What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are natural substances that work with a person’s body and help them adapt; most notably, to stress. Adaptogens are a natural ally in dealing with persistent stress and fatigue because they work with regulating important hormones.
Adaptogens offer several other health benefits, including…
- A boost for the immune system
- Support for managing a healthy weight
- Increased physical endurance and mental focus
- Reduction in discomfort caused by poor health
- Encouraging a balanced mood
All these benefits can come from something as simple as adding adaptogens into your regular diet. While there are a number of ways to increase your adaptogen intake, consuming adaptogenic herbs is arguably one of the best.
14 Powerful Adaptogenic Herbs
There are a number of naturally adaptogenic herbs that you might consider trying on for size. They can be taken in capsulated supplement form, brewed in teas, or simply cut up and used to spice up a meal. For maximum health benefits, it’s best to include a healthy variety of these herbs in your diet. Here are some of the most popular adaptogenic herbs and their traditional uses.
1. Asian Ginseng
This herb, also called Panax Ginseng, supports physical endurance, mental clarity, and has antioxidant properties that support heart health and your immune system. Studies show it’s safe to consume.
2. Holy Basil
A member of the mint family, this herb has soothing properties and has been used for centuries for good health. Its antioxidant properties support heart health and normal lipid profiles. It’s also a powerful weapon against stress.
3. Milk Thistle
The active compound in milk thistle, silymarin, supports liver health and metabolism that helps manage the hormones associated with stress.
Also called Indian Ginseng, studies from India shows that those who take this herb enjoy dramatic improvements in how they handle – and feel – stress. It’s also taken to keep the mind sharp, and for energy.
5. Rhodiola Rosea
This herb is popular among the Sherpas who work on Mt. Everest because of the way it supports regular energy levels and fights altitude sickness. Studies also show it helps encourage normal cortisol levels as well as energy levels.
6. Ginseng Eleuthero
Commonly called Siberian Ginseng, the Eleutherococcus senticous is known for not only its adaptogenic properties but also as a natural energy booster.
You’ve probably used rosemary in your cooking, but this herb does a lot more than add flavor and fragrance to your meals. Research shows two of its compounds, caffeic acid and rosmarinic acid, support heart, digestive, and liver health. Traditional medicine from around the world has used it for centuries to relieve stress.
8. Aloe Vera
Researchers have taken renewed interest in aloe vera as a powerful herb and superfood. Two of its compounds, acemannan and aloctin A, support immune and adrenal health.
9. Gotu Kola
Long used in both traditional Indian and Chinese medicines, this herb stimulates blood flow, helps reduce swelling, and is a powerful antioxidant.
The Chinese have used astragalus traditionally to encourage good health and fight stress. Its active compound, called TAT2, protects against aging, supports detoxification, and is nutrition for the kidneys.
11. Moringa Oleifera
The seeds, leaves, roots, and oils of the Moringa Oleifera plant are used throughout Southeast Asia an ingredient in many common dishes. As part of traditional medicine, it supports the immune response, eases swelling, and promotes energy and adrenal health.
This herb has been used in traditional Chinese Medicine to promote good health and overall wellness. Research shows it has powerful antioxidant properties that help your body stay balanced.
This popular Ayurvedic herb has been used for centuries to support brain health like memory, focus, and thinking.
14. Licorice Root
This herb has traditionally been used to promote many aspects of wellness, including normal metabolic function.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Now that we’ve mentioned some common herbal sources for adaptogens, let’s take a look at how adaptogens actually work. First of all, it’s important to understand that stress is only meant to exist in short bursts. It is a hormonal response that may have been responsible for helping some of your own ancestors escape from hungry lions (or maybe even face them!). Think about stress as what is commonly called your “fight or flight” response.
Today, most of us don’t have to worry so much about lions. However, most modern-day stresses are ongoing. When your adrenal system remains in a constant active state, it throws your body out of balance. Constant stress can wreak havoc on your body, especially on your digestive system and energy levels.
Adaptogenic compounds help mitigate the stress response. They work to bring the hormones of your adrenal system back into balance and overcome adrenal fatigue, a common condition of chronic stress. Studies show adaptogens like Rhodiola Rosea and Schisandra reduce the presence and effect of stress hormones. In this way, they help endurance during physical stress like exercise and return your body to normal when you’re faced with chronic stress.
Think of adaptogens like a thermostat. The keep your body’s stress response at a desirable level, much like the way a thermostat keeps the temperature from becoming too high or too low. They’re good for you all the time, not just when you have a high level of stress.
Adaptogens have broad-ranging effects, but this is mostly because they affect adrenal hormone secretion. In general, we can think of adaptogenic herbs this way: they set an “upper limit” on the signals the nervous system can send to the adrenals, making it harder for the body to crank adrenal response up to 100%. Some herbs, like licorice, keep adrenal hormones in the bloodstream longer: this lets the brain know that there’s plenty of response happening, and it doesn’t need to stimulate more. Others, like Rhodiola and eleuthero, help balance out excessive adrenal stimulation while at the same time containing chemistry that supports the activity of attention- and alertness-enhancing brain pathways. The net result: we feel more alert, but at the same time don’t produce excessive, unhealthy levels of adrenal hormones. Contrast this to the action of stimulant drugs (like amphetamines, or even caffeine): they increase brain alertness, but also crank up adrenal secretions. This is why stimulants make us feel awake, but also sometimes jittery, cold, and clammy: these last effects are the result of excess adrenal hormone secretion, and you’ll never feel them from adaptogens like Rhodiola or eleuthero.
Other adaptogens are more calming in nature: they still help set an “upper limit” on adrenal hormone secretion, but also encourage deeper, more refreshing sleep and lack any of the activity on alertness pathways in the brain. By supporting more effective recovery during times of rest, adaptogens such as ashwagandha and Schisandra allow the body to bounce back and we can really notice this during the day: a balanced mood, energy level, and inflammatory response. It’s interesting to note that these herbs won’t ever make you “sleepy” directly: their effects, due in part to limiting the body’s ability to “overdo” the stress response and make sure our adrenals secrete hormones at balanced, healthy levels, are to get us into a more restful place during the evening and nighttime hours, so recovery and sleep can actually take place.