Adaptogens are active ingredients derived from plants, herbs, or mushrooms that may help regulate and manage the body’s stress levels, energy, and more.
Examples include ashwagandha, maca root, ginseng, reishi, and lion’s mane. They’re sometimes called adaptogenic substances, functional mushrooms, or herbal supplements and come as capsules, powders, or drinks.
While more research is still needed, various adaptogens have demonstrated clinical safety and efficacy for cognitive function, heart disease, chronic pulmonary disease, cold prevention, erectile dysfunction, diabetes management, and more.
If you’re wondering if it’s a good idea to incorporate adaptogens into your diet, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider first, as some adaptogens may not be appropriate for individuals with certain conditions, such as high blood pressure. In addition, adaptogens may lead to side effects in certain individuals, such as nausea, headache, dry mouth, and more.
In this article, we explore what adaptogens are, their benefits, and potential side effects. We also discuss how to find the best adaptogen supplements, including what to look for in terms of third-party testing and regulation.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are specific ingredients that help your body regulate itself in a variety of ways. In general, adaptogens work to promote homeostasis, or balance in the body. They do so by influencing the parts of your brain responsible for maintaining homeostasis, or the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, to increase or decrease the available amounts of certain hormones.
Adaptogens literally adapt to your current situation to provide you with the most benefit. For example, if you’re feeling stressed, an adaptogen would try to reduce your brain’s levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. But, if you were feeling fatigued in the middle of the day, that same adaptogen would instead help your body boost its cortisol levels to help you stay awake.
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This flexibility and responsiveness make adaptogens pretty unique among herbal remedies. That said, you can still find it in plenty of familiar forms, from capsules or powder-based supplements to tea. You can also just eat the mushrooms or plants that contain these ingredients, but that makes it harder to know just how much of each adaptogen you’re getting.
Brief History of Adaptogens
The use of plant adaptogens goes back more than 50 years. Although these plants were likely used by ancient societies, they weren’t called “adaptogens” until 1947, when a scientist called Lazarev discovered their stress-relieving properties.
In the 1970s, synthetic alternatives to natural adaptogens were released and became popular among athletes for their ability to boost physical and mental endurance. Since then, people have only found more and more uses for this remarkable class of natural remedies.
List of Adaptogens and Benefits
All adaptogens must support the entire body’s ability to adapt to stress and return to homeostasis, as well as remain non-toxic when taken in low doses. However, each adaptogen may offer benefits that support different types of stress response.
Keep in mind that more research still needs to be done on adaptogens and while some adaptogens may work well for some individuals, it’s always best to speak with your healthcare provider before trying any adaptogens.
Adaptogens for Anxiety and Depression
Adaptogens that help support how the body adapts to anxiety and depression may include:
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and promote stress-relieving effects.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), which is also known as golden root, has demonstrated anti-stress and possible antidepressant action in studies.
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been shown to help reduce the occurrence of both anxiety and depression. In some cases, ginseng has shown similar efficacy to the antidepressant called fluoxetine.
Adaptogens for Energy
Adaptogens that have shown anti-fatigue properties:
- Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has demonstrated energy-boosting effects and improved heart rate recovery, contributing to its effect on physical performance.
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius) has demonstrated a statistically significant effect on fatigue reduction.
- Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum or O. gratissimum), also called tulsi, has been used as a fatigue treatment and may also help normalize blood pressure.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), or golden root, has not only shown benefits for anxiety, but may also help fight chronic fatigue.
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), a Chinese herb, has been shown to help increase muscle strength and improve endurance.
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) has been proven to have anti-fatigue activity, however, more research is still needed.
Adaptogens for Sleep
Adaptogens that may help support sleep:
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been shown to improve sleep quality in individuals with insomnia.
- Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum or O. gratissimum), or tulsi, may not only keep you feeling energized during the day, but it may also help you fall asleep at night.
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is an adaptogen that has shown some efficacy in acting as a sleep aid and alleviating the effects of jet lag.
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) is an adaptogen that has shown efficacy in acting as a sleep aid.
Adaptogens for Stress
Adaptogens that may support stress management:
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), also known to practitioners of Chinese medicine as huang qi, is shown to help protect the body from stress and illnesses, including diabetes.
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) is an adaptogen that has been shown to help fend off stress, among other applications.
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng) has demonstrated high levels of antistress properties. In some studies, it also showed better antistress action compared to other adaptogens.
Adaptogens for Supporting Cognitive Function
Adaptogens thought to support cognitive function:
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been shown to promote overall well-being, including sexual well-being, as well as memory, cognition, and more.
- Maca root (Lepidium meyenii), a Peruvian plant, is known to improve memory and learning.
- Lion’s mane (H. erinaceus), a cooking ingredient and medicinal mushroom, has been shown to promote nerve and brain health, and may also help heal neural injuries.
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) is an adaptogen that has been shown to boost concentration.
- Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum or O. gratissimum), also known as tulsi, has shown positive effects on mood, memory, cognitive flexibility, and concentration.
Adaptogens for Supporting Immune Function
Adaptogens that may support immune function:
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has been shown to protect against inflammation, improve white blood cell function, and boost antibody levels.
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), a fungal parasite, is noted as being beneficial for human immune systems and is sometimes used alongside or after chemotherapy.
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is noted for its powerful anti-inflammatory impact.
- Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum or O. gratissimum), also known as tulsi, has shown an enhanced immune response in studies examining viral infections.
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), a functional mushroom, has demonstrated the ability to stimulate the immune response and enhance the tumor response. In some cases, it may be used as an adjunct to cancer treatment.
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) has been shown to stimulate the immune system and has antioxidant effects, which contribute to its antitumor effects.
Adaptogens for Weight Loss/Management
Adaptogens that may support weight loss and management:
- Berberine, which is sometimes called “nature’s Ozempic,” is a chemical found in plants like European barberry and Oregon grape. It has shown significant effects in regulating blood sugar and how fat is metabolized. In addition, by acting on certain gut hormones, it may help prevent obesity and insulin resistance.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been shown to help reduce food cravings and supports body weight management in individuals showing high levels of stress.
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng) has shown to help regulate appetite and may aid in weight loss, however, more research is still needed.
Are Adaptogens Safe?
While adaptogens are generally well-tolerated and even beneficial, they’re not safe for everyone. People with high blood pressure, diabetes, or autoimmune diseases in particular should use caution when deciding whether to take an adaptogen. They can also reduce the effectiveness of certain medications, so be sure to have a thorough conversation with your doctor before adding any adaptogens to your regimen.
Another important fact to note is that because adaptogens are natural treatments, they aren’t subject to FDA review. That means it’s up to you to do your research and make sure a product is safe before you try it.
Adaptogens Side Effects
Side effects of adaptogens may include:
- Constipation or diarrhea (Ashwagandha, Berberine, Eleuthero, Reishi)
- Dizziness (Ashwagandha, Rhodiola)
- Drowsiness (Ashwagandha, Eleuthero)
- Dry mouth or throat (Reishi, Rhodiola)
- Headache (American ginseng, Eleuthero)
- Insomnia (American ginseng, Asian ginseng)
- Mood shifts like irritability or anxiety (Eleuthero, American ginseng, Rhodiola)
- Nausea or stomach pain (Ashwagandha, Astragalus, Berberine, Eleuthero, Reishi)
Who Should Avoid Adaptogens?
Definitely check in with your healthcare provider before trying any adaptogens if:
- You have an autoimmune disorder
- You’re taking antidepressants
- You have a cardiovascular disease
- You have high blood pressure or diabetes
- You take any medication with sedative effects (ie. that make you drowsy)
- You have thyroid issues
- You’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning to be
How to Find the Best Adaptogen Supplements
Even though adaptogen supplements aren’t reviewed by the FDA, there are other organizations who may evaluate their safety, efficacy, and ingredients. Look for third-party seals of approval, clinical trials, as well as products that are certified organic by the USDA. In addition, use products that include ingredients that are on the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list.
Be wary of products that make statements that seem too good to be true. Remember that more research on adaptogens stills needs to be done and it’s best to discuss their safety with your healthcare provider prior to trying any new supplement.
Adaptogens are plants, herbs, and mushrooms that may naturally boost your health, as long as you use them safely. Research shows they can help regulate your mood, stress levels, and even your immune system, but they can do more harm than good for people taking certain medications or living with particular conditions.
No matter who you are, make sure to review scientific evidence, only purchase from suppliers that utilize third-party testing, and talk things through with your healthcare provider before trying any adaptogens.
Like most supplements, you can find adaptogens in many different forms, including pills, capsules, powders, and drinks. In most cases, you’ll be taking them by mouth according to the package instructions.
Foods containing adaptogens include certain mushrooms, berries, plants, and herbs. Examples include lion’s mane, tulsi, ginseng, reishi, maca root, and chaga.
For many people, adaptogens have very few downsides. They generally cause few or no side effects, as long as you aren’t taking a medication that’ll interact with them. However, they can cause side effects in some individuals, including nausea, headache, dry mouth, and more.
While plenty of herbal enthusiasts will claim their favorite adaptogen is the most powerful, the truth is that your results will vary depending on what your body needs when you take them. That’s what makes adaptogens so special in the first place.