Even though it seems like plant medicine is a hot topic right now, globally, people have been medicating with tonic herbs for centuries. These plant substances, called adaptogens, help the body overcome stress, ward off fatigue, and boost mental clarity.
Outside of the West, adaptogenic herbs are cherished and well-respected for their restorative properties. Practitioners of Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) and Traditional Indian Medicine (Ayurveda) supplement with adaptogens daily to protect the body from stress-related health conditions.
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogenic herbs are classified as any plant substance (roots, stems, leaves, bark, etc.) that assists the body with stress resistance, maintains homeostasis (aka internal balance), and produces non-toxic effects. Scientists call some herbs—such as Panax (Asian) ginseng, Schisandra, Eleuthero, and Rhodiola— “true adaptogens” since they meet all of the criteria outlined above.
Ones that don’t satisfy all of these conditions and haven’t been well-researched are considered secondary or companion adaptogens.
History of adaptogens
In the 1940s, Russian scientists coined the term “adaptogen” while researching tonic herbs that might boost Soviet Union military performance during the Cold War. The researchers behind the initiative, Dr. Nikolai Lazarev and Dr. Israel Brekhman, began exclusive research on eleuthero, which was later used by Russian athletes to improve endurance during the Olympic Games.
Together, Dr. Lazarev and Dr. Brekhman brought adaptogens to Western attention, kickstarting a global research effort to clinically examine the stress-relieving effects of medicinal herbs. In folk medicine, some cultures tell stories of adaptogens as far back as 3000 BCE. However, modern studies from Lazarev and Brekhman helped provide a roadmap for classifying adaptogens.
What the science says about adaptogens
Preliminary evidence suggests that adaptogens have a direct influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), a feedback loop that monitors stress response in the brain and organs.
When your body experiences chronic mental and physical stress, elevated cortisol levels contribute to anxiety, depression, fatigue, inflammation, and obesity. Researchers believe that adaptogens tip the body’s HPA axis back into homeostasis when external stressors cause cortisol levels to destabilize.
Studies with animals and brain cells reveal several benefits of adaptogens:
- Reduces stress
- Enhances metabolism
- Boosts immune functioning
- Improves physical endurance
- Assists with mental exhaustion
- Supports focus and concentration
Future research with humans and wider acceptance of alternative medicine will expand our current understanding of the molecular role of adaptogens in the body.
List of adaptogens and their potential benefits
There are dozens of adaptogens, but only a handful have scientific evidence to back up their benefits. Additionally, some adaptogens are valued as “true adaptogens,” while others merely have adaptogenic qualities.
Which herbs are adaptogens?
This list of adaptogens covers some of the more popular types and their possible benefits:
Ginseng: Good for memory retention, stress, energy, inflammation, anti-tumor effects
Eleuthero: Lowers fatigue, strengthens bones, levels out blood sugar/hypertension
Schisandra: Also known as the five-flavor fruit, the berries of the Schisandra plant may soothe coughs, reduce indigestion, and increase stamina.
Rhodiola: Helps manage symptoms of anxiety and depression, stress relief, and enhances work performance
Astragalus: Used for respiratory infections, digestion, and as an antioxidant
Ashwagandha: Lowers cortisol levels, anxiety/stress relief, brain health (especially for people with Alzheimer’s/Huntington’s/Parkinson’s diseases)
Holy basil: Antidepressant, antibacterial, pain reliever, improved stamina
Which foods are adaptogens?
Adaptogenic herbs can be incorporated into food and drink recipes to make the taste more pleasant. Taken on their own, some adaptogens are bitter.
These recipes make it easier to get your daily adaptogen dose:
Adaptogen smoothies: Add ½ tsp of maca or ashwagandha powder to spinach, banana, apple, vanilla protein powder, and milk of choice
Adaptogen energy bites: Add 1-2 tbsp of preferred adaptogen powder to walnuts, almonds, dates, chia seeds, cinnamon, coconut shreds, and coconut oil
Adaptogen soup: Add ½-1 tsp of ashwagandha powder to onion, carrot, paprika, flaxseed, turmeric, and water
Alternatively, brew any adaptogen into tea and mix in honey and milk as you please.
To sum it up
We can’t always avoid stress, but we can come prepared with adaptogens and cannabinoids. These plant extracts may help your body stand up to the negative effects of stress, restore balance, and curb elevated cortisol levels. The ancient use of adaptogens provides a solid framework for modern research to continue pushing forward.
Do adaptogens really work?
Practitioners of alternative medicine support the benefits of adaptogens. Similar to the way your body strengthens and gets used to resistance during exercise, adaptogens may help condition the body to overcome stress. Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine traditions tout the use of adaptogens for memory enhancement, respiratory infection, sexual arousal, arthritis, and dozens of other conditions.
What is the most powerful adaptogen?
It depends on who you ask, but Panax ginseng is one of the most commonly used adaptogenic herbs. There are several species of ginseng, but Asian and American ginseng are more popular than most.
What are adaptogens' side effects?
Considering where the current research stands, there aren’t enough long-term studies to say for sure. Some people experience stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Consult your doctor to discuss possible drug interactions.
Which adaptogens for weight loss should I try?
For a healthy waistline, consider supplementing with Schisandra, holy basil, ginseng, eleuthero, ashwagandha, or codonopsis. These herbs contain stress-reducing properties which may assist with weight loss. Remember to not rely on adaptogens alone, as a combination of lifestyle changes related to diet and physical activity contribute to weight loss.
Are there adaptogen supplements?
Natural grocery stores and apothecaries sell several types of adaptogen supplements, such as tinctures, capsules, and powders. In the health and wellness industry, adaptogens can sometimes be viewed as a buzzword, so keep this in mind when you see brands making larger-than-life health claims. Clinical studies with adaptogens are somewhat limited.