine. Maca has been used medicinally for hundreds of years to improve libido, fertility, mood, and symptoms of adrenal fatigue.5

As an adaptogen, maca raises hormone production when your body is under-producing hormones and lowers hormone production when your body is over-producing hormones. When used over time, maca nourishes and enhances the function of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which restores balance to the adrenals.

Unlike ashwagandha, maca is extremely tasty and therefore can be used as a food as well as a supplement. It has a nutty, butterscotch-like flavor that can easily be mixed into smoothies or even baked goods for a potent energy boost!

3. Ginseng

As you know, chronic stress contributes to inflammation and can trigger many illnesses due to an imbalanced immune response and hormone dysfunction. Ginseng is superior in its ability to significantly reduce chronic stress by regulating the HPA axis, effectively decreasing depression, anxiety, and other HPA axis disorders.

Studies have demonstrated the potential of ginseng to prevent and reverse a number of inflammatory conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma. Ginseng also has neuroprotective effects, which can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. It even has the power to prevent autoimmune disease by suppressing proinflammatory cytokines generated by chronic stress.6

4. Rhodiola

Too much cortisol (your primary stress hormone) can deplete your nutrient reserves, impair memory, and have devastating effects on your blood pressure, blood sugar, and metabolism. Rhodiola is an adaptogen that has been proven to reduce the secretion of cortisol during stressful situations.

Research shows that rhodiola can increase energy and enhance concentration in those with adrenal fatigue. It offers antidepressive and cardioprotective effects as well.7

Of the 20 different types of rhodiola plants, Rhodiola rosea is the only one to exhibit health benefits.

5. Eleuthero

Perhaps not as well known as other adaptogens, eleuthero is nonetheless an incredible herb. Eleuthero was first used in China as an herbal remedy at least 2,000 years ago! In addition to helping the body cope with stress, eleuthero acts as a stimulant, increasing nervous system functioning and boosting energy levels. Eleuthero contains compounds that combat fatigue and burn fat for energy.8 In an exercise study, a daily dose of eleuthero elevated cardiovascular function and improved endurance in athletes by 23%!9

Eleuthero offers a whole host of other benefits, including enhanced immune function, stabilized blood sugar levels, improved concentration, and reduced duration of respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza. It can even help you manage menopause symptoms by binding to estrogen receptor sites, thereby decreasing fatigue, insomnia, memory problems, and loss of strength caused by low estrogen levels during menopause.10

Beat Stress and Adrenal Fatigue with Adaptogens

If you suffer from adrenal fatigue, hormone imbalance, chronic stress, or are just looking for natural ways to boost energy and immune health, there are two supplements I recommend.

The first is Adrenal Support, which contains ashwagandha, ginseng, eleuthero, and rhodiola for supporting an optimal stress response and cortisol production. Along with these adaptogenic herbs, Adrenal Support offers crucial B vitamins, vitamin C, and the micronutrient building blocks of adrenal hormones to support overall adrenal health.

The second is my Organic Greens Superfood Juice Powder, which also includes ashwagandha for promoting ideal immune function and stress relief, as well as maca root for optimal mental clarity, vitality, and hormonal health. Plus, it’s an easy and delicious way to get additional superfoods and phytonutrients into your diet that are excellent stress-busters in their own right!

Have you added adaptogens to your wellness routine? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Article Sources

Natural medicine has long appreciated the benefits of herbs and food as medicine. One such example of this is adaptogenic herbs, or “adaptogens.” There is a good bit of science behind the benefits of adaptogen herbs that I’ll share with you, all of which deal with their impact on the stress response.

As you probably know, your body is built to release the hormone cortisol to respond to stress, but elevated cortisol levels over long periods of time and chronic stress can affect every physiological system in your body, including your thyroid and adrenal glands.

Cortisol is also known as the aging hormone. When cortisol levels rise, you experience the “fight or flight” response, which stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands. When this occurs, there is a decrease in your digestive secretions and an increase in blood pressure. In normal life, you experience this response, your body and brain respond to the stressor, your cortisol levels even back out and your body adapts back to normal.

However, people who experience the fight-or-flight responses on a regular basis, many times a day, may experience a state of constant stress, which can burn out your adrenal glands, stress your digestive tract and cause you to age more rapidly. Some people at the highest risk for this include young parents, university students and primary caregivers, like nurses or family members who care for invalid relatives or patients.

Long-term, chronic stress leads to adrenal fatigue and even more potentially dangerous problems, if left untreated. While most researchers and doctors agree that an approach to reduce chronic stress is many-layered, I believe that one powerful approach to naturally relieving stress as well as reducing long-term cortisol levels is by using adaptogenic herbs.

Phytotherapy refers to the use of plants for their healing abilities. Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants: They help balance, restore and protect the body. According to naturopath Edward Wallace, an adaptogen doesn’t have a specific action; it helps you respond to any influence or stressor, normalizing your physiological functions. (2)

The term of adaptogenic herbs or substances was first recorded in 1947 by N.V. Lazarev, a Russian scientist, who used it to describe this non-specific effect that increases the body’s resistance to stress. Defined by two other Russian research scientists in 1958, adaptogens “must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism, must have a nonspecific action, and usually a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathological state.” (3)

This effect has been observed in animal studies, finding that various adaptogens have the ability to create this generally increased tolerance to stress. (4)

In his book Adaptogenic Herbs, certified herbalist David Winston gives a list of 15 recognized adaptogens. Today, I’ll discuss the seven I believe to be most beneficial as part of a stress-relieving lifestyle (in addition to other natural stress relievers).

Please note: I am reviewing evidence on individual adaptogenic herbs, not combinations of them often marketed as cortisol blockers.

Top 7 Adaptogenic Herbs

1. Panax Ginseng

Benefit-rich ginseng is one well-known adaptogen, and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is considered by many to be the most potent. In humans, Panax ginseng has been shown to successfully improve subjective calmness and some aspects of working memory performance in healthy young adults. (5)

Another study on ginseng in 2003, this time in rats, observed that Panax ginseng reduced the ulcer index, adrenal gland weight, blood glucose levels, triglycerides, creatine kinase (an enzyme that points to stress- or injury-related damaged of the circulatory system and other parts of the body) and serum corticosterone (another stress-related hormone). The scientists came to the conclusion that Panax ginseng “possesses significant anti-stress properties and can be used for the treatment of stress-induced disorders.” (6)

Interestingly, multiple studies on Panax ginseng have found that it doesn’t directly alter cortisol levels, at least in the short term, but does affect various other stress response systems, such as blocking ACTH action in the adrenal gland (a hormone that stimulates production of glucocorticoid steroid hormones). (7)

Just one dose of Panax ginseng showed a 132 percent increase in working capacity in a rat study published in 1988. (8) Saponins found in ginseng may affect the monoamine (neurotransmitter) levels in mice in which stress was induced, reducing the amount of noradrenalin and serotonin released as part of the stress response. (9) A 2004 lab study in the Journal of Pharmacological Sciences confirms that, in a lab, the effects of ginseng seem to be particularly motivated by their saponin content. (10)

This red ginseng also has antioxidant effects (in a lab), has been found to improve mood and mental performance in small studies, may reduce fasting blood sugar levels and may even aid newly diagnosed diabetic patients in losing weight. (11, 12)

Also called tulsi, holy basil is known in India as the a powerful anti-aging supplement. Holy basil benefits have long been an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine to treat a large number of conditions, such as “infections, skin diseases, hepatic disorders, common cold and cough, malarial fever and as an antidote for snake bite and scorpion sting.” (16)

In recent years, researchers around the world have investigated the impact of holy basil on the body. Specifically, multiple studies have been conducted in mice and rats to observe its anti-stress activity.

A January 2015 study in humans tested the cognition-enhancing benefits holy basil is thought to have, and found that reaction times and error rates improved compared to placebo. (17)

One reason holy basil may be effective in improving stress response is the presence of three phytochemical compounds. The first two, ocimumosides A and B, have been identified as anti-stress compounds and may lower blood corticosterone (another stress hormone) and create positive alterations in the neurotransmitter system of the brain. (18)

There is also evidence that holy basil may help to prevent recurrence of canker sores, which are thought to be induced by stress, as well as other types of ulcers, such as gastric ulcers. (21, 22, 16)

In addition to these stress-related benefits, holy basil may potentially help to lower blood pressure, reduce seizure activity, fight bacteria, kill certain fungi, combat viral infections, protect the liver, promote immune system function and reduce pain response. (16) However, most of these have not been studied extensively and are in their infancy, as far as research goes.

3. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is often referred to as Indian ginseng. Its effects on cortisol, stress tolerance and internal stress responses have been studied for decades.

In rats and mice, ashwagandha root extract seems to stop the rise in lipid peroxidation caused by bacteria-induced stress. (23) Lipid peroxidation is the process by which oxidative stress can eventually cause cell damage within blood cells. Also in mice, ashwagandha may prevent stress-related gastric ulcers, prevent weight increase of the adrenal glands (a sign of chronic stress), help stabilize cortisol levels and aid in the non-specific stress resistance common with adaptogenic herbs. (24, 25)

You might be interested to know that ashwagandha hasn’t only been studied in animals and labs, but in humans as well. A double-blinded, randomized controlled trial (RCTs, considered the “gold standard” of research) of 64 subjects found that, “Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.” (27) Another RCT in humans discovered that ashwagandha successfully regulated thyroid levels in “subclinical thyroid patients.” (28)

A case report of a 57-year-old woman published in 2012 recounted her experience in self-medicating for six months with an ashwagandha supplement to treat non-classical adrenal hyperplasia, an excess of androgen in women represented by excessive hair growth on the body, abnormal cortisol levels and male-pattern baldness. After six months, her blood levels of various stress hormones, including a form of cortisol, had decreased, and doctors noticed a reduction in the previous hair loss on the patient’s scalp. (29)

4. Astragalus root

Used in Chinese medicine, astragalus has been known to boost immunity and potentially buffer the effects of stress.

One 2005 study observed the impact of astragalus root on piglets and found that at a dose of 500 mg/kg, the adaptogen “decreased the release of inflammatory cytokine and corticosteroid and improved the lymphocyte proliferation response.” (30) Excessive inflammation and lymphocyte proliferation, or the replication of a specific type of white blood cell, are both associated with stress responses.

An animal study demonstrates the ability of astragalus as an adaptogen to improve immunity and antioxidant levels. (32)

5. Licorice root

Licorice root can increase energy and endurance, plus help boost the immune system. It may affect blood pressure and potassium levels, so traditional licorice root is typically recommended in cycles of 12 weeks, although this isn’t the case when taking DGL licorice, which is considered safe for long-term use. (34) Those with hypertension ought to consider using other adaptogens.

In human volunteers, supplementation with licorice root helped to regulate hormone levels associated with stress, including cortisol. (35) One potential outcome of this is the observed effect of this adaptogenic herb to help prevent ulcers. (36)

Other benefits of licorice root include the potential for fat reduction and decrease of androgen and testosterone in women. (37, 38)

6. Rhodiola

Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea), or golden root, is a potent adaptogen that has been the focus of much research. Like the other adaptogens, rhodiola provides a biological defense against stress — a study in roundworms suggests that it actually acts as a mild stressor when ingested, allowing the organism to boost its stress defenses (similar to how astragalus root works). (39)

A human trial conducted in 2009 by scientists in Sweden tested rhodiola’s impact on people “suffering with stress-related fatigue.” They found that repeatedly administering rhodiola rosea “exerts an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome.” (41)

Interestingly, rhodiola may even have an impact on acute stress responses, as explained by a 2012 study in human subjects. Giving the individuals rhodiola rosea resulted in a small reduction in cortisol (tested in saliva) and a very large reduction in the acute stress caused by “intense short duration physical exercise in sedentary persons.” (42)

This adaptogenic herb also functions as an antioxidant in lab and animal research. (43, 44)

A review conducted in 2010 noted the promising results of initial research, and points out that the fact rhodiola rarely interacts with medications or causes serious side effects, it’s an attractive candidate as a safe supplement. (47)

7. Cordycep mushrooms

Cordyceps, reishi, shiitake and maitake mushrooms are fungi with antioxidant properties. That means nutrition-rich mushrooms have all the benefits of antioxidant foods. They may not be adaptogens in the classic sense, but each has adaptogenic, anti-tumor and immune-enhancing properties.

In particular, cordyceps have been observed for their impacts on cortisol levels and oxidative stress. For example, a 2006 trial involving the use of a powdered cordycep supplement found that sedentary adult males had better regulated cortisol levels after exercise-induced stress and that the supplement had anti-fatigue qualities. (49)

In mice, cordyceps helped to slightly increase the cortisol and testosterone levels in healthy male rats, giving them an edge of protection from physiological stress in a 1997 report. (50)

Another human trial found that cortisol levels of both men and women were lower over time compared to placebo in subjects recovering from motion fatigue, a form of stress. (51)

Again, it seems that the adaptogenic effect of cordyceps involve a temporary higher boost in cortisol when exposed to stress, followed by a large drop during non-stress periods when compared with no treatment. The same was true for a three-month trial in endurance cyclists conducted in 2014, where the testosterone/cortisol ratio significantly protected the athletes from the chronic stress and related fatigue to which they often succumb. In this trial, researchers also noted that the blood of the participants confirmed an increase in antioxidant activity, quelling excessive oxidative stress. (52)

Adaptogen Precautions

As always, you should discuss any new supplements or medications with your doctor before beginning a regimen. This is especially true with adaptogenic herbs, as several of them interact with prescription medications and are not recommended for people with certain conditions.

Be sure to do your research on any supplements you are considering to find out whether or not they may conflict with any medications or conditions you may have, and only purchase high-quality, organic varieties from trustworthy sources.

Final Thoughts

  • Eating well, getting proper rest, staying active, writing down what you’re grateful for and maintaining social connection all help protect you from chronic stress, which can kill your quality of life.
  • Adding adaptogens to your routine can make you even more resilient to the damaging effects of chronic stress and give your body protection against perpetually high cortisol levels.
  • Seven adaptogenic herbs than can help protect you from the effects of chronic stress include Panax ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, astragalus root, licorice root, rhodiola rosea and cordyceps.

Read Next: The Top 101 Herbs and Spices for Healing

Balance Your Hormones With Adaptogenic Herbs & Superfoods

Jul 24, 2018 · 4 min read

Hormones play a huge role in determining your well-being, and taking adaptogens may be the best way to keep hormones in balance. Hormones determine how you feel, what your mood is like and whether you will gain or lose weight easily. Hormones are crucial to almost every process taking place within your body.

Top 11 Reasons to take adaptogens: but the #1 is that Adaptogens Help Balance Hormones

The brain communicates with certain parts of the body via hormonal signals. It all begins when the brain signals the endocrine system to instruct it as to what to do. The endocrine system is composed of many parts. The individual parts of the endocrine system are represented by the:

  • thyroid
  • parathyroid
  • adrenals
  • pancreas
  • gastrointestinal tract
  • testicles & ovaries

What are the symptoms of hormonal imbalance?

As with many other crucial processes in the body, the hormonal system requires balance. Hormonal dis-regulation can wreak havoc on the body and the mind. Should the body produce too much or too little hormones, the result will be a cascade of symptoms that lead you to state of disease. It is not uncommon for individuals to complain of the following symptoms when hormonal imbalance is present:

  • weight gain
  • chronic fatigue
  • digestive disorder
  • hair loss
  • low libido
  • skin issues
  • depression
  • suicidal thoughts
  • anxiety
  • either cold or hot flashes

Allopathic medicine is still trying to understand hormonal imbalance and how to measure it via blood tests. Most lab tests prescribed by Allopathic physicians are not sensitive enough to accurately detect hormonal irregularities. As a result, patients are often told that their biomarkers for various hormones fall within the normal range, despite raging symptoms. And physicians will not tinker with anything that appears to be categorized by blood tests as normal, even if patients continue to complain about one or more ongoing symptoms.

Balancing your hormones requires expert guidance.

Numerous factors play a role in hormonal dis-regulation. As a result, it is hard to address hormonal imbalances with the use of targeted medications typically prescribed by doctors. A patient’s hormone imbalance may be the result of:

  • chronic stress
  • dysfunction of the gut-brain axis
  • genetic impairments with the Methylation processes: MTHFR & COMT
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • Whole Body Toxin overload
  • chronic inflammation within the body

There is a natural way to address hormonal imbalance that is backed by scientific research. And it happens to involve the use of adaptogenic herbs. If you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about adaptogens, well, numerous clinical studies demonstrate that adaptogens may be our best ally in the fight to tame raging hormones, reduce chronic stress, alleviate depression, regenerate our brain cells and heal mitochondrial dysfunction.

The No BS Guide to Adaptogens for Hormonal Balance and Stress

Each adaptogen has a different effect on the body, so the choice of which one to take will depend on the result you seek. For example, if you’re both frazzled and fried, ashwagandha might be the ticket to both energize and relax you.

Adaptogen Potential benefit
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) Boosts working memory, reaction time, calmness, and immune system
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Reduces stress and anxiety
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) Combats fatigue
Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris) Boosts stamina
Goji berry (Lycium barbarum) Boosts energy, physical and mental performance, calmness, and sense of well-being, and can also improve sleep
Eluethero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus) Improves focus and staves off mental fatigue
Jiaogulan (Gynostemma Pentaphyllum) Reduces stress and boosts endurance
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) Reduces stress
Rhodiola rosea (R. rosea) Staves off physical and mental fatigue
Schisandra berry/Magnolia berry (Schisandra chinensis) Boosts endurance, mental performance, and working capacity
Tulsi/Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) Reduces physical and mental stress, stress-related anxiety, and depression
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) Boosts brain function and reduces depression

Follow dosing instructions carefully

For dosing, follow instructions that come with product information. A naturopathic physician can recommend specific adaptogens and reputable formulas or tinctures. Plus, an ND can adjust your dosage up or down as needed based on the effects you hope to achieve. “They are generally safe,” Korn says of adaptogens, “but each individual may react differently, so start slowly and observe your own reactions.”

Get creative to get excited

Find a method that’s fun and convenient to incorporate into your routine. You can take adaptogens as herbal supplements in capsule form, added to smoothies as powders, or concocted into teas or soups.

Korn likes to make a stimulating tea that can be consumed hot or cold. It’s one part licorice root, one part fennel seed, one part fenugreek seed, and two parts flax seed. She simmers a tablespoon of the mixture in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes. She has other recipes, like a “fruity turmeric smoothie” in her book.

Nayak enjoys experimenting with adaptogenic foods. She uses the dried root astragalus in soups or stews. “It’s a great immune supportive adaptogen that gives an earthy flavor,” she says. “Schisandra is also a fabulous herb for cooking because of its complex flavor. It’s great in a berry compote or a chai spice tea.”

Time your adaptogens right

Both Nayak and Korn suggest taking stimulating adaptogens, like rhodiola, earlier in the day, before 3 pm, to align with the body’s natural rhythms. “We are designed to be live wires in the morning and to rest by early evening,” Korn says. It should be noted that the study on the effects of Rhodiola rosea produced inconclusive evidence of its efficacy and further studies are needed in the future.

Calming adaptogens, like holy basil, can be taken both in the daytime and before bed, however. They aren’t strong enough to have a sedative effect.

You can use adaptogens for a few days or weeks to get through a busy time at work. Or take them for a stretch of chronic chaos, when life just keeps handing it to you. Korn recommends rotating the type of adaptogen you’re using after six weeks, though, so that your body can benefit from the subtle differences among herbs.

Remember that adaptogens aren’t a cure-all or a substitute

Don’t rely on adaptogens for logging pillow time or taking good care of yourself. Use them to cope with intense periods — like holidays, finals, and taxes — and to stay gently energized long term. “I definitely love my adaptogens!” Nayak says. “I don’t feel the same without them. In fact, I would say that I didn’t realize how much stress I was holding onto until I was helped back into balance.”

As with any drug or supplement, adaptogens do have side effects, interactions, and contraindications. So do your research, especially regarding any current health conditions. It’s also recommended you contact your healthcare provider before beginning a herbal regiment.

Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.


Adapting to stress with herbal support

If you were to ask a handful of herbalists what their favorite classification of herbs is, I’d venture to guess you’d hear the phrase “adaptogens” come up more than once. The reason this class of herb is a common go-to can be boiled down to one word: stress.

When the body experiences stress (whether physical or mental), it diverts resources to the brain and skeletal muscles so we can flee whatever threat is being perceived. Depending on the severity, our heart-rate may increase, along with our blood pressure, our breathing speeds up, and digestion decreases. These can be life-saving measures in the face of a tiger, but do we really need to call in the cavalry because we missed a deadline at work?

What if instead you had a resource that, over time, could help your body better adapt to stress, and respond more appropriately? Reserve the cavalry for when the tiger is real, and rely on other responses when that deadline approaches?


This is where adaptogens come in. The term “adaptogen” defines herbs that help “protect the body against physical, mental, and emotional stress by strengthening the immune system” (Medicinal Herbs 61). Given the prevalence of stress in our modern society, you can see why adaptogenic herbs are so favored.

If the definition of “adaptogen” seemed a little vague to you, there’s good reason: this term doesn’t describe a single family of plants, but instead a collection of actions a plant may have that results in strengthening of the body, and a healthier stress response. Though it’s important to note: adaptogens can work in different ways. So it may be helpful to look at a few adaptogenic herbs to understand the unique attributes of each.


To me, ashwagandha is royalty in the world of adaptogens. Ashwagandha is a traditional ayurvedic herb that has been used for thousands of years to help us better adapt to the stressors of life. Ashwagandha is a multi-faceted herb, and rather than stimulate the body, it also has a calming effect, implied by the meaning of it’s Latin species name, somnifera, which means ‘to induce sleep,’.1 Ashwagandha is like a big hug when stress hits – strengthening and soothing!*


If Ashwagandha is known for strengthening and soothing, Rhodiola is its daytime counterpart – energizing and enhancing. As an adaptogen, it has been traditionally used to support strength and endurance, and modern herbalists typically suggest Rhodiola to “combat fatigue caused by stress and enhance work performance by increasing attention span and concentration”.*1

Holy Basil

You may have heard of Holy Basil before, perhaps by the name of Tulsi. Like Ashwagndha, Holy Basil is a traditional ayurvedic herb that has been revered for years for its gentle calming support.* While it’s often taken as a tea, you can find it in stress-support formulas as well, that combine the benefits of a number of adaptogenic herbs.

Simple, daily delivery

If you’re intrigued by the notion of incorporating adaptogens into your day-to-day, but are a tad unsure where to start, we’ve done the hard work for you! Learn more about MegaFood products to support a healthy stress response.

Curious, but still on the fence? Or, you’re hungry to learn more? Wouldn’t it be nice to sit down with an expert on botanical medicine and go a bit deeper? Well, we did just that for you with the incredible Doctor Low Dog in our podcast That Supplement Show, which you can listen to here!

Want to learn about what other key ingredients can help you with optimal wellness and energy? Build your energy from the ground up.

1 Low Dog, Tieraona. (2016) Fortify your Life, Washington DC: National Geographic Partners.

What Are Adaptogens, and Should You Add Them to Your Diet?

Maybe you’ve heard a celebrity talk about adaptogens, or perhaps you’ve noticed supplements at your local health food store touting the adaptogens inside.

Like many people, you may be left wondering, What exactly are adaptogens, and can they really help me?

The scoop: “Adaptogens are herbs and mushrooms known for their ability to help your body better handle physical and emotional stress,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, a Chicago-based dietitian in private practice.

“When you’re not stressed, you have a better memory, less fatigue, more endurance, can stick with tasks longer, and have sharper focus and attention,” says Blatner. “On the other hand, stress can have the opposite effect on all of these functions,” she adds. And that’s where adaptogens come in.

Because we’re living in such anxious times — burned out by demanding jobs and worried about what’s in the news — the herbs’ promise to protect against stress may explain their surge in popularity, says Blatner. And as the stress forecast for the upcoming years looks similar to years past, their buzz will likely only continue to grow.

RELATED: Is Stress Making You Sicker? Signs You Should Never Ignore

Here, find out how adaptogens work, plus ways you can start incorporating more of these ancient nontoxic herbs and mushrooms into your diet this year.

What Exactly Are Adaptogens, and What Is Their History?

The term “adaptogen” is fairly new to the health and wellness scene here in the United States, which is one reason why it may not be on your radar. That doesn’t mean, though, that adaptogens are only now being put to use.

“These herbs have been around for hundreds of years in Eastern medicine,” says Alix Turoff, RDN, a New York City–based dietitian in private practice. They were used in World War II to treat fatigue experienced by pilots, Turoff adds. Research suggests that submarine crews also used adaptogen pills.

The concept may sound almost like magic: Take these herbs and see big stress-reducing benefits. But adaptogens aren’t a quick fix for stress, says Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, a Chicago-based dietitian in private practice. “If you use these adaptogens over the long term, you can likely see some of the stress-protective benefits — but it takes time and consistency,” Retelny says.

It’s worth thinking of these adaptogenic herbs as another tool in your stress-reduction kit, says Blatner, along with regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a mindfulness or meditation practice.

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How the Herbs and Mushrooms Work to Relieve Stress

While there’s still a lot of research to be done, Blatner says what we do know is this: “Adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), which is our body’s stress response system.”

In short, she says, adaptogens can help calm the following areas: the hypothalamus (a small region in your brain), your pituitary gland (found at the base of your brain), and your adrenal glands (which are located at the top of your kidneys and produce the hormone cortisol).

Cortisol is often a buzzword when it comes to stress — it’s the hormone that’s released by your adrenal glands during tense times, increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels. While the hormone is important for those “fight or flight moments,” too-high levels of cortisol over time can lead to health issues like type 2 diabetes and Cushing’s syndrome, according to the Endocrine Society’s Hormone Health Network.

Meanwhile, “Adaptogens have shown promise in normalizing stress hormones, such as cortisol,” says Retelny. The big caveat is that researchers are still looking into understanding how exactly these herbs and mushrooms do this. The good news? “There’s likely much more research to come in this area because stress is more common in our society and people are looking for alternatives other than prescription medicine to help cope — there’s more of an interest now than ever,” says Retelny.

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5 Herb Sources of Adaptogens That Should Be on Your Radar

You can find dozens of adaptogenic herbs that have been studied, according to Retelny, but if you look on Instagram (and follow any dietitians), you’ll notice that some are much more popular than others. These include:

1. Holy Basil

“Many people use holy basil, also known as tulsi, in stir-frys and soups because it adds a spicy, peppery taste,” says Retelny. Eastern medicine followers even call the herb the “elixir of life” because it is so highly regarded for its health benefits, according to a May 2015 article in BMC Genomics. Retelny says people use the herb for everything from reducing stress to combating indigestion. Children and pregnant women, however, should use caution with basil.

2. Ashwagandha

Sometimes called Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is likely one of the most talked about — and most commonly used — adaptogens, says Retelny. “The name ashwagandha in Sanskrit means ‘smell of a horse,’” says Retelny; it has a strong odor and a reputation for giving people vitality similar to that of the big, hoofed animal. In Indian cuisine it’s blended into a seasoning called churna, notes the Monterey Bay Spice Company, but you can also take it in supplement form. Note that pregnant women should not use ashwagandha, and it may interfere with thyroid tests.

3. Maca

This root is originally from the Andes mountains, according to an article published in Evidenced-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and it’s known for its nutty, sweet flavor. Because of its malty taste, the powder form works well sprinkled in yogurt, oatmeal, or smoothies. “I’ve seen manufacturers start adding it to food products, too,” says Retelny. As for its perks, like the others, it’s been tied to protecting your body from stress, says Blatner.

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4. Reishi

“The reishi mushroom has been used for centuries in Eastern Asia as an adaptogen and as a medicine as well,” says Retelny. Unlike button or shiitake, you likely won’t be cooking with whole reishi mushrooms. “It’s more common to find them in a dried, powder form,” says Retelny. You can add the powder to savory recipes like soup, or, if you’re daring, steep the whole mushroom in hot water to make a bitter tea.

5. Siberian Ginseng

“This adaptogen is likely one of the most researched,” Blatner says of Siberian ginseng, which grows in China and Russia, and is a popular remedy for people who feel run-down and tired from stress. The herb, also referred to as eleutherococcus, is not technically in the ginseng family, and is easiest to find in supplement form.

One thing to remember: While these herbs can be helpful, some people experience negative side effects, which is why you’ll want to discuss them with your doctor before going on any regimen.

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How to Start Taking Advantage of the Benefits of Adaptogens

The easiest way to begin taking adaptogens is through supplements, which many health food stores sell. But this comes with a catch. “As with other supplements, you’ll want to practice caution and choose reputable brands, because supplements aren’t regulated by the ” the same way that conventional drugs are, says Retelny.

Another issue: dosage. Because research is ongoing, how much to take is still unclear.

“It’s important, if you do use these supplements, to use them in moderate levels,” says Retelny. Check the recommended dosage on the packaging. “And if you have any confusion about how much to take, have health concerns, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your healthcare provider before you start,” Retelny says. If you’re on any medication whatsoever, your best bet is to talk to your doctor before adding an adaptogen supplement (or any supplement, for that matter) to your diet.

In addition to capsules, you’ll also find powdered forms of popular adaptogens (Navitas Organics, for example, sells maca powder, and Nuts.com sells an organic reishi powder) or powdered blends (like Moon Juice, Wunder Workshop, and Sun Potion) lining health food stores or online. Depending on the flavor, certain adaptogens can be added to, say, your morning coffee, or sprinkled on your morning toast, says Blatner. “Most of the time, people who are using adaptogens are looking for simple swaps, such as ways to give their smoothies a boost,” Blatner adds.

Manufacturers have started to take notice of the buzz, and are adding adaptogens to their foods and drinks. For example, Purely Elizabeth’s Grain Free Superfood bars feature reishi; Califia Farms makes Choc-a-Maca, a chocolate and maca almond milk, and Rebbl has an Ashwagandha Chai drink in their line. And judging by the growing trend, you’ll likely spot more adaptogen-infused foods and drinks in the coming years.

Before you start stocking up, know this: “When you see an adaptogen in a product, a light bulb should go off that it may help you, but look at the other ingredients to double-check that the food you’re eating is nutritious,” says Blatner. Adaptogen-infused products may have a health halo — or seem better for you because they include one buzzy ingredient. “Just because it has an adaptogen in it doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy, so do some sleuthing and see what’s around the adaptogen on the ingredient list,” advises Blatner.

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One Last Word: Should You Try Adaptogens for Stress Relief?

If you don’t have any other health concerns, adding adaptogens to your diet may be worth a shot, says Blatner. “We do know stress is an epidemic, and if adaptogens are a potential stress protector, and they’re not going to hurt you, then why not try them?” Blatner adds that’s especially true “because some people are almost immobilized by stress, and not working at their best.”

Still, Retelny says that because research is ongoing, be sure to use caution. “It’s always best to consult with your registered dietitian or doctor before you start taking any supplements,” she says.

Remember that while adaptogens may be beneficial in the long run, they probably won’t solve all your stress-related woes. “I don’t think anything is really a miracle cure,” says Turoff.

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