A Beginner’s Guide To Adaptogens
*The below is for information purposes only and is not medical advice. Always consult your doctor before adding any health supplements or adaptogens to your diet.
You’ve probably seen them in pretty packages at the health food store or on your Instagram feed—in mystery powders and minimalistic seltzers and tinctures in dainty glass bottles. But what exactly are adaptogens? And what do they do?
Adaptogens, certain types of edible plants and mushrooms with known health benefits, predate some of their modern iterations like Sex Dust by Moon Juice and personalized DTC supplements by several thousand years. For millennia, they’ve played important roles in Asian cultures, like Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines.
Here, we unpack the history of adaptogens, what they do, how they work, and which kinds are most popular—plus, a few small businesses to support.
A Brief Adaptogenic History
Adaptogens are herbs and plant parts—sometimes roots, mushrooms, fruits, or leaves—that help our bodies regulate and “adapt” to stressors and maintain homeostasis. They can help us with improved mood, better focus, and more energy.
While modern studies are ongoing, adaptogens have been used in cultures all over the world for thousands of years. Some have been found in Europe, Africa, and North America, but most of the adaptogens’ rich history comes from Asian cultures. From around 3000 century BCE onward, reishi, rhodiola, and ginseng were used in China, while ashwagandha, holy basil, and moringa were prominent in India. The Charaka Samhita, a foundational Sanskrit text on Ayurveda written in the first millennium BCE, lists hundreds of healing herbs.
The term “adaptogen” wasn’t coined until the mid-twentieth century when Soviet scientists studying plant medicine saw that herbs like rhodiola and Schisandra berries helped the body adapt to stress. Around this time, scientists established three conditions to qualify an “adaptogen:”
- It must be nontoxic in regular doses.
- It influences multiple, non-specific organs or systems in the body, helping it overcome stress.
- It has a normalizing effect on the body, helping it maintain homeostasis.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Adaptogens may be for your adrenal glands what exercise is for your muscles, Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, told Time. When you take adaptogens, “you’re training your body to handle the effects of stress.”
Research says that adaptogens interact with our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex system of glands in the body, including our adrenals. For example, certain adaptogens help raise or lower hormone levels. They are also shown to affect the immune-neuro-endocrine system, which allows the body to maintain its immunity and energy use.
“Adaptogens work differently for everybody,” says Dr. Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., a double board-certified integrative and family medicine physician and medical director at Revive Atlanta, MD. “They can upregulate or downregulate, and oftentimes they work great for everyone,” she says, adding that sometimes, folks see side effects they might not like.
That’s why Dr. Gandhi recommends talking to your doctor or a certified practitioner before use to target your specific goals. “Find a good integrative and functional medicine doctor who you can work with to see which adaptogens are best suited for you,” she says, as some adaptogens can have multiple different effects on the body.
Popular Adaptogens And Their Common Uses
There are hundreds of adaptogens on the market today, with all different uses and effects. Here’s an explainer for a few of the most popular ones.
Ashwagandha: Often used in Ayurvedic practices, Ashwagandha has been shown to help with acute anxiety and long-term stress. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s one of the most popular and studied adaptogens, and its powders and capsules can be helpful if you need to chill out and recenter.
Rhodiola: Used in Russia and Scandinavian countries for centuries, this herb has been shown to reduce mental and physical fatigue. While more research is needed, studies also suggest that rhodiola (taken in capsule or tincture form) can help manage stress and improve brain function.
Ginseng: Both American and Asian Ginseng have been shown primarily to boost energy and reduce fatigue. They can also potentially increase cognitive function. Ginseng has been used in China for thousands of years and has been found in Japan, Korea, Russia, and North America. Fresh ginseng root, which can be foraged in parts of the US (or found online), is great in teas or added to soups and stir-frys.
Reishi: Native to hot and humid climates in Asia, reishi mushroom is thought to boost the immune system. It’s been proven effective in studies testing its ability to increase white blood cells and treat cancerous tumors. It also may fight fatigue and depression. Reishi comes in tincture and powder form, while fresh mushrooms can be used for cooking or teas.
Tulsi: Also known as holy basil, tulsi is indigenous to India and is considered a sacred plant in Hinduism. It’s been shown to boost immunity, reduce inflammation, and help with neurocognitive disorders like depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s. Tulsi comes in pill form, but you can also cook or make tea with holy basil’s spicy, bitter leaves.
Astragalus: Used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, the astragalus root is touted for its positive effects on the immune system and cardiovascular system. It’s used to treat the common cold and fatigue and has antioxidant properties. Astragalus is often found in capsule form or liquid tinctures at your local health food store.
Cordyceps: While cordyceps are fungi most commonly found on caterpillars in mountainous regions of China, most cordyceps supplements on the market today are lab-produced. It’s been shown to increase endurance, and it’s shown promising effects on the immune system and cancer treatment. Cordyceps powders can be blended into smoothies and protein shakes.
Goji berry: Belonging to the nightshade family, goji berries have been used in traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese medicine for millennia. The small, bright red berries are high in vitamin A, iron, fiber, and vitamin C, and they’ve also been shown to potentially support immune and eye functions. You can find Goji berries in your local supermarket or health food store. We love mixing them in with nuts for an easy snack or adding them to oatmeal and granola!
Turmeric: The traditional Indian spice sees its many health benefits from a powerful compound it contains called curcumin. Its extensively studied benefits include boosting brain function and helping fight depression, along with its powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric powder is great in recipes for curries and soups, tossed in rice or vegetables, or added to scrambled eggs. Make sure you add a dash of black pepper, which increases its absorption.
Licorice root: Along with its use as a candy flavoring, licorice root has been used in Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Middle Eastern medicines for centuries. It’s thought to help with colds and sore throats, menopausal symptoms, digestive problems, and bacterial and viral infections. While it’s available in capsule or liquid supplements, it’s often found in tea form.
Bonus: Our favorite sustainable and ethical brands for adaptogens
Elix: Founder Lulu Ge grew up around Chinese medicine, learning from her grandfather who ran a hospital in the Chinese province of Hunan. She rediscovered medicinal herbs and adaptogens after looking for natural remedies to menstrual symptoms, founding Elix alongside a team of medical professionals.
Apothekary: The wellness brand honors founder Shizu Okusa’s healing journey through Ayurveda, Japanese Kampo medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine, stocking signature blends of herbs and adaptogens for different uses.
Peak & Valley: Founded by Nadine Joseph, Peak & Valley aims to take the guesswork out of herbal supplements, prioritizing transparent sourcing and adequately compensating farmers.
Bala Chai: When brother and sister duo Bharat and Radha Vishnubhotla’s parents emigrated from India to LA, they fostered community by hosting gatherings over chai. The siblings founded Bala Chai to sell authentic chai with Ayurvedic adaptogens like ashwagandha.
Other trusted brands for adaptogens:
Natalie Gale is a Boston-based freelance journalist. When she’s not writing about art, food, or sustainability, you can find her biking to the farmers’ market, baking, sewing, or planning her next Halloween costume. Say hi on Instagram!