Adaptogens are having a moment and they’re here to stay. The powerful plants are standouts for helping with everything from stress, energy, brain fog, and more. Often, you hear adaptogens mentioned as a way to balance the body and adapt to life’s stressors. And they do! But while they share some things in common, the term “adaptogen” encompasses a wide range of plants and fungi, each with unique effects. For example, while some adaptogens are fantastic at supporting immunity others excel at lifting mood and banishing brain fog. So, they’re not one-size-fits-all.
The good news: Most people can benefit from adaptogens, which are quite safe—you just need to figure out what ones will benefit you the most. Here, we break down exactly what an adaptogen is and some top picks from doctors and herbalists for immunity, hormone balance, mood, and more.
What are adaptogens?
The term adaptogen refers to certain herbs and mushrooms that have a unique balancing effect on the body. They help you react to and recover from physical, mental, and environmental stressors and restore homeostasis by adapting their functions to your body’s specific needs. For example, the same adaptogen may have a calming effect on one person or a subtly energizing effect on another. Adaptogens are also considered non-specific, meaning their effect is widespread and influences many bodily systems.
“When people go through stress, they can feel it in so many different places in the body—some might get migraines, some might get an anxious stomach, some might get joint pain,” says Sara-Chana Silverstein, RH (AHG), IBCLC, master herbalist and author of Moodtopia. “Adaptogens seem to go where they’re needed in the body based on how stress affects you, whereas non-adaptogenic herbs and drugs tend to fulfill a specific role or target a specific area every time.”
The proposed benefits of adaptogens may be subtle, but research suggests they do, in fact, exist. According to Silverstein, they’re a great option for people who need a little support for low moods, fatigue, poor focus, or frequent infections, but whose symptoms aren’t necessarily severe enough to require an actual prescription medication. And while the science isn’t always clear on the exact mechanisms of action through which they work, it’s widely believed that adaptogens help regulate the production of cortisol—one of the body’s main stress hormones. (More on that mechanism in the next section.)
Even though adaptogens are experiencing a surge in popularity, they’re not new—many have been staples of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds if not thousands of years, even though they weren’t always referred to as adaptogens. The term “adaptogen” dates back to the 1940s or so when researchers in Siberia were looking for ways to keep soldiers and workers more productive and resilient in extreme climates, according to Lise Alschuler, ND, naturopathic physician and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Arizona School of Medicine. This prompted research into plant medicines, which eventually led to the classification of local plants like Siberian ginseng and Rhodiola rosea as adaptogens. From there, other plants have been categorized as adaptogens as well, based on their similar properties.
How do adaptogenic herbs work?
Every adaptogen is different, so each will have slightly different ways in which they achieve their full range of unique benefits. However, there does seem to be some overlap between most adaptogens—and that’s their effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis.
When you experience stress (whether that’s a looming deadline, someone cutting you off in traffic, or any type of perceived or real danger), the body responds in the same basic way—the HPA axis fires up and prompts the release of hormones, including cortisol, that prepare your body to take on the stressor.
Over time, if stress levels are chronically elevated and the HPA axis is constantly activated, cortisol becomes chronically elevated, too, “and with that, the cells throughout our body become resistant to cortisol,” Alschuler explained on a recent episode of the Body of Wonder podcast. “Under this constant barrage of cortisol, we start to experience more inflammation. We start to, over decades, actually degrade the quality of our tissues. We can develop digestive issues, joint disorders, even cognitive issues and mood disorders.”
So where do adaptogens come in exactly? Adaptogens can essentially hit the reset button and help our bodies turn off or rebalance the HPA axis system, thus helping curb the downstream effects of an out-of-control stress response—whatever that might look like for you.
Additionally, some research shows that certain adaptogens help improve our ability to make ATP (a molecule that provides energy to cells) and have a protective effect against oxidative stress, which can be beneficial in terms of improved physical and mental energy and healthy aging.
Wondering what herbs and medicinal mushrooms you’ve heard of fit into the category of adaptogens? Below is a list of some of the most common and widely available adaptogens on the market. Many can be found in supplement blends, stand-alone capsules or tinctures, teas or powders, or packaged beverages.
- American Ginseng
- Asian Ginseng
- Eleuthero (or Siberian ginseng)
- Gotu Kola
- Licorice Root
- Lion’s Mane
- Maca Root
- Rhodiola Rosea
- Schisandra Berry
- Tulsi (or Holy Basil)
- Turkey Tail
Check out these adaptogen benefits to choose the best one for you.
Below, we dive into the research-supported health benefits of a variety of adaptogens. Just keep in mind, this is not an exhaustive list of all adaptogens or their benefits. So it’s always a great idea to consult a medical professional, registered dietician, or herbalist to guide you toward your ideal adaptogen or adaptogen combo if you’re unsure.
Adaptogens for energy
- Rhodiola rosea is a stimulating adaptogen that’s beneficial if you’re feeling tired or worn down. Research suggests it works on a cellular level to enhance energy by improving synthesis of ATP within mitochondria. In one animal study, rhodiola improved endurance during a period of prolonged, exhaustive swimming. As you’ll learn below, these energizing effects extend to mental tasks, too.
- Cordyceps is a medicinal mushroom that may help improve endurance. In one study, after two weeks of high altitude training, people who also took a supplement containing a combo of cordyceps and rhodiola were able to run for a significantly longer period of time than a placebo group. Cordyceps alone has also been shown to improve exercise performance and support fatigue recovery in animals.
- Eleuthero, or Siberian ginseng, has stimulant properties and has been used extensively in China, Russia, and Japan to curb stress and fight both physical and mental fatigue. In one animal study, eleuthero consumption significantly increased the time mice could spend swimming before they became exhausted by lessening the buildup of lactic acid and blood urea nitrogen, and increasing the utilization of fat as fuel. HUM’s Uber Energy contains eleuthero to restore and re-energize the body.
Adaptogens for brain fog and focus
- Rhodiola rosea can be quite beneficial for someone who has brain fog or fatigue that makes it difficult to accomplish mental tasks. It subtly stimulates the body and the brain, giving you a nice mental lift that doesn’t leave you feeling buzzed like coffee can, says Silverstein. In one study, continued use of rhodiola extract was found to exert an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance and concentration in people suffering from stress-related fatigue. HUM’s supplement Big Chill includes rhodiola extract in amounts that have been clinically shown to help the body manage stress for an enhanced sense of calm and focus.
- Lion’s mane is a mushroom with beneficial effects on cognition and the nervous system. It’s been used to help treat cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease; and bioactive compounds within Lion’s mane promote the expression of nerve growth factors that are important for optimal brain function.
- Eleuthero, as mentioned above, has stimulating properties and appears to have benefits for both physical and mental fatigue.
Adaptogens for stress and mood
- Tulsi, a.k.a. holy basil, has a positive effect on mood and mental health. Silverstein frequently uses it with her clients that are experiencing low mood. “In India, they believe that holy basil is a holy herb that can work on healing the spirit or the soul.” One clinical trial on tulsi found that it was beneficial for alleviating generalized anxiety disorder in people, along with associated symptoms.
- Rhodiola is energizing, as detailed above, and may benefit people who feel lethargic or low-energy, says Alschuler. When taken in clinically-studied amounts, like that in Big Chill, it helps balance adrenals for an improved response to stress.
- Schisandra berry helps “turn worriers into warriors,” according to Alschuler. That is, if you fret excessively about the future to the point that you feel paralyzed, this adaptogen may help. Research on animals suggests that beneficial compounds called lignans present in schisandra help combat stress-induced anxiety, while others suggest it has antidepressant and cognitive-enhancing perks.
- Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce the body’s physiological response to stress, supporting healthy levels of cortisol during stressful situations among people who take it, making it beneficial for stress. You can find a well-studied and patented extract of ashwagandha in HUM’s vegan gummy, Calm Sweet Calm. Ashwagandha can also help restore stamina and energy on a deep level, and even help promote restful sleep—which is why it’s best taken in the afternoon or evening.
Adaptogens for immune health
- Astragalus is a great option if you tend to get every cold and flu going around. According to Alschuler, it should be taken between bouts of illness, not during active infection, and it works by “upregulating immune cells [like macrophages] that attack invading microorganisms.” It’s often recommended for respiratory infections, allergies, and asthma as well.
- Adaptogenic mushrooms (reishi, cordyceps, shiitake, maitake, turkey tail, chaga) are an immune-boosting favorite and nearly all have been shown to possess impressive antiviral properties. For example, cordyceps has been shown to possess anti-influenza properties, possibly as a result of increasing activity of the immune system’s natural killer (NK) cells. Reishi has also been shown to help combat many viruses (from herpes to hepatitis). Silverstein loves using reishi for its immunomodulating properties—meaning, whether your immune system is overactive or underactive, reishi can help bring it back toward a healthy middle.
Adaptogens for hormone balance
- Ashwagandha has been shown to have gentle thyroid-supporting properties. “I use ashwagandha specifically for people who have low thyroid who are just on the cusp of having a clinical diagnosis for hypothyroidism,” says Silverstein, noting that it can help with any symptoms related to low thyroid hormones such as hair loss, feeling cold, brain fog, and generally feeling sluggish. In one study, supplementing with ashwagandha for eight weeks significantly improved blood levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), T3, and T4 compared to a placebo. Additionally, ashwagandha may support healthy testosterone levels in men.
- Maca root may have a positive effect on sex hormones. One study found that women taking a daily dose had a reduction in menopausal symptoms like night sweats and hot flashes, which are typically caused by fluctuating estrogen levels. Maca has also been associated with a subtle boost in sex drive.
When to try adaptogens
For most people, there’s really no wrong time to try an adaptogen. Keep in mind, the best adaptogen or adaptogens for one person won’t necessarily be the best ones for you—and your needs may change over time. (For instance, not all will be safe for use during pregnancy.)
Adaptogens can be beneficial when you’re stressed, tired, and generally feeling unbalanced. “Most of us would benefit from having an adaptogen or adaptogens in our daily life,” says Alschuler. “That’s primarily because the degree and nature of stress that we each now experience in this world is pretty unheard of.”
And although specific safety concerns will depend on the particular adaptogen, both Silverstein and Alschuler agree that many are considered very safe for long-term use. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you’re purchasing your adaptogens or adaptogen blend supplements from a reputable brand, such as HUM Nutrition, with good safety and testing practices and that uses clinically proven ingredients in amounts that have been studied.