Stress is a part of life that cannot be avoided. However, there are natural herbs, called adaptogens, that can help to fight stress and lower cortisol.
Learning how adaptogens can help reduce cortisol levels and bring stress to manageable levels may allow you to live a more peaceful and productive lifestyle.
In this article, we’ll go over the best adaptogens for stress and lowering cortisol.
Table of Contents
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are natural substances that have the ability to build resilience to stress by re-regulating body functions and restoring equilibrium to physiological systems.
The adaptogenic herbs have been subjected to in-depth study in the lab and through a long history of traditional usage.
Adaptogens have the following characteristics:
- They produce a nonspecific defense response to stress
- They have a normalizing influence on the body
- They are non-toxic
- They help re-regulate endocrine, nervous system, immune, digestive, and cardiovascular function
In this article, we will dive into the best adaptogens for reducing stress and how certain adaptogens may achieve this through lowering cortisol (the stress hormone).
The Adaptogen-Stress Connection
Stress is the body’s response to environmental factors and pressures. Stress can be either external (i.e. a long day of physical work) or internal (a stressful social event).
When high levels of stress build up in our bodies, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered and the body goes into the fight-or-flight response (FoF).
During the FoF response, your body’s resources are diverted away from crucial processes (such as digestion and immune function) and focused on physical strength, increased heart rate and breathing, and increased cortisol production.
Cortisol is considered to be “the stress hormone” and is a physiological marker for stress.
With all the daily stressors that trigger this response, adaptogens help level out this reaction so the body and mind aren’t chronically in the sympathetic nervous system state.
How Do Adaptogens Impact Cortisol?
Your body releases a hormone called cortisol when faced with stress. Elevated cortisol levels over long periods of time (aka “chronic stress”) can negatively impact every physiological system in your body, including your thyroid and adrenal glands.
Excess cortisol is released during the FoF response to raise blood sugar and increase the body’s energy levels in order to manage perceived threats.
Although cortisol can be beneficial in the short term, long-term stress leads to a consistent flow of cortisol in the body which can lead to dysfunction.
Research shows that adaptogens have the capability to regulate cortisol levels within the body. This is achieved through working with the HPA axis, specifically the adrenal gland, where cortisol is released.
Adaptogens are able to regulate key molecules that mediate the stress response, which creates a state of balance in your body.
This supports the body’s resistance and adaptability to higher/consistent levels of stress and prevents the downstream effect of cortisol release.
With a moderated stress response, additional important biological processes normalize.
It should be noted that reducing chronic stress levels is a many-layered process, however, utilizing adaptogenic herbs can be an impactful approach to naturally lowering cortisol levels.
Best Adaptogens for Stress:
Although all adaptogens have an anti-stress effect, each adaptogen has unique benefits. Some include support for the immune system, anti-inflammatory effects, improving sleep, and reduction of anxiety and depression.
There are adaptogens with a calming effect on the system and ones capable of producing a healthy stimulating effect.
The herbs mentioned in this article may have the ability to regulate cortisol levels, regulate the HPA axis (the system responsible for releasing hormones during the stress response), or both.
So what are the best adaptogens for stress? Read on below.
Ashwagandha is an herb that has been used around the globe for centuries with amazing benefits for overall well-being. It’s the best adaptogen for stress and cortisol reduction.
Clinical research shows that ashwagandha may help reduce stress levels by regulating the HPA axis and thus decreasing the amount of cortisol that’s released in your body.
A human clinical trial showed there was a significant decrease in fasted morning cortisol levels (23% female, 22% male) for those taking 240 mg of an ashwagandha extract in comparison to the placebo.
As an added bonus, researchers speculate that ashwagandha may also have an anxiolytic effect. It’s thought that this is due to ashwagandha’s ability to modulate the HPA axis.
Click here to learn more about the benefits of ashwagandha.
Rhodiola is a plant that grows in the high altitudes and cold climates of Europe and Asia. This slow-growing plant (it takes up to five years to reach maturity) has been highly prized for its ability to improve resilience to stress and increase energy levels.
According to research, rhodiola has the ability to modulate the body’s stress response. In fact, it’s one of the best adaptogens for stress resilience.
In a study focusing on stress-related fatigue syndrome and burnout, researchers found that rhodiola extract resulted in an anti-fatigue effect. This effect resulted in an increased ability to concentrate and a decrease in the response of cortisol to stress.
An animal study showed that a rhodiola extract normalized the release of stress hormones (cortisol) and also boosted energy metabolism. ATP synthesis (energy molecule) in the mitochondria was shown to be responsible for the higher levels of energy.
Click here to learn more about the benefits of Rhodiola rosea.
3. Holy Basil
Holy Basil has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years and is often regarded as an “elixir of life.” The scientific name for this herb is Ocimum tenuiflorum, though it’s commonly referred to as “tulsi”.
Some commonly reported stress-reducing benefits include the regulation of cortisol levels and the reduction of anxiety and depression.
A study conducted in 2016 suggested that Ocimum sanctum may have the ability to re-regulate the HPA axis, specifically through limiting cortisol release. Rats in the study were exposed to chronic variable stress, and those that were given holy basil extract were able to manage better than those without.
Further, a separate animal study suggested that holy basil extract can decrease cortisol and glucose levels within the body. It should be noted that both studies were done with Ocimum sanctum which is another species of holy basil and interchangeably used with Ocimum tenuiflorum in herbal medicine.
Click here to learn more about the benefits of Holy Basil.
Plants play a huge adaptogenic role in herbal medicine, however, they are not alone. Medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi, can also help the body adapt to stress.
Reishi is known as the “Mushroom of Immortality”. It’s one of the more popular remedies in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as it has been revered and used in TCM for thousands of years.
Along with evidence to support its ability to improve immune function, this medicinal mushroom may also have the ability to regulate cortisol and reduce stress-induced anxiety.
During a study in 2014, researchers tested a reishi supplement on athletes at risk of over-training. The results showed that cortisol levels stabilized after races, demonstrating the possibility that the supplement protected the athlete from overtraining (which could lead to injury).
Along with the reishi supplement, however, the athletes were also given a cordyceps supplement (another medicinal mushroom). It is not clear whether the results are the work of an individual mushroom or both of them together.
Click here to learn more about the benefits of reishi mushroom.
Cordyceps mushrooms are another highly utilized adaptogenic fungi for managing stress. They’re found growing in the high altitudes of the Himalayas and are commonly used to treat fatigue and physical weakness.
As mentioned in the previous study concerning reishi, cordyceps mushrooms were also administered. The work of both mushrooms may have been responsible for regulating cortisol levels and therefore lending some protection against injury to the athletes.
Studies have also shown that adaptogenic qualities such as reduced levels of anxiety and depression may also be a characteristic of the cordyceps mushroom.
Click here to learn more about the benefits of cordyceps.
Schisandra is an adaptogen that loves growing in the cold northern climates of China, Russia, and Korea. It’s also known as the “five-flavor berry”.
The berry is the part of the plant that is primarily used in herbal medicine, it’s often taken to balance out stress in the body.
During a study in 2015, researchers found that Schisandra chinensis (schisandra) seemed to protect the cell structures of the adrenal cortex (the largest part of the adrenal gland) during the experiment. The study showed promising effects in reducing cortisol levels in rats that underwent a stressful navigation exercise.
The five-flavor berry seems to have the adaptogenic ability to re-regulate the body and some of its functions during, or after, stress. This brings the body back into balance and creates a higher level of resilience toward future stressful events.
Click here to learn more about the benefits of schisandra.
7. American Ginseng
American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, is considered to be a cooling and calming adaptogen. Its numerous health benefits have been utilized thoroughly for hundreds of years in Native American medicine.
According to a scientific review, it’s speculated that American ginseng has a regulating effect on the HPA axis and a controlling effect on the hormone cortisol. Both of these are crucial for managing stress within the body.
Given this information, and as a calming adaptogen, American ginseng would possibly be beneficial for those that suffer from stress-induced anxiety or depression.
Click here to learn more about the benefits of American ginseng.
Adaptogens show very promising potential for helping the body combat and adapt to stress.
Clinical research appears promising in regards to fighting stress and lowering cortisol levels, which is why more studies on the effectiveness of adaptogens are being conducted.
Having balance in the body is very important for maintaining optimal functioning for physiological systems and evidence strongly supports this proactive behavior of adaptogens.
Consider trying adaptogens if you’re looking for a natural way to reduce cortisol and build stress resilience.