Adaptogens: Why These Superherbs Are Getting Major Hype in the Wellness World
Everything you need to know about adaptogens — including how and when to take them.
Adaptogens are natural stress busters
Adaptogens protect the body from the toxic effects of stress, which includes anything from illness to intense workouts to straight-up stress. If feeling stressed and fatigued is your default mode, nature has a solution, according to Frank Lipman, MD, author of How to Be Well and founder of Be Well. "Adaptogens are a unique group of herbal ingredients used to improve the health of your adrenal system, the system that's in charge of managing your body's hormonal response to stress," he explains. "They help strengthen the body's response to stress and enhance its ability to cope with anxiety and fight fatigue—slowly and gently, without jolts or crashes."
Many of the substances that are considered adaptogens have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda to boost energy, improve mood, and help alleviate stress for centuries, and are just now being studied by researchers—with some promising results. "They're called adaptogens because of their unique ability to 'adapt' their function according to your body's specific needs," Dr. Lipman explains. As with any supplement, you should consult your doctor before taking an adaptogen; this is doubly true if you're pregnant or breastfeeding. Read on for 12 of these superherbs to add to your diet.
"Panax ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng or P. ginseng, may be the best-known adaptogen," notes Arti Lakhani, MD, medical director of the Integrative Oncology Program at the AMITA Health Cancer Institute. "It is commonly used to combat low energy, especially in the elderly who are recovering from illness or those with poor immune function." There's also American ginseng, which is considered to be more calming than the Asian variety, and may be beneficial for those with anxiety, she says. Research shows that it can help improve working memory and induce a feeling of calm.
Most adaptogens come in a variety of forms: teas, tonics, tinctures or extracts you can mix with water, tablets similar to supplements, or powders you can mix into a smoothie. Ultimately, how you take an adaptogen comes down to personal preference; Dr. Lakhani prefers tinctures and extracts or supplement pills because the doses are more exact. It's worth noting that adaptogens are generally safe. "Adaptogens tend to have minimal side effects and drug interactions," she says. "They are powerful but slow-acting, so benefits are seen after a few weeks."
Rhodiola rosea, a flowering plant that grows in North America and Europe, helps to regulate the stress hormone cortisol. Dr. Lipman believes that cortisol levels can be out of whack when you're stressed out and exhausted. "Cortisol levels are either too high when they should be low or not high enough when we need more." Rhodiola can help, he says. "That's why this herb is particularly useful for treating my stressed out clients."
There are both capsule and powder formulations available, and most practitioners recommend taking it in the morning since it can have a stimulating effect.
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"For decades, scientists have been studying the stress-busting impact of ashwagandha, often referred to as Indian ginseng, because it stabilizes cortisol levels and improves stress resistance in clinical trials," says Josh Axe, DNM, CNS, DC, founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com. This adaptogen is a true multi-tasker: "Various studies have found that it improves cognition and memory, self-assessed quality of life, thyroid level balance, and maybe even male-pattern baldness in women (related to hormone levels including cortisol)." Most people take ashwagandha in capsule form, Dr. Axe says.
"Also known as tulsi, this is a popular Ayurvedic adaptogenic herb used to lower stress," Dr. Axe says. "Three compounds in this herb help to lower blood corticosterone (a stress hormone), improve neurotransmitter function, and reduce stress parameters in a lab setting."
This is one of the few adaptogens that may be best to consume via tea. "Using holy basil in recipes or to make tulsi tea or juice are often daily practices throughout India," Dr. Axe says. "Personally, I enjoy tulsi tea with a little bit of lemon and stevia. Holy basil can also be used in both essential oil and supplement form."
Though researchers haven't studied this South African succulent as thoroughly as other adaptogens, they have early results that are clearly positive, says Jeffrey Gladd, MD, a scientific advisor for the personalized nutrition site Care/of. "Kanna has been shown to promote a sense of well being and stress relief," he says. It can help prevent overstimulation in study participants faced with stress, he explains, and there are noticeable mood-elevating benefits. The only caveat? "Because Kanna can produce effects similar to antidepressants, those currently on prescription antidepressants should avoid starting supplementation until they have spoken to their healthcare provider."
This is a popular adaptogen used in Chinese medicine, says Dr. Axe. "It's used to increase energy and endurance, boost immunity, and protect the thymus gland from excessive cortisol damage. When it comes to reducing stress responses, licorice root has been observed to regulate cortisol levels, help prevent ulcers and reduce high male hormone levels (androgen and testosterone) in women.
"When possible, try sticking to DGL (deglycyrrhizinated) licorice," Dr. Axe recommends. "This will reduce your exposure to glycyrrhizin, a compound in licorice root that seems to be responsible for the known side effects," he says. They're rare, but they include edema, high blood pressure, low potassium levels, and chronic fatigue."
Astralagus, originally from China, is one of the most important herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It can help with fatigue, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and strengthen the immune system, Dr. Lakhani says. "It is also recommended for people who easily get upper respiratory infections." You can get the root dried and slice it into soups and stews; or find it in capsules or as an extract.
Mushrooms are very trendy right now, and with good reason. "Cordyceps and other mushroom species help improve and optimize adrenal activity and the stress response, especially in depleted states," explains Amy Chadwick, ND, a licensed naturopathic doctor at Four Moons Spa. Cordyceps are also very helpful in supporting immune system activity, she says, which means they may help prevent you from getting sick. Plus, they're good for your gut and that can help your brain: "Mushrooms, in general, have a positive effect on the microbiome, and support cellular activity by improving efficiency and energy." Most adaptogenic mushrooms are available in powder form, which can easily be added to soups or smoothies, but they're also available in tinctures and capsules.
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For those dealing with mental health struggles, this could be an interesting option to explore: "Aconitum napellus is a flowering plant that is typically native to western and central parts of Europe," says Edmond Sarraf, MD, an integrative physician and medical expert for Genexa. It can help with acute stress, agitation, and hypersensitivity, he says. "I like to prescribe it in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy and deep breathing or mindfulness meditation therapy."
A true energy booster, this root is harvested from the Andes mountains in Peru. "It has tremendous benefits for boosting energy when the body is fatigued or run down," says Sean McCaffrey, DC, of McCaffrey Health Clinic. "It also helps to balance hormone function in both men and women. It's been found to increase sperm count in men and sex drive in both men and women."
"In Peru, they eat the actual plant like a vegetable," he says, but in the U.S. it's mainly seen in capsule form or as a powder that can be added to food.
Passion flowers are more than a pretty bloom: "Passiflora has been used as a treatment for years to help treat stress and restless sleep," Dr. Sarraf says. "I like this adaptogen because it is safe and does not interfere with the hormonal axis of the brain." It can be taken as a tincture, a tea, an essential oil, or in a capsule.
For a brain and body boost, try Bacopa monnieri, suggests Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof. He points to research suggesting the herb can reduce the effects of physiological stress—such as vigorous exercise—especially when taken in advance. "It improves memory in both healthy people and those experiencing cognitive decline," he says. Some studies suggest it may also help boost learning, memory acquisition, and recall.