What adaptogens are—and aren’t, how they work, and why we love them, though not more than any other classification of herbs—is the single most common topic I’ve been asked to explain in my career as an herbalist. I welcome it! A few points drive my enthusiasm for continuing to teach on this topic: 1. Adaptogens are so dang popular. That popularity is raising awareness about the wider world of herbs and their incredible applicability to modern life. 2. Adaptogens are largely misunderstood, by both brands and consumers alike.
Let’s set the record straight right away. The following substances (not all are plants) are true adaptogens. Any other substance (and I do mean any) not on this list is not an adaptogen. That doesn’t make it any less incredible than it was before you read this, and I mean that; you just understand it better now (or, you will when you get to the end of this piece).
What is an adaptogen?
An adaptogen is “a substance that assists a living organism to adapt to environmental, physical, or psychological stress1.” To be an adaptogen, a substance must be non-toxic in therapeutic doses, non-specific, and systemically normalizing. The ingredients work through the HPA-axis and SAS (sympathetic nervous system( to help mitigate the negative effects of stress (cortisol-induced mitochondrial dysfunction) and improve our resilience (ability to respond to and recover from) stress.
That definition makes it very clear why adaptogens are so popular. Now, let’s expand some minds. The term adaptogens is not a synonym for herbs. If that is all you take away from this piece, I will be very happy. Herbs are the ~30,000 botanical ingredients available for us to use for medicinal purposes. Turmeric, tea, passionflower, chamomile, coffee, tobacco, lavender, sage, mint, cacao, and yes mushrooms like chaga and turkey tail … all herbs (and fungi). The world’s medicinal herbs are organized into categories based on how they affect us.
Think stimulants and nootropics, sedatives, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, anxiolytics (stress easers), analgesics (pain support), antispasmodics (muscle relaxers), psychedelics or entheogens, and nervines (herbs that specifically benefit the nervous system).
All of those actions are very specific. Passionflower works specifically on the nervous system to support a state of peace (and is the go-to herb for recursive thoughts, aka a monkey mind). Adaptogens, as you may recall, are non-specific. They work a bit like a thermostat; adjusting levels up and down as needed in order to maintain homeostasis. That balancing effect is the “normalizing” part of their definition. They are not stimulants and they are not sedatives; they want us to be our very best normal selves. This is why ashwagandha can help lower high cortisol levels but won’t have the same effect on someone whose levels are already healthy. Here is a comprehensive list of true adaptogens.
List of True Adaptogens2:
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Panax ginseng
- Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis)
- Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
- Shilajit (Asphaltum punjabianum)
How to use adaptogens
Professionally, I use adaptogens to help folks recover from feelings of burnout or help improve their athletic performance. They generally need to be used regularly (daily) for long periods of time (months or more) to reach full effect. Using one adaptogen, one time is a bit like eating kale salad once. Consistency, along with lifestyle changes (which are major), is key. We don’t recommend adaptogens to help people endure the stress of poor work-life balance because this only delays the inevitable (burnout) and can make us less able to sense when we’ve hit the wall. It’s similar to upping caffeine intake while being in denial about exhaustion. Using herbs to medicate symptoms (rather than addressing causes) is only slightly better than doing it with non-natural methods.
I also use adaptogens as a foundation beneath specific herbs that treat peoples’ specific needs. For quick nervous system relief, I like nervine herbs. Nervines, like chamomile, for daily chill plus nootropics like lion’s mane and turmeric for memory, focus, and concentration. Turmeric for its too-many-benefits-to-count and sedatives like valerian for sleep. Let a blend of normalizers work in the background while a specific mix of herbs fit like a lock-and-key into your routine. And, always and forever, nutrition and lifestyle (sleep, exercise, mental health) matter most of all. Any great herbalist will say the same.
One of the misconceptions about herbalism is that there isn’t science to support the claims. While there’s plenty yet to learn (30,000 plants, each with dozens if not hundreds of individual compounds, is a ton to study), there are also a lot of studies available freely online with more every year—especially after the pandemic spiked interest in natural supplements.
Research on adaptogens really got going after the 1940s, which is when the term was created. Here’s a look at some of the popular adaptogenic herbs and how, scientifically, they work their magic:
3 Adaptogens to Know
Three of the nine true adaptogens are from the ginseng family. They range from mildly stimulating to very stimulating and are generally used for people of different ages or life stages. Eleuthero (the herb formerly known as Siberian ginseng), found in our formulas Slay All Day™, Blue Me Away™, and Rosé-Tinted Glasses™, is the least stimulating and used most commonly for young people under temporary, uncommon stress (a.k.a. it's Finals Week). American ginseng is considered nourishing and mildly stimulating whereas Panax or “Asian ginseng” is the most energizing and typically reserved for folks over age 60. “The molecular and cellular mechanisms of Panax ginseng include modulating monoamine neurotransmitter system, upregulating the expression of neurotrophic factors, regulating the function of HPA axis, and anti-inflammatory action3.” Translation: Ginseng works, in part, by regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, normalizing the body's stress response, keeping an eye on the cellular health of our nervous system, and reducing inflammation.
The most popular adaptogen lately by a long shot, is a calming adaptogen called Ashwagandha. Found in our herbal formulas, Seal the Deal™ and Chill the F* Out™, this adaptogen is used for weakness and fatigue—though also to support muscle tone and strength, cardiorespiratory endurance, the 4, and more (there is always an “and more” when it comes to herbs. No one is good for only one thing.) Like all adaptogens, ashwagandha works through the HPA-axis6 that has shown “significant anti-stress activity against acute models of experimental stress5".⁶
Playing the villain in the apocalyptic show The Last of Us is actually a calming adaptogen used to nourish our endocrine (hormone), immune, nervous, and other systems. Although cordyceps creepily possesses caterpillars, in humans, it’s nothing but nice. Found in our herbal formula, You Dew You®, herbalists love it for supporting recovery, sleep quality, and athletic performance (my personal favorite). One clinical trial saw it prevent overtraining and reduce oxidative stress7 in athletes (over the course of three months). It’s been proven to be beneficial for high-altitude training8 (improved aerobic performance and decreased fatigue) and when used long-term, for improving Vo2max, time to exhaustion, and the ventilatory threshold during high-intensity exercise⁶.
Thanks for joining me on this journey into adaptogens. Sharing what you’ve learned with friends or strangers is highly encouraged, as is working in more of these great herbs—adaptogens and beyond—into your daily groove. They’re only magic in the way that brilliant and powerful nature is, and there’s always more.