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Adaptogens: What Are They and How Do They Work?

By Zak Williams

Adaptogens: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Key Takeaways

  • What Are Adaptogens?

  • How Do Adaptogens Work?

  • Where Can You Find Adaptogens?

  • How Are Adaptogens Used?

You may have heard the term "adaptogens" being used in reference to health benefits for overall well-being, or maybe you've seen it on labels of certain wellness products. But, do you know what they are or how they work? If not, then continue reading on as we get into more detail about adaptogens. 

Adaptogens may sound like a newer term, and in some cases, it may sound complex, but it is not. In fact, adaptogens can appear in natural as well as manufactured forms. This means that it is naturally-occurring in certain plants and can be extracted for use in other items or processed in a way that allows for general consumption.

What Are Adaptogens?

In the most basic sense of the word, adaptogens are a specific group of plants, mainly herbs and mushrooms, that are said to be able to support the body's ability to fight stress. These herbs or plants are non-toxic and have been used for centuries in Chinese herbal medicine and Indian Ayurvedic traditions. 

As societies begin to reconnect with ancient practices and as holistic healing practices become the norm, more and more people are turning to herbalist practices, opting to use herbal supplements that contain adaptogens for healing and relief. While adaptogens mostly refer to herbs, some mushrooms may also be considered adaptogens.

How Do Adaptogens Work?

So, we know that adaptogens are herbs and select mushrooms that may help support our body's stress response. But, how does this work? Well, before we can explain how adaptogens work for stress relief, let’s examine stress itself and its components. 

Stress is essentially a feeling of emotional or physical tension. Stress is a natural bodily reaction and it can be positive or negative. In some cases, stress may help us to be cautious and alert in response to danger (positive), and in other cases, it may be debilitating (negative). To explain this further, we will look at general adaptation syndrome, which is a series of physical changes that occur in the body due to elevated levels of stress. 


General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS):

  1. Alarm or reaction stage: This is the first process that takes place. As a natural reaction to acute stress, our sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the release of certain hormones. This is known as the fight or flight response in which our body is on alert to either protect ourselves (fight) or flee in a particular situation (flight). Here, cortisol (the main stress hormone) is released, and people may notice a seeming boost in energy levels from released adrenaline, often paired with increased heart rate as well. 

  2. Resistance stage: In this stage, the body begins to repair itself from the fight or flight event.  On the one hand, your body may still be in alert mode for a while, and continues to release minor amounts of cortisol. But as things begin to calm and the stressor is reduced, the hormone levels begin to decrease. On the other hand, the situation may persist and the body is not able to reduce cortisol levels. In this instance, your body adapts to the stress and you essentially learn to live with elevated stress levels. If this continues to persist, some may get to the next level. 

  3. Exhaustion: This stage occurs when there has been prolonged stress or in some cases chronic stress. Here a person may become weighed down by stress and this can lead to health issues  such as burnout, depression, anxiety, and fatigue.  

With adaptogens, the body has a way to help alleviate stress. Adaptogens work by essentially helping us to better adapt to stress in a way that allows us to get our bodies back to overall wellness. We essentially stay in the resistance phase as opposed to getting to exhaustion where we crash. By this, we are able to resist the negative effects of stress and eventually recover. 

This also means that adaptogens work to help with the management of cortisol levels. Since cortisol is the main stress hormone, a reduction in those levels often means a reduction in stress levels, and all the other aspects that may be elevated such as heart rate. For this reason, many people have been using adaptogens to help with stress relief and improving their well-being. 

Please also note that while this knowledge is commonly shared, more research into the topic is still forthcoming.

Where Can You Find Adaptogens?

Now that we know what adaptogens are and how adaptogens work, let’s explore some varieties of adaptogenic herbs. 

As mentioned, adaptogens are plants such as herbs and mushrooms. While many of these plants are native to parts of Asia, they can still be commonly found in the West at local health food stores. 


Some of the main sources of adaptogens are: 

  • Holy basil - This is a common herb that many people use as a spice in soups and other dishes. Within Eastern medicine, holy basil , also known as tulsi, is an important herb said to have many benefits that can help the body manage stress and help to maintain digestive health.¬†

  • Ashwagandha root - This is a traditional Indian herb also called Indian Ginseng. This herb is commonly found as supplements and is the main herb that people talk about when discussing adaptogens. It is said to be effective in improving overall mental health, especially in terms of alleviating feelings of anxiousness or sadness.

  • Reishi- Reishi is a type of mushroom commonly sold as a powder that has been used to improve immune system health, help in alleviating stress, reducing feelings of tiredness, and in some cases helping to improve circulatory health.¬†

  • Eleuthero coccus senticosus or Siberian ginseng - This adaptogen is one of the most researched herbs for stress-relieving properties. This herb is said to be good for a variety of support within the body, including sleep health and metabolic health. It is also said to help improve athletic performance and provide support to immune system.¬†

  • Licorice - This is a great antioxidant plant. It is often used to support adrenal gland function, especially in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal pathway, as well as supporting the endocrine system in general.¬†

  • Rhodiola Rosea - This is an adaptogenic herb that can help restore wakefulness and alertness when experiencing occasional fatigue. It also helps to reduce feelings of stress, mental tiredness, and burnout, which generally come in the exhaustive stage of stress. While research is still forthcoming, some studies have confirmed benefits of Rhodiola for stress management.¬†

Other beneficial adaptogenic herbs you may notice in an ingredient list include panax ginseng/schisandra, maca, turmeric, and the cordyceps mushroom.

How Are Adaptogens Used?

People use adaptogens in a lot of ways. Being that adaptogens are select herbs, many people are already accustomed to using them as a part of everyday life. In other cases, people may get adaptogens in supplements that contain it as an ingredient or as the only component.

Here are some common ways you can use or access adaptogens.

Cooking the herb or adding it to meals

Some of the adaptogen herbs can be used in everyday cooking and food preparation. For instance, many people use holy basil in soups or sauces for a peppery taste. Before preparing any meals, you can try to find recipes that call for the specific herbs which you would like to use.

Consuming them as supplements 

Many of the herbs mentioned are sold as supplements. These supplements can be just the herb in capsules similar to vitamins, or it can be as an ingredient in certain manufactured products. 

For instance, PYM's mood chews are made with natural herbs and adaptogens such as Rhodiola which can help to manage stress. You may also find ashwagandha supplements and licorice supplements, among many others, in health food stores. 

It is important to remember that although the products may contain the adaptogens, most of them are not made with the intention to treat any conditions or provide a cure to health problems. Thus, the responsibility is on you to do your research and make informed decisions to balance out possible benefits and side effects of supplements you're interested in.

Brewing herbs into teas or tisanes 

Many of the herbs can be brewed into herbal teas or tisanes. Here, you are infusing the herbs into water and drinking it. Research how to make herbal teas with any specific herb of choice.

‚ÄčAdding herbs to smoothies or lattes

You may also find many of the herbs in powered forms. These powders can be added to smoothies, shakes, and even lattes! There are countless smoothie recipes available for you to try, so it's definitely worth looking into as an easy way to add adaptogens into your regular routine.

In Summary

Many people may hear the term adaptogens in conversations that address stress management and wellness. Although commonly heard, many people still wonder what adaptogens even are. The research tells us that adaptogens are select herbs and mushrooms that are used to help with stress management. These are natural options that work to reduce cortisol levels in the body. 

Although adaptogen herbs are native to parts of Asia, many may now be found in health food stores or as a part of supplements. 

As research into adaptogens is still forthcoming, it seems to be in a positive light as select benefits of certain types have been confirmed. So, as you work to manage your health and well-being, remember to make the best decision for your health based on your own interpretation of any presented findings. Also, remember that you can Prepare Your Mind.