What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are roots, herbs, medicinal mushrooms, spices, tinctures, etc. that help prevent illness, stress, and treat disease. Adaptogens are traditional to eastern medicine and have been passed down orally for centuries. However, implementation into western medicine practices has taken some time and thus research is further behind. Science and evidence-based guidelines have not fully been established and how many adaptogens are not well known.
But, here is what we do know…
To be classified as an adaptogen, the substance must:
Help the body resist stress (chemical, environmental, physical, biological, etc.)
Normalize the physiological response to stress by maintaining homeostasis
Do no harm to human or organism function
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Every adaptogen has a range of benefits, but they collectively show positive impacts on stress. As a refresher, stress comes in three parts; the alarm phase, the resistance phase, and the exhaustion phase. Adaptogens act as a “stress protector” by prolonging the resistance phase. This allows humans to withstand fatigue for a longer duration than others (see graph).
Adaptogenic research began during WW2 when the Soviet Union needed to find ways to increase endurance for soldiers, Olympic athletes, astronauts, sailors, etc. These herbs and tinctures were proven to be a key player because they helped reduce fatigue, and allowed for better homeostasis to be achieved during the exhaustion phase. Exercise performance increased, the body showed reduced signs of stress in reactive situations, mental focus and mental work capacity was enhanced in addition to several other findings (2)
What Are Sources/Examples?
As mentioned previously, qualifications for being classified as an adaptogen are confusing and even to experts. For this reason, there is not a complete list of all known adaptogens. Below are several examples which meet the current guidelines, and their potential benefits/areas of the body that may be impacted.
Ashwagandha: Known to reduce anxiety and stress, help fight depression, boost fertility and testosterone in men, and boost brain function
Rhodiola: May treat anxiety, fatigue, depression and improve endurance performance
Schisandra: Benefits all five yin organs: the liver, lungs, heart, kidneys, and spleen. In traditional Chinese medicine, schisandra is believed to have anti-aging properties and to promote physical, emotional, and even sexual stamina
Asain Ginseng: May improve general well-being, physical stamina, concentration, immune system function, slow aging, and relieve health problems associated with respiratory disorders, cardiovascular disorders, depression, anxiety, erectile dysfunction, or menopausal hot flashes
Eleuthero: Notable physical benefits such as enhanced athletic performance, lowered fatigue, immune system boost, heart disease prevention, anxiety and depression aid (3)
Cordyceps: May increase energy, enhance stamina, reduce fatigue, regulate blood sugar, and protects against kidney disease, inflammation, and heart health. Additionally cordyceps contains anti-tumor effects.
Rhaponticum: Used for general physical enhancement of physical strength and muscle protein synthesis
American Ginseng: Boosts energy, may lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduces stress, promotes relaxation, may aid in treating diabetes, and manages sexual dysfunction in men
Maca: May enhance fertility and libido, improves energy, stamina, endurance performance, learning, and memory
Reishi: Has been shown to enhance the immune system, reduce stress and fatigue, and improve sleep
Holy Basil: Researched on stress, anxiety, protection against infection, lowering blood sugar levels and cholesterol, easing joint pain, and protection to the stomach
Astragalus: May have cardioprotective abilities such as being able to reduce cholesterol levels. It also shows to have anti-inflammatory and longevity effects
A Word Of Caution:
Adaptogens are not regulated by the FDA and do interact with several medications. Check with your doctor before using any supplement.
How To Use:
Use in coffee, teas, smoothies/smoothie bowls, or baked goods. Adaptogens are known to be slow-acting so you might not notice large changes right away. Use during seasons of heightened stress after clearance with your PCP/MD.
Adaptogenic Hot Chocolate: Makes 1 Serving
1.5c unsweetened nut milk
1 Tbsp raw cacao powder
1 Tbsp Honey (or sweetener of choice)
Dash of vanilla, coconut oil, or pinch of salt (if needed)
Adaptogen of choice- Reishi, Ashwagandha, Cordyceps, Ginseng, or Rhodiola all recommended!
Place all ingredients over stove, heat, mix, and enjoy!
(1) Panossian, Alexander & H, Wagener. (2011). Adaptogens. A Review of their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits.. Herbal Gram. 90.
(2) Brusie, C. (2017, June 28). Adaptogenic Herbs: List, Effectiveness, and Health Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/adaptogenic-herbs#effectiveness.
(3) Wong, C. (2019, July 7). The Health Benefits of Eleuthero. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/health-benefits-of-eleuthero-89449.