What are adaptogens and their health benefits?

9 min readJun 29, 2020


We know more about adaptogens now. Which should you take? How should you include adaptogens in your diet? Learn more.

What is an adaptogen?

A Russian scientist, Lazarev, coined the word ‘adaptogen’ in the 1950s. The term brings together plants and herbs that have been used medically for many, many thousands of years. Perhaps even for millions of years! However, they were not given a classification or a name in the West. What are adaptogens? In short, an adaptogen is a compound which can intervene in the stress reaction and alter it.(1)

Further, for a plant to be called an adaptogen according to this early definition, any substance must meet three basic criteria. First, adaptogens must work in an encompassing way rather than on specific symptoms. In other words, they must be able to help ward off stress from any type of source. This includes environmental stress and physical illness or unhealthiness. Further, it encompasses stress caused by interaction with others. Second, adaptogens must be able to help people get back into balance. This is regardless of which way they have been tilted off-balance previously. Don’t worry, we tell you more about this later on in this piece. And lastly, adaptogens will not affect the other functions of our bodies. The definition has since been altered and sometimes expanded. However, these three points still lie at its heart and core.

How do adaptogens work?

The human body reacts to stressors by first raising an alarm. This sets off a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol prompts the fight-or-flight response and other related responses. These include increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Then comes the resistance stage. Your body either returns to its condition prior to the stressful incident. Otherwise, it continues to fight off stress for a prolonged period. If you keep on fighting stress, the cortisol keeps coming. This can be harmful if it continues for too long. That’s when the exhaustion stage kicks in. This is just what it sounds like. Your immune system suffers. You are left without energy. Depression and anxiety may come into play.

Adaptogens and stress

Stress is normal and necessary. However, we live in chaotic times. Our bodies experience increased stress. This stress may come from our environment or from within as we struggle to adapt emotionally and mentally. In addition, there are more and more toxins in our environment. They are in our food too! Our bodies must work against the toxins. We are then less resilient. For many people, the exhaustion stage may become a normal part of life, when it should not be. Adaptogens can help increase our resistance. They can assist our bodies in warding off the exhaustion stage. Dealing gracefully with both environmental and internal stresses in all kinds of ways might be easier. To sum it up, adaptogens can help us find the eye of the storm and stay in it. No matter what type of storm it is.

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Where do adaptogens come from?

Ayurvedic and Chinese healing has long featured adaptogens. Fascinatingly, many of the plants that give us adaptogenic substances are tough survivors themselves. For example, ashwagandha is an important adaptogen (more on this later!) This plant stands up to drought and lives in areas where the soil is often bone-dry and without nutrients. Other plants would struggle to survive. However, ashwagandha is just fine, thank you ma’am! It passes that strength and resiliency on to people who take it.

What adaptogens to take?

There has been some research into adaptogens. However, we need more. There is increasing interest and belief in these traditional remedies. For instance, the World Health Organisation has approved the use of traditional medicines to support immunity and treat various diseases. Thus, more scientists are currently investigating adaptogens. In the meantime, here are some adaptogens you might try. It of course depends on which symptoms you are struggling with. You may wonder what adaptogens lower cortisol? Cortisol is linked to both short-term and long-term stress. Thus, adaptogens that combat either or both of these things will lower cortisol.

Adaptogens for short term stress and anxiety

A study looked into the effects of Siberian ginseng, rhodiola, and schisandra on short-term stress and anxiety.(1) All three have a “beneficial stress-protective effect” at the molecular level. Moreover, all seem to help regulate homeostasis. This means they restore the natural equilibrium of the body. In addition, these herbs appear to support focus and stamina in situations where stress-related fatigue kicked in. Long-term disorders triggered by stress were also reduced.

A systematic review of research into rhodiola (also called golden root) found that a majority of the studies supported the positive effects of rhodiola on mental fatigue. However, a lack of accurate measurements for fatigue in two of the studies meant that these findings were inconclusive. On the other hand, they are certainly encouraging.(2) In still another study, participants exhibit a significant decrease in professional burnout symptoms after taking rhodiola.(3)

Do you want some juicy gossip about rhodiola? Russians in the 1970s were very, very intrigued by it. So intrigued that they spent years studying it. Why? They hoped that it would help soldiers stand up to brutally cold temperatures and bone-deep tiredness. They also thought that rhodiola might benefit athletes headed for the Olympics. However, many of these studies are not around today. That’s too bad. We think they would certainly be interesting to review, given the renewed interest in rhodiola.

Adaptogens for immunity

Reishi mushrooms seem to impact white blood cells in diverse ways. White blood cells are central to the immune system. They help combat disease and infection.(4) Further, shiitake mushrooms also provide a powerful boost for immunity. For instance, a study indicated that eating two dried shiitake daily contributed to a drop in inflammation. A boost to immunity is also noted.(5) Beta-glucans are polysacharrides in mushrooms which have been shown to activate white blood cells. This leads to immunemodulatory effects.(6) Do you want to know more about medicinal mushrooms? See our full-length article focusing on them!

The traditional Ayurvedic preparation of triphala also supports immunity. Triphala is a mixture of Indian gooseberry, chebulic myrobalan, and beleric myrobalan. All of these ingredients are also immunomodulatory on their own. In other words, they help you and your immune system stay in balance.

‘A study observed many different healing compounds within triphala, including phenols, flavonoids, ellagic acid, and more. All together, these compounds contribute to the healing properties of triphala.(7)’

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Adaptogens for long-term stress

Short-term stress and long-term stress are related. However, their effects on the body are different. Chronic stress may lead to effects which are equally long-term. For instance, your heart, muscles, blood pressure, and breathing mechanisms may be forced to intensify at all times to combat chronic stress. Therefore, solutions which work in deeper ways may also be needed. Research has looked into how adaptogens like holy basil, or tulsi in the Ayurvedic tradition, may be helpful. Scientists observed that regular consumption of holy basil may enhance calm and mental and emotional clarity. These qualities clear a path through the buildup of chronic stress.(8) No wonder tulsi is “a goddess incarnated in plant form” in Ayurveda!

Other adaptogens to turn to include ashwagandha, one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda. In a study which looks at 64 subjects with chronic stress, those given ashwagandha showed substantial lessening of all stress-related indicators.(9) Further, Asian ginseng was looked at alongside five other adaptogenic plants in a study. It was found to have the most success at reducing symptoms of chronic stress.(10)

An interesting characteristic of ashwagandha? It is a wonderful representative of the adaptogenic ability to right balance in either direction. To clarify, ashwagandha not only helps calm and soothe. It also energises. Seem contradictory? It is also beautiful and real. Just like human beings at our best!

Adaptogens to improve brain function

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a growth hormone within the brain. Decreases in BDNF link to age-related decline in workings of the brain. Lower levels of BDNF also connect to diseases like Alzheimer’s. Further, depression may be related as well. Studies have looked at the effect of curcumin on the brain. They found that curcumin combats decreases in BDNF. It improves spatial memory and lessen oxidative damage in the brain due to aging. A winner!(11)(12)

Moreover, goji berry is another powerful adaptogen supporting brain function. Chinese medicine sees goji berries as a brain tonic. And it has for many hundreds of years! Studies have looked into how the antioxidants in goji berries are neuro protective. For example, a small study found that goji berry juice improved brain performance. However, the study looks at a very small group of people. Further, we need more scientifically exact observations.(13)

Is it safe to take adaptogens?

If you take prescription medicine, you should ask your doctor about taking adaptogens. Herb-drug interactivity is a real and scientifically observed phenomenon. It may be dangerous.(14) Further, adaptogens should be rotated every six weeks.(15) That way, you can take advantage of the different benefits that each herb will offer you. Many people drink caffeinated beverages in the morning. In the same way, stimulating adaptogens should be taken early in the day. That way, they do not interfere with sleep. Use of adaptogens while pregnant is generally not recommended. However, adaptogens may help restore the body in the weeks after birth.

Are you concerned about toxins in your food? You probably are if you are seeking out adaptogens. Take the concern to its logical conclusion. Make sure the adaptogens you purchase come from organically grown plants. Have they been raised in clean, fertile earth? Have the powders, extracts, and so on been prepared using the most natural methods? Do any harmful chemicals come in play anywhere in the process? These are all valuable questions to ask.

How do I take adaptogens?

How you take adaptogens depends on the adaptogen and its form. There are traditional ways to take specific adaptogens. For instance, a “moon-milk” made from ashwagandha is drunk before bedtime by many children and older people in India. In the contemporary day, you can add adaptogenic powders to smoothies and soups. You can easily use holy basil, along with many other adaptogenic herbs and foods, in your cooking. The flavour of holy basil is lovely and peppery. Many adaptogens, such as holy basil, make wonderful teas which are delicious to boot. Adaptogenic mushrooms are also best taken in hot drinks. Hot water draws out valuable beta-glucans within the funghi.

Adaptogens are restorative when you are going through these stressful periods. You know, when everything and anything crowds in on you. They ease you back to the balanced middle. However, nothing substitutes for long-term stress management. In other words, adaptogens complement a healthy diet, exercise, regular and high-quality sleep, and general wellbeing rather than stand in for these things.

Ancient adaptogens

Combinations of adaptogens are regularly given in Ayurveda, and adaptogenic herbs are often blended in teas or cooler drinks. Ayurveda means life knowledge in Sanskrit. In that spirit, here’s some Ayurvedic life knowledge. At the core of Ayurveda is the belief that “food is medicine and medicine is food.” Ayurvedic thought also holds the conviction that “when diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; when diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” That has new significance in our world.

As the world’s oldest healing tradition, Ayurveda has influenced others, such as Chinese medicine. In TCM, or traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners combine herbs and create specific formulas for each individual. Age, gender, temperament, dryness of skin, energy levels, and many more factors will be considered. Synergistic blending, or how the herbs work together rather than the characteristics of individual herbs, will also come into play.

Today, Western society is still figuring out how all these wells of knowledge about adaptogens come together in contemporary lifestyles. However, both ancient and contemporary wisdom; both traditional medicine and science point towards adaptogens as a deeply valuable tool to wellbeing.

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