A Guide to Adaptogens
Adding adaptogens to your daily regimen can help lower stress, triggering the benefits that come with it. That includes increased energy and focus, improved mood and deepened concentration. In essence, adaptogens seem to have an amphoteric effect on the body, meaning they can balance hormones and other chemicals to bring it back to its normal state. Adaptogenic herbs are said to be non-specific in that they don’t target just one health issue. Instead, they promote overall well-being by correcting imbalances in your unique body. You can think of them as a personalized supplement—even though everyone may be taking the same adaptogen, you’ll get different advantages depending on what you need that day.
The Benefits of AdaptogensAdaptogens can balance or correct factors influencing your health. Although they have a general list of benefits, the advantages you feel arise from what your body needs. Most adaptogen benefits derive from the herbs’ abilities to regulate the physiological stress response. Although many adaptogens work via modulating cortisol, there is a myriad of other bodily systems they address. From physical concerns like endurance to everyday problems like fatigue, herbs with this quality can improve well-being.
Mediates Stress Response
Adaptogens affect stress by mediating the stress response. When we're stressed, our body triggers a series of chemical responses to help us get through it by either fighting or fleeing. This is called the stress response, and it’s a process controlled by the HPA axis—the system that connects the hypothalamus and pituitary gland of the brain to the adrenal glands above the kidneys. One major chemical triggered during this cascade is cortisol, a stress hormone. Humans have evolved to deal with cortisol spikes, but in contemporary Western culture, we’re exposed to extended periods of stress. These constant demands cause cortisol to be distributed over a long-term basis rather than acutely, meaning the body uses the chemical more frugally. When our body gets used to releasing cortisol, our adrenals become less prone to releasing it as necessary and instead hoard the chemical. The hoarding of cortisol is referred to as general adaptation syndrome (GAS), and it occurs in three stages: Alarm reaction—the activation of the stress response Resistance—the releasing of less cortisol over the long-term Exhaustion—the complete depletion of energy resources When your body reaches the exhaustion phase, it’s because it has repeatedly attempted and failed to recover from the alarm reaction. Exhaustion of energy resources can cause symptoms like: Adrenal fatigue (constant tiredness) Depression Anxiety Reduced ability to cope/reduced stress tolerance The failure to recover from stressors can negatively impact your immune system. Research shows that it could put you at an increased risk for: Viral infections Stomach ulcers Type 2 diabetes Mental health issues, like depression Fortunately, there are actions we can take to help our bodies resist and recover from stress. One way is by incorporating adaptogenic herbs in our diets. The adaptogen Panax ginseng, for example, reduces adrenal gland weight and blood glucose levels, according to a 2003 study. One reason could be because of its anti-stress properties. In fact, researchers say the benefit is so strong that the herb can be used to treat disorders caused by stress. Similarly, cordycep mushrooms have adaptogenic properties. In one study, researchers had non-active men exercise and then tested their stress response. After taking cordyceps, their cortisol levels were better regulated after exercise. Researchers also noted it offered anti-fatigue abilities. More adaptogen research needs to be done to fully understand their ability to mediate stress. However, some people are already taking advantage of the benefits. Military personnel and athletes have used herbs like rhodiola to improve their ability to handle stress, fending off fatigue.
Supports Immune System
Adaptogens strengthen our resistance to stress by affecting the immune-neuro-endocrine system—the body’s connection between the immune system, brain and hormones. When we’re in a state of mental or physical stress, our body releases a cascade of chemicals to help us. Unfortunately, in the long-term, those chemicals can also suppress our immune system, making us more susceptible to viral infections. Even if cortisol levels remain raised to handle stress, over time, immune suppression or inflammatory responses will begin. Adaptogens make adrenal gland secretion more effective, which stops excess hormone production. The shorter cortisol release reduces the likelihood that it will negatively impact our immune system. Research shows that ginseng benefits, in particular, may include stopping enzymes close to stress hormone receptors and causing the breakdown and inactivation of stress hormones. Interestingly, adaptogens’ benefits may extend to cancer patients who experience immune suppression side effects from their chemotherapy medication. For example, rhodiola increased the immunity of breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy post-mastectomy in a 2010 study. Their increased immune system caused them fewer oral ulcers—a common consequence of anti-cancer treatments.
Adaptogenic herbs have a host of benefits that, combined, increase longevity. Both the adrenal and immune support advantages lead to an improved stress response, which can increase life quality and length. As we age, our body produces fewer B and T cells—white blood cells that make up our adaptive immune system. These changes make our body less prepared to handle immune threats, such as a viral illness, the older we get. Adaptogens may delay this process by improving the body's resistance against stressors. Adaptogens appear to do this by influencing the immune or endocrine system. While you may still get sick or anxious sometimes when taking adaptogens, your body should be able to fight it faster, lessening the damage and contributing to a longer lifespan. Many adaptogenic herbs may also be anti-aging thanks to their antioxidant benefits. Antioxidants fight free radicals—molecules linked to aging and disease. They do this by reducing oxidative stress, which damages cells, proteins and DNA. In a study comparing three adaptogens, rhodiola benefits came out on top for their ability to scavenge free radicals.
Adaptogens for hormonal balance work because of their effect on the stress response system. They help control stress hormones, like cortisol, preventing it from long-term release—which also prevents general adaptation syndrome. But the benefits of hormone balance go beyond just stress. For example, among ashwagandha's benefits for women are its aphrodisiac properties. As an adaptogen, ashwagandha helps you adjust to situations—either calming or stimulating you, depending on what your body needs. A 2015 study showed that taking the adaptogen orally could improve sexual function in women. Participants were asked to take either ashwagandha root extract or a placebo. The adaptogen hormonal effect was shown to significantly improve arousal, satisfaction and the ability to orgasm. There are hormonal ashwagandha benefits for men too. The adaptogen has been shown to increase testosterone levels and luteinizing hormone production while decreasing follicle-stimulating hormone level, bringing the hormones into equilibrium. Other adaptogens for hormonal balance share this benefit. Ginseng uses include enhancing sexual performance. It raises plasma corticotropin and corticosteroids, two hormones that also help regulate the stress response.
Improves Focus and Memory
You may have noticed that when you’re less stressed, you tend to think better. Similarly, since adaptogens reduce stress, they can improve cognitive function. In a review of clinical trials, researchers concluded that adaptogens: Increase tolerance to mental exhaustion Enhance attention span Increase mental endurance in situations of decreased performance These benefits are thanks to their ability to regulate homeostasis—the body’s internal and natural stable state—by affecting the HPA axis. One study on 65 people showed that rhodiola extract improved concentration, attention and memory, and reduced the time it took to verbally react. Adaptogens may also have neuroprotective benefits. A 2004 study found that schisandra significantly reduced neurotoxicity in rat cell cultures. Researchers isolated five compounds in the fruit that may protect against oxidative neuron damage. Oxidative stress and damage play a major role in Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. Rhodiola benefits are similar. Salidroside, a rhodiola compound, has antioxidant properties to combat free radicals and reduce oxidative stress. In a 2007 study, researchers found that it helped repair mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of cells) and increased calcium levels in cells needed for neuron signaling.
Enhances Energy and Stamina
Another benefit to adaptogens’ ability to regulate the stress response is that it can improve physical stamina and energy. Adrenal fatigue happens when your adrenal glands become worn out from constantly producing cortisol. This can occur in periods of long-term stress, like losing a job, the passing of a loved one or the anxiety of a global pandemic. Adaptogens for adrenal fatigue, like goji berries, can help fight this effect. For example, a 2008 study had volunteers fill out questionnaires on their first and 15th day of drinking goji berry juice. On the 15th day, they reported significant improvements in their energy level, athletic performance, ability to focus and mental clarity. They also reported that it significantly reduced fatigue. Adaptogenic mushroom research also shows that they can reduce tiredness. Specifically, cordyceps boost adenosine triphosphate (ATP) levels—the crucial energy source of cellular function. Adaptogens for energy can also help us improve physical activity. A schisandra dosage was found to increase the accuracy of movement and endurance. Similarly, a review of research concluded that there's some evidence for using rhodiola for energy in physical performance.
Types of Adaptogen Herbs
Although all adaptogens have advantages, they’re not all equal. There are three types of adaptogens, each working collaboratively to deliver a range of benefits: Primary adaptogens have a direct impact on the HPA axis. Those that fall into this category have the most scientific research to back them. Secondary adaptogens do not directly affect the HPA axis. Instead, they can affect the immune, nervous and endocrine systems. Tertiary adaptogens, also called “adaptogen companions,” support the actions of the other two. We’ll explore these three types in more detail below.
Primary adaptogens are adaptogens in their truest sense because they meet specific criteria. Primary adaptogens have the following characteristics: Provide non-specific action in the body Enhance general resistance Maintain or restore homeostasis Result in adverse effects with continuous, long-term use Backed by a large body of scientific research to confirm their adaptogenic properties Primary adaptogens function mainly by influencing the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands in situations of external stress. The primary adaptogen list includes ginseng, ashwagandha, rhodiola and more.
Secondary adaptogens are those that support the immune system, mainly by downregulating inflammatory immune chemicals and supporting non-inflammatory immune chemicals. They typically meet a few other criteria too: Don’t influence the HPA axis directly Include fatty acids, sterols and phenols (types of plant chemicals) Enhance anabolism—the process of making complex molecules from smaller ones Plants in this category may meet most criteria of primary adaptogens, but they haven’t yet been studied extensively. An example of a secondary adaptogen would be astragalus, which increases helper T cells in the immune system.
Tertiary adaptogens are those that synergize the effects of primary and secondary adaptogens through their antioxidative properties. They improve the function of other adaptogens with their benefit on the HPA axis and by enhancing anabolism. Although herbs with this quality still have numerous advantages, they may not meet all the traditional standards to be formally labeled an adaptogen. The tertiary group includes green tea and anthocyanins from berries and other fruit.
Best Adaptogen Herbs and Mushrooms
Although herbs and mushrooms have a variety of health benefits, only some varieties are considered adaptogens. They work in similar ways, but each is best for specific ailments. For example, some adaptogenic herbs may be best for stress relief, while others are better for physical or sexual performance. When reading the descriptions below, consider which qualities would help balance your body and mind.
Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, is a herb commonly used in Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine to improve vitality. In recent years, it’s been studied for its ability to improve recovery time in weight training, increase muscle mass and reduce exercise-induced muscle damage. There is significant evidence to suggest that ashwagandha may also increase testosterone levels, sperm motility and concentration. You can also take ashwagandha for anxiety. The herb may increase dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a sex hormone-producing chemical. At age 40, DHEA naturally starts to decline. This may be the reason why ashwagandha increases testosterone and vitality. Ashwagandha is classified as a primary adaptogen. There have been no significant ashwagandha side effects reported in studies. However, it may affect blood sugar, blood pressure and irritate the gastrointestinal tract. Although there isn't enough evidence to say for sure, it may be unsafe during pregnancy.
Astragalus membranaceus, also known as huang qi, is a herb primarily used in China for a range of complaints. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), astragalus benefits revolve around its ability to strengthen qi—the body’s vital energy—through its tonic properties. As for evidence-based findings, astragalus uses include immunological, cardio-protective and renal protective properties, among many others. The adaptogenic effect of the astragalus plant can be seen in its anti-inflammatory and immune-regulating actions. Astragalus extract increases the body’s ability to produce superoxide dismutase (SOD), which is its main antioxidative chemical. It may also lengthen telomeres, which stop chromosome ends from fraying. The combination of these benefits makes astragalus herb a strong contender for anti-aging adaptogen supplements. Astragalus is a secondary adaptogen. Despite astragalus root benefits, it may have minor and uncommon side effects like rash, itching or nasal symptoms.
Panax ginseng, also known as Korean ginseng, is the most commonly used adaptogen and is considered to be a longevity herb. Frequently used in TCM, some practitioners only prescribe it to the elderly since they consider it to have life-force attenuating properties. Scientifically, ginseng benefits include increased energy, concentration and memory, as well as improved neurodegenerative disorder signs, cholesterol, blood pressure and metabolism. As an antioxidant, ginseng is good for fighting off free radicals and reducing oxidative stress. Research also shows it has anti-inflammatory properties, and Korean red ginseng may improve erectile dysfunction. The ginseng plant is a primary adaptogen. Since it's believed to have hormone-like effects, some people don't suggest taking it for more than six months without a break. The most common ginseng side effect is insomnia. You should not use ginseng when pregnant.
Guayusa is a holly tree that has been used since ancient times for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. This gives the adaptogen the ability to ward off free radicals that cause oxidative stress, potentially preventing a variety of diseases. More specifically, guayusa is rich in catechins, a type of antioxidant. Research suggests that catechins may improve heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Guayusa is most known for its energy-boosting effects since it contains caffeine and is commonly found in energy drinks. The adaptogen may also help lower blood sugar. In a study done on non-diabetic mice, guayusa supplements significantly reduced blood sugar levels. It was also found to suppress appetite and aid in weight loss. Guayusa doesn't appear to have side effects when taken in moderation. Despite its caffeine content, it doesn't seem to share the same negative effects as coffee, like anxiety. In fact, compared to green tea, the leaf extract caused a significantly lower increase of the hormone adrenaline.
Holy basil, also called tulsi, is a common herb in Ayurvedic medicine, being dubbed “The Incomparable One” and “The Queen of Herbs." Practitioners use it for a variety of ailments, including cough, asthma, fever, arthritis, indigestion, skin diseases, back pain and anxiety. Research has shown the adaptogen can counter metabolic stress. It does this by improving blood pressure, blood glucose and lipid levels. As with many adaptogens, their effect on the stress response system means they have anti-inflammatory properties. Holy basil can also affect psychological stress with its antidepressant properties. Other mental benefits include having a positive effect on memory and cognitive function. Experts also say it has "broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity," which they say may be beneficial in products like hand sanitizer and mouthwash. Their antiviral properties could also guard against pathogens that create infections. Holy basil is a primary adaptogen with side effects like low blood sugar and an upset stomach, although it’s usually well-tolerated.
MushroomsEveryone is familiar with the varieties sold in grocery stores, but what are adaptogenic mushrooms? Some mushrooms can act as adaptogens for stress, which also benefits the immune system. While different types have varying effects, in general, adaptogenic mushroom benefits include stimulating the immune system, thanks to their content of beta-glucans, a complex carb. Some mushrooms, like turkey tail, ward off viruses and are labeled "immune stimulants." Others, like reishi, can strengthen your immune system and are categorized as "immune tonics." Two popular types of adaptogenic mushrooms include: Reishi: Reishi mushroom benefits include immune and nervous system support. Herbalists may also use it to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and improve allergies. Reishi mushroom side effects may include dry mouth, throat and nose, itchiness and stomach upset. Turkey tail: Turkey tail mushroom benefits also include an immune boost and antiviral properties, which make it a good adaptogen supplement to take during cold and flu season. In one study, compared to those who didn't take a supplement, women who completed chemotherapy and radiotherapy improved their immune status with turkey tail. Turkey tail mushroom side effects may include heartburn, constipation, or nausea.
RhodiolaRhodiola rosea is a popular primary adaptogenic herb that’s most known for its psychological benefits, although it has physical advantages too. When made into an adaptogenic tea or supplement, rhodiola and ashwagandha are often combined because they share similar effects. Rhodiola for anxiety works because the herb modulates cortisol, reducing salivary cortisol levels. Two research reviews found that it could boost mental power by improving concentration and easing mental fatigue. Experts also found that rhodiola benefits physical performance. In a few studies, it has been shown to improve symptoms of depression. For patients that were already on a tricyclic antidepressant, rhodiola for depression was also found to have an uplifting effect. Compared to the medication sertraline, it had a similar uplifting effect but with fewer side effects. Rhodiola side effects include dizziness and dry mouth when taken orally.
Schisandra ChinensisSchisandra chinensis is another adaptogenic herb for hormone balance that’s widely used in TCM. Also called “the five tastes herb,” the berry has a variety of distinct flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory. Considered a primary adaptogen, schisandra health benefits include improving concentration and increasing or decreasing cortisol levels, depending on what your central nervous system needs. It also has antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agent properties. Schisandra berries' health benefits also make it a good herb for protecting the liver since it’s hepatoprotective. The adaptogen’s antioxidative and anti-cancer properties may lie in its ability to increase synthesis of glutathione, a naturally-occurring antioxidant chemical. Schisandra uses may extend to psychological health too. Schisandra for depression may improve mood and memory. This adaptogen’s side effects include heartburn, upset stomach and decreased appetite. You may be advised against this herb if you’re pregnant.
History of Adaptogen UseThe history of using adaptogenic herbs for hormone balance goes back to two ancient medicine systems: Ayurveda and TCM. In TCM, qi (energy) can either be yin (female) or yang (male). To achieve optimal health, practitioners aim to balance those energies. What we understand as adrenal fatigue is known in TCM as a chi imbalance. This can happen when we get stressed out or overworked. Similarly, in TCM, certain adaptogens have yin and yang qualities. Depending on whether someone is lacking yin or yang, a practitioner will recommend an adaptogen to correct the deficient quality. Whether you’re taking adaptogens for anxiety or immune support, when the balance is achieved, qi is said to flow easily, and vitality is restored. Ayurvedic medicine also emphasizes balance. It’s believed that disease results from stress and imbalances between the body, mind and spirit. As a part of lifestyle changes—such as diet, yoga and meditation—practitioners also recommend herbal remedies, such as adaptogens. Since adaptogens work in non-specific ways, they’re able to target the imbalance and restore the body or mind to its natural state.
How to Take Adaptogen HerbsAdaptogens can be taken in a variety of forms, including capsules, pills, liquid extracts and teas. When shopping, you’ll also find supplements that incorporate adaptogens. For example, formulas made for hormones, stress or adrenals may include a blend of adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens can be stimulating or relaxing, but due to their amphoteric quality, the effects can differ from person to person. For this reason, most experts encourage people to try a few different adaptogens until they find one that works for them. A herbal practitioner can also help you find the right fit to balance your body. To know the correct dose, ask a herbal practitioner or follow the directions on the label of the adaptogen you choose. Consider what time of day is best to take your supplement according to its benefits. For example, taking ginseng for energy may be best earlier in the day, coinciding with your natural energy cycles. Adaptogens may need to be taken for a period of time before you see your desired result. However, some people report immediate relief from fatigue or stress.
Adaptogen Side Effects and PrecautionsSome medical experts warn that taking some adaptogens on a long-term basis can have negative effects. To prevent this and to stop your body from getting used to the herb, it’s best to rotate your adaptogens—about every six weeks. Most adaptogens are well-tolerated without side effects. However, each herb has a different set of possible negative reactions. If you are on an immunosuppressive drug for an autoimmune disease or cancer treatment, it’s recommended that you do not take adaptogens. Pregnant women should also avoid some adaptogens since many haven’t been proven safe. Consult with your healthcare practitioner. Herbs and supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, so make sure to consult with a holistic practitioner before making a purchase. That’s because the quality of herbs can vary dramatically.
Adding Adaptogens to Your Morning Routine
Starting your morning off with an adaptogen can give you the balance you need to calmly conquer your day. Since adaptogens affect the stress response, not only can they dampen morning cortisol spikes, but they also set off a cascade of other benefits—like better immune response and enhanced physical performance. As we mentioned, the time of day you take an adaptogen should depend on its advantages. However, the morning can be a great time since many herbs provide improved clarity and cognition, better memory and reduced fatigue. [Optional CTA] Ready to feel better? Try Morning Light for an all-natural energy booster or Morning Defense for immune-enhancement, both made with top high-quality adaptogens.
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