Complete Guide To Adaptogens: 5 Benefits, History, and Usage

The word “adaptogen” is a general term for a category of herbs that help the body adapt to stress. Adaptogens are not drugs and do not have overbearing side effects, …

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Written by: Daniel Powers, MS
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The word “adaptogen” is a general term for a category of herbs that help the body adapt to stress.

Adaptogens are not drugs and do not have overbearing side effects, but they can make your life more enjoyable and fulfilling.

They are better thought of as a helpful support system for helping to deal with the physiological effects of stress.

In this article, we will explore what adaptogens are, where they come from, how they work in the human body, and what benefits you can get from them!

benefits of adaptogens

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are herbs that help the body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic function, and help restore balance.

Dr. Israel Brekham, the scientist who discovered adaptogens, created the original adaptogen definition, he noted that they should have three primary qualities:

  1. Adaptogens are non-toxic and safe to take long-term.
  2. Adaptogens provide a state of nonspecific resistance to stress (more on this later).
  3. Adaptogens have a balancing effect on the body, helping to restore the body back to normal function.

Essentially, adaptogens work to increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors and provide a defense response to stress.

Adaptogens are different from other herbs in their ability to restore the balance of endocrine hormones, modulate the immune and nervous systems, and allow the body to maintain optimal homeostasis.

Simply put, you can think of them as herbs that bring your body back into balance.

If you are high-strung and irritable, they can help you to find a sense of calm. On the other hand, if you are low energy and fatigued, adaptogens can help to energize your body.

So how is it that the same herb that can energize one person can also help another person to relax?

More on this below.

How Do Adaptogens Work?

Adaptogens help your body to balance stress by supporting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

The HPA axis is a term used to represent the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. Essentially, the HPA axis controls the body’s response to stress.

Research shows that adaptogens work by re-regulating the HPA axis. They can help to produce a positive stress response within the body and balance hormonal function.

By balancing the body’s stress response, adaptogenic herbs allow you to adapt to and better handle life’s stressors.

In addition to their ability to impact the HPA axis, they also have secondary actions within the body.

Some adaptogens may have calming anti-inflammatory effects, while others may have energizing, stimulatory properties.

Health Benefits of Adaptogens:

Adaptogens have numerous health benefits. Since there is such a wide variety of different benefits, this list will only include only the primary benefits.

They may help with the following:

1. May Reduce Cortisol Response

Research shows that adaptogens have the ability to impact the body’s release of cortisol.

Cortisol is a stress hormone. Think of it as your body’s built-in alarm system. It works to regulate the body’s stress response. It also regulates your metabolism, inflammatory response, and immune function.

Reducing cortisol will help to provide a balanced response to stress. Read our in-depth article on the best adaptogens for reducing stress & lowering cortisol.

2. May Provide Adrenal Support

Adaptogens can help the adrenal glands respond more effectively and efficiently to excess stress hormones. When stress stops, adaptogens help the adrenal glands shut down more quickly.

They also support adrenal function by allowing cells access to more energy and preventing oxidative damage.

The following adaptogens have been found to support adrenal health:

American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.)

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)

3. May Support Better Sleep

Many people have insomnia and other sleep-related problems. Stress from outside sources can cause people to have trouble sleeping.

These problems often happen because of elevated cortisol levels. This is where adaptogens come into play; they work to relax your body and balance hormonal responses.

You can read our in-depth article on the best adaptogens for sleep.

4. May Increase Physical Stamina & Endurance

Adaptogens have been shown to increase athletic performance. Through extensive experiments on athletes (especially in Russia), scientists reliably have demonstrated the value of adaptogens for increasing endurance and shortening recovery time from both training and sports injuries.

In particular, cordyceps (an adaptogenic mushroom) has been shown to support improved tolerance to high-intensity exercise after supplementation.

In addition to cordyceps, these other adaptogens have been found for physical performance:

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rhodesia)

5. May Reduce Symptoms of Arthritis

Arthritis occurs when there is inflammation of the joints. The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Adaptogens can help reduce inflammation and as a result, may help to reduce the pain associated with arthritis.

The following adaptogens have been found to reduce inflammation:

Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum)

Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Who Can Use Adaptogens?

Adaptogens should primarily be used by adults. They are not recommended for children as they can influence the endocrine (i.e. hormonal) system.

Pregnant women should be careful when taking adaptogens since there is limited safety data on taking adaptogens while pregnant.

As with all other herbs, it’s best to check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking adaptogens.

Can You Mix Adaptogens Together?

Yes, in general, you can safely mix adaptogens together.

Combining adaptogens can enhance their positive effects and reduce problems such as side effects, high costs, or an unpleasant taste (as with shilajit).

Remember, one of the characteristics is that adaptogens are safe to take long-term. This means that, in general, adaptogens are safe to take.

In many traditional cultures, adaptogens were often combined to create a more powerful adaptogenic effect in the body.

Best Adaptogen Combinations:

Below are a few classic adaptogen formulas for those looking for specific health outcomes.

Ashwagandha + Codonopsis (dang shen) + Shatavari (helpful for anemic women)

Holy Basil + Rhodiola (helpful for brain health & cognitive function)

Ashwagandha + Asian Ginseng + Cistanche (helpful for male sexual function)

How Much of an Adaptogen Can You Take?

Each adaptogen has its own recommended dosage. However, your own constitution and metabolism may alter that quantity (up or down).

Before you start adding an adaptogen to your daily routine, it’s best to look at research on the typical serving size. We include adaptogen dose recommendations in our individual adaptogen articles.

Taking too much of some adaptogens can make you feel restless or uneasy. It’s a good idea to start at the lower end of the suggested range and work your way up.

As a rule of thumb, a good starting daily dose is 1 teaspoon of dried herb per cup of tea or 1/4 teaspoon of extract.

How Long Can You Take Adaptogens?

In keeping with the definition of adaptogens (characteristic #1), they are safe to take long-term.

Adaptogens are most effective when used long-term since they work to gradually influence the body.

Some individuals notice more of a sudden change in the way they feel within the first few days of taking adaptogenic herbs. In other cases, it may take some individuals a little longer to notice any changes.

History of Adaptogens:

Even though adaptogens are a new idea to Western medicine, they have been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years. In particular, the Ayurvedic medicinal tradition has a long history of use with adaptogens (including favorites like ashwagandha).

Traditional cultures often used adaptogens to promote daily health and vibrancy.

Adaptogens were “discovered” by the Russian scientist Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, who started researching chemical compounds that could help promote health by decreasing the negative effects of acute or chronic stress.

In 1957–58, he proposed the concept of adaptogenic herbs that could increase the state of “nonspecific resistance to stress”.

Ever since then, much research has been conducted on various adaptogens and their health benefits.

List of Adaptogenic Herbs:

David Winston is seen as the worldwide expert on adaptogens, and he notes that there are categories of “primary adaptogens” and “secondary adaptogens”.

Below is a list of adaptogens in each category (you can check out our complete list of adaptogens):

Primary Adaptogens:

American Ginseng

Ashwagandha

Asian Ginseng

Cordyceps Mushroom

Eleuthero

Tulsi Holy Basil

Reishi Mushroom

Rhodiola

Schisandra

Shilajit

Secondary Adaptogens:

•Guduchi

•Horny Goat Weed

•Licorice

Maca

•Prince Seng

Russian Devil’s Club

Turmeric

•White Bryony

Which Adaptogen Is Right For Me?

Finding the right adaptogen for your body can be difficult. We’ve put together some helpful guides comparing different adaptogens with each other:

Ashwagandha vs. Holy Basil

Ashwagandha vs. Shilajit

Ashwagandha vs. Rhodiola

Ashwagandha vs. Eleuthero

American Ginseng vs. Asian Ginseng

American Ginseng vs. Eleuthero

Ginseng vs. Rhodiola

Ginseng vs. Eleuthero

Ginseng vs. Ginger

Ginseng vs. Ashwagandha

Conclusion:

Adaptogens are natural herbs that have been used for centuries in Eastern medicine.

They work to promote health and wellness by strengthening the immune system, reducing stress levels, improving moods, and more.

It’s easy to incorporate them into your routine because they can either be taken as supplements or added to teas and food dishes with no side effects.

Consider adding these adaptogenic herbs to your diet if you want a boost of mental clarity without any negative consequences!

Panossian, A., Wikman, G., & Wagner, H. (1999). Plant adaptogens. III. Earlier and more recent aspects and concepts on their mode of action. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology6(4), 287–300. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0944-7113(99)80023-3

Winston, David. (2019). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press.

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About Daniel Powers, MS

Daniel has a master's degree in herbal science from the Maryland University of Integrative Health. He has a passion for herbal medicine and how it can be used to support everyday health & wellness.