If you never received a Hogwarts letter, adaptogens are as close to magic as you’ll likely ever get. An adaptogenic herb has the unique capacity to reduce the levels of stress hormones in your blood, helping you to “adapt” more easily to difficult environments, such as cold, a stressful work situation, or fatigue.
In the non-Western world, adaptogens are often used in high-risk occupations to reduce job-related stress, but they’re quickly gaining traction in the West as well, especially as peer-reviewed studies increasingly confirm what experts in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine have known for centuries: that adaptogens really have amazing effects on your body's ability to deal with outside stressors.
Our experts weigh in on which adaptogens are the real deal as well as how to integrate them into your daily life.
How Adaptogens Work
Despite what it may seem, there's nothing mystical about the way adaptogens help our bodies adapt to stress. According to Phytotherapy Research, adaptogenic herbs can work in one of two ways: when taken over the long term, they work to help the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, our body's central stress response system, better adapt to stressors and produce fewer stress hormones. A single dose in the short term can be important "in situations that require a rapid response to tension or to a stressful situation," note the researchers; these effects are associated instead with the sympatho-adrenal-system, which is crucial to how our body's react to outside stimuli.
The ability of adaptogens to affect change in these two systems in our bodies allow them to help us in three distinct ways:
They Increase Physical Performance
One 1999 study in Phytomedicine showed that schizandra berry could increase physical performance during heavy physical exercise, specifically by keeping the body from producing nitric oxide and cortisol afterwards. Cortisol is a stress hormone that contributes to general inflammation in the body, so regulating the body's responses to stress can logically contribute to reduced cortisol, reduced inflammation, and a greater ability for the body to "bounce back" after heavy exercise or exertion.
They Reduce Mental Fatigue
A 2010 literature review in Pharmaceuticals showed that “adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity,” helping people to overcome mental fatigue linked to stress.
The study even noted that adaptogens exhibited an anti-fatigue effect that increased mental work capacity.
They Reduce the Physical Effects of Stress on the Body
This is the headlining characteristic of adaptogens, and the scientific studies supporting this are myriad.
One 2007 study in Drug Target Insights found that rhodiola and schizandra berry modified the response to immobilization stress in rabbits by suppressing three stress-activated substances: kinase, nitric oxide, and cortisol.
“It is suggested that the inhibitory effects of R. rosea and S. chinensis on p-SAPK/p-JNK activation may be associated with their antidepressant activity as well as their positive effects on mental performance under stress.”
A similar study conducted on mice in 2009 for the journal Phytomedicine found comparable results.
13 Types of Adaptogenic Herbs
The term “adaptogen” has become a bit of a buzzword of late, and while that's certainly exciting, there is one downfall of adaptogens' quick rise to fame: suddenly, everyone wants to join the party. Some folks will have you believe that there are hundreds of different adaptogens, but in reality, this exclusive group features just a handful of members.
“A true adaptogenic herb helps you to adapt to all forms of physical and mental stress, whatever they might be — whether it’s cold temperature or a lousy commute or work pressure,” says Chris Kilham, Medicine Hunter. “They support virtually every system in the body in some measurable way.”
But just because all adaptogens help your body respond to stress doesn't mean they all do it in the same way.
“Each adaptogen has a unique characteristic, a unique application, a unique profile that may make it appropriate or not appropriate for somebody,” explains Dr. Tieraona Low Dog.
Individual companies may also mix and match different herbs to create blends to support multiple systems at once. Walter Faulstroh, co-founder of HUM, notes that the company has a very "user-centric" formula for creating its GMO-free adaptogenic blends.
"First, we identify the customer need," he explains. "Are we talking about stress or stress-related fatigue? Perhaps skin conditions as a result of high cortisol levels? The immune system? Once we have identified that need, we look at clinical research to understand how nutrients can help solve the customer's concerns and identify the right amount of each adaptogen."
Gaia Herbs has also created several formulas comprised of different adaptogens, such as Adrenal Health Jump Start, for which, Susan Hirsch, Gaia Product Information Specialist, notes, “synergy” is expected, “meaning that the total effect of all herbs together in a formula is greater than with taking each individual herb separately.”
It’s traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to strengthen the immune system after illness, and it has also been proven to improve thyroid function, treat adrenal fatigue, reduce anxiety, and combat the effects of stress on the body.
“Ashwagandha is great for the adrenal glands,” says naturopathic Doctor Serena Goldstein, who notes that it can help balance stress due to its ability to regulate cortisol. “It’s also great for when people are ‘on the floor’ tired mostly due to thyroid/adrenal concerns.”
That said, Dr. Low Dog explains that ashwagandha is also "the only truly sedating kind of adaptogen that we have," saying that it can be quite calming and help people relax. While it may seem counter-intuitive that the same herb could be helpful for both people who are overly tired and people who suffer from insomnia, anyone who has experienced stress-related sleeplessness can tell you that sometimes these two go hand in hand.
Ashwagandha is a member of the nightshade family, which means that it should be avoided by some people, particularly those on an anti-inflammatory diet, and Low Dog notes that there is some doubt as to whether it is safe for pregnant people to consume.
To discover more about ashwagandha and see product picks, check out our guide to ashwagandha.
This is one of Goldstein’s favorite adaptogens. Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries, this adaptogenic herb has been shown to protect the body against disease and support the liver.
“It’s very toning, and also great for the cardiovascular system, immune system, and digestion, in addition to the nervous system,” says Goldstein.
Astragalus is occasionally used topically for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and in the United States, researchers have looked at using it as a treatment for those who have weakened immune systems due to cancer treatments or AIDS.
Once known as Siberian ginseng, and still occasionally known as wucha or ciwujia, eleuthero has historically been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to invigorate sexual function and boost vital energy.
Chinese herbalist Li Shi-Chen wrote in his 1596 treatise on herbal medicine Ben Cao Gang Mu, “I would rather have a handful of Wucha than a cartload of gold and jewels.” That’s pretty high praise.
4. Holy Basil
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, helps enhance the body’s natural response to physical and emotional stress, helping our physiology to better react to stressors.
There are many proven benefits to consuming holy basil, including cancer prevention, skincare, reduced anxiety, and reduced blood glucose in diabetes sufferers.
Jiaogulan is an adaptogen that Kilham only recently discovered on his travels to Southeast Asia. A member of the pumpkin family, the plant contains enormous quantities of compounds similar to those found in ginseng.
“It has a reputation as an immortality herb,” says Kilham. “And it’s great stuff- it shows benefits for the heart and for immunity and for brain function.”
From the Organic Authority Files
While it’s not too common in the West yet, it may just be the next big thing.
Maca is occasionally called “Peruvian ginseng,” despite having no relation to the Asian plant. Maca was, however, revered in ancient Incan culture for its ability to increase strength, energy, and stamina, just like ginseng — and even more, for its ability to improve libido and sexual function.
"Maca's quite interesting for its ability to help men and women with their libido and just their sexuality," explains Low Dog, who notes that a number of studies in men have shown positive effects on sex drive and suggested that maca may help reduce enlarged prostates, and one 2005 study in the International Journal of Biomedical Science showed that it could help with hot flashes, night sweats, and other menopausal symptoms.
"Basically all the studies show that it helps women feel more easily aroused," she notes.
7. Panax Ginseng
Panax ginseng, also known as Korean ginseng or Asian ginseng is used to rejuvenate and invigorate the body in Traditional Chinese Medicine, stimulating the body and improving energy and stamina.
But while most Americans think of ginseng as a booster, like caffeine, Low Dog notes that this is a myth, likely linked to the fact that the expensive herb has long been tainted or otherwise adulterated in the U.S. After years of people assuming that ginseng could elevate blood pressure, a study conclusively showed that this is not the case.
"Some people may feel a little jolt from ginseng, but the vast majority do not," she explains. "What you begin to feel is after a week or two of taking it, you begin to feel like you have more energy throughout the day and that you're more mentally alert."
In China, she notes, ginseng is used for people who "are tired and fatigued and worn out and have low chi," she says, noting that it is sometimes given to people upon their release from the hospital to help them build up strength. She notes that dozens of cancer centers around the country give ginseng to patients with cancer, so this could be an alternative option to discuss with your doctor.
8. Panax Quinquefolius
Also known as American ginseng, this adaptogenic herb is known in Traditional Chinese Medicine for promoting yin (shadow, cold, negative, female) energy, as opposed to Asian ginseng, which promotes yang (sunshine, hot, positive, male) energy.
Unlike its Asian counterpart, renowned for boosting energy, American ginseng is used for its calming and tonic properties.
9. Reishi Mushrooms
Red Reishi, also known as Ling Zhi in Chinese, is a non-toxic mushroom that is excellent for regulating the immune system and organ function. When taken regularly, reishi mushrooms improve liver function, reduce cancer risk, and can even lower blood pressure.
Some studies have also shown that the ganoderic acids in reishi mushrooms can also help alleviate common allergies and asthma, due to their natural antihistaminic properties.
Rhaponticum carthamoides root is chock full of antioxidants, helping to promote cell health and even to reduce blood lipids. Some studies have shown that rhaponticum can help stimulate the nervous system and memory.
Rhaponticum is, however, best known for its abilities to replicate the effects of steroids — all-naturally, of course. Rhaponticum can help accelerate weight gain, particularly in skeletal muscles, completely independent of testosterone. The result is increased muscle mass without the use of anabolic steroids, meaning that rhaponticum is ideal for people looking to increase bulk in a healthy way via weight training.
11. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola is an interesting herb and one of the most popular in Siberia. According to Goldstein, the herb can be stimulating at low doses and becomes calming at higher doses. It reduces the effects of stress on the body and can reduce fatigue as well.
This is one of Kilham’s favorite adaptogenic herbs, and he takes it regularly, notably to help his body deal with the stress of cold water while surfing.
“I don’t think there’s anything that compares with rhodiola; I think it is at the top of the list,” he says. “There are people who would say, ashwaganda's at the top of the list, but I think rhodiola is the most profound of the bunch.”
Low Dog likes rhodiola for its stimulating benefits. "It's absolutely amazing for people who have fibromyalgia, depression, they're tired, they're fatigued -- they do really well on rhodiola."
She does caution against using it if you do not have these symptoms, as it can worsen anxiety and make someone who generally has high energy "bounce off the walls."
Schisandra, also known as the “Five Flavored Berry,” is a general tonic that decreases fatigue and increases endurance and physical performance. Named for its sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent flavors, Schisandra is often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for longevity, energy, and as a sexual tonic.
13. Sea Buckthorn
Sea buckthorn is a super fruit that contains all of the omegas — not just 3, 6, and 9, but also the ultra-rare 7 — as well as more than 60 antioxidants and at least 20 minerals. Known as “Holy Fruit” in the Himalayan Mountains where it is grown, it is often used to improve skin health, as it has been linked to healing psoriasis and to slowing aging. It can also be used to improve gastrointestinal disorders and colon health.
This is a pretty complete list – for now, at least. As Kilham explains, “There are lots of herbs out there that occupy important places in the traditional medicines or the cultures of various people that we just don’t know of yet.”
Adding Adaptogens to Your Diet
In addition to knowing how much of an individual adaptogen to add to your diet, it's also important to decide how to consume it: as a standardized extract in capsule or tincture form, as a tea, or even as food, in the case of adaptogens like maca.
One of the key defining factors of adaptogens is that they are “basically harmless,” explains Kilham. This means that you can take adaptogens every day and generally don’t need to worry about taking too much.
“It’s kind of like showering,” says Kilham. “You don’t have to shower every day, but it’s not a bad idea.”
Of course, you can get too much of a good thing, as Dr. Low Dog explains. While she does agree that most adaptogens have a “pretty big range that you could consume,” she notes, for example, that “if you took 20 grams of rhodiola, you’d be bouncing off the walls. I wouldn’t even know what to do with somebody who had consumed that much.”
Be sure to follow instructions on the packaging for the adaptogens you have purchased so that you don't exceed recommended doses of these powerful plants.
While adaptogens can be taken long term, most of our experts recommend taking breaks every so often: a day off per week, a week off every few months, and a month off every year.
Moon Juice team member Janie Wood also notes that individuals should feel free to vary their adaptogenic formulas as they choose.
“Some days you might pick your favorite flavor profile and use it multiple times," she says. "Other times you may look at what your mood or your day needs to accomplish and select a few different ones.”
That said, in certain high-stress scenarios, you may wish to supplement with something extra.
"There are specific situations that you would have a specific short term protocol for a health challenge you might be facing, and that would be best recommended by your healthcare practitioner," says Amy Keller, Director of Education and Training at Organic India.
No matter what form you choose, one thing you want to be sure of is that you’re sourcing your adaptogens from a reputable source and, as with any new regimen, it’s important to ask your doctor before adding any adaptogens to your diet, particularly if you’re attempting to treat a pre-existing condition or problem. People with diabetes, autoimmune disorders, blood pressure disorders, or cancer should be particularly vigilant about discussing adaptogens with their doctors before beginning a new regimen, as should pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding, people on thyroid medicine, and those who have recently undergone surgery.
Did we miss your favorite adaptogenic herb? Let us know via Twitter @OrganicAuthorit.
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