What Are Adaptogens and Why Are People Taking Them?

Published on February 17, 2023


You would be hard-pressed to meet someone who hasn’t experienced the effects of stress. Our lives are busy. There are bills to pay, to-do lists to conquer, and myriad other daily tasks that need our attention. The pressures of chronic stress can take quite a toll on your physical and mental health. 

Thankfully, there is hope for those looking to soothe the effects of stress. That hope comes in the form of adaptogens, a unique class of plants. If you haven’t heard of adaptogens, you may have heard of adaptogenic herbs like Ginseng and Ashwagandha

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at adaptogens, including what they are, what they do, and some of the most common adaptogenic herbs and their health benefits. 

What Are Adaptogens?

In short, adaptogens are compounds that seek to soothe the adverse effects of the stress response. Adaptogens are active compounds found in herbal medicines or plant extracts. 

Today, adaptogens can be found in two classes: plant adaptogens REF#653 and synthetic adaptogens. These are commonly found in herbal supplements, including capsules, tinctures, and powders. 

The history of adaptogens stretches back many decades. The term “adaptogen” was first used in the 1940s by a scientist in Russia as a way to describe the properties of Schisandra chinensis or the Chinese magnolia-vine plant. 

Adaptogenic substances assist the human body in resisting adverse biological, chemical, and physical stressors. To be considered a plant or herb adaptogen, three criteria must be met:

  1. The plant or herbal compound must help your body cope with stress.
  2. It must be non-toxic when taken in normal doses.
  3. It must allow your body to return to homeostasis (balance).

While adaptogens as a term might be relatively new from a historical lens, plant adaptogens have been used for hundreds of years in Ayurvedic medicineREF#654. 

Adaptogens are also a key component of traditional Chinese medicine. Today, plant adaptogens are becoming increasingly popular and accessible. 

While adaptogens are certainly growing in popularity and use, why are people taking them? What do adaptogens do in the body? Let’s take a closer look.

What Do Adaptogens Do?

When it comes to supplementation, adaptogens are used to help your body adapt to stressors. According to research, the main effects of adaptogensREF#655 on stress have to do with their effect on the central nervous system. 

In brief, adaptogenic compounds interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (the interaction between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands). This complex network is an important component of the endocrine system and includes key glands responsible for your body’s stress response. 

For example, the hypothalamus acts as the brain's command center, receiving signals to your body during the stress-induced fight-or-flight response. This hypothalamic response also helps activate the adrenal glands, which pump out important stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. 

During times of stress, your body experiences both biological and psychological symptoms. Physical symptoms of the stress response include cardiovascular symptoms like increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased breathing, and more. 

In addition to the stress response, the HPA axis is vital to homeostasis and energy metabolism. In addition to interacting with neurological and endocrine functions, adaptogens also interact with the immune system. 

Regarding anti-stress properties, research has found a link between adaptogens and proper adrenal functionREF#656. For example, adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands cannot keep up with hormonal demands to combat the biochemical effects of stress. By helping to support adrenal functionREF#657, adaptogens can help soothe the negative effects of stress and adrenal fatigue. 

Also, adaptogens have been shown to help support healthy cellular energy levels, which can help maintain normal adrenal function. 

So what is the secret behind adaptogens? The biological effects of adaptogens have to do with their active compounds, namely the presence of phytochemicals — triterpenoid saponins, ginsenosides, lignans, flavonoids, and more. These phytochemicals are potent antioxidants — compounds that combat cell damage due to free radicals. 

Seven Common Adaptogens and Their Benefits

As mentioned, adaptogens' best-known role is their positive effects on stress. However, they can help support mood, energy levels, and overall immune function. 

Let’s look at some of the most popular adaptogens and their potential benefits for your quality of life. 

1. Siberian Ginseng

Siberian ginseng, also known as eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus), is a revered adaptogen long used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

While it bears the nickname of “ginseng,” it is not true ginseng like other popular types: Panax Ginseng, Asian Ginseng, American Ginseng, etc. Its primary benefits include support for healthy energy and stamina. 

2. Reishi Mushroom

Another popular adaptogen is Reishi. It is sometimes referred to as the "mushroom of immortality.” This well-known adaptogenic mushroom is a staple in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

As a supplement, Reishi is used to maintain healthy energy levels and support overall wellness and immune health. It can be found in our Mind Spring™ powder and other Mushroom + Herbs capsules.

3. Ashwagandha

This popular adaptogen hardly needs an introduction. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a small perennial shrub with a long history in Ayurvedic medicine. It is also a staple ingredient in many of our favorite herbal blends

Ashwagandha is used for cognitive, immune, and energy support. As an adaptogen, it is also a popular compound for stress support. 

4. Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is known by many other names, including arctic root, golden root, king’s crown, and more. It has a long medicinal history in places like Russia. Today, this adaptogen is used to support energy, immunity, and cognitive health.

Thanks to its positive effects on adrenal health, Rhodiola is also a staple ingredient in herbal formulas that support the stress response, like our Adrenal Health ® Daily Support.

5. Schisandra

Schisandra is regarded as a harmonizing tonic and a popular adaptogenic herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It may also be one of the most unique adaptogens. 

Schisandra berries contain a blend of five distinct flavor properties. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, these flavors correspond to the five phases or Elements: Sour (Wood), Bitter (Fire), Sweet (Earth), Acrid (Metal), and Salty (Water).

Working together to promote overall health and vitality, this five-flavored adaptogen has been called the “ultimate superberry.” As a supplement, Schisandra berries support the body’s natural resistance and adaptation to stressful influences.

6. Holy Basil

Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) has been an important adaptogenic herb for centuries. In Ayurveda medicine, Holy Basil is known as Tulsi, or the “the incomparable one.” It is considered a symbol of fidelity.

When it comes to medicinal use, Holy Basil Leaf helps you respond to stress healthily by supporting adrenal health and a state of equilibrium in the body. This adaptogenic herb is also known for nourishing the mind and elevating the spirit. 

7. Maca

Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is becoming increasingly popular as an adaptogen. This caffeine-free superfood has been cultivated as an Andean vegetable for over 2,000 years. There are numerous benefits of maca root. 

For example, maca is often used to help to maintain energy levels and support mood and healthy libido. Maca can be found alongside other beneficial adaptogenic herbs in our Everyday Adaptogen™ formula. 

This adaptogenic formula does not contain added fillers, flavors, and sweeteners.

Things To Know About Adaptogens

The list of potent adaptogens could go on and on, including proven adaptogens like Turmeric, Astragalus, and Cordyceps. While there is a long list of benefits of adaptogens, there are some things to know about before using adaptogens. 

For example, adaptogens don’t always play nice with certain medications. One published study showed some notable herb-drug interactions and side effectsREF#658. Of course, this study was not examining adaptogens specifically but numerous herbs.

Adaptogens could interact with certain medications used for medical conditions like hypertension and diabetes. The herb-drug interactions vary from person to person. At the end of the day, it may be wise to talk with your healthcare provider before starting adaptogens. 

Bottom Line

Adaptogens are plant compounds that seek to reduce the negative effects of the stress response. While they have numerous benefits, one proven benefit is their efficacy in improving your body’s resistance to stress. 

Before starting adaptogens, consult your healthcare provider if you’re currently taking medications for a medical condition.


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