What are Adaptogens? and Why are They So Popular?
As you navigate through the sea of fitness and wellness recommendations, one unusual word that you may see pop up is “adaptogens.” What are adaptogens? What do they do? How do they work? And why are they becoming so popular?
Deadlines, meetings, to-do lists, oh my! It’s no surprise that the vast majority of us describe ourselves as rushed, busy, and overwhelmed. Even on a day off work, there’s so much to stay on top of. From taking care of ourselves—working out and preparing healthy meals—to keeping up with laundry and household chores to running numerous errands, there’s too much to do! Downtime is limited, and as tasks and responsibilities accumulate seemingly endlessly, there’s another thing that seems to snowball with no relief in sight: STRESS.
Stress, by itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, stress can be a great thing! Believe it or not, too little stress can be quite harmful, as we need just the right amount to thrive. The issue, however, is that most of us don’t suffer from too little—at least of the psychosocial variety. We often find ourselves juggling too many responsibilities—or at least feel as if we are. And this can have far-reaching negative effects on everything from well-being to brain functioning to weight management to overall health.
Of course, there’s a number of stress-busting activities—including daily exercise, meditation, walks, forest bathing, or even just remembering to breathe deeply throughout the day. But sometimes, wouldn’t it be nice to just take a “chill pill”?
What Are Adaptogens?
If there is such a thing as a natural “chill pill,” the closest we have access to is a special category of herbs called “adaptogens.” Adaptogens (typically herbs and mushrooms) are promoted as stress regulators—supporting the body’s ability to adapt to its environment by resisting physical, chemical, and biological stress. Typically, they’re used for stress relief, cognitive function, and adrenal health. Some can be eaten, others can be brewed as tea, while others can be put into a pill and taken as supplements.
Adaptogens are not just stress reducers. Their role in the body is bimodal, meaning they act as body balancers that help support the body’s ability to adapt to whatever’s thrown at it. In other words, adaptogens can provide both stimulating and relaxing effects depending on what you need during a specific situation. Adaptogens have been shown to help people:
- Better handle stress
- Improve athletic performance
- Expand mental performance
- Support appetite control
- Improve sleep
- Enhance mood
- Support the immune system
- And more.
Traditional societies and ancient cultures, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine, have used various adaptogenic herbs for centuries, and herbalists have been recommending them for decades. Yet the term itself wasn’t coined until the 1940s.
With that knowledge under your belt, let’s dig into some of the most popular adaptogens and why you might reach for them.
9 Powerful Adaptogens and What They’re Good For
There isn’t just one holy-grail adaptogen. Rather, there are numerous plants that act as adaptogens. Here are some of the most prominent ones and how they appear to work in the body:
1. Ashwagandha: Also known as Withania somnifera, Ashwagandha is an herb that’s been shown to help increase resilience to stress; slow the aging process and promote longevity; improve wellbeing; and even boost muscular strength, mass, and endurance.
One specific, patented form of Ashwagandha known as Sensoril® is prized for its rejuvenating and energizing effects and its ability to support mitochondrial function and increase stress resilience, which is why it’s included in our Ageless Body® anti-aging supplement.
2. Panax ginseng: Perhaps the most well-recognized adaptogen is ginseng. There are multiple types of ginseng; in fact, Ashwagandha is even sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng. Panax ginseng, or Asian ginseng, is considered the most stimulating adaptogen and has been shown to enhance physical performance, reduce physical and mental fatigue, improve reaction time, and promote abstract and creative thinking. It may also enhance libido.
3. Rhodiola rosea: Also known as golden root, Rhodiola rosea is an herb from Russia shown to help fight fatigue, improve mood, and potentially prevent infection. Most notably, it may help boost concentration, productivity, and memory and is often recommended for improved cognitive function. This is why we’ve chosen the pure and potent RhodiolaMax™ Rhodiola rosea extract for our Brain Bright® nootropic supplement.
As evidence of Rhodiola’s adaptogenic prowess, one study, in which participants were given 400 mg per day for just 4 weeks, found big improvements such as a decrease in fatigue, exhaustion, and anxiety, within the first 3 days, and those noteworthy benefits were maintained throughout the remainder of the study.
4. Eleuthero: Another plant from Russia, sometimes referred to as Siberian ginseng (though it’s not a member of the ginseng family), is another powerful adaptogen. One of the most well-researched adaptogens, Eleuthero has been shown to increase energy and vigor, enhance alertness, improve mental acuity, improve sleep, help control appetite, enhance work output and quality, and promote athletic performance and endurance.
5. Tulsi: Commonly known as holy basil, which also goes by Ocimum tenuiflorum and Ocimum sanctum, tulsi is considered a tonic for the mind, body, and spirit, as it acts to help balance stress and promote mental functioning. In addition, it’s been shown to improve metabolism, boost performance, decrease tissue damage, and lower stress. It’s also been found to decrease stress, sleep problems, forgetfulness, and exhaustion. Another plus, tulsi is loaded with antioxidants. It’s recommended to be consumed as a tea or taken as a supplement.
6. Reishi: Originally found in Japan and the coastal areas of China, reishi is known as a medicinal mushroom that has a long reputation for promoting longevity and vitality. There are over 2,000 species of reishi, but when it comes to enhancing health, the significant ones are the red and black versions. It’s recommended for helping ease stress and tension, supporting the immune system, boosting concentration, and enhancing memory. It may also support sleep cycles.
Often considered a “grounding” compound, it’s believed to help people relax and chill out. It’s also high in antioxidants and polysaccharides, such as beta-glucans, which support the immune system. With a bitter, fairly unpleasant taste, reishi is rarely eaten. Rather, it’s typically dried, ground up, and used as a supplement or added to stronger flavors like hot chocolate and coffee. However, the dried mushroom can also be added to soups and stews.
7. Maca: This root crop has a tradition as both a food and a medicine in parts of South America, primarily from the Peruvian Andes. It may help provide sustained energy without the crash common with caffeine and may also help improve mood. It’s most well-known for its potential positive effects on sex drive, libido, and fertility, effects often attributed to its potential to support balanced hormone levels.
Maca is also a complete source of protein (with all 8 of the essential amino acids), numerous vitamins and minerals, and phytonutrients. It’s most commonly found in powder form, which can be added to beverages like tea or coffee. Unlike many of the other adaptogens on the list, it can also be eaten as a food. It has a nutty flavor that’s a good addition to baked goods as well as smoothies.
8. Cordyceps: One of the top anti-aging adaptogens, cordyceps is a type of mushroom that provides loads of antioxidants. It’s also been shown to help decrease fatigue, increase sex drive, balance hormones, and boost strength and exercise performance. It’s believed to support the body’s production of ATP, which is known as the body’s primary form of energy currency. It may also provide a protective effect for the liver and kidneys.
9. Turmeric: Another antioxidant powerhouse, turmeric doesn’t just flavor your favorite curry, it may also help your body adapt to chronic stressors. As such, it may help you maintain a healthy body weight, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol levels. In addition, it may support memory and brain, heart, joint, and metabolic health benefits.
While turmeric is filled with a variety of potential health-boosting compounds, the overwhelming majority of its known benefits have been largely attributed to the polyphenol curcumin. While curcumin is one of the most popular adaptogen supplements, the unfortunate reality is that it is limited by very poor solubility and bioavailability. In other words, traditional curcumin struggles with very low absorption.
CurcuWIN®, an enhanced turmeric extract found in Ageless Body®, has been shown to enhance absorption and longevity more than ordinary curcumin, the powerful antioxidant associated with the benefits of turmeric.
Additional Beneficial Adaptogens
There are a number of other adaptogens to choose from, including:
- Astragalus: An herb believed to have powerful immune-boosting properties especially for folks who have recently experienced an illness.
- Chaga: An antioxidant-rich mushroom believed to help slow the aging process, support the immune system, and help the body fight sickness.
- Rhaponicum: Another antioxidant-rich root, believed to support cell health to keep you young and vibrant while stimulating brain activity.
- Jiaogulan: By supporting the body’s natural antioxidant defenses (i.e., production of superoxide dismutase), it may help protect against premature aging.
- Mucuna pruriens: A bean extract that may support lower stress levels.
- Licorice: Not just a naturally sweet treat, this root may also support lower stress levels as well as soothe digestion and promote a healthy gut.
- Schisandra: A berry that may help attenuate adrenal fatigue.
- Lion’s mane: Another powerful mushroom that may help protect the brain and reduce brain fog for clearer thinking. It may also support a positive mood.
- Turkey tail: Yet another medicinal mushroom, turkey tail may support a healthy immune system and a healthy gut microbiome.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Adaptogens
As promising and exciting as they are, before diving into the sea of adaptogens, your first step is to address what’s causing your stress in the first place. Do you need to learn how to say, “NO”? Do you need to do a better job delegating? Can you find ways to avoid or reduce the stress? For example, if traffic is a big stressor for you, can you switch to mass transit, carpool, adjust your start and stop time for reduced traffic, or find a new route to work?
The next is to help your body better cope with stress by ensuring you are exercising regularly, getting adequate restorative sleep, practicing proven stress-management techniques (e.g., meditating, practicing mindfulness, and deep breathing), and being honest about what you’re putting into your body (e.g., excessive stimulants, low-quality processed foods).
And last but not least, take a look at the variety of adaptogens and choose the one(s) that may be most suitable to your particular situation. Increase your likelihood of remembering to incorporate the adaptogen into your routine by attaching it to something you already do. For example, “After I finish breakfast in the morning, I’ll take my adaptogen supplement(s).” Or, “After I add my protein powder to my daily smoothie, I’ll add a serving of the adaptogens.” Or, “After I clear the dinner table, I make a cup of adaptogen tea.”
Some adaptogens, such as mushroom coffees or teas, can be super easy to incorporate, as they can fit easily and seamlessly into your current routine in place of something you’re already doing.
While some adaptogens can have powerful acute effects, others may take a few weeks to build up in the body before their body-balancing properties manifest. So, give it time—it may be two to four weeks before you start to notice improvements. You may not want to get in a rut with the same adaptogen, though. While adaptogens are generally safe, some experts recommend “cycling” adaptogens—either rotating adaptogens every few weeks or giving your body a break every so often (e.g., five days on, two days off; three weeks on, one week off). This may also help you better determine which one(s) work best for you. Of course, if you feel the constant need for adaptogens, it may be a sign that you once again need to take inventory of your stress and lifestyle.
You can also take more than one adaptogen at a time—especially during particularly stressful times. For example, you could take a supplement that provides a number of adaptogens or take a supplement that contains Rhodiola rosea (like Brain Bright) in the morning and a supplement that contains Ashwagandha (like Ageless Body) in the afternoon or early evening and finish the day with a cup of tulsi tea.
You may also want to work with a nutritionist or healthcare provider with experience to help you determine the best usage for you. And of course, make sure you’re following the usage instructions so you don’t get too much of a good thing. Again, adaptogens are generally considered safe, but we’re all individuals, so it’s important to observe how we each react and don’t overdo it.
What Are Adaptogens: A Wrap Up
Yes, life can be stressful—sometimes much more than others. Yet there are plenty of reliable tools you can grab from the stress-management toolbox to better deal with whatever life throws at you. For example, you can meditate, start a deep breathing practice, practice yoga, forest bathe, exercise, improve social connections, practice mindfulness, and/or take advantage of some of the numerous, time-tested, evidence-based adaptogens!